Monday, October 19, 2009

Small Change

Wow! I haven't updated this blog for a long time! Not that I haven't had a lot to say, but it has been a very busy few months for me. But now it's time to get back in the swing of things....

I received a message tonight from a family I have grown very close to over the past few years. They belong to the Modern Orthodox shul in my home town, and I have an unspoken invitation for Shabbos meals whenever I am around. While they are certainly a "frum" family, they are very open-minded and have accepted me fully as a gay Jew. I got word tonight that their eldest daughter has chosen to write her college essay about gay marriage. Specifically, she is writing about her experience of getting to know me over the years, and how I have changed her view of homosexuality and Judaism.

The key to change -- within any community -- is exposure. "Gay" should never be a taboo word. Homosexuality should not be treated as a sexual topic from which five-year-olds are shielded.

It is not often we see the fruits of our efforts. I feel very honored to have the privilege of witnessing change within the Orthodox community, albeit small change.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Burning Fire and a River of Tears

The following article was recently posted in a Yeshiva University newspaper:

It details the struggle of a closeted frum student. He views homosexuality as his test in life and compares it to the tests of keeping Shabbat and learning Torah. In other words, just as we must fight our Evil Inclination that encourages us to break Shabbat and not learn Torah, so too must we fight our Evil Inclination for homosexuality. Accordingly, the author takes solace in the distinction between homosexual orientation and homosexual behavior, as the Torah only prohibits the latter.

I take issue with this ideological approach to homosexuality. From an Orthodox perspective, breaking Shabbat and shunning Torah study are inherently evil behaviors. It therefore makes sense to attribute these sins to the influence of the Evil Inclination, an evil impulse taking over body and mind.

Yet no one identifies as a Shabbos Desecrator or as a Torah Learning Nullifier. These sins do not define one's sense of self. However, individuals with an exclusively same sex attraction do identify as gay. Homosexuality is a large part of their identity, as it determines their romantic and sexual attractions. To view the thought -- the fantasy -- of a deep emotional and physical bond between two men as a manifestation of the "Evil" Inclination is to view oneself as inherently evil. Thus, in the course of "winning" the battle against the Evil Inclination for homosexuality, one's sense of self worth becomes a casuality of war.

I would like to thank the author of this article. By framing homosexuality in the context of the Evil Inclination, he enabled me to realize that leading a celibate life is a recipe not only for loneliness and isolation, but also for depression and G-d forbid suicide (as the author alludes to in his article).

What do I do with the two verses in Leviticus? I still don't know, but it's becoming increasingly less important to me. The Torah tells us to בחור בחיים, to choose life. In order to do so, we must accept ourselves -- our whole selves -- for who we truly are.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Toughest Part

So I haven't written in a while. Not that I haven't had anything to say, I just haven't been able to put it into words.

I have discovered what is for me the toughest part about being gay and observant. It's not the attitude of Orthodox Rabbis. It's not the social stigma. Nor is it the verses in Leviticus. Yes, all of those things bother me, but the toughest part for me is not having a halachic framework to follow. After I say to myself: "I'm not going to marry a woman, and I'm not going to remain celibate," where do I go from there? I have come to terms with the fact that I will enter into a homosexual relationship, but what are the rules, boundaries, and limits of this relationship?

Do I try to translate bits and pieces of "heterosexual" halacha to homosexual situations, such as yichud (prohibition of being alone in the room with someone of the opposite sex), kol isha (hearing a woman's voice), or shomer negia (not touching at all until marriage)? Such a notion is absurd! Imagine not being able to being able to shake hands in shul or be alone with a male friend...

So I'm left to make my own rules. But what are they based on? My personal judgment, i.e. exactly what the Torah lambasts as faulty and subjective. The Torah is so special because it gives us objective, G-d-given laws. Left to our own judgment to decide right from wrong, how often would we "bend" our own rules? After all, we made them up, so we can change them. While this may sound liberating, as a gay observant Jew, it is incredibly frustrating. Is what I am doing right in G-d's eyes? Would G-d be okay with me adopting a more permissive stance? And perhaps G-d's not okay with what I'm doing at all. If it's all wrong, why implement limits at all? I recognize that this last question represents an extreme all-or-nothing viewpoint that I outright reject. Nevertheless, it's one of the many questions that plague me.

I have no answers, only thoughts.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Matter of Life and Death

A friend recently asked me to comment on GLBT issues in Jewish schools for a research paper he was writing. Specifically, he wanted information that could be used in a staff sensitively training. I have copied my comments below, directed at teachers, counselors, coaches, and parents everywhere:

When we think of life-saving professions, we often think of doctors and fire fighters, but teachers are also charged with this awesome task. In most schools, the default environment is one of homophobia. This is especially true in a Jewish school. As such, closeted gay, lesbian, and transgendered students often feel alone and rejected. Walk through the halls of any middle or high school in the country, and you'll be horrfied by the number of homophobic comments you hear on a daily basis. "That's so gay." "You're such a fag." These remarks are said in jest, but they drive home the message to GLBT youth that their existence is disgraceful and therefore quite fitting for the punch line of a joke.

Here's where you come in: Do not allow homophobic comments in your classroom. Make it a rule on day one and enforce it vigorously. Take it one step forward and express your acceptance of GLBT individuals. If you bring up the topic even once, you will forever be viewed as an ally by your students. When -- not if, but when -- your gay students want to come out, they will know that you are a safe person, one in whom they can confide.

For those of you who come from a religious background, there is no greater mitzvah than making GLBT youth feel comfortable. You do not need to condone or condemn their sexual behavior. Rather, just accept the person for who he or she is -- באשר הוא שם.

How does this make you life-savers? The suicide rate among GLBT teenagers is staggering. The kind words of one teacher can provide hope to a hopeless child, giving him or the courage to continue living. Because one friend in this world is infinitely better than none.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Trail Blazers

In this week's Torah Portion, Vayigash, Jacob and his family descend to Egypt to escape the famine and live in the land of Goshen. The Torah tells us that Jacob sent Judah ahead of the rest of the family so that Judah could להורות, prepare for their arrival and instruct them how to live in a foreign land. Rashi cites a midrash that Judah was sent ahead in order to build a yeshiva -- a house of Jewish study. From this we learn that Torah and Judaism must be our first priority when establishing a new community.

As gay Jews, I believe we can read an additional meaning into the verse. While the gay rights movement has existed for many years, it has only recently begun to penetrate Jewish institutions. Thus, like Judah, we must act as trail blazers, forging a Jewish community that accepts us for who we are and enables us to integrate our Judaism and our homosexuality. We must pave this path for those who are in the closet as well as for those whose Judaism is in the closet. We must pave this path so that future generations are not forced to choose between their Judaism and their homosexuality, G-d forbid.

Being true to the meaning of the word להורות, we must teach and guide -- teach heterosexuals acceptance and guide homosexuals toward an integrated Jewish life.

Good Shabbos