"Trembling Before G-d": Analyzing Homosexuality & Orthodoxy

Fundamentally, the Halachic system is intended to direct behaviour. It is a call upon the human being to act in a certain manner. As such, most analysis of the system focuses on the demanded behavior itself and its theoretical, underlying objective. To fully understand the system, though, one must ask: how would one act if there was no such directions? A complete investigation of the Halachic system -- its nature and its statement on the human condition -- demands a study of the contrast between the demanded behaviour and the postulated, expected behaviour if there was no demand.

Many, when they are confronted by this question, answer that they believe that, absent the halachic directive, a human being would act in a manner contrary to what Halacha would demand. The theory is straightforward. Without Halacha, left to his/her own drives and perceptions, a person would chose to act in one way. Halacha, thus, causes one to act differently. Halacha is thus seen as, inherently, causing one to act in a manner that is contrary to the natural outcome of one's drives and perceptions. Such a view would not see the dilemma of the gay individual as any different than the dilemma of any other human being. One wishes to do something and Halacha says no. Does this not sometimes cause anxiety and pain? The answer is yes, but this is the call of Halacha.

While there is much truth to the assertion that Halacha often can demand of one to act contrary to one's desires, the idea that this is the sole, inherent, fundamental nature of Halacha is greatly problematic. There are many times where the Halacha advocates a behaviour that is in tandem with one's drives. In the extreme, Rashi, Makkot 23b specifically states that God intentionally does present some commandments that one would do in any event. There are other situations where the drive of the individual really is in line with the halachic goal; the only reason for a potential, initial distinction is that an individual, without halachic clarification, may have a different understanding of what is necessary. Thus, while initially one may contemplate another action, once the Halacha clarifies what is truly necessary, the individual, in following the halachic demand, does not feel conflict between his/her drives and the demanded action; the halachic action and the individual drives merge. For example, one desiring to maintain a friendship with another may decide that, if there is an issue, it is best to keep quiet and not confront the other with a critique. The halachic requirement, based upon Vayikra 19:17, may be, though, to confront the other, even as a method to further the bonds of friendship. While absent the halachic call the individual may act differently, in observing the subsequent call there is no tension. The individual's drive is to foster friendship and the Halacha is informing one how best to fulfill the drive. The reality is that Halacha is not necessarily in conflict with human drives; it may actually foster a drive's fulfillment.

This recognition yields a realization that the Torah view of human nature is most involved. While many religious viewpoints maintain that human nature -- and thus human drives -- reflect evil and, consequently, religious directives are necessary to limit and perhaps destroy these drives, the Torah view of human nature is much more complex. When one considers that the drive to help another or the drive to relate to God are also part of the structure of human nature, the demand to describe the connection of the Torah demand to the human being becomes more challenging. Human drives are not necessarily to be thwarted; at times, they are the energy that propels the Divinely-desired action. Human drives cannot simply be dispelled in the attempt to explain the force of the Torah directive. The famous statement in T.B. Shabbat 156a xx that states that one who has a drive to murder should become a shochet (a ritual slaughter) or a mohel (one who performs circumcision) stresses the depth of the issue. The goal is not for the drive to be thwarted but to be directed. But that is often easier said than done and this Talmudic statement is not meant to imply that the battle with a drive does not call upon us sometimes to simply defeat the drive. Yet the interaction of Torah with human nature is most complex.

It is the recognition of this complexity that has generated so much of the discussion surrounding the relationship of homosexuality to Orthodoxy. The gay individual declares that he/she has an inherent drive for a sexual/romantic relationship with someone of the same sex. Denying satisfaction of this drive is presented as most painful, yet the Torah demands this denial and this pain. The gay individual declares this to be unfair; furthermore, the gay individual argues that God could never have meant for this pain to ensue by creating someone with a drive that cannot be satisfied. The simple response of many religious structures is, indeed, God does create drives that should not satisfied and that the pain of non-satisfaction is, in fact, what God wishes. This, however, cannot be the complete answer of Orthodoxy. The complex view of human nature and its relationship to Torah demands further investigation. It is not easily tenable for one to argue within Torah that God created a drive that does not have purpose and/or whose sole intention is to cause the pain of non-satisfaction.

It is for this reason that the first response of many Orthodox individuals is to challenge that the gay drive is not inherent. If it is not part of nature, one can circumvent the issue and, furthermore, can maintain that the gay individual can eventually find satisfaction by effectively reeducating the drive and becoming heterosexual. Gay activists maintain the drive is the result of nature believing, thereby, that they create a greater dilemma for the Torah individual wishing to explain the restriction of Torah. Torah individuals maintain the drive is the result of nurture believing, thereby, that they circumvent the challenge of why God created the drive. The reality, though, is that regardless of nature or nurture, Halacha's position is clear. What we sidestep is the challenge of finding Torah's understanding of this most perplexing reality - the fulfillment of love in the inherently forbidden same-sex relationship.

The reality of Torah ultimately gives value to human drives. It is this perception of most Torah thinkers that drives are not inherently evil but rather can be the basis of good or evil depending on how they are used. What is one then to do with the drive for gay love? This puts pressure back on the halachic system. This pressure is further intensified with the stress, especially in modern times, on gay love rather than merely gay sex. We do not commiserate with the gay individuals in the movie because they want sex a certain way. We feel for them because they declare that they can only have the intimacy of romantic/marital love with someone of the same sex. We cannot simply say: too bad. We cannot simply say that the drive is inherently evil and the command is to defeat it regardless of the pain. We cannot simply say that pain in the observance of God's commands is expected. So we are bothered by this situation. But we must also recognize that sometimes the Divine command is to defeat a drive regardless of the pain. "Who is a hero? The one who defeats his/her inclination." (Avot 4:1) Sometimes pain in the performance of a commandment is to be expected. The braiding of the Torah relationship with human nature is complex not just simply because we value human nature and drives. It is complex because, as Torah demands us sometimes to use the energy of our drives in the performance of a mitzvah, it also at time demands us to thwart a drive and, painfully, ignore its call. It is not homosexuality that is at issue. It is the very understanding of Torah's relationship to human nature that is at issue and demands study.

Empathy and the attempt to understands God's Creation are part of the overall Torah model. We must empathize with the plight of individuals and we are called upon to not be judgmental (see, for example, Avot 1:6). We are called upon to attempt to understand God through His Creation. We thus can feel for the gay individual's struggle with his/her homosexual drive and the pain in its non-satisfaction. We can ask why God would create such a drive and put individuals in the morass of attempting to deal with this drive. But the questions cannot be used as daggers to attempt to cause reform in the structure of Halacha without the proper investigation of the law within the parameters of halachic reasoning. Somehow there seems to be an assumption that if the gay drive was genetic, the Torah prohibition would be especially difficult to comprehend. This may be true but it does not detract from the reality that gay relations are still prohibited. Sadly, the observance of Torah will result sometimes in pain and anguish. Sometimes it will demand the total negation of a drive. Why? - this is the eternal question -- and from a Torah perspective a legitimate question; nevertheless the reality is that such consequences do occur. I have argued (see
Update Jun. 92: Homosexuality: Is There a Unique Torah Perspective?) that there may be a need to find the halachically acceptable method to satisfy the gay drive in the same way that one with the drive for murder should become a shochet or a mohel, but I also recognize the enormity of this task. Explaining the relationship of Torah to human nature is ultimately a great challenge. There are those within Torah who argue that Torah is intended to keep human nature in check. There are those within Torah who argue that Torah is intended to build upon and enhance human nature. Observing Torah can be most invigorating and can make one feel that he/she is reaching the heights of human expression. Observing Torah can also be most frustrating and make one feel that he/she is being curtailed. The result of Torah observance can be joy and pain. The questions that surround the gay drive bring forth the complexity of the reality of Torah's connection to human nature - but the pressing query is not whether the gay drive is the result of nature or nurture. The question is also not simply how God can create situations that result in human pain. The challenge is to understand the overall relationship, in all its complexity, of Torah and human nature.

J O I N . T H E . D I S C U S S I O N . O N . T H I S . T O P I C