Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, in an article written in nearly twenty years ago, stated the challenge for rabbis in these words:
“…. how can we deny a human being the expression of his physical and psychic being? If there’s a problem with the kettle, blame the manufacturer. Is it not cruel to condemn an individual from doing that which his biological and genetic make-up demand that he do? The traditional Jewish response would be that if indeed the individual is acting out of compulsion, he would not be held culpable for his act.”
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo reminds us that God does not impose demands upon human beings that are beyond a person’s capacity. He applies this Talmudic principle specifically to this issue: “It is not possible for the Torah to come and ask a person to do something which he is not able to do. Theoretically speaking it would be better for the homosexual to live a life of celibacy. I just would argue one thing—it’s completely impossible. It doesn’t work. The human force of sexuality is so big it can’t be done.”
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky: The statement of the RCA however, quietly, boldly and courageously breaks new ground. In recognizing that there is no evidence that reparative therapy is effective, and that there is, consequently, no obligation to pursue it, our community is acknowledging that homosexuality may very well be simply part of the human condition. Accordingly, we have decided that homosexuals should not any longer have to pay the psychological, emotional and even physical price for our theological comfort. We have effectively designated our theological question as a teyku, one whose answer still needs to be determined. But one that will, meanwhile, not prevent us from seeing the human truths in front of our eyes.
The shift from Rabbi Lamm’s “sympathy” to the RCA’s recognition of the reality of sexual orientation can and should bring us to a place in which we can accept our friends and children and siblings for who they are, grant them the dignity and respect that any person deserves, and love them as our own.
Rabbi Mark Dratch, president of the RCA the following week echoed Lau’s words in a memorial at the New York City’s LGBT Community Center. That a key Orthodox leader was standing at a podium draped with the rainbow flag in New York City’s LGBT Center was for profoundly moving for many in attendance and no doubt troubling to others in the Orthodox world.
Rabbi Dratch said he was “embarrassed” that his appearance at the ceremony was considered something special. Like Rabbi Lau, he pointed out the “sins of commission and omission,” claiming a measure of communal responsibility for the tragedy. “Our community has been much too silent for much too long.” Aggressive rhetoric in response to the Pride March and on the topic of homosexuality generally “festered in a community whose culture is too often pervaded by insensitivity, disrespect, vulgarity and intolerance.”
For some rabbis, Rabbi Dratch’s mea culpa in regard to negative language doesn’t go far enough. For others, his self-critical stance goes too far. For them there a principled perception of moral depravity and shame in the reality of homosexual love that cannot be sidelined without rejecting core beliefs.
Rabbi Lau himself carried the idea of collective responsibility into a much more demanding context. Toward the middle of his remarks he boldly called upon the Orthodox world to reject the demand for closeted living. “We are responsible,” he said. “No one should have to live in a closet (aron).” The word for both closet and casket is “aron.” Here Rabbi Lau makes use of this double-meaning to say clearly that people should not be shamed by their need for physical love and emotional intimacy. The rejection of one’s sexuality and the subversion of one’s heart is like dying. While he does not challenge explicit prohibitions, still, “the closet is death…and we are called upon to choose life.”
For a rabbinic statement by Torah Chayim condemning gay conversion therapy and rabbinic signatories, click here.