Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Involuntary Homosexuality and Free Will

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here; my apologies for the belated link.]

Note: In the following post I take as a given that homosexual activity is a transgression against the Torah, and that homosexual attraction involves a desire to sin. I know this offends some; feel free not to read on.

One of the more interesting questions to emerge in the debate about homosexuality in the Orthodox community is this:

Judaism teaches that we have Free Will. If same-gender attraction has a biological or otherwise involuntary basis, then hasn't Gd created an overwhelmingly powerful, Free Will-robbing drive to commit a sin?

Or, to put the shoe on the other foot: Can you believe that Gd would prohibit an activity for which a Jew has a powerful involuntary drive?

To my mind, the answer is Yes and Yes. It is entirely possible for the general doctrine of Free Will to co-exist with the possibility of an overwhelming, involuntary drive for a specific sin.

Consider the following three sources:

R’ Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav meiEliyahu, Kuntrus haBechirah Perek 2:
כל אדם יש לו בחירה, היינו בנקודת פגישת האמת שלו עם האמת המדומה, תולדת השקר. אבל רוב מעשיו הם במקום שאין האמת והשקר נפגשים שם כלל. כי יש הרבה מן האמת שהאדם מחונך לעשותו, ולא יעלה על דעתו כלל לעשות ההיפך, וכן הרבה אשר יעשה מן הרע והשקר, שלא יבחין כלל שאין ראוי לעשותו. אין הבחירה שייכת אלא בנקודה שבין צבאו של היצר הטוב לצבאו של היצר הרע.
Every person has choice, meaning the point at which his personal truth encounters imagined truth, the product of falsehood. However, most of a person’s actions occur in a place where truth and falsehood do not meet, at all. A person is trained to practice much truth, and it will never dawn upon him to do otherwise. Similarly, a person may practice much evil and falsehood without comprehending, at all, that it is inappropriate. Choice is relevant only at the point which is between the forces of the yetzer hatov and the forces of the yetzer hara.

R’ Tzadok haKohen of Lublin, Tzidkat haTzaddik 43, based on Moshe’s defense for the Jews after the Golden Calf (Berachot 32a), in which Moshe compared the Jews to a child who has been given all of the desires and means for sin, and abandoned to the advances of evildoers:
פעמים יש אדם עומד בנסיון גדול כל כך עד שאי אפשר לו שלא יחטא, כדרך שאמרו חז"ל: מה יעשה הבן שלא יחטא
Sometimes a person will face a test which is so great that it is impossible for him not to sin; it is as the Sages said, ‘What could the boy do, to avoid sinning?’

Talmud, Bava Batra 16b:
אין אדם נתפס בשעת צערו
One is not held responsible for actions taken during his moment of pain.

So Rav Dessler acknowledged that there are times when a person is drawn into transgression by forces that are beyond his control [note that he was discussing environment rather than biology], and he will not have free will in such cases.

And Rav Tzaddok said that there are tests one cannot pass; one may well be set up to fail. Of course, he concludes his discussion by saying that one can never know that he is facing such a test, and so one must always try – but the point remains that Gd may well create a prohibition that a given person, in a given situation, cannot observe.

And the gemara in Bava Basra states explicitly that people may well face situations in which they are not held responsible, because of overwhelming conditions.

Note: NONE of this is meant to in any way permit, exonerate or otherwise sanction homosexual activity. My point is not to raise the banner of אונס, of extenuating circumstances, and suspend the rule of halachah.

My point is only to say that the existence of a biological or otherwise involuntary basis for homosexuality does nothing to undermine the doctrine of Free Will.


  1. Doesn't the existence of a negative commandment mean there has to be a desire to violate it? The Torah doesn't need to prohibit behavior we don't want to do anymore than a parent needs to prohibit his children from eating things they wouldn't eat anyway. That being the case, a biological temptation to commit homosexual acts would be no different in concept from a biological temptation to eat pork.

  2. Here is a link to an article by Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin discussing R. Dessler, psychological determinism, and bechirah-chofshis.

    A version of the article was originally printed in the Jewish Observer, and there was back and forth regarding one point; I remember the author writing that he went to R. Wolbe to discuss a certain aspect of Kuntres HaBechirah, but the latter said he did not review Michtav Meliyahu recently, and could not comment on the specific point that was in contention(which I also don't recall, and thus, can not comment on either :) )

    (There is also a discussion of homosexuality and SSA on his website as it relates to bechirah)

  3. Why should there be a doubt about this? A straight married person can still experience an overwhelming biological drive towards adultery, but that doesn't justify acting on it.

  4. Anonymous:

    The extenuating circumstance is that a typical straight individual can always fulfill their sexual-emotional desires with *someone*.

    Gay individuals have no halakhic mechanism to allow sexual/emotional intimacy with anyone, at any time.

    Remember -- heterosexuality and homosexuality are not just about "insert tab A into slot B" -- attraction is a powerful force that determines how we relate to people, the kinds of friendships we make, how we look for emotional support, and where we get our basic human need for understanding, intimacy and companionship from.

    Even if we hold like Ramban, any physical display of intimacy where sexual desire applies (ḥiba, ta’ava) is still prohibited miderabbanan. Can you imagine living a life where expressions of intimacy TO ANYONE are prohibited? Where even if you're meiḳil on definitions of negi‘a, just getting a supportive hug from a friend could be problematic? And this is EVERYONE, your ENTIRE LIFE. With no way out, the way most of us can get married. Even mamzeirim can marry each other.

    That's the difference.

  5. Regarding the Gemera in Berachos quoted by R. Tzadok, there is also a discussion by meforshim there regarding bechirah, which might take a different approach than R. Tzadok as far as some of the other cases in that gemara being a complete defense--there is a discussion in the sources brought in Artscoll gemara)

  6. Is your understanding that it is possible that someone who committed murder will get to shamayim and HKB"H might say- no problem, I set you up for failure.

    And what of the personality changes that cause him to sin moreso having , in his mind, failed the test (which he didn't but didn't know). Does he get a pass on these?

    This whole issue is complex (what does involuntary mean, really)

    Joel Rich

  7. R’ Tzadok is saying that sometimes you can't "avoid" sin. This doesn't mean you can't to teshuva.

    If you hold like the GRA (IIRC), then all mitzvos are given to use to allow us to work on middos.
    Example: If there's mitzvah not to steal, then it might be in our inate character to steal things.

    Now, bringing in Rav Dessler, I think only adds to this b/c not everyone has the same "level" of desire to steal, kill, engage in homosexual activity, make fires on Shabbos, love their neighbor as themselves, etc.

    If I enjoy insulting someone, then the zchar I get for not doing so is probably much greater than the zchar someone who doesn't have that inclination to insult. This is what the nikudas Bechira is all about.
    (This exmaple of bechira and zchar was told to me directly by R Moshe Orbach zt'l, who heard it directly from REED in London).

  8. Neil: If someone is completely unable to resist a sin to the extent that he hasn't sinned then he shouldn't need to do Teshuva. It would be like my having to do Teshuva for eating on Yom Kippur in compliance with my doctor's orders in order to save my life.

  9. If I enjoy insulting someone, then the zchar I get for not doing so is probably much greater than the zchar someone who doesn't have that inclination to insult. This is what the nikudas Bechira is all about.
    and if I love learning the schar is less?
    Joel Rich

  10. Marc (Comment 1)-
    No, not necessarily; see Ben Azzai cited in Rashi to Devarim 12:23.

    Re: Dr Sorotzkin - Interesting, thanks!
    Re: Rav Tzaddok - Absolutely, not everyone agrees with him. I often hear people assume that we are not given tests unless we can pass them. But his read has long appealed to my sense of Torah.

    Anonymous 10:27 AM-
    1. Who is talking about justifying acting on it?
    2. I don't think desires for adultery or in any way comparable to desires for homosexual activity. Steg did a good job of highlighting some of the differences.

    Complex indeed.

    Agreed on all points.

    Marc (Comment 2)-
    In the Yom Kippur case you describe, eating is a mitzvah.

  11. Joel,

    Beyond quoting Pirkei Avos regarding "not knowing the reward" I'm not sure.

    That being written, if you do love learning, you're Yetzer Hora might be greater to not learn, thus YOUR reward might be greater (not compared to someone else), than if you were created with a little incy wincy Yetzer not to learn.

  12. Fascinating sources. I'm missing something, though. You say that these sources show that "free will" coexists with an "overwhelming, involuntary desire to sin." But don't these sources show that there are times when free will does not exist precisely because of different factors? How exactly are these two concepts "co-existing?" Moreover, the way I read the citation from R. Dessler was that true choice is actualized only when there is a conflict, meaning if there is no conflict, there is no actual free choice, just habit… unless there is more to the context of the quote that is missing? Also, it might be helpful to define what you mean by free will (note that some differentiate, for instance between freedom of will and freedom of choice). Complex indeed.

  13. Hi Joseph,

    1. I need to more precise - will edit the post to say, "... the doctrine of Free Will to co-exist with..." In the specific case of an overwhelming involuntary drive, Free Will is absent.

    2. R' Dessler - Yes, I believe that is what he is saying.

  14. Thanks for clarifying point #1. I take it that I read you correctly, then, in saying that while the general doctrine of free will might not be undermined in full, the possibility of free will in those cases is undermined.
    Re: point 2. But then it would seem that R. Dessler contradicts the point you are trying to make. R. Dessler says that free will exists only in a case in which there is a real struggle between doing the right thing and committing a sin, whereas you're saying that free will does NOT exist in such an overwhelming struggle.

  15. See the most recent audioroundup:
    Rabbi Glatt -Homosexuality, Compassion, Halacha- Are They at Odds (TIM)
    Mishkav Zachor is definitely prohibited! How deal with them – Rachmanim, bayshanim, gomlei chossodim (merciful, demure, kind). As long as they are bayshanim we need to be rachmanim and gomlei chossodim. Some interesting practical Q&A at the end.

    Joel Rich

  16. Joseph-
    That's not how I understand R' Dessler. I believe he is saying that Free Will exists only when no overwhelming force is present on either side.

    Thanks; interesting.