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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.


Blogger David Benkof said...


Kol Hakavod. You have responded in your blog to the things I actually said in my essay, rather than the things you imagine I said (as many others have done). We obviously disagree on the particulars - and I'll let my essay stand on its own on those particulars - but at least you're being fair, and I'm glad we agree on the weakness of the arguments made by many people who think they're defending gay Jews.

I do have one question, though: Can I see a link to the statistics about the "greatly increased rate of suicide" you refer to? I hear that mentioned all the time, but I have never actually seen data that bear it out. I'm not saying it doesn't exist, just that I'd like to see it.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Google is your friend, David.

Wikipedia has a ton of links to studies in scholarly journals.

2:44 PM  
Blogger David Benkof said...

Like much of what I've seen, that link says a lot about suicide *attempts*, which is important but not what you claimed. I know Google is my friend, and I've used it and found nothing to support your strong claim about "greatly increased rate of suicide." It's the responsibility of someone making the claim to provide the footnote, not to say, "go look it up." Again, there may be a study showing a greatly increased rate of suicide, and I'm interested in reading about it, but I've yet to see it.

(I think the difference is significant because I know that for some LGBT youth, suicide attempts are a way to call attention to a life crisis and to get a conversation started, as opposed to an actual intention to end one's life. Both attempts and suicides are real problems, but you wrote about actual suicides and all I'm asking for is a link to the data.)

2:50 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

That's more than a little disingenuous, David. I disagree with you about the distinction.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Michael Lipkin said...

Excellent response Lisa.

You said, "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.."" However, based on what you say after that, ie that there should be no assumption that gay people are in violation of Torah law, why should they have to make any proclamation? Nobody today, entering an orthodox shul or community is required to proclaim their faithfulness to Jewish law. Even when in some cases there *are* visible violations, say for example where a married woman doesn't cover her in *possible* violation of Torah law! (And we won't even begin to discuss the various white collar and other criminals are nevertheless welcomed in their communities.)

The other issue I had with David's essay, which I expressed to him, is that he has now "raised the bar" for all gay orthodox men, despite the fact that he says he's only talking about himself. In just the short time this article has been out I've seen several comments of, shall we say, the more religiously committed holding up David and his essay as the new standard for orthodox gays.

David is a 40-something year old man who, so far, has made this commitment. In regard to your discussion of depression I can't even imagine what the added pressure of an expectation of a lifetime of celibacy would do to an 18 year old who is just realizing that he's gay.

1:42 AM  
Blogger Commenter Abbi said...

Hi Lisa, just stumbled on your blog from FB. I think what's missing from this conversation is that the call for celibacy might be easier/harder, more/less logical for different people depending on their libido levels. There are plenty of people walking the earth who are asexual and they lead very fulfilling lives. There are also people who aren't necessarily asexual but for whom sex is just not all that important. I have no idea what percentage of frum gay people asexual/have low libidos but I think the idea of the "libido spectrum" should be part of this conversation rather than the current narrative of "sex is an overpowering drive for all humankind". For some (many? really don't know) it's not.

2:49 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Michael, thanks for your comment. As to why I think it's necessary to say that, I lay that at the door of people like Steve Greenberg and Zev Farber and others who identify publically as Orthodox, but espouse views at odds with halakha. Claiming that mishkav zachor is limited to abusive or idolatrous contexts, for example. Because they call themselves Orthodox, but do, apparently, believe that being gay is an excuse for making exceptions to Jewish law, it becomes necessary to separate ourselves from them.

Believe me, my preference would simply be for them to stop calling themselves Orthodox. If they did, we could simply say "I'm an Orthodox Jew" and be done with it. But they show no sign of being willing to do so.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Abbi, you make a good point. But when it comes to functioning in the frum community, it isn't reasonable to tell people about the state of your libido, right? That's not tzanua.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Btw, for those who don't know me, I hate anonymous comments. I use my real name. David uses his. I assume Michael used his as well. "Commenter Abbi" at least used a name. I won't allow any comments, however good they may be, to appear on here with names like "Anonymous" or "Unknown".

There's no real way I can know if the name you use is yours, but if you aren't willing to put a name to your comments, you really ought not to be making the comments in the first place.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Michael Lipkin said...

Lisa, not sure what you mean by "separating yourself". If Rabbi Farber walks into a shul, he'll be treated as orthodox. I already gave you an example of "non-orthodox" behavior that does not put someone outside of orthodoxy. At best, given your position toward Rabbi Farber and the others you could refuse to utilize his services as an Eid or whatnot. But unless you're going to create the orthodox equivalent of McCarthyism then little will change just because some folks are *saying* things that, at this point in time, don't jive with current orthodox sensibilities. And is without even going into the growing numbers of orthoprax about whom you have no way to know of their innermost thoughts.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Michael, that's precisely the problem. If Farber is treated as Orthodox and then uses that status to claim that anal sex between men isn't actually forbidden, then simply identifying as Orthodox is no longer good enough. Because it might be "Farber-Orthodox", in which case, it can be assumed that you hold mishkav zachor to be permissible.

If people like Farber would stop distorting halakha while identifying as Orthodox, we could just say, "I'm Orthodox", and it would be assumed that we follow halakha in our private lives. But that's not the case. So we need to clarify that we're the-kind-of-Orthodox-that-doesn't-play-those-kinds-of-games.

Inner thoughts aren't the issue. The issue is a simple halakhic one, which revolves around the concept of chazaka. Chazaka is a legal presumption that has factual force in halakha. Kohanim are treated as kohanim by virtue of their chezkat kehunah.

When people look at the antics of the GLBT community, it's reasonable to assume that someone who identifies with that community shares the sexual morality of that community. It just is. It's reasonable even outside of halakha, but halakhically, it's legitimate to act on the basis of a chazaka.

Removing something or someone from a chazaka requires something active. Passivity isn't enough. You can't say, "Well, I don't know" and have that uproot a chazaka. That simply isn't the way halakha works.

What I'm saying is that identification as an Orthodox Jew is generally considered to be enough to uproot the chazaka of US morality, and it should similarly be enough to uproot the chazaka of GLBT secular/gentile culture and its sexual morality as well.

But there's a complication. When I say, "I'm an Orthodox Jew and a lesbian," I've sometimes received responses like, "Yeah, and Steve Greenberg is Orthodox too, and look what he said in his book, or look what he did in Washington DC".

What I'm saying is that it's not unreasonable for people to question what I mean when I say I'm Orthodox. Not any more. Once upon a time, but definitely not any more. With Hyim Shafner and Zev Farber and the rest of the Morethodox crew using their Orthodox rabbinic credentials to label as permitted that which is forbidden -- with no debate among Chazal or Rishonim -- the simple identification as Orthodox doesn't suffice any more.

Does this hook into the conflict between Modern Orthodoxy and what's called Open Orthodoxy? Unfortunately, it seems so. And you can label that "McCarthyism" all you like, but it won't change the fact that we're talking about two radically different (and getting more different all the time) standards. If they were to declare pork kosher, so long as it isn't used in idolatrous worship (this is an analogy, and I'm not suggesting they ever would do that), it wouldn't be long before Orthodox Jews needed some reassurance before eating in the home of someone identifying as Orthodox who might follow them.

As a side note, the word "jive" doesn't mean what you think it does. The word you're looking for is "jibe". Two things that fit together jibe. Two things that have a rhythm you can dance to jive.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Michael Lipkin said...

I'm hearing echos of Chassidic vs. Mitnagid rhetoric here. Yes, it *could* also be another evolution of *conservative*, but at this point, I'm not ready to throw anyone out of the tent. And L'maase, despite all the frantic pronouncements from MO leadership it ain't happening.

And thanks for the grammar lesson, but that was just typo.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

::shrug:: Suit yourself. Don't throw anyone out of any tent. But be aware of the fact that what exists exists. I'm not sure how it would hurt you to specify that you don't think being gay exempts you from halakhic requirements, but by all means, stand on ceremony and then get upset when people shun you.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Michael Lipkin said...

It's not whether or not I think being gay exempts a person from halacha, of course it doesn't. But halacha IS very flexible and *everyone*, and I mean everyone, picks and chooses. Are you familiar with Rav Kook's concept of "natural morality". And no, I'm not saying, necessarily, that he or it would override this issue, but it's an important concept and, according to him, our understanding of the Torah *can* be reinterpreted based on it.

I'm getting to that age, I think, where I don't give a crap if people shun me. :)

11:17 PM  
Blogger Commenter Abbi said...

Wow, Lisa, you have a very interesting way of looking at the world. Unfortunately, real life for most people is a lot messier and more complicated than you seem to want to believe.

Michael is right. Unless people wear tags on their foreheads declaring exactly how they believe, you will never know what kind of Orthodoxy they follow. I grew up in an Orthodox shul that had a microphone and an open parking lot because the rabbi wanted as many people to come to shul as possible. I'm sure many other rabbis in the OU disagreed with him, but nobody ever put him into cherem. The point is, Orthodoxy comes in an entire rainbow spectrum of belief, even with the three biggies (shabbat, kashrut and TaHaM).

People are going to "distort" Orthodoxy all the live-long day and there's nothing you can do about it. In any case, we as the Jewish people are much better off with more tolerance, forgiveness and understanding no matter what our sexual orientation is.

12:49 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Halakha isn't that flexible. Certainly not the way the Morethodox crowd likes to pretend.

And my point is, you can sit in an ivory tower and pontificate about whether frum society should be the way it is, or you can deal with the way it actually is, and if you choose the latter, mishkav zachor isn't something you want to be picking and choosing.

I think you may be taking Rav Kook out of context. I strongly suspect he never suggested that an issur mita d'Orayta could be reinterpreted on the basis of "natural morality". Natural morality, or derekh eretz, can tell you what to choose when you have more than one option halakhically. V'tu lo.

8:32 AM  
Blogger David Benkof said...

It really gets on my nerves when Lisa makes so much sense and displays a deep understanding of what Orthodox Judaism is and isn't, as well as the ability to make that understanding clear.

It makes it all the harder to dislike/resent her.

1:35 AM  

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