Tradition and Compassion

Some traditional Jewish authorities condemn homosexuality, while advocating compassion for individual gays and lesbians.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from Does God Belong in the Bedroom?.

A number of modern rabbis from various movements have attempted to interpret the traditional sources on homosexuality as they apply to gay Jews today. Three basic approaches seem to emerge: (1) a reaffirmation of the traditional prohibition, tempered by a call for compassion for homosexuals (i.e., reject the sin, not the sinner); (2) a rejection of the traditional prohibition in favor of fully embracing the sexual needs of gays; and (3) an attempt to rework the halakhah in light of our modern scientific understanding of homosexuality. 

One of the most articulate spokesmen for the first approach is Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of the Orthodox Yeshiva University. He contrasts four different attitudes toward homosexuality: repressive, practical, permissive, and psychological. The repressive approach calls for no leniency but rather social ostracism and possibly imprisonment to protect the moral fiber of society. The practical approach is neutral, avoiding any judgment of homosexuality. The permissive approach views homosexuality as a legitimate life‑style. The psychological approach sees homosexuality as a pathology which can be treated as an illness, thereby removing moral culpability.

Lamm definitely prefers the last approach. He writes:

gay pride parade“Homosexuality is no different from any other anti‑social or anti-halakhic act, where it is legitimate to distinguish between the objective act itself, including its social and moral consequences, and the mentality and inner development of the person who perpetuates the act. For example, if a man murders in a cold and calculating fashion for reasons of profit, the act is criminal and the transgressor is criminal. If, however, a psychotic murders, the transgressor is diseased rather than criminal, but the objective act itself remains a criminal one…To use halakhic terminology, the objective crime remains a ma’aseh averah (forbidden act) whereas the person who transgresses is considered innocent on the grounds of ‘ones’ (force beyond one’s control).”

Using the psychological approach, Lamm recommends compassion for those suffering from the homosexual “illness” while condemning the homosexual act itself.

Conservative Rabbi David Feldman takes a similar approach:

“Much of the Jewish sexual code, moreover, has as its purpose--to the extent that we can speak of the law’s purpose--the preservation of the marriage bond and the family unit. In an age of family dissolution it is all the more urgent to assert the stance of halakhah against an antithetical life‑style…However, while sincere, even non‑patronizing, empathy may be called for, condonation of homosexuality as an alternate way of life is not.”

Feldman teaches that there is no room in Jewish morality to condone homosexuality even if we show compassion for individual homosexuals.

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Rabbi Michael Gold

Rabbi Michael Gold is the rabbi at Temple Beth Torah, Tamarac Jewish Center in Tamarac, Florida. He is the author of four books, and his articles have appeared in Moment, Judaism, Jewish Spectator, B'nai Brith International Jewish Monthly, and numerous other publications. He also served as co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly's committee on human sexuality.