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Modern Orthodoxy Confronts Homosexuality
Tue, 09/28/2010 - 20:00

Professor Moses Pava gives the recent Statement of Principles on Homosexuality, authored by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot ambivalent praise (“Two Cheers For Orthodox Statement On Homosexuality,” Opinion, Sept. 17). While I agree with my old friend’s ambivalence, the praise is problematic.

 Quite frankly, I don’t understand the statement, and it concerns me. What motivated these rabbis to make it when they did?

Modern Orthodox Jews do not want to be perceived as less compassionate than the world at large. But the drive to satisfy that zeitgeist will prove futile. Will the world at large be satisfied with this statement of principles?

Pandering to the liberal left is as dangerous and damaging to Modern Orthodoxy as is its tendency to seek to satisfy Orthodoxy’s right wing. In doing either, we Modern Orthodox sacrifice our legitimacy and distort our identity. Modern Orthodoxy derives its timeless relevance from the Torah, the Talmud, from Sinai itself. Modern Orthodoxy no more needs the approbation of the gay community then it does the haskamah [imprimatur] of the haredim. When we seek either we cheapen and demean ourselves.

More than everything else, this statement represents a paradigm shift in the way Modern Orthodoxy approaches halacha and forms its response to the issues of the day. Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal once wrote that while Orthodoxy starts with the text of the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch in determining halacha, Conservative Judaism starts with the needs and the demands of the Jewish community. But it should be fairly clear that the well-intentioned statement of principles comes in response to the demands of the vox populi.

The movie “Trembling Before G-d” and the symposium earlier this year on gays at Yeshiva University were watershed events that got people clamoring for rachmonus [mercy] for what society perceives to be the most vulnerable. That sentiment may be noble indeed, but this isn’t the way Orthodoxy has functioned.

Historically, halachic changes occur, but ever so slowly.

Are we now going to adopt a Conservative approach to the big issues? If so, then why not bypass the agony and strife that accompanies bold changes and join them now? We need to address these issues head on. The “gay question” is but one symptom of the ideological confusion plaguing Modern Orthodoxy. The statement of principles makes me ask what we stand for. What are our guiding principles?


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The two are not the same at all. The Torah does not mandate slavery. It merely regulates it. As such one can assume a clear anti-slavery point of view and remain squarely within the Torah's ethical constructs. The same cannot be as definitively said about homosexuality. Not only does that Torah prohibit it, the Torah declares its "feelings" about it, calling it an abomination, something the Torah does in very few instances. Given that clear repudiation of homosexuality and the traditional approach of "la'asot seyag laTorah" to protect the Torah's precepts with "fences" or additional enactments, (how that notion should be applied to homosexuality is another discussion entirely), it seems considerably more difficult to take a favorable view towards homosexuals and homosexuality and remain squarely within the Torah's ethical constructs. That is not to say that we should not approach the issue with tact, sensitivity and an absolute commitment to preserving individual dignity. But homosexuality is a Torah challenge distinct from other issues.
This discussion reminds me of the debate regarding slavery in the 1860's in the United States. I refer you to the famous pamphlet written by Rabbi Dr. M. J. Raphall showing that slavery was fully supported, though not in quite the way it was practiced in the South, by Biblical text. That text bears reading in the context of the debate about the treatment of homosexuals.