Did you ever wonder why is it that a politician can hear his opponent propose something completely logical and reasonable, only to attack and demonize him? Well, imagine the alternative. If the politician admits, "Yeah, my opponent is on to something good" then the question to him would then be "Well, are you admitting we should vote for him instead of you?" Out of fear of this question, politicians generally prefer partisan attacks to compromise and cooperation. This is the current basis of how government works in North America.
It is not only in politics that cooperation is feared because it is seen as a sign of weakness. In most social debates, there is more often than not heated argument between closed minds rather than intellectual discussion for precisely this reason. Mention the possibility of private health care in Canada and watch as the anti-private crowds rise up, crosses burning, reading to lynch you. Suggest that maybe there should be some kind of limitation on abortion, for example making women go for a pre-procedure counselling session to make sure this is what they want and that they are fully appraised of the risks, and you will be accused of wanting women to procure back-alley abortions and die of septic shock.
Homosexuality and religion also fits this trend. For some, the concern that there are observant Jews who are homosexual and therefore suffer from urges contrary to what the Torah considers permissible is very real. These people are suffering on multiple levels. They want to worship God but one of their basic drives is described by the Torah as an abomination. Many in the frum community want to help out of their desire to help a fellow Jew in pain. It was in this spirit that YU recently hosted its very controversial forum on homosexuality and Orthodoxy. Yes, the event was criticized by many in the rabbinical leadership of the school but it is clear that the organizers' hearts were in the right place.
Unfortunately, an attempt at opening up discussion on this issue isn't an end in itself but a means towards a more concerning end. As this article in The Jewish Week suggests, the forum is a stepping stone for some towards a greater agenda, the acceptance of homosexuality as "normal" by Torah Judaism.
The argument is often made that homosexuality is a matter of choice, and that an Orthodox Jew engaging in it has made a free-will decision to disobey Jewish law. However given the culture of Yeshiva University, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine any of its students voluntarily choosing a homosexual orientation. As an undergraduate at Yeshiva in the 1960s, I knew a handful of gay students. Generally, they were marginalized by their peers, myself included, I am sorry to say. Subsequently, when I served on the faculty, I do not recall either private or public discussion of the issue. Surely, an open forum was long overdue, and its organizers deserve great credit for their courage and leadership.
More fundamentally, however, the forum on Orthodoxy and homosexuality vividly illustrates the growing distance between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewry, two worlds that operate, as it were, in different dimensions within a fractured Jewish people. And as Orthodox Judaism experiences significant demographic growth and becomes an even more vital factor in Jewish communal life, the gulf between these two worlds looms increasingly ominous.
An important question must be asked: having started the discussion, where will it lead? Furthermore, the subtle point made in the article, that homosexual orientation is not a matter of choice, has important implications. The non-observant so-called streams of Judaism have already made their view on how this affects Jewish law clear: God made them this way, therefore it's normal, therefore the rules against homosexual behaviour in the Torah don't apply to them. Are calls for this kind of reasoning going to start creeping into Torah-observant discourse, hidden in the Trojan horses of acceptance and unconditional love?
To begin healing the rift, we must differentiate between the various divisive issues. Some, particularly those dealing with personal Jewish status, e.g., patrilineal descent, may well prove intractable, defying immediate resolution. Others require greater mutual understanding between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. The liberal movements need to engage the Orthodox and challenge them to distinguish between areas that are negotiable and those where no accommodation is possible.
In still other areas, Orthodox leaders need to think seriously whether by insisting on the most extreme public-policy positions, they do damage to themselves that outweighs anything they can possibly gain. Last, Israel requires a new social contract that safeguards its core identity as a Jewish state, yet preserves freedom of choice for individuals.
Most important is the struggle within the Orthodox camp for the soul of Modern Orthodoxy, as illustrated by the conflict at Yeshiva University over holding the forum. Will Orthodox Judaism be open to dissenting opinions and inclusive of all Jews, or closed-minded and dismissive of anything with which it disagrees?
The liberal movements should engage and challenge Orthodoxy? Based on what? Our understanding of the fundamental principles of Torah observance, the authority of halacha and the process through which it is determined is diametrically opposed to theirs. For Conservatives and Reformers, the rules are based on political correctness and Western secular values. For the Torah observant, those considerations are completely irrelevant. What possibly discussion could we have?
Furthermore, the statement about Orthodox leaders needing to think seriously about their extreme public-policy positions is an old one which compromisers have been warning us against even since Paul of Tarsus, y"sh, decided that a vague historical figure was the son of God and the harbinger of a new religion. We ignored him despite the horrible repercussions, we ignored Mohammed despite the consequences and now suddenly we have to be worried about the liberal lobby?
The answer must be clear. Orthodox Judaism will not be open to dissenting opinions and include of all Jews. We stand on certain principles that are non-negotiable and those who disagree with them cannot claim to be just as observant from our perspective. It is forbidden to hate or torment other Jews, regardless of their beliefs or orientation but that tolerance cannot translate into acceptance.
The big fear from the YU forum is that those with a liberal agenda will take the message of tolerance and go to the next logical step: acceptance, which is something no Orthodox Jew can allow. It's sad to say it but this is why the forum was such a mistake. Some discussions simply cannot be held because of the consequences.