Homosexulity has been in the Jewish news lately. Films, articles and now a conference at YU are straining the borders of Orthodoxy, arguing for compassion, understanding, tolerance and acceptance. As in the wider society fourty years ago, we hear the human aspects of the pain of being in the closet, the argument that people suffer pointlessly for being who they are and what they cannot change. These presentation of the issue puts forth the human face of the tragedy and it generates sympathy and compassion. Who can look away from clean-cut, earnest young men and women who long for nothing more that the universal right to be accepted, to love and to share intimacy. Who can deny them the elemental right to happiness, to consign them to the shados of denial and to withold the belonging to the communal identity of the Jewish people and the religious heritage, which is all that they crave and which we all appeciate and value?
This argument quickly overhwlelmed the restaraints of the general society when it was first employed there in the quest for legitimacy. So successful was it, that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is almost universally illegal and the thousands of years old definiton of marriage as between men and women is under attack - all in a mere fourty years.
How was it accomplished?
The Stonewall Riots brought the existence of the gay underground to the attention of a public that was already in the process of surrendering the traditional values, the turmoil of the sixties. The approach that the nascent movement adopted was of making their message all about personal happiness, self-fulfillment and civil rights of a population that simply had no choice of being other than they were, because homosexulaity is an inborn state of being. Standing against universal happiness, tolerance and acceptance were the forces of reaction, fundamentalism, predjudice and intolerance - an irrational fear and loathing of these clen cut and beautiful men and women who were as American as anyone else, except that they happened to be gay. In fact, some of the opponnents, far from having a moral argument, were in denial of their own latent or overt homosexulity. Being gay became beautiful and progressive, so much so, that in colleges at this time, the gays are the desired and the accepted groups, that draw to them many young people who are seeking acceptance and social status. Hard to our readers to accept but it is so.
This process is now repeating within Modern Orthodoxy. We hear the same arguments, the same appeals for compassion and acceptance, the same narrative of a victimization of men and women who are just like us, who are just as Jewishly committed as we, who desire nothing but to remain within the Orthodox world - just that they are gay, not by choice but by Creator's inscrutable act, which they must surpass and bring into consonance with some kind of a Halachic lifestyle, to enrich, inspire and elevate the rest of us. The first vanguard of the attack is through cinema. Several highly professional films have appeared in the past five years, whose anguished and talented creators poignantly, artistically, effectively express their anguish and plead for acceptance to the Orthodox audiencs.
There is just one difference between the two situations. The secular world can stretch its boundaries without limit. Jewish Orthodoxy cannot. At some point it would cease to be Orthodox... or it will fracture. Responsible Jews must take this into account and ask whether we as a community are willing to pay the price.
Let us look at this issue from the public policy perspective. To do that we must understand what is being asked of us, what the scope of the problem is, and what the costs and consequences that solving it will entail.
What is being asked is deliberately vague. At this point we are being asked merely to understand, acknowledge and become aware. This will undoubtedly be followed by more specific demands for tolerance, inclusion and modification of communal structure and synagogue service to greater inclusiveness and inclusion..
First, what is the scope of the problem? How much of the population is gay?
Kinsey claimed 10%. The true number of exclusive homosexuals is now generally thought to be around 1-3%. They are also others who may engage in such activity at times but are perfectly capable of finding fulfillment and happiness in a conventional marriage. This latter group cannot and does not make an argument of being denied happiness and normal human intimacy.
We should not forget that some, no one known how many of the Orthodox professing homosexuals do engage in high-risk behavior and will continue to pursue the wider gay scene irrespective of how the Orthodox world responds. These people are asking for acceptance, not for happiness. Acceptance is not the same as happiness. Asking for acceptance entails either a moral or pragmatic argument. A moral argument for accepting homosexuality is being made on the grounds of secular ethics but it is a hard sell to a community that derives its morality from a system inhospitable to homosexuality. Tolerance and compassion is one things, rearranging communal policies and structures is something else altogether. One must either argue for an extra-halachic morality that obviates or bypasses tradition, or for a reform of that tradition, and this complicates matters. On pragmatic grounds, as human beings, homosexuals can ask for some tolerance, but this argument is also flawed, because it is bidirectional. If homosexuals ask the community to change at great cost, the community has a right to ask them what they have done themselves to change. While Reparative Therapy does not help everyone, it does help some. It is appropriate for the community before undertaking a wrenching change to ask what steps those who demand change have taken to change themselves.
The costs to our community are immense. Active acceptance of himosexuality will almost certainly provoke a schism. Those beyond the Modern Orthodox camp will not only have to contend with a lack of tsnius, female rabbis, and compromises on yesodei hadas, they will have to legitmize gay rabbis and synagogues that promote alternative lifestyles as a legitimate choice. Would you rush to make a minyan led by an out-of- the closet homosexual rabbi? Let us be clear: don't ask, don't tell only lasts that long. It is nothing but an intermediate step, a compromise, and a waystation on the road to complete acceptance. Not only will Modern Orthodoxy be expelled out of many communities in which it is hanging on by a thread, it itself will fracture. That's a pretty heavy price to pay to satisfy a few hundred people, many of whom never tried to change and many of whom will remain in the gay subculture irrespective of how Orthodoxy responds. Beyond the immediate considerations, what is the price to our self-image, to our ruchniyos. With full integration of gays, we say to our young people that the morality and standards of the secular life trump the Torah outlook, that we are hyppocrites who despite our protestations do not truly believe in what the Torah says to us. Institutionalized hypocrisy destroyed several generations of Conservative laity. Shall we descend also along this path and loose generations of committed Jews in order to satisfy a few hundred people?
You may counter that the immense human suffering of being in the closet demands a moral response, and the only valid response to pain is compassion. One may counter that pain is not suffering, that the preconception that homosexuality is an innate state of being itself causes suffering and, most importantly, that it is fully right for public policy to consider cost-effectiveness. This concept, known to us from the ongoing discussions in the health-care debate states that benefits of an investment in human health can be measured and that the resultant figure can be compared to how cost-effective other investments may be. Thus, screening mammography may save one woman between ages of 40-50 at a price of more than $300.000.00, whereas screening for colon cancer with colonoscopy costs 50.000.00 per life saved, and therefore, resources should be directed into colonoscopy and not into mammography. This approach is not only accepted, it is central to making public policy decisions. What shoud, we then say, as a community to the cost versus benefit of accepting open homosexuals into our communal and religious life.
It is hard to find a more open contradiction between following the letter and the spirit of the Torah and acceptance of homosexuality as an alternate lifestyle. Quite beyond that, the cost to our already tottering institutions and communities is not justifed when compared to the scope of the problem. That is not to deny the very real suffering of orthodox gays in the closet. However, we can address that through private initiatives. It does not justify the enormous risk to our very long-term continuity and survival that changing our public standards would entail.