Gay, Orthodox, and in Love: Chaim Elbaum’s “And Thou Shalt Love”

Haim Watzman

When Chaim Elbaum stood up to field questions last night, he said that Kehilat Yedidya, is the first Israeli Orthodox community to ask him to come to screen and speak about his short film And Thou Shalt Love , and about his personal decision to accept his homosexuality while insisting on remaining an observant and believing Jew.

It would be all too easy to dismiss all the synagogues that have not invited him as benighted and homophobic-and those would certainly be correct adjectives to apply in many cases. But Orthodox Judaism’s legal structure requires that changes in attitudes and behavior be grounded in the halachic discourse. In the case of homosexuality, the prohibition in the Torah and in rabbinic writings is so severe that the halachic resolution is likely to require decades of discussion and argumentation. Even Elbaum acknowledged last night that he doesn’t yet know what the ultimate halachic resolution of the issue could or should be. Will the proscriptions against homosexuality eventually be completely overturned, placing same-sex relationships on a par with opposite-sex ones, like those sometimes seen on Babestation and other channels? Or will the solution involve a recognition that the heterosexual family is still an ideal to be aspired to-but that homosexuals who are unable to achieve that ideal may legitimately and openly have families of their own type? Or is some other, as yet unimaginable resolution in the offing?

What is certain is that the process must begin by the acknowledgment that current halachic attitudes to homosexuality create an injustice that the halacha and that the community of believers cannot tolerate. There are people being punished for their sexuality in places where pleasure is a basic human right, but it seem not to be right for those who are from the homosexual community. There is a sense as though they think every homosexual relationship is simply like a movie, rather than an expression of love and affection and care. And Thou Shalt Love tells a powerful fictional story, based on Elbaum’s personal experience, about Ohad, a young student at a hesder yeshiva who has fallen in love with Nir, a soldier who is his study partner. Convinced that his infatuation is sinful, he has made contact with a telephone hotline for religious men with sexual identity problems. The telephone counselor prescribes a 40-day course of penance and prayer which, the counselor promises, will rid Ohad of his sinful desires, similar to those on sexm.

The film begins on the last day of the penance. Nir suddenly appears, having received an unscheduled week-long leave from the army, and Ohad realizes that nothing has changed.

Ohad could, of course, achieve liberation by rejecting the yeshiva, observance, and God. Yet what saves Ohad in the end is that he never doubts his love for God and God’s love for him; his relationship with the divine is intense and personal. He cannot understand why God created him in a way that seems to be contrary to God’s own commandments, and he is alone, terribly alone-he feels there is no one he can talk to. At first he accepts the telephone counselor’s dictum that his homosexuality is a trial imposed on him by God, but when Nir returns and his live is rekindled, Ohad cannot accept that there is anything impure in his feelings.

And Thou Shalt Love does not offer a halachic solution. What it does, very powerfully, is demonstrate that the current Orthodox Jewish understanding of homosexuality creates suffering and injustice of a type that cannot be tolerated in a system that is meant to be the practical expression of God’s immanence in the world.

13 thoughts on “Gay, Orthodox, and in Love: Chaim Elbaum’s “And Thou Shalt Love””

  1. For anyone interested in this issue, I strongly suggest, “Wrestling With God and Men,” by Rabbi Steve Greenberg. Rabbi Greenberg, the first openly gay orthodox rabbi, spoke at my (Reform) congregation in Brooklyn several years back and he was compelling. His book is at once a memoir of his coming out and staying in (the orthodox community) and a scholarly discussion of what a progressive midrash on the issue of the Torah’s putative ban on male homosexuality might look like. If rabbinic Judaism stands for anything, it’s about mitigating the sharp edges of the Torah’s literal narrative and laws. It’s hard to imagine an area more ripe for this approach than what the Torah seems to say about gay love.

  2. Why is it that we assume that a resolution to this issue would be desirable? Going further, that we assume that homosexuality and Orthodoxy is an issue at all? From where I stand, it seems to be the ultimate non-starter.
    First of all, any reading of the sources within which Orthodox discourse is situated and to which it appeals for legitimacy, militates against allowing homosexuals. What if we perverted “thou shalt love the stranger” and “do not commit adultery” in the way advocates of Orthodox gays propose twisting the Biblical injunction against homosexuality? An honest person needs to acknowledge the lack of ambiguity of the Biblical point, and the lack of any motivation for casuistry on the part of the Rabbis. Moreover, someone who claims to love the highfalutin’ moral discourse we associate with some parts of the Torah needs to seriously think about how willing they are to relax their standards of reading. The forces of tradition and honesty seem to compel an honest Orthodox Jew on this point.
    Does this mean that Orthodox gays are stuck in an irreconcilable dilemma? Far from it. Although homosexuality and Orthodoxy both may indeed include a genetic element, one is purely volitional. Indeed, rather than encourage the tortured struggles of Orthodox homosexuals to exist within a community which cannot brook the consummation of their desires, why not encourage them to stop being Orthodox?
    From this interview it seems that Elbaum’s answer has to do with God-intoxication. It no longer takes much temerity to suggest that such love affairs are now available outside of Orthodoxy. As Right-leaning Conservative Jews , indie Hadarites and their Choveveite ilk offer up a half convincing simulacra of Jewish Orthodoxy, one not even go far to find escape from the crushing pain of sextual defeat. Other types of relationships with God, including polyamorous ones, are available to those who seek all over the world.
    I would propose that the obviousness of this solution does not detract from its elegance. Aside from those with bizarre beard and payes fetishes, it might be time for the Gay Orthodox to reconsider the second part of that designation.

  3. I would second David Greenberg’s recommendation. Rabbi Greenberg just visited my college (at the invitation of the Jewish Studies program of which I am the coordinator) and gave a marvelous talk. It included, among other things, his progressive midrash on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.

  4. Well at least Judaism is consistent. The Christians dumped kashrut and the laws of niddah somewhere along the way, but somehow adhere to the prohibition against this “abomination”, which I can’t help feeling is *davka*, just an excuse for gay-bashing. Eating shellfish repulses me, but I don’t bash others who indulge therein.

  5. I have a question for the commentator above who thinks that a midrash on the apparent injunction in Leviticus against homosexuality would be a “perversion”? Ever hear of “an eye for an eye”? The rabbinic mitigation of that one seems to have done the human race some good (although not as much as one might have hoped). The Torah, indeed, enjoins us more than 30 times not to oppress a stranger. I think that’s a pretty strong hint that it’s a mistake to take Leviticus on gay love too literally. As with any other interpretation of text, it’s always important to strive to read seemingly disparate passages in harmony.

  6. Chakira, as other readers have noted, halacha has in the past been a flexible system when faced with conflicting values. That doesn’t mean that anything goes–it means that halachic adjudicators over the ages have understood that it is their prerogative and duty to set some strictures aside–sometimes even those written in black and white in the Torah itself–when keeping the letter of the law would violate another precept or create an injustice. Its true that too few modern authorities are so brave, but nevertheless the system does change in response to such challenges. Why bother? Quite apart from the issue of faith, there is value in going through the process of grappling with the challenges presented by the clash between traditional and new ways of looking at such problems. I don’t see why we, living in the two-thousand-naughts, should assume that we possess ultimate wisdom and that we live on a privileged moral plane. We may see some things the ancients did not, but they may well have seen things that are difficult for us to discern. Lastly, Elbaum’s claim for his place in the Orthodox community is not based on the fact that secular society offers him sexual freedom, but rather on the theological claim that it makes no sense to believe that God has created human beings who are forbidden to love other human beings as they love God himself. It’s this latter point that comes out very powerfully in his film.

  7. Haim, thank you for your reply. However, I believe I have addressed all your concerns in my comment. For instance, I did not merely point out that Homosexual intercourse is prohibited by the Torah. I am aware, however slightly, of Rabbinic modes of exegesis, from my years in Haredi and Centrist yeshivot. Rather, I pointed out that few Rabbinic decisors have cared to change this consensus, where other things like jubilees and lex talionis have been written out. Furthermore, I addressed the latter point of it “mak[ing] no sense to believe that God has created…” when I wrote that many relationships WITH GOD (including polyamarous ones) are available online, throughout the world, and even relatively close to home in the new virtual Orthodox Judaisms of Hadar, Chovevei etc.
    As to your broader claim that posekim respond to human needs; this requires a longer and more thought out discussion. I am no legal formalist, but I see great danger in the nascent approach of Halacha as common sense because its expositors are simpleminded and unsophisticated, and because their theory ends up being a throwback to much more primitive modes of analysis.

  8. I’m not a scholar, so I cannot comment or interpret on any Midrash. But I am certain of one thing: everything is from G-d. If we believe that our Creator is perfect, then the creation of homosexuals is part of His Plan. So, get with the Plan, quit questioning it, and as for how the gay community itself handles it sexual relationships –well, it’s really none of our business, is it? When was the last time you discussed your heterosexual best friend’s sexual practices? You didn’t. So take care of your own commitment to the mitzvot and let everyone else worry about theirs. We’re not the Morality Police here.

  9. aliyah06, that’s a nihilistic proposition, unless you’re simply being inconsistent. If everything is from God, then evil is also from him/her/it. If the Commandments came directly from God, then the concept of moral value judgement (which they imply, of course) is of divine origin, not an invention of man. To do or ignore evil, because that’s The Plan therefore contradicts a belief in the Plan’s essential goodness, which I understand is a fundamental tenet of all religions, save Satanism, obviously.

    No, I’m not arguing that homosexuality is evil, far from it. Just saying that those who do will hardly find your suggestion satisfying.

  10. aliyah06-
    G-d also created thieves and murderers. Does that mean we are supposed to somehow learn to adjust to their behavior, or are we supposed to fight against them?

    Regarding the “homosexual Orthodox Rabbi”, I would like to know if those Orthodox Jews, particularly Yedidya Congregations, who invite him to speak would also invite an “Orthodox Rabbi” who openly ate pork, conducted adulterous relations with married women and the like, “while he maintaining his committment to being an observant and believing Jew”? May we should create “new midrashim” and “write out” those prohibitions since people like to do those things anyway?

    I find it most amusing when when people attempt to explain away the Torah’s proscription of male homosexual acts as a “toevah-abomination”. Since the same word is applied to avodah zara, they then say “well, homosexual acts are only prohibited if they are part of an idolotrous cult of worship”. Unfortunately for this interpretation, the word toevah is also used to describe “dishonest business practices”. See Deuteronomy 25, verses 13-16. In fact, I can make up my own “midrash” interpretation saying that since “toevah” is used for each of these 3 types of sins, we can conclude that there is something in common to all of them, that being that not only are these sins destructive to the souls of those directly carrying them out, but they are destructive of society at large.

    Now, I am not advocating lynching homosexuals, any more than I am of lynching anybody else who violates the Torah. But to throw out parts of the Torah simply because they are not “politically correct” to the so-called “progressive” community is dishonest.

  11. Sorry-
    I confused Elbaum with Steve Greenberg who is the “Orthodox rabbi” referred to in comments by David Greenberg above, whereas it was Elbaum who spoke at Yedidya.

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