I want to begin with a story from 26 years ago. It’s about 1993 and it was my first year as a rabbi in Kibbutz Sa’ad, in the Negev. We are a family of 4 children. I am the third and Amichai, my brother, is 8 years younger than me. I got a phone call from my mother, who said to me, “We have to talk.” So, I came up to Jerusalem to meet with my mother specifically, and not my father. She tells me that my brother Amichai, who was then 24 or 25, told her that he was homosexual.
I was in my first year functioning as a community rabbi. I remember that at the moment I heard this it was like someone punched me in the face. I don’t even think I responded. I just drove home to the Negev and I locked it deep inside me because this couldn’t be—certainly not my brother and certainly not in our family! I denied it completely as if it never happened.
My father reacted similarly. My cousin is here, we could ask him if his father, who was the oldest, reacted likewise. I don’t remember. I lived far enough away and that gave me some emotional distance too. All this was out of sight and out of mind. So I ignored the matter as if it never happened. But my mother did not agree to ignore it or to give up on him.
Today she acknowledges that she spent many days and nights crying. Her first thought then, 25 years ago, was that her youngest child—this sweet child, Amichai—would have an empty, wasted life. He wouldn’t have a family, be a father or raise children. Her second thought was to wonder what his life would actually be about and how he would put it together. After a while, and it took time, she came to the attitude that she would never abandon him no matter where he is.
She began to fight in these early days. No one had the language to articulate this, certainly not in the religious communities and certainly not in the wider world of Torah learning. She stood there out in the open and she would say, “I’m with my son.”
Amichai left the country; he couldn’t find himself here in Israel. He moved to New York and entered the rabbinate there. Today he is the rabbi of a big congregation—not Orthodox, not Conservative, and not even Reform. It’s something of his own—open and without borders.
This young man who just celebrated his 50th birthday is an integral member of our family. My children grew up with him as an uncle in every way. He fathered three children with two Jewish lesbians in New York. The photos of his children are on my mother’s refrigerator just like all her other grandchildren. We traveled a long road as a family these 25 years!
Today I’m standing before you as his messenger. I’m the messenger of my mother, and I’m also the messenger of a society that is stuck, frightened, confused, and bewildered. The Torah stands here beside me and says “men shall not lie with men, it’s an abomination.” So it says quite simply. And my brother, who is standing here on the other side of me, says “Do not cast me aside, don’t throw away, I’m your brother.” You hold the Torah in one hand and your brother in the other, and you try to find a way. That’s the whole story.
Those who don’t understand this tension cannot understand the pain and confusion on this issue within the religious community. To put it very simply: we are very confounded. We have a depth of experience that is basic; it is not sophisticated but straightforward and clear. It doesn’t require intellectual brilliance. We’ve simply chosen to live with the Torah. You could judge us (the Orthodox community) as primitive, you could consider us ridiculous. But none of that matters. Why? Kacha! This is the way it is, which is a good enough answer. There is a beautiful verse that illustrates this: Ashray ha am she’kacha lo – Happy is the people who have it (kacha) this way. Who say, Kacha! “This is it!”
The religious community has decided to live with the Torah, and we hold it in our hands, or maybe it’s truer to say that it holds us. We have also chosen to be members of families, communities, congregations, and just human beings. And as we look at life in the eye, we are not willing to push people into closets. Today I am willing to say without reservation, life inside the closet (aron) = death. Simple as that.
During these past twenty-five years, I’ve seen hundreds of young men and women who chose to come out of the closet and some who remain hidden inside. I have seen family members who initially go into the closet and then come out and others who enter and do not leave. This is the language used in the gay community in regard to their straight relatives; my parents are in the closet; my brothers are in the closet.
People are terrified. [Gay people ask:] How do I deal with my identity in the context of my synagogue, my community, my environment? Everyone is afraid. I saw people on the threshold of life and death. You don’t have to be a statistician to know that life inside the aron is suffocating. It brings a person to the very edge.
With this short story, I will finish. I once was invited to sit on a panel on one of the TV stations in a discussion on homosexuality within the religious society. Gal Gabai was the moderator and the three rabbis on the panel were: Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Rabbi Menachem Froman z”l, and myself. Rav Froman was a religious personality with a lofty spiritual approach. He perceived the world from the perspective of Jewish mysticism, seeing existence deriving from a sublime supernal unity.
He spoke about the pain of the fracture of the world where men connect with men and women with women rather than the two poles of male and female uniting the world and bringing together these two opposites. The wholeness of the world is expressed in the coming together of a heterosexual couple, in the harmonious joining of male and female.
The moderator of the show asked him: “But what will you do when a father comes to you and says, ‘My just son told me that he has these inclinations to people of his own sex’. How would you counsel this father?’” Rav Froman, from his spiritual heights, said: “I would cry with him. I would mourn with him. Then, I would sit shiva with him.” The moderator, who was not religious was taken aback and asked, “You would sit shiva with him? Would you really treat this as death and mourning?” He replied, “Yes, it’s a death.”
Hearing this, I couldn’t contain myself. “My dear Rav Froman, in this one second you have just killed a man. There is a person at home watching this program right now and is hearing the rabbi say that [when he comes out] his father should sit shiva for him. That person says to himself, ‘If I now come out of the closet, I will destroy my father. If so it’s better that I actually kill myself (that I die and not him), then he can sit shiva for me! This young man will now go and kill himself.’” The program ended a minute later when the moderator realized the panel discussion had imploded.
As we were leaving the studio, one of the cameramen came out and stood in front of Rav Froman. He said to him, “Rav Frohman, this was me. Two years ago, had I heard the words that you spoke just now, I wouldn’t be here. Thank God I didn’t hear you say those words then.”
Rav Froman was shaken; the whole encounter disturbed him greatly. About a year ago, I saw Hadassah Froman, Rabbi Menachem’s widow. She shared on that day when Rav Froman came home from this TV appearance, he was totally distraught. He looked for the address of the cameraman who had confronted him, and sought him out to ask forgiveness.
“This encounter changed his whole worldview,” she said. Suddenly, he had fallen from the heights of his conceptual framework from the world of mystical union, the world of sterile perfection and ideal creation. He fell from those heights into the real world, the encounter in the studio, this world of raw human experience and engagement with someone who says, ‘This is the way God made me. What do you want from me? Do you want me dead or alive? Do you want me to take my life or should I choose to live?’
Rav Froman said ‘I want you to live.’”
I believe that the whole religious community must do just this, come down from heaven to earth. The religious world needs to take stock, to look inside itself, not to let go of the Torah, but also not to let go of the hands, eyes, souls, and beating hearts of everyone who lives around us.
I’m going to say this in the simplest terms.
Nearly everyone I met who has come out of the closet, whether young men or women, did not choose to be gay. This identity was innate. They were born with this desire for same-sex physical and emotional love, this is a soul-driven reality. Define it as you wish, but this is something that the Creator created.
Therefore, in the context of this reality, my task—and I believe it to be the task of all who believe in the Torah—is to open all the closets and to tell all these people: “Choose life!”
Translation by R. Steve Greenberg