From NISHMA UPDATE June 1992


Inquiry with Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

Homosexuality: Is There a Unique Torah Perspective?


The modern permissive response to homosexuality presents a distinctive challenge for the modern Torah Jew. Clearly, without entering into the technical discussion of whether the prohibition involves only the act or also includes the condition, the Torah attitude is definite. The homosexual lifestyle is not an alternative. In our times, however, rather than coinciding with the moral views of the society that surrounds us, the Torah stand places us in conflict.

Maintaining a position that is contrary to the attitudes of others is not in itself a problem. Modern views of homosexuality, however, present a unique challenge because current legitimate information and understanding of the gay personality forces a new contemplation on the theory behind this law and, more specifically, on how we are to respond to the individual who finds himself or herself subject to this desire.

Throughout the ages, the prohibition of homosexuality was perceived as easily understood. Basing themselves on T.B. Nedarim 51a, commentators explained the act as unnatural, a perversion of the human sexual drive. Although Judaism understood sexuality as having a function beyond the procreative, it also understood that the reproductive factor was an inherent component. While the actual ability to have children in no way interfered with the permissiveness of the natural act (relations with a barren wife is permitted), an act that, by definition, totally ignores the reproductive factor could not be accepted or deemed a correct reflection of the human love that includes the sensual. The repulsion felt towards homosexuality was considered to be supportive of this analysis. See Sefer haChinuch, mitzva 209; Ramban, Vayikra 18:21. The law was not a chok, beyond human understanding, but rather a mishpat, in line with the moral logic within us. There was no need to further investigate the matter.

Today, however, the gay individual is perceived asa person desiring love and companionship, just like the heterosexual, but who can only find this connection with someone of the same sex. With some scientific and psychological justification, he or she is seen as someone subject to his/her homosexual drive. This may even be considered unfortunate; some homosexuals openly declare that they wish they were 'straight'. However, it is seen as the reality. As such, the modern response to homosexuality is one of sympathy and support.

While, we, in allegiance to Torah, cannot support this alternative, the valid reasons for sympathy for the homosexual's dilemma has initiated new discussion of the subject with specific focus on how to respond to the individual. Rabbi Norman Lamm in "Judaism and the Modern Attitude to Homosexuality", Encyclopedia Judaica Year Book 1974, introduced the concept of psychological ones, duress. Moshe Halevi Spero in Judaism and Psychology: Halakhic Perspectives, chapter 11 and Handbook of Psychotherapy and Jewish Ethics, chapter 8 built on his psychological models of sin and neurosis. Rabbi Barry Freundel in "Homosexuality and Judaism", Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Number XI, called upon us to view and treat the homosexual within an atmosphere of kiruv and outreach, the same way we relate to other individuals who sin. The arguments are worthy of review and are catalysts for further discussion and debate. What criteria, for example, are to be employed to clarify when a person's inner drives approach the ones level? What comparisons are to be made between the unmarried heterosexual with no Halachically sanctioned outlet for his/her sexuality and the homosexual? There is, one issue, though, that is not addressed. Why did G-d create the homosexual drive? What is its purpose?

The simple understanding of the homosexual drive is that it is a perversion of heterosexuality. The many reasons explaining the prohibition clearly support the Torah sanction of sexuality only within the husband-wife/family context. Some modern research, however, points to a biological basis for the gay interest. A foundation of Jewish thought has always been that everything G-d created has a purpose (see T.B. Chulin 56b; Iggeret haKodesh,[--- Unable To Translate Graphic ---]chapter 2). The Vilna Gaon in Even Shelaima 1:7, building on T.B. Shabbat 156a, implies that every drive has some form of outlet that is acceptable within Torah. In Biur HaGra, Mishlei 22:6, the Gaon's position seems to be even stronger, that the challenge of man is not to destroy or ignore one's drives but to direct each of his/her drives towards the method of satisfaction that includes the service of G-d. What, than, is the Torah outlet for the homosexual drive? One could argue, simply, that it is heterosexuality. While healthy heterosexual conduct within marriage obviously would be part of the teshuva goal of the gay individual, can we say that homosexuality is merely an incorrect manifestation of the general sexual drive? How do we explain the modern research noted above? Must the Torah Jew side with the theorists that disregard the biological basis? Building on the attitude presented in the sources above, we may wish to argue that the gay individual is misreading and confusing two drives. He or she is ignoring a heterosexual drive while practising incorrect forms of satisfaction for what we have termed the homosexual drive. (It is interesting to note that there is psychological research that indicates, what is termed, a homosexual interest in the heterosexual individual - a concept that would support this hypothesis.) The solution, according to Torah, would be for this individual to connect with and correctly respond to his/her heterosexual drive, which does include permitted sexual behaviour,while finding the correct response for his/her homosexual drive, which, obviously, by this definition, is not really sexual in nature. Within the unique perspective of Torah, we may wish to argue that this drive represents something which is totally different than its common manifestation. When we consider that the actions of the murderer and the mohel are both deemed to derive from the same personality characteristic (T.B. Shabbat 156a), although to us they seem so apart in nature, this alternative is not so strange. What, however, could the true understanding of this drive possibly be? It is perhaps because he could find no answer to this question that Rav Moshe Feinstein in Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, Part 4, Responsa 115 adopted a very strong position against homosexuality. Human drives are necessary although they must be controlled. Since there is no purpose for the homosexual drive, Rav Moshe contends, it must not be a true drive. Therefore, the underlying reason for gay behaviour, he argues, must be to rebel against G-d, to wish to do something forbidden (perhaps, implying some innate knowledge of its forbidden nature). Rav Moshe's view must be respected, yet, given the new research findings, it may be our generation's challenge ( T.B. Chulin 6b-7a) to try and find the true nature of this drive. The task is obviously a most difficult one. In that the heterosexual may have no comprehension of this drive, it may necessitate a homosexual, fighting his/her own Torah battle, to solve this mystery.

Return to NISHMA's top