Unexpectedly large numbers of homosexuals are currently seeking to identify with the Jewish community. Some have joined the more than twenty-five homosexual synagogues in the United States, while others have become members of mainstream congregations. In addition, many congregants and federation leaders are parents or grandparents of homosexuals. However, sensing a monolithic condemnation of homosexuality by the Jewish community, many homosexuals continue to suffer in isolation and shame. The time has come to construct a new framework for conceiving of homosexuality. Such a framework must confront and analyze traditional Jewish legal sources, thereby encouraging a compassionate Jewish stance on homosexuality.
Interestingly, the phenomenon of homosexuality, as it is currently understood, is a modern one. In antiquity, and throughout the Middle Ages, sexuality was defined by the act itself, both for homosexuals and for heterosexuals. But, as Rabbi Hershel Matt points out: “[I]n our own generation…homosexual behavior has been found to involve not merely a single overt act, or series of such acts, but often to reflect a profound inner condition and basic psychic orientation, involving the deepest levels of personality.” This contemporary understanding of sexuality as a psychic orientation is important to bear in mind as we address the question of Judaism’s attitudes towards homosexuality.
We must also remember that Judaism traditionally has viewed male and female homosexual acts as distinct. Male homosexual acts were capital offenses, while lesbian acts were punishable by whipping. The bulk of Jewish law deals with male homosexual acts, although a great deal of that law and its rationales apply to all homosexuality, gay and lesbian. I will specify when the discussion pertains only to one gender or the other. I use the term “gay” to describe male homosexuals and the term “lesbian” to describe female homosexuals. Finally, in articulating a Jewish response to homosexuality, I will refer to the “constitutional homosexual”–a person with a compelling erotic and affectional attraction to members of the same gender.
Broadly speaking, I will address Jewish texts and evaluate Jewish concerns about homosexuality. Based on my reading of Jewish texts and contemporary data from psychology, sociology, and Jewish communal and religious concerns, I will try to develop an approach to homosexuality that is both compassionate and authentically Jewish.
Biblical and rabbinic texts raise a number of specific objections to same-gender sexual acts. Consequently, we must first consider the rationalizations developed to support the prohibition of such acts and to assess their contemporary validity.
The objection that homosexual acts are unnatural is divided into two principal claims: first, sex in its natural form is heterosexual; and second, the shape of male and female genitalia proves that “authentic” sexuality is heterosexual.
The rabbinic claim that homosexual acts are unnatural is based on the belief that homosexuals “are going astray from the foundation of the creation.” This claim, however, is not supported by evidence from the natural world. Biologists have conclusively demonstrated that homosexual liaisons are not unusual among mammals.
A slightly different claim about the unnaturalness of homosexual acts is that, in the state of nature, human beings are properly heterosexual. Again, scientific study demonstrates this claim to be false. In a now classic study, Clellan Ford and Frank Beach investigated seventy-six different human cultures. Of the societies they studied, forty-nine accepted “homosexual activities of one sort or another…for certain members of the community.” Claims about human nature are, presumably, universal. If a majority of cultures accepts homosexual practice, then we ought to be suspicious of arguments that such practices are unnatural.
A second part of the “unnatural” argument focuses on the shape of the human genitalia. Rabbi Norman Lamm has noted: “Mishkav zakhur [gay sexual practice] defies the very structure of the anatomy of the sexes, which quite obviously was designed for heterosexual relationships.” But Lamm’s claim is by no means obvious. Homosexual acts have taken place throughout the ages, in a wide variety of cultures, with no lack of success in fitting bodily parts together.
In short, the “nature” argument cannot be logically defended. It is simply an attempt to lend authority to the belief that homosexual acts are intrinsically immoral. Even if animals did not engage in homosexual acts, and even if most cultures did not tolerate (or celebrate) homosexual acts, we would still have no reason to assume that such acts are immoral.
Another argument made by opponents of homosexuality is that the gradual acceptance of homosexuality will lead to a greater number of people identifying themselves as homosexuals. While statistics from ages past are not completely reliable, they nevertheless point to a relatively constant percentage of homosexuals, regardless of social approval or disapproval. As A. Elfin Moses points out: “Regardless of opposition or tolerance, some group of people in every age turns out to be gay, and the greatest difference between periods is not in the proportion of the population that is gay, but in the way sexual preference is expressed.” The vast majority of humanity will continue to be the product of heterosexual unions. It is noteworthy in this regard that children raised in gay or lesbian households grow up to be heterosexual at precisely the same rates as children raised in heterosexual homes.
A related claim is that homosexuals are seen as dangerous role models for young children. Some people believe that homosexuals either will try to impose their sexual orientation on children, or, worse still, will seek out young children as sexual objects.
These charges have no basis in reality. The preponderance of sexual assaults on children is committed by heterosexual men. Yet no one condemns heterosexuality as a sexual orientation. Those individuals–gay or straight–who abuse children are pathological and their actions are criminal. But their crimes have no bearing on their particular sexual orientations.
Another modern argument is that homosexuals, by definition, suffer from some form of mental illness. This view also finds little scientific support. Freud wrote that “homosexuality is nothing to be ashamed of…[and that] it cannot be classified as an illness.” This viewpoint was adopted by a unanimous vote of the board of the American Psychiatric Association in 1973. It stated that “homosexuality per se is one form of sexual behavior and like other forms of sexual behavior…[homosexual acts] are not by themselves psychiatric disorders.”
One way of assessing the claim that homosexuality is an illness would be to look for other evidence of mental illness among homosexuals. Studies of homosexuals have not found such evidence. As Eli Coleman observes: “Many other studies have been conducted that have not found an psychopathology of male homosexuality as measured by psychological profiles…The only major difference found between groups of homosexuals and heterosexuals was choice of sexual object.”
According to Sol Gordon, most psychoanalysts contend that “a child’s sexual orientation is determined by the time it is five years old. It is not simply a matter of choice.” Other studies argue that homosexual orientation is genetically or hormonally based. Most likely, homosexuality has many different causes. As Judd Marmor has argued: “The cause of homosexuality is not only multiply determined by psychodynamic, socio-cultural, biological and situational factors, but also reflects the significance of subtle temporal as well as qualitative and quantitative variables.” In any case, there is no reason to assume that homosexuality must have a “cause,” while heterosexuality need not have one. Both are human sexual responses, and, according to Marmor, “[t]here is no reason to assume categorically that homosexual object choice…cannot…develop as a consequence of positive conditioning toward same-sex objects rather than always on the basis of aversive conditioning toward heterosexual objects.”
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