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Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

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"I blog, therefore I am". Clearly not true, or I wouldn't exist except every now and then.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

David Benkof's Op-Ed

On April 23, 2014, David Benkof wrote an Op-Ed in The Times of Israel called "Orthodox, celibate, gay and that's OK".  In this piece, Benkof makes some good points and some horrendous ones, and I felt that it deserved a response.  One Facebook friend of mine posted it with the caveat that it was "above his pay grade."  It is not above mine, so I've taken it upon myself to respond.

(Responses to my response are welcome, with the usual caveat that if they're obnoxious, I'll make them public.)

Benkof starts off by noting the dearth of reasoned responses to the issues of being frum and gay, and attributes this to traditionalists who "would rather not discuss sexuality at all, are afraid of sounding bigoted, or simply have never heard cogent answers to such claims."  It's about time someone else pointed this out, so kudos to Benkof on that count.

He goes over his past as a public gay figure and his return to Orthodox Judaism.  He omits some of his more egregious attacks on gay people and gay causes since then, but that may be out of shame or a desire not to muddle the message of this particular essay.  I would refer interested readers to his Wikipedia page for more information.

Benkof mentions some of the terribly dishonest ways that well meaning Jews, in various Jewish groups, have attempted to deal with the obvious fact that anal sex between men is, and will always be, a major prohibition in Judaism, on the same level as incest and adultery.  I'm not going to go over those cases of rabbinic malpractice, because Benkof did so himself, and admirably.

(Incidentally, if this sounds like a puff piece on Benkof's piece, you should know better than to jump to conclusions.  I simply believe that good should be lauded every bit as much as bad should be condemned.  That'll come.)

Now... I have to confess that in one area, I can only talk about what I've heard from friends who are both frum and gay, simply because I can't know what it's like to be a gay man.  And even there, I know that what one gay man feels needn't be what another feels.

Benkof goes into the wide variety of views, from barely-Orthodox-ish folks like Shmuely Yanklowitz to causes celebre like Orthodox-ordained Steve Greenberg to shtartker yidden like Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, claiming that demanding celibacy is entirely inhuman.

And here's the first place I have to take issue with Benkof.  Before starting on his personal story, Benkof gives the following caveat:

For the purposes of this essay, “celibate” means no sexual contact at all between any two people. For the most part, lesbian relations are not discussed in this piece since that issue is halachically distinct, although some of the ideas below also apply to women.

I disagree with his lumping all intimate contact into a single category.  It's as wrongheaded as lumping all eating into a single category because some food is non-kosher.  Yes, we avoid foods that are non-kosher from the Torah as much as we do foods that are non-kosher based on Rabbinic rules, but we maintain the distinction, and in this case, the distinction may make a bigger difference than it does with kashrut.

I have friends who are gay and frum and who refrain from engaging in anal sex.  I have friends who are gay and not frum (not even Jewish) who find the idea of anal sex repellant and refrain from it, not because of any rules, but because they simply don't want to do it.

Are there gay men who honestly can't live sane lives without that one act?  As I said above, I can't possibly know the answer to that, but I have serious doubts, and accounts by gay male friends to support my doubts.

But Benkof's conflation of mishkav zachor (anal sex between men) with all other physical intimacy is wrong on another level.  When Orthodox Jews are challenged regarding the way they treat gay people, as opposed to, say, any other category of sin (which is a wrongheaded comparison, but a common one), the virtually ubiquitous response is that it needs to be treated more harshly because the Torah terms it a to'evah, or "abomination".  But that term is only applied to that one act.  Absent that act, the question becomes, again, why treat gay people so terribly when people who don't conform to Jewish law or communal norms in other ways are not treated that way?

But onward...

Benkof lists the four primary arguments made by Jews objecting to his call for celibacy.  (1) That it can't be done, (2) that it's theologically untenable, (3) that other mitzvot trump celibacy, and (4) celibacy demands have terrible consequences.  I agree with him that (1) and (2) are nonsensical, and I think it's fairly obvious that (3) has no place in any Orthodox Jewish discourse.

Which leaves us with (4): the consequences of demanding celibacy.  I'll return to (4) further on, but as Benkof should be aware, there's another objection: (5) It's unnecessary.

What I mean by that is that it should be unnecessary for any frum gay Jew to "come out" as celibate.  If a Jew is known by their actions to be Torah observant, and has not denied Torah miSinai or made public claims that things prohibited by halakha are permitted, all they should need to do is say, "I keep Jewish law.  My being gay is not an excuse for any exceptions to my faithfulness to Jewish law.."  If that means, in the person's view and the view of the person's halakhic authority, that they need to be celibate, fine.  If it means something else, also fine.  It isn't for David Benkof to decree that only one halakhic view is legitimate.  And it is wholly inappropriate for anyone to take "I am gay" as a declaration of intent to violate halakha, which can only be overridden by a declaration of celibacy.

But, I've heard claimed by many, you can't expect people to reasonably assume that two people of the same sex in a committed relationship aren't having sex.  Benkof says something of the sort himself:

Some Orthodox gays insist that coming out is not a proclamation of sexual activity; it’s rather an affirmation of their internal makeups. But Judaism forbids marit ayin – even giving a hint of violating halacha. So coming out of the closet without clarifying that one is celibate really isn’t kosher.

 This is wrong on several levels.  I'll discuss a few of them.  According to an article on WebMD.com, "Almost all Americans have sex before marrying" and "such behavior is the norm in the U.S. and has been for the past 50 years."  Presumably, then, by Benkof's standards, anyone hailing from the United States should have to publically proclaim that they do not engage in premarital sex, and do not accept it as halakhically legitimate, otherwise, there is a problem of marit ayin.  And that it is entirely fair and correct to make such assumption about Americans.

And speaking generally, it probably is a fair and correct assumption to make about Americans.  In general.  But of course, being an Orthodox Jew takes us out of the general.  So we don't make such an assumption about American Orthodox Jews, because the commitment to Jewish law overrides membership in the United States.  Similarly, I don't actually disagree with the premise that gay people, in general, don't limit their sexual practice due to what they perceive as imposed standards.  But when it comes to Orthodox Jews who are gay, the general rule doesn't apply.

And of course, Benkof slips in his dictum that only a public affirmation of celibacy is halakhically sufficient to take oneself out of the generality.  Presumably, because he has done that.  By setting the bar to precisely what he has done, despite the fact that it is not the only halakhic view (admittedly, it is by far the most common one, but it is not the only one), he turns his entire essay into a self-serving, self-promoting attack on frum gay Jews.

Let's get back to (4), though.  And let's leave aside the question of sex for a moment.  Human beings have a natural propensity to form intimate relationships.  Emotionally intimate.  This is as true for gay people as it is for straight people.  Far from it being an indication that they have cast off halakhic limitations, two frum Jews of the same sex in a relationship can help one another in the same way they'd help one another when it comes to other aspects of Jewish law.

Is it possible for people to live a solitary, loveless existence?  Probably.  Yes, it probably increases the likelihood of mental and emotional difficulties, and may make it more likely that such a person could commit suicide.  And while Benkof poo-poos the suicide issue by casting it as so much emotional blackmail, statistics bear out a causal relationship between rejection and aloneness for gay people on the one hand, and a greatly increased rate of suicide on the other.

But is it possible?  Let's say for the moment that it is.  Is it necessary?  Is it a goal worth striving for?  I would say that it isn't.  People who are gay are... gay.  It isn't going to change.  It's a facet of life.  And so is the need for intimate companionship.  A year or so ago, this video was going around the internet.  The woman in it talks about having lost her husband 6 years earlier, and how much she misses him.  And that it isn't about the sex.  It's about the person.  Benkof seems not to understand the difference.