IN JUDAISM the starting point of every debate dealing with human beings is that all are created in the image of God and should therefore be treated with respect.
Torah sages from all Jewish religious streams have issued strict rulings against demeaning people because of their sexual preferences. This is the first thing that needs to be said on Torah attitudes to the LGBT community.
I am writing during the seven days of mourning for 16-year-old Shira Banki of blessed memory, cruelly murdered in a late July gay pride parade by a Haredi man who ran amok wielding a butcher’s knife and, in the name of religious purity, stabbed a teenage girl to death in the heart of Jerusalem.
Clearly, this murderer has excluded himself from every normal human community. Denunciations of his act and the shock it caused reverberated across the entire spectrum of religious society. Nevertheless, when so vile a murder occurs, we need to examine the cultural environment that makes such madness possible.
Religious society in Israel is deeply conflicted over its attitude to the gay community. There are two chief sources of inherent opposition: Torah passages which describe homosexual sexual acts as an abomination and a worldview that sanctifies the family and sees in its erosion a threat to mankind.
The fact that the Torah decries sex between males as an abomination or a sin leads many to conclude that sexual preference must be a matter of choice.
But this is a completely unsubstantiated interpretation.
Half a century ago, Rabbi Norman (Nachum) Lamm, one of the leading lights at Yeshiva University in New York, published a ruling that the words of the Torah apply only to those who have free choice and choose the gay option. But there are many whose sexual preference is inborn and totally unconnected to culture or environment.
Their attraction to members of their own sex is inherent, a reality with which they contend all their lives. There is no question of free choice.
The attitude to the gay community as a whole should be similar to that practiced in matters of life and death – they should be given the benefit of the doubt. Anyone who defines him or herself as a member of the LGBT community should be considered someone created that way by the Almighty and, as such, by no means an abomination.
This means that religiously observant communities must face up with courage and openness to their own members who declare themselves to be gay. The fear that if treated with compassion, such homosexuality could spread like an infectious disease is baseless, because no one would freely choose that difficult way of life.
Equally, the attitude of religious Judaism to single-sex couples should also be balanced and not one-dimensional. On the one hand, it is clear that the Torah world elevates and sanctifies the marriage of a man and woman as the quintessential structure for perpetuating the human race and in so doing fulfilling man’s role in the creation.
On the other hand, the Torah emphasizes time and again: “It is not good for man to be alone.” Loneliness is a recipe for depression and it could drag a person down to the depths of despair, close to death.
We Jews are commanded to preserve life, our own and that of the other. We are not permitted to condemn people to a life of loneliness. Emerging from loneliness to a life of couplehood can be genuinely lifesaving. I have seen many lonely people in my short life, and I know that often they live on the edge, in a zone of great danger to themselves. Jewish law or Halakha recognizes the concept of pikuach nefesh, that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious consideration, and uses it as broadly as possible.
Even borderline cases of pikuach nefesh defer the Sabbath. And we should not be afraid to define loneliness as potential pikuach nefesh.
Given this delicate balance, communities committed to halakhic tradition will not give their blessing to same-sex marriages, on the understanding the concept of holy matrimony should be reserved for the original procreative union between man and woman. On the other hand, we need to fight for the right of all people to move out of the circle of solitude and build a life of partnership. Moreover, from a human rights point of view, the state should grant same-sex couples all the benefits it gives married couples.
I AM not proposing a stamp of halakhic approval for sexual acts between homosexuals.
That is forbidden in the Torah to a degree that even the most far-reaching exegesis could not overturn. My focus in this essay is not on the sexual aspects, but rather on the spiritual needs of human beings seeking to escape from loneliness to the experience of togetherness that occurs between couples.
Couplehood does not necessarily entail marriage, and a clear distinction should be drawn between the two. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed of Har Bracha Yeshiva made the point in a column in the B’Sheva weekly last year. Any two people should be allowed to sign a couplehood agreement, which would entitle them to all the rights that derive from living together as a family. The agreement should not be called a “covenant” because that implies sanctity and an eternal bond, whereas the state should allow partnerships that are not sanctified and do not entail a lifelong commitment. The best term would be “couplehood partnership.”
The drive by human beings to emerge from a state of loneliness to a form of couplehood is an existential need. Should the very fact of a shared life under the same roof of same sex couples who find mutual understanding and love be forbidden? Not necessarily. I think we would all do well – family members, community followers and spiritual leaders – to keep what goes on between the walls of private homes the private affair of those who live there.
The Torah commands us “not to stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.”
This means that when people are hurt in their home, we have a duty to act to save them. But in no other context do we have the right to breach the realm of privacy and most intimate surroundings.
For their part, the LGBT community would do well to act with modesty and sanctity and not flaunt their sexuality in public. The lack of modesty makes it more difficult for family members and society as a whole to accept them.
The worldview I have been outlining obligates all of us, family, educators and rabbis to do all we can to help people around us emerge from darkness to light, from living death to life. Loneliness is the opiate of death; genuine couplehood the elixir of life.
To prevent the next murder, we must take more care over the language we use.
There is no room for jokes based on homophobia, not at the Sabbath table and not in the synagogue.
If we realize that in every community, every yeshiva and every school there are homosexual boys and girls listening to every word we say, we will take extra care to avoid hurting them by design or by accident.
We should all choose life. Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau, the rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, heads Meizam 929, a broad-based bible study initiative, and is active on issues involving Judaism and human rights