Orthodox, gay, and the rest is private

Mordechai Levovitz, Co-Executive Director of JQY, comments on David Benkof’s recent controversial op-ed in The Time of Israel about being gay and orthodox, and claims that it’s immodest to need to tell the world about the sexual behaviors in which you do not engage.

MordechaiLevovitz180x200First I’d like to congratulate and thank David Benkof for courageously being out of the closet and talking about his gay identity so publicly while still working in the Orthodox Jewish community. I hope David’s bravery and the corresponding compassionate communal reception to his article empower more LGBT Jews to come out of their respective closets. This is no small feat.

As Co-Executive Director of JQY, an organization that provides support for LGBT Youth in the Orthodox and Hassidic community, I have come to appreciate that there is no process that creates more impact, change, and understanding than LGBT Jews coming out to their friends, family and leaders. Statistics tell us that there is likely at least one LGBT person in every extended Frum (Orthodox) family. In an Orthodoxy where everyone personally knows someone who is LGBT, there is hope for more kindness, love and dignity extended to every Jew. Consequently, Benkof deserves credit for telling his story.

However, with respect to Benkof’s publicly divulging personal choices about his own sexual behavior, I am of two minds. On the one hand I have great respect for anyone who sacrifices that much to live up to his religious ideals. Self control and discipline in abiding to one’s understanding of halacha (Jewish law) are hallmarks of Orthodoxy. His dedication seems heroic. On the other hand his public declaration of personal celibacy strikes me as particularly out of place in Orthodox public discourse. It seems almost Un-tzniut (immodest) to need to tell the world about the sexual behaviors in which you do not engage. It reminded me of an incident that I experienced back in Orthodox Yeshiva when I was fifteen.

Every Friday my Rebbe would give a mussar shmooze (life lecture) about the ethical importance of resisting the sexual temptation of girls. Although the Rebbe took a hard line on these issues, my classmates actually really enjoyed the Friday shmoozes because it seemed to validate the normalcy of their adolescent hormonal experiences. One Friday a boy raised his hand and announced to the class that despite his feeling incredibly tempted by his yetzer harah (evil inclination) for women, he had succeeded in not Masturbating this week. The students didn’t quite know how to react.

The Rebbe softy responded, “My child, nobody asked, and nobody should ever ask you to say such a thing in public.” He continued, “We all have sexual desires and there should be no shame about that, but whether you do or do not act on those desires is between you and Hashem (G-d) and not the business of the entire class. You are welcome to speak to a rabbi privately about your individual struggle with shfichas zerah (spilling seed), but this shmooze is not the appropriate forum.” This distinction between publicly validating human sexuality while maintaining discretion about one’s personal sexual behavior was an important lesson that my Rebbe was conveying.

Our Orthodox tradition has taught us that even when a married couple is abstaining from sex due to menstrual bleeding, the couple should avoid being publicly obvious in this separation. Discretion is still expected when avoiding sexual activity. Even an agunah (a chained woman to a husband who will not or cannot grant a divorce), who is tragically halachically (lawfully) forbidden to remarry or be romantic with another man, does not go around broadcasting her sexual celibacy to the world. Similarly, an Orthodox gay man would not be expected to divulge what sexual behaviors he abstains from.

My assumption is that Benkof writes about his personal celibacy because of two intended implications. The first is that by asserting the reality of his own thirteen year celibacy, it somehow challenges and disproves the various public positions of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, Rabbi Zev Farber, Rabbi Norman Lamm, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, Rabbi Jay Michaelson, Prof. David Luchins, Rabbi Hyim Shafner, Aviva Yael Buck and YU College Student Avi Kopstick. The second implication is that because he can be celibate for thirteen years after a life of homosexual activity, that it is appropriate to expect other gay Jews to be celibate. It turns out that both of these implications are plainly wrong, misguided, irrational, and pretty insulting.

Basic logic tells us that Benkof’s proclaimed celibacy does not disprove any of the arguments that he quotes. The ethical call for compassion, welcoming, kindness and civil equality for gays is not challenged because David Benkof hasn’t had gay sex in thirteen years. No one has asserted against the possibility that there may be a gay man in this world who maintains thirteen years of abstinence. Not one of these rabbis’ positions relied upon absolutist thinking. They were either speaking in general terms about what is realistic for the vast majority of people, or from their own personal experience. Reducing other people’s positions to absolutisms is a disingenuous tactic. By pretending that his experience somehow refutes anyone, Benkof is simply creating a straw man to knock down.

Furthermore, it should be noted that with the exception of Greenberg and Michaelson (who use exegesis to reinterpret the prohibition, not ‘impossible celibacy’) none of the Orthodox rabbis mentioned by Benkof argue that homosexual sex is permissible under Jewish Law. Advocating for realistic rabbinic responses, civil equality and kindness towards people is not the same thing as saying that gay sex is not halachically problematic. These rabbis are finding nuance in a dialectic that pits our sense of ethics against our blind acceptance of biblical prohibitions. Benkof either misunderstands or is purposefully misrepresenting their positions. His preoccupation with going after any Orthodox rabbi that calls for compassion or understanding for LGBT people in Orthodoxy is disconcerting and telling. In addition, Benkof does not help his case by using ad-hominem attacks and being disrespectful to those he disagrees with.