Friday, January 11, 2013

Rabbi Shmuley Herzfeld: "Chok and Egel Ha-Zahav: Homosexuality and Orthodox Jews"

2/4/2000- This past week I had the very meaningful experience which I am deeply grateful for of being on a rabbinic retreat sponsored by Clal.  The retreat brings together rabbis from different denominations in Judaism and we spent a week studying together in Newport R.I. 

And there is one moment in particular that happened on that retreat that will stick with me for a very long time.  On Thursday night, we saw the film Trembling before God, which movingly and emotionally portrays the conflicted and torn lives of individuals who come from a background of Orthodox Judaism and in many cases still wish to remain within the Orthodox Jewish community and yet have publicly announced that they are gay.

The director of this movie did a wonderful job of contrasting the views of rabbis whom he interviewed for the film-including R. Shlomo Riskin-who uniformly responded that a gay Jew is someone we must love, but is also someone who is entirely violating halakhah, with the reaction of the community's and more particularly the families of these individuals, who generally ostracized the open homosexuals and made them feel unwelcome in our Godly community.

As powerful as this film was what will make the moment unforgettable was what happened after the film, when I found myself in front of 35 other rabbis, some of whom were openly gay, and I felt a need on some level to explain how I as an Orthodox Rabbi could advocate living in a society whose laws can at times be used as a vehicle which inflicts pain on individuals who by all other standards that we know of today are entirely innocent and noble.

And so I sat there and openly wept for the pain of these individuals and their families.  These people are in many ways real heroes.  They are engaged in an extremely serious struggle.  The concepts of kedushah and Torah are ideas that are daily inhabiting their lives.  And I cried for the tragedy that they faced such a terrible conflict in their spiritual lives.

But when I finally found the words to speak I actually pointed to a text that we read today and I thought of Rashi's commentary to that text.  We read this morning the mitzvah of parah adumah, the red heifer, about which the Torah states, zot chukat ha-torah, this is the law of the Torah.  And Rashi explaining the concept of Chok says, Lefi she-hasatan ve-umot ha-olam monin et yisrael lomar mah ha-mitzvah ha-zot u-mah taam yesh ba-hen le-fikach katav bah chukat, gezerah hi milfani ve-ein lekhah reshut le-harher acharehah, for when the Satan and other nations will throw arguments at you and say what is the meaning of this law and what reason is there for it, we should respond, "it is a chok," it is a decree before me, and I have no permission to think evil thoughts about it.

 And about this mitzvah of parah adumah, the midrash says, that Shlomo Ha-Melekh states, "Amarti achakhmah, vehi rechokah mi-meni."  I said that I would understand it, but it is distant from me.  Now why is it that Rashi and Shlomo say that there are no explanations for this mitzvah.  In fact, over the years I have heard many suggestions that quite rationally explain the mitzvah of parah adumah.  The reason is because they felt that no one suggestion fully justified the commandment in their eyes.

And so at that moment I personally turned toward these texts, and said chok hi, ve-rechokah hi mimeni, it is my law and it is distant from me.  I know that the Torah says the word toevah-usually translated as abomination--about this prohibition, but I also know that word toevah also appears in contexts throughout the Torah that are not morally charged like the prohibition of eating animals that do not have split hooves.

So I cited the concept of chok as an explanation for this prohibition.  Not because there are no explanations, but because all of the explanations are distant from me.

And yet as I sat there listening to the tearful words of an openly gay Conservative rabbi, I felt new insight into the depth of the pain of this community.  For someone who is Gay and yet loves the richness of an otherwise Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, there are basically 3 responses.  This person can subdue their homosexuality which they usually believe is given to them by God and live an Orthodox Jewish life.  Or they can leave the Orthodox lifestyle entirely.  But to do that is often exceedingly difficult, because as this gay rabbi said to me, "I am not defined by sexual identity."

And so the third possible option is to live a life, like we all do, on different levels, full of conflict and internal pain.  And then it becomes our responsibility to rise as a community to a level which this film showed that our wider community is not yet at-to be able to say, your actions violate our laws, and yet we will not ostracize you, we will love you the same we love all of our brothers and sisters.

However, there is a flip side to this analysis.  We did not just read this morning about the mitzvah of parah adumah, we also read about the sin of the egel ha-zahav, the golden calf.  And the closeness of these 2 concepts is very apparent.  Both are the same types of animals-cows; both are similar colors-red and gold.  In fact the Midrash comments on this close relationship and says, "Tavo ha-em ve-khaper al ha-ben."  The mother comes and atones for the son, meaning that the mitzvah of parah adumah is an atonement for the sin of the golden calf. 

Why does the Torah select a chok that is so similar to this sin of idolatry to atone for this sin of idolatry?  Perhaps the reason is because when people are unable to accept the obligations of a chok upon themselves their actions can very easily turn into idolatry.  The rejection of the parah adumah can very easily turn into the acceptance of the egel ha-zahav.    

And the danger for this is certainly great when people feel rejected.  Once feeling rejected, people often feel the need to defend themselves to the hilt.  And since our sexuality is such an important part of us, homosexuality can thus more easily and even understandably become the centerpiece of their life. But when anything other than God is the center of someone’s life, then we have entered the realm of idolatry. And so when homosexuality becomes someone's primary identity, when the axis of God has been replaced as central in someone's life, then it is idolatrous.  

And so my response to the film Trembling before God is that we as a community have to formulate a better response to someone who appreciates the beauty of Torah and halakhah and yet lives as a homosexual.  Our response should be to create an environment where we as a family can sit and cry with such a person and say chok hi, it is a law of the Torah, but rechokah hi mimeni, it is distant and I do not understand it, ve-ein li reshut le-harher acharehah, and I have no permission to raise a voice against this prohibition.  For it is only by sitting and embracing such individuals that we as a community can prevent someone who loves Torah from turning their homosexuality into an idolatry, moving from a rejection of the parah adumah to an acceptance of the egel ha-zahav.

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