Gay Families: The Halachic Challenge

Sick of hearing about settlements, human rights violations, and Jeremiah Wright? Want to read something happy for a change? Take a look at Caryn Aviv’s story about “My Big Fat Gay Jewish Family in yesterday’s Ha’aretz-English edition.

Loving, happy families with gay parents present a challenge—but a potentially productive one—for Orthodox Jewish halacha. As long as homosexuality was practiced in hiding, it could be dismissed as deviant, unhealthy, and incompatible with society’s vested interest in promoting strong families as the best environment for raising and educating children. Looking at families like Aviv’s, it’s hard to raise any rational objection to such non-traditional family structures. Objectively, many traditional, nuclear families fail to provide children with the emotional security they need; how can we condemn a non-traditional structure that does so provide?

I’m committed to a life based on halacha, Jewish law. But as a student of Jewish law, I’m also aware how supple it can be. Yes, such flexibility is too little seen these days, when most establishment Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox authorities see their task as fighting a rear-guard action against all that is new and different. But this system has succeeded time and again in meeting challenges presented by social, psychological, and political innovations. The change comes slowly— all too slowly for the impatient—but when the system works, it produces a process of intensive, careful analysis and thought. And halacha’s greatest, most creative, and indeed most radical moments have come when it has faced what seemed to be insuperable challenges. That happened in the past with the destruction of the Temple, and such a process has been underway in our time as the halachic tradition grapples with the creation of the state of Israel and the advent of feminism.

If I’ve angered traditionalists by suggesting we should try to find a way to accept families like Caryn Aviv’s, I’ll anger the I’m-ok-you’re-ok faction by asserting that we must take tradition seriously rather than simply cast it aside when it is inconvenient. To find a solution we must seek to understand the severe prohibitions against homosexuality that we see in the halachic tradition, and in the traditions of other societies. To dismiss them as primitive superstition is an act of hubris—it assumes that we, at the dawn of the 21st century, have reached an epitome of wisdom never achieved before in the history of mankind. On the face of it, that seems to me to be a questionable working assumption.

I don’t know what the solution is, or what the ultimate halachic resolution of the question of homosexuality will be. The process take a long time, and will require both daring and humility. And I suspect that the answer may look different than anything we can imagine today.

But Caryn Aviv’s big gay Jewish family (I’ve met them and none of them are fat—that’s the only false note in the article) is a signpost pointing down a road that the halacha must travel.

4 thoughts on “Gay Families: The Halachic Challenge”

  1. That’s a thoughtful post. There is an important omission though: In your comment,

    “To find a solution we must seek to understand the severe prohibitions against homosexuality that we see in the halachic tradition, and in the traditions of other societies. To dismiss them as primitive superstition is an act of hubris—it assumes that we, at the dawn of the 21st century, have reached an epitome of wisdom never achieved before in the history of mankind. On the face of it, that seems to me to be a questionable working assumption.”,

    – you omit to mention that in many ‘primitive’ societies homosexuality has been acknowledged and accepted in various forms. Indeed, people with non-heterosexual, not standard gender identity have often had important roles as spiritual guides, philosophers and healers, not just merely ‘tolerated’ as long as they didn’t strive for non-condemnation. Perhaps we shouldn’t simply dismiss those cultural norms as primitive superstition either.

    In fact, coming at this from a Christian upbringing, I find that taking a look at the Hebrew (with the help of others) that was the basis for the New Testament in the Christian Bible, I find evidence of not just acknowledgement of homosexuality in ancient Jewish culture, but actual acceptance of it, obfuscated by blatantly deliberate corrupt translation into English.

  2. Mike,

    You are completely wrong about this. The Jewish Bible clearly and unequivocaly condemns homosexuality (i.e. homosexual acts) in the strongest possible terms, IN THE ORIGINAL HEBREW LANGUAGE. It is not just a matter of “corrupt translation”. It describes it as an “abomination” which is the same term it uses for idol worship and corrupt business practices. There are no two ways about it even though it is not PC.

  3. For a review of possible reconciliation between Orthodoxy and homosexuality you might check out “Wrestling with God & Men” by Rabbi Steven Greenberg.

    As to the “certainty” about what Leviticus 18 & 20 says, one might check out Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on these chapters.

  4. About Y. Ben-David’s comment, I find it weird that : ‘The Jewish Bible clearly and unequivocaly condemns homosexuality (i.e. homosexual acts) in the strongest possible terms”
    ‘It describes it as an “abomination” which is the same term it uses for idol worship and corrupt business practices’

    Idol worship= abomination, yeah !!!

    But then again, corrupt business practices…somehow seem to work OK for many, many people…

    We somehow see it everyday, be it the diamond district in Antwerpen or Tel Aviv, or the Garment District in NY, or downtown Mexico City… you name it…

    “Corrupt business practices” have long proved to be OK, as long as you’d go to shul, keep Shabbat and a kosher home, yadah, yadah, yadah.

    Might it be because, in the end, you’re bringing money to the household??

    I don’t follow any of the above mentioned (kosher/shul/shabbat) and I’d never fall into idol worshiping or corrupt business practices…

    I’m just an ethically raised jew who respects EVERYONE and therefore expects the same in return… That simple…

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