Wrestling with God and Men

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The most important book I got last week was Wrestling with God and Men. It is a call to the Orthodox Jewish community to find an acceptable solution for people with a homosexual orientation who do not wish to reject Orthodoxy. It pains me greatly that I feel the need to clarify that a halachic view which sentences any person to a life in which any kind of meaningful, loving partnership is categorically denied is not acceptable, but Rabbi Chaim Rapoport very clearly asserts that such a level of cruelty is indeed acceptable in his comprehensive and technically expert treatise, Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View.

In any case, I devoured Wrestling with God and Men all at once in a single night. The parts of the book that touched me the most were those in which the Midrashic story of Daniel the Tailor was related. This tale recounts how an ordinary tailor had the guts to confront the Rabbis of his age with their lack of compassion for the plight of the mamzer, a person born of a forbidden sexual union, forbidden by the law from marrying practically anyone within the Jewish people and thus doomed to a marginal, loveless existence. Daniel interpreted a section of Ecclesiastes concerning the unmitigated suffering of the oppressed as speaking about the Great Rabbinic Court's execution of the law against the mamzerim, who cannot be blamed for the sins of their parents. Daniel further interpreted that even though no human being provides comfort for the mamzerim, God takes the responsibility to console them, and promises to eventually redeem them from their cruel circumstances at the hands of their fellow Jews. Though the law was never reframed in Daniel's time, later authorities became unwilling to fully implement the law of the mamzer, to the point that later rabbinic decree forbade the "outing" of families in whom the presence of mamzerut in the bloodline could be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. I don't think that the analogy to the halachic treatment of homosexuals needs much explanation. The story gives me comfort.

As little as a year ago, I was not willing to accept the premise of the book that the interpretation of the law which has stood for so many millennia could change. I was still stuck in the dogmatic cage that convinced me that the only way to stay within Orthodoxy would be to live the life of martyrdom prescribed almost universally by the Orthodox Rabbinate. I was still grinding my teeth on the wearying and worn-out conviction that the law is the law and you just have to grin and bear it. How and why I escaped from that death-trap is a story for another time and place, but it suffices to say that the essence of my inner change was the internalization of the idea that the spirit of the law must override the letter. The rest flows from there.

I think that many people may miss the point of this book by assuming that its core thesis is its attempt to reinterpret the sacred literature in a way that legitimizes homosexuality. The book's attempt to do so is merely a concrete example that is a tool for supporting its true thesis, less explicit though it may be. In my mind, the most important message of the book is that the application of Halacha in this regard can and will change if and only if the community at large feels motivated by the demands of compassion for such a change. Thus, the only way that the situation will improve for Torah observant Jews who are gay is through addressing the human factors, by refusing to allow the community to continue turning a blind eye to our suffering, not through any formal legal argument or rational proof. Logic will not change the law, for law is a living thing whose change is ultimately governed not by its letter, but by its spirit. The Torah is not ink on parchment, but black fire on white fire.

In less poetic terms, Halacha will certainly respond (however slowly) to the awareness of the very real human needs that are currently denied to gays by Orthodoxy, and it will only respond through such an awareness. My bile is aroused by the fact that most of Torah-committed Judaism is still either deeply sunk into callous insensitivity or hiding behind one cowardly veil of self-deception after another. However, my faith and hope are bolstered by the firm belief that Judaism must align itself to nourish the human soul rather than crush it, for human love and humane justice are its very essence. All the rest is commentary.