5/18/2005

LGBT in a Halakhic Community

My current occupation has put me in contact with a whole range of different kinds of people that I never really had interpersonal relationships with. It's been a very different experience for me, especially having previously worked in the Procrustean Bed that is high-school education (some of my first posts were about that). Amongst others, it has placed me in contact with members of the LGBT community who aspire to live halakhically. It has been an enriching experience for me, and it has forced me to confront several issues, on the personal and on the theoretical level.

On the personal level, it's been much easier than I could have imagined. It means being able to resist the mindset which seeks to transform every gavra into a cheftza, that views people as types or typologies, and places everyone and everything under the modernist panopticon. Some of the choices that members of this community make are truly admirable. It's not an easy life to live, and the plight can be compared to that of an agunah. That's not an exaggeration. Their struggle to find meaning within a Halakhic framework which only really recognizes 2 types of gender identity - man and woman - is nothing short of heroic.

My struggle has been more on the theoretical level. Here it gets really thorny. It's not that the Torah forbids certain behaviors. That, I think, eveyone can live with. It's that the Torah doesn't recognize more than 2 gender identities (I don't know, perhaps 'tumtum' and 'androgynos' should be explored as separate gender identities). The past several hundred years has seen the uncoupling of sex and gender. Modern contraception, medicine, and education makes it possible for people to live out their inner worlds to a degree unthinkable in bygone eras. Gender has been exposed as a human construct, and more than two are possible.I'm not trying to affirm or deny the 'science' of this - I'm writing what I see with my own eyes. Sincere people, frum people, smart people, have gender identities other than the typical ones you'd expect. What is a woman trapped in a man's body to do? I can't say that he/she is being insincere or is somehow ill. I also can't say that the Torah has nothing to say to this person, doesn't address his/her existence. I'm amazed that these people care at all to struggle within a Halakhic system which completely disaffirms their identity. And what does it say for the rest of us? Are we to be happy that we're happily heterosexual and can procreate the old-fashioned way? How do we answer this for ourselves? I, for one, can't ignore a tension just because it doesn't relate to me directly.

The way I see it, there are two ways to mediate the tension. One's more speculative, the other more pragmatic. The speculative one can be more theologically satisfying; I'm just not sure it's true. I'll start with the pragmatic:
  • The Torah's agenda is for people to be born and raised by parents who are present and caring. The best (and until very recently, only) way for that to happen was in a heterosexual, preferably monogamous marriage. The Torah was aware that there are alternative impulses, but that those would be sacrificed for the preservation of the greater agenda. Halakha itself would shoehorn those alternatives into the normative categories - thus, homosexual males sit on the same side of the mechitza as heterosexual males. Essentially, the Halakha doesn't ignore them de jure, but, as a matter of policy, it ignores them de facto. Conceptually, there would be little room for the creation of a different halakhic construct for members of the LGBT community. For example, the laws of tzniut and negiah or any other sexually-linked area of Halakha couldn't be applied to this group as a different group, as the Halakha forces them into a different category (though the categories of tumtum and androgynos, as I mentioned before, could prove to be an alternative gender construct recognized by Halakha).
  • The second, more speculative theory starts with the following question, which is often asked when dealing w/ this issue: why is it that sexuality forms the central element of one's identity? If one has an impulse to eat cheeseburgers, that doesn't make his lifestyle an 'alternative' one? The answer commonly given is that sexuality really DOES form the core of one's identity. Just ask Freud. Denying a relatively peripheral impulse like appetite for a certain type of food can't be compared to an existential state of being gay. Gender identity goes beyond the drive for a particular type of sex. This is what you'll hear often in these discussions. I wonder, however, if the centrality of sexuality is not itself constructed. Who said that everything had to revolve around sex? Freud? Not everyone agrees. It can be power. Or money (R' Tzadok has an incredible piece on this - od chazon la-mo'ed). What occupies the center of a person's being isn't always chosen - it's constructed by the culture and values that prevail in the world around him. This past century, partially because it was possible, partially as a reaction to Victorianism, sex has occupied the center of our cultures. Our cultures are oversexualized. In such a context, anything relating to sex is magnified. An impulse which, in a different cultural setting, might be akin to wanting a cheeseburger, manifests itself as the core part of one's identity. It doesn't deny these impulses - they may be genetic or otherwise hard-wired. But in other settings they might be manageable. Perhaps, in a perfect society, the centrality of familial life would be experienced as a more central part of one's identity than sexual orientation. Alas, we live here and now. The pain of the LGBT community confronting the Halakha is another manifestation of the pain of Golus, the pain of an unrealized autonomous culture of Torah, the pain of the Shekhinah in Exile, unfulfilled. I can affirm the identity of the Jew with an alternative lifestyle, feel his or her pain, see it as a manifestation of a greater alienation of the world from God and Torah, place no 'blame' on the individual, perhaps even address specific Halakhic concerns of the LGBT community, and still believe that the Torah's vision is a fair and just one, and that it may demand sacrifice but not suicide. I think this approach can also dovetail well with what I believe to be Chaza"l's attitude toward mishkav zachar, ve-acamo"l.

Isaiah 56:3-5

ישעיהו פרק נו

(ג) וְאַל יֹאמַר בֶּן הַנֵּכָר הַנִּלְוָה אֶל יְדֹוָד לֵאמֹר הַבְדֵּל יַבְדִּילַנִי יְדֹוָד מֵעַל עַמּוֹ וְאַל יֹאמַר הַסָּרִיס הֵן אֲנִי עֵץ יָבֵשׁ: ס

(ד) כִּי כֹה אָמַר יְדֹוָד לַסָּרִיסִים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְרוּ אֶת שַׁבְּתוֹתַי וּבָחֲרוּ בַּאֲשֶׁר חָפָצְתִּי וּמַחֲזִיקִים בִּבְרִיתִי:

(ה) וְנָתַתִּי לָהֶם בְּבֵיתִי וּבְחוֹמֹתַי יָד וָשֵׁם טוֹב מִבָּנִים וּמִבָּנוֹת שֵׁם עוֹלָם אֶתֶּן לוֹ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִכָּרֵת: ס

3 Neither let the alien, that hath joined himself to the LORD, speak, saying: 'The LORD will surely separate me from His people'; neither let the eunuch say: 'Behold, I am a dry tree.' {P} 4 For thus saith the LORD concerning the eunuchs that keep My sabbaths, and choose the things that please Me, and hold fast by My covenant: 5 Even unto them will I give in My house and within My walls a monument and a memorial better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial, that shall not be cut off. {S}
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