Ask the Rabbis
What advice would you give if your child told you he or she was gay?
I would remind my child that all of the Torah’s laws are contextual. This means that what is forbidden in one context might be permitted in an entirely different context, as the Talmud teaches us (Talmud Bav’li, Chulin 110a). The Torah’s proscription of homosexual sex applies solely to men, while lesbian sex is forbidden neither by biblical law nor by rabbinic law. In regards to male homosexual sex, anything short of complete penile penetration is not included in the biblical prohibition (Talmud Bav’li, Yevamot 54a-56a, Sotah 26b, Niddah 13a; Pirush HaRambam ahl HaMish’nayot, Sanhedrin, Chapter 7). Moreover, this prohibition is
listed among those cultic practices of seven specifically named peoples of ancient times that the Jews were forbidden from emulating (Leviticus 18:3 and 22, 20:13 and 23; Deuteronomy 23:18). The ancient Jewish philosopher and historian Philo describes how [in some cultures] “men mounted men, then little by little they accustomed those who were by nature men to submit to play the part of women” (Philo on Abraham, Chapter 26, pp. 134-136 in Volume 6 of the Colson Edition of the Loeb Library Edition). Accordingly, the wording in the Torah—that it is forbidden “to lie with a man as he would with a woman” (Leviticus 18:22)—clearly addresses a heterosexual male. And so, understood in context, it may not refer to loving gay couples, only to heterosexual men imposing their will on other heterosexual men as part of orgiastic cultic rites.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
Why is this matter of identity formation different from any other identity formation? Does the question imply that being gay or lesbian requires special handling, including the possibility of trying to guide a child away from that choice? Would we give different guidance if our child announced that he or she was straight? Is the issue really one of giving advice, or of listening with an open mind?
Each new generation, thankfully, finds greater acceptance of a full range of gender and sexual identity preferences, but we are far from parity. Coming out as gay or lesbian to others, not to mention oneself, is fraught with opposing feelings: excitement about finding oneself and anxiety of being rejected, not just by a potential partner, but by family and society.
It seems to me that the best thing parents can do is model acceptance and an openness to talk more. It also seems to me a great thing if the child feels comfortable bringing up the subject in the first place.
If we do give advice, it should be gender-choice neutral, applying to gay and straight relationships equally. We might offer our thoughts on how to navigate feelings of attraction. Or how to deal with the challenges of relationships so that nobody gets mistreated. Or, if necessary, how to get out of relationships that are hurtful and harmful. They’re part of life too.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanist Judaism
New York, NY
I polled my ALEPH colleagues on this question, and Susan Saxe, our chief operating officer, responded, “I would start with reassurance that sexuality is a gift from a loving G!d and explain that sexuality can feel fixed and certain or be fluid over a lifetime. Whether my child was straight, gay or bisexual, I would just want happy, healthy relationships for him or her. I would express my hope that sexuality be a blessing and gateway to deep connection with a loving partner. I’d suggest it’s ideal to postpone sexual expression until one is mature enough to act for shmirat ha-guf, safeguarding one’s physical and emotional well-being in a caring and committed relationship. If my child were old enough and in a relationship, I would say, ‘mazel tov’ and ask how soon his or her friend could come over for Shabbat dinner.”
I thoroughly affirm Susan’s thoughts. I would add that while some well-intentioned people may quote two verses of Leviticus to “prove’” that loving same-sex relationships are wrong, I believe they are reading those verses out of cultural/historical context, and I do not believe that they prohibit ongoing loving same-sex relationships. I would add that the pshat [literal meaning] of the Torah teaches that the original Adam or earth being was created both male and female, and Midrash reinforces this. Since our soul reverberates with this original Adam Kadmon, or primordial man, the potential to have loving feelings for people of either gender is innate. It is part of being created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of G!d.
Rabbi Debra Kolodny
ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal
Silver Spring, MD
“Mazel tov,” I’d begin. “Mom and I bless you to find true love some day and will embrace any partner you choose. May you remain unhurt by the narrow prejudices that still abound. Always remember that you and your LGBT sisters and brothers are created in God’s image, equal to all. Celebrate who you are and the clarity you’ve attained about your Divine self. Chizki v’imtzi, be strong and courageous. We love you.”
Even now, our six-year-old might find my response unsurprising. Already her world and her synagogue include families of every configuration. Every night we sing to her, “Some women love men, some men love men” in Fred Small’s inclusive lullaby, “Everything Possible.” She’s seen her parents, their shul and their movement support same-sex marriage rights.
I fervently wish a similarly affirming experience for every child in every community. But that will require a shift and some stretching of comfort zones: clergy and congregants making no assumptions about people’s partners; de-gendered synagogue membership forms; queer couples routinely celebrating on the bimah; ongoing education and outreach.
This is guidance for us all. If we implement it, then Judaism can remain our children’s path whoever they become and whomever they may love. Then we will bolster the self-esteem of queer teenagers struggling for acceptance (which is also pikuach nefesh, part of a life-saving effort). Then we will truly, fully love all our children, no matter what.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
The first thing I would say to my child is, “I love you. I will always love you. You are created in the image of God, b’tzelem elohim.”
I would look to offer the same guidance that I would offer to my child if he or she were straight. I would want to make sure that he or she seeks to create relationships that are grounded in Jewish values: loving and mutual, healthy and safe, caring and respectful.
My children—and the teenagers I work with—know that they can speak with me about anything, and I will be there for them, listen to them and offer my support. Yet, sadly, there are still challenges with living an “out” life. For that reason, I would want my child to have Jewish adult gay role models to whom he or she could turn for support—someone who provides a safe place to talk about the challenges, hopes, fears and dreams that they may share. As a parent, I would see it as my obligation to help my child bring that type of mentor into his or her life.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Union for Reform Judaism
If a child of mine told me he or she was gay, I’d like to think that I would be supportive and loving and that I would take the opportunity to talk about sexuality and Jewish values. While I understand that such a declaration is not necessarily an announcement about impending sex but more about orientation, I would seize the opportunity to talk about being sexually active. We live in a world where premarital sex is practically a given. Based upon the writings of Rabbi Elliot Dorff, I would discuss the following Jewish values with my child, irrespective of sexual orientation, and would encourage him/her to adopt these values in shaping sexual activity: 1. Seeing oneself and one’s partner as creatures of God. Sexuality ought not to be just for physical satisfaction. While physical pleasure is an important part of sex, we must always remember that our partners are created in God’s image. 2. Respect for others. Minimally, this means that sexuality must not be coercive. Non-married partners must be especially careful to understand their partner’s desires. 3. Modesty. Modesty requires that one’s sexual activities be conducted in private and that they not be discussed with others. 4. Honesty. Partners should be able to discuss honestly what their sexual activity means in terms of their relationship. 5. Fidelity. I would urge my child to avoid short-term sexual encounters. It is preferable to seek long-term relationships to which one remains faithful throughout the relationship. 6. Health and safety. This is especially important in all sexual relationships.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Assuming that this coming out was a considered decision and a mature conclusion on the part of my child, I would say the following:
My heart goes out to you. As you were raised as an Orthodox Jew, you already know that since the time of the Torah, homosexuality has been condemned in our community, especially in more traditional circles. While treatment is improving, I fear that you will face much rejection and hostility, and I wish that I could prevent it or protect you.
Nevertheless, if you live your life this way, I would hope that you would apply the Torah’s other guidelines for sexuality to your own practice. Sex should not be casual or promiscuous. It should never be exploitative or abusive. Sexuality should express relation-ship and love; the deeper the sexuality, the deeper the relationship that it should express. You should try for the Jewish ideal, which remains family and creating/nurturing life via children (by conception or adoption). This is a great joy and a fulfillment in life.
Your mother and I love you very much as a total person. This feeling has not changed with your announcement.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
New York, NY
If my child were to inform me that he was gay, I would accept this as an unalterable component of his biological and emotional makeup. However, I would hope that my child possessed a genuine appreciation for the wisdom and benefit of the mitzvot and lifestyle prescribed by the Torah and that, as a result, he would refrain from acting on the homosexual feelings he experienced in deference to the requirements of Jewish law. In this sense, I would expect him to behave no differently from an individual with a strong affinity for the consumption of pork products or a craving for shellfish. Hashem creates us with an array of predilections and desires, none of which is inherently good or bad; what is good or bad is how we respond to and manage those predilections and desires. It is our mission in life to achieve sanctity by transcending our instinctual impulses whatever form they take, overcoming our innate selfishness and committing the entirety of our being to the timeless principles of the Torah’s wisdom.
Rabbi Joshua Maroof
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
I am opposed to personalizing hypothetical questions so I will answer in the generic. My position on homosexuality is well known, and I believe it to be true to Jewish values, humane and eminently logical. There are 613 commandments in the Torah. One is to marry a woman and have children. Another is to refrain from same-sex relationships. My consistent position has been that a Jewish gay man or woman is left with 611 commandments, which should keep them plenty busy. The two tablets of the law reflect two different sets of commandments: religious and moral. Homosexuality is not immoral, like stealing, theft or murder. It is a religious prohibition, akin to refraining from lighting fire on the Sabbath. The Jewish community treats those who drive to synagogue on the Sabbath, for example, as vital and equal members of the community, which is how we should treat all gay men and women. They should be lovingly encouraged to put on tefillin, have kosher homes, light Shabbos candles, visit the sick, defend and promote Israel and be fully involved in communal life.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach