Learning About Homosexuality and Taking a New Stand

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Learning About Homosexuality and Taking a New Stand

By Elliot N. Dorff

I cannot remember even reading the word "homosexual," let alone using it, throughout my years in junior high school and senior high school from 1955-1961. The first time that I ever read about the phenomenon was during my freshman year in college in the fall of 1961, where, as part of a Great Books course, we read Plato's Symposium. The class at Columbia, which at that time consisted exclusively of men, tittered about it for two days, and then it was on to the next book on the syllabus.

The next time I heard about homosexuality was 1973.

I mention this bit of my personal history because I am convinced that reactions to homosexuality in our day are largely divided along generational lines. That is not to say that all older people are homophobic and all younger people are liberal; indeed, teenagers and young adults have engaged in the most violent attacks against homosexuals, and some older folk, like me, have been actively involved in trying to make it possible for gays and lesbians to leave the closet and to participate on an equal basis with heterosexuals in the various institutions and activities of the mainstream of society.

Still, for me homosexuals were a new and strange population, and perhaps a threatening one, and I had to go out of my way to learn about them and from them. In contrast, my children, now in their twenties and early thirties, grew up in a world in which the words "homosexual," "gay," and "lesbian" were not only part of the general vocabulary; they were adjectives that described people whom they knew and loved. My four children's attitudes toward gays and lesbians, as a result, are far more nonchalant and accepting than the people of my generation, for whom the very topic is still troubling.

Indeed, even the minority of my contemporaries who take a liberal stance toward homosexuality typically do so only after meeting —or rather, discovering they are meeeting — some gays or lesbians and only after thinking about the issue for some time; my children and their contemporaries who grew up in urban settings have for most of their lives known homosexuals whom they knew were ,and are therefore more prone to see homosexuality as simply a fact of nature.

For them, most people are straight and some are gay, just as most people have brown eyes and some have blue. It is easier to detest and even fear the stranger; that becomes harder once you come to know and even like him or her.

The 1973 meeting with a gay man was a watershed in my experience. He had grown up in Cleveland, had been elected the regional president of United Synagogue Youth, and then had enrolled in the Joint Program between Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. In his sophomore year, he came out as a gay man, and he was shunned by the community there. He had therefore transferred to UCLA, and his rabbi, a friend from Ramah days, asked me to meet with him, if only to tell him that some people in the Jewish community, at least, still cared about him and for him. When I met with him, I knew nothing about homosexuality per se, and the only Jewish thing I knew about it were the verses in Leviticus. During the three hours of our meeting one week, followed by another three hours the week following, he taught me both what being a homosexual was like and what the Jewish tradition had to say about it. It was the first time that I was sincerely embarrassed by my tradition.

It was another ten years, though, before I got involved in any of these issues, indeed, before I met another homosexual person. Because I focus on bioethics, I was involved in UCLA's Task Force on AIDS when the HIV virus was identified in the early 1980s, and subsequently I have served on the Board of Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Service . Through those contacts I came to know many other gays and lesbians, all with their own stories.

Perhaps the most memorable story, though, occurred in December, 1991. While talking about the future of Jewish law during the last class for the semester at UCLA School of Law, I mentioned that I was going to a meeting the next week of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards which would focus on the status of homosexuality in Jewish law. One of the students came up to me afterward, asking to meet for awhile. He indicated that he had grown up in an Orthodox household and that he still liked to pray in that manner. He, however, was gay, and he found only scorn and shame in that setting whenever he dared mention his homosexuality to someone there. At the same time, he was not satisfied with the Reform services at the synagogue in town with special outreach to gays and lesbians. Worse, he had not yet told his parents for fear that they would stop paying tuition for him.

Five months later, after his graduation, he asked me to meet with him and his parents after he had told them. I did, and I heard about their fears for his health and safety, their disappointment in knowing that he would probably never give them grandchildren (especially since his only sibling, an older sister, was apparently not getting married either), and their utter bewilderment at this new development in their family's life. They cried a lot. They wanted to know whether I thought that he could change into a heterosexual. They asked what I thought about all of this as a rabbi. I do not know what happened to him or them since, but I will never forget that day.

When the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards debated homosexuality for four whole meetings in October and December, 1991 and in February and March, 1992, I found myself unwilling to accept the three written opinions that argued on varying grounds for continuing to classify homosexual sex as an abomination, in line with Leviticus. At the same time, I was not convinced by Rabbi Bradley Artson's paper that maintained that the traditional bans on homosexuality referred to the only kinds of homosexual sex that the ancient and medieval writers knew, namely, cultic, oppressive, or promiscuous sex, and that loving, monogamous homosexual sex was new as of the nineteenth century. The evidence for that historical argument was unclear, and, in any case, that was not the reason why I was convinced that we had to change our stand. That came from the real, live experiences that all of the homosexuals I had met had told me — namely, that they had known from early on that something about them was different from other children their age; that they had tried desperately to act as a heterosexual, sometimes even to the point of getting married and having children; and that they ultimately came out of the closet because anything else was a lie. (By the way, for reasons that I do not know, the men were far clearer in their early memories of feeling different than the women were. The literature that I have read since indicates that we still have a lot to learn about the differences between men and women in this — just as we are just now learning about significant differences between men and women generally that go well beyond their genitalia.)

I had every reason to believe these people, for the heterosexual society discriminates against homosexuals to this day, and so it would be in a homosexual's best interests socially and economically to pretend to be straight. Thus if they are coming out of the closet, they clearly are compelled to do so by their very natures. In the end, as my children said, it is like brown eyes and blue eyes.

This became especially clear when, in the middle of the months of this debate, my own daughter revealed to us that she is a lesbian. My stance on this issue had been based on many other families' experience; now it was reenforced by my own.

Of the many objections to my position, two are paramount. First, homosexuals themselves were not happy with my characterization of homosexuality as being a compulsion built into homosexuals. I wrote explicitly in my responsum that heterosexuality is no different, that we are all programmed to have certain sexual desires, just as we are programmed to have desires for certain foods. We do not, of course, like to surrender any of our free will, for that diminishes our image of ourselves. Still, I think that when it comes to our sexual instincts, they are just that, instincts, and there is no use in denying that.

Every act of sex, of course, unless a rape, is a voluntary act; it is only our heterosexual or homosexual orientation that seems to be hard-wired into us. That leads some to say that if sexual orientation is indeed not a choice, homosexuals should, in obedience to the Torah, remain celibate. That response, I think, is both cruel and un-Jewish in character. It is cruel because it makes it impossible for a homosexual ever to have sexual relations, the pleasures that result from them, and the growth that comes from long-term, intimate relationships. It is un-Jewish in character because the Jewish tradition does not generally ask us to deny our instincts altogether, but rather to channel them to good purpose. Hence asceticism is not applauded in the Jewish tradition, and we have scant historical instances of Jewish ascetics.

My conclusion was then, and is now, that we should not see homosexuality as an abomination. Leviticus and all subsequent rabbinic literature assumes that homosexuality is a choice; otherwise it would make no logical or legal sense to legislate against it, just as it would make no logical or legal sense to require people to stop breathing. We now know, primarily on the basis of what homosexuals tell us about their own experience, that the orientation is not a choice, and so we should revise our stance accordingly. In my 1992 responsum, I stated that we should state that openly and then create a Commission on Human Sexuality to spell out our beliefs and norms regarding heterosexual sex so that we have some credibility to talk then about homosexual sex. That happened, and ultimately the Rabbinical Assembly published "This Is My Beloved, This Is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Human Intimacy, which I wrote together with the other members of the commission. In the Letter and in my subsequent book, Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Medical Ethics, I state that some sexual activity is indeed an abomination, wether it is done by heterosexuals or homosexuals — namely, cultic, oppressive, or promiscuous sex. Other sexual activity is and should be sanctified — namely, monogamous, loving sex, again whether among heterosexuals or homosexuals.

Since the Letter was a document of the Commission, it was only in my book that I could articulate the full position that I take. It seems to me that we have both medical and moral reasons to conduct commitment ceremonies for gays and lesbians. Medically, people who engage in sex with multiple partners are much more at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases than those who are monogamous. AIDS still is incurable and lethal, and some of the diseases that were successfully controlled by antibiotics as late as a few years ago now have developed strains that resist all currently available antibiotics.

In this context, the strong Jewish interest in life and health should prompt us to encourage monogamy. Morally, promiscuous relationships make sex simply an act of physical pleasure with no assumption of moral responsibility for the partner; monogamy, on the other hand, makes it clear to both members of the couple that they are not only to enjoy sex together, which is fine, but they are to take responsibility for each other's welfare as well as that of any children they may produce. Society can only thrive when it consists of those who take on such responsibilities.

How do we encourage people to be monogamous? Among heterosexuals society does that through the institution of marriage. Marriage, of course, does not guarantee that adultery will not happen, but through marriage society makes clear its expectation that the couple will have sex only with each other, that they will grow together into maturity, and that they will assume the responsibilities of mature, adult life. Conversely, the couple, in being married before family and friends, publicly announces that they want to assume the rights and responsibilities of married life.

We should, it seems to me, do the equivalent thing for the homosexual community, creating a legal institution through which society announces the same expectations for a gay or lesbian couple and the couple announces the same kind of commitment to each other and to the broader purposes of society. If we refuse to create such an institution, we heterosexuals are saying to homosexuals that we expect them to be promiscuous and that we do not care — perhaps, even, that we want them to be licentious so as to confirm our stereotype of them as being libertine and irresponsible. Once we create such a ceremony for gays and lesbians and give it legal status in both Jewish and civil law, we will have taken some important steps to increase the medical health and the morality of all of our lives.