It was February 2002 when I was invited by our local Jewish Community Center’s “Jewish and Israeli Film Festival” to speak after a showing of the then-new film, Trembling Before G-d. (For those who don’t know, Trembling is a documentary interviewing homosexual Jews who feel a closeness to Judaism and who are trying, in various ways, to live halachic lives... or who have given up because of their alienation.)
I was invited to speak tonight at a screening of the film, and I must admit that I didn’t expect to say anything different from what I said that first time, almost seven years ago:
*I am in awe of people whose faith in Judaism is so strong that they commit themselves to this struggle;
*Our shuls and communities are obligated to do everything we can to welcome them as Jews and as human beings, without sugar-coating the Torah’s view on homosexuality;
*Yes, even if homosexual desire is genetic/hard-wired it can still be prohibited;
*Recognize that the film does have an agenda, and portrays reality through a lens; it cuts off the interviewed rabbis, and doesn't give us any real insight into the relatives, particularly those accused of shunning, at all.
I didn’t even enter the room to watch the film; I stayed in the next room, preparing a gemara shiur while semi-listening to the familiar voices of gay men and women telling their stories.
But as I was semi-listening, I did have a thought crystallize for me. I knew it on some level before, I’ve certainly applied it before, but I never really understood it as clearly as I did tonight: That this issue of homosexuality in the Orthodox community is really much more a matter of sociology and community than it is a matter of religion.
The voices of outraged people, pained people, isolated people, sad people, resigned people, emancipated people, are not unique to this situation. This particular crisis is more intense and painful and intractable than others, but, fundamentally, their voices sound just like the voices of people disinherited by family and community for a whole host of reasons - religion, economics, personality, whatever.
I’ve heard these voices in my office, on the telephone, at kiddush at shul, from homosexual and heterosexual, from teenager and senior citizen, from Jew and non-Jew; these are the voices of people who are dealing with years, lifetimes, of self-doubt and emotional pain, because they have been told by people they love and respect that they are defective.
Therefore: The comfort we can offer people by telling them, “We don’t think you’re evil,” and “Of course we’re your friends,” matters a great deal, even if we cannot provide the heter (leniency) so many seek. Far more important than validation as a gay Jew is validation as a Jew and human being altogether.
I am convinced that the damage wrought by telling a vulnerable adolescent he/she is immoral, evil or deviant is far worse than allowing him/her to remain gay.
To my mind, most of the voices in that film and in life are not really asking, “Tell me you think it’s all right.” Rather, for most of them it’s about, “Tell me you think I’m all right.”
Which is something, I think, that we in the Torah-observant community can and must do more often.
[Haveil Havalim, hosted by the illustrious Jack, is here!]