Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Good evening and welcome back to Toward a Meaningful Life with yours truly, Simon Jacobson. Tonight I decided to do a topic which is quite sensitive, but at the same time, as with many sensitive topics, quite compelling.
Toward a Meaningful Life has been coined “A Show for Skeptics and Seekers,” one that addresses frankly and candidly many of the issues that we struggle with, and this show is part of a series that we’ve entitled, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Judaism but Were Afraid to Ask.”
This particular show will be on homosexuality. Obviously, being a sensitive topic, some listeners may feel that it’s not appropriate for all family members, which is your decision; at the same time, the reason that I decided to do this topic, although it too may be controversial, is that it’s been in the news a lot lately, and it’s something that people from all different backgrounds, whether religious or secular, have many issues with.
I decided to do this topic because of several personal experiences I’ve had of people speaking to me in my classes and in private that I found really important and compelling to address. Let me begin with a letter that I received from one of our listeners and I think you’ll get a sense of where I’m coming from.
“Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
“I’m facing a serious personal dilemma that I know is an issue for many people. Having attended some of your classes and heard a few of your radio shows, I appreciate your candidness and your knowledge base, and therefore have the confidence that you will be able to reply to my quandary in a sensitive and informative manner.
“Getting straight to the point, my brother is gay. He announced this to the family last year and to say that this has been a source of agony would be a gross understatement. It has been a source of misery and has forced us all to review our entire lives, shaking things down to the core, putting in question beliefs that my entire family always felt safe and secure with.
“Being an observant Jew myself, I’m having a compounded dilemma. In addition to the personal, psychological and emotional issues involved, how do I, as a Torah observant Jew, deal with my brother? What should be my attitude toward him? Ostracization? Should we invite him to the seder table? And what if he insists on bringing his friend along?
“On a broader level, what should be the Jewish community’s attitude? Should we be welcoming those who have chosen this [lifestyle] into our synagogues; give them an aliyah; allow them to be a chazan (cantor) in shul?
“The questions are many, the pain and anguish are deep. I have asked these questions to my rabbi and many rabbis without receiving an adequate reply. Frankly, I was met either with discomfort or incredulousness. Attitudes range from repulsion and complete revulsion to rejecting gays outright to confusion.
“No one was able or willing to address these issues directly and sensitively, and most importantly, in the spirit of Torah.”
This is a letter I received recently, among many questions and conversations that I’ve had in the last few months particularly, but over the years in general with people who are struggling with this issue, not necessarily in an academic, theoretical way, but really personally, whether it’s a family member or friend, or a child. So when I read this letter, I felt that this is not just an issue on a Biblical or a religious level, but on a personal, psychological one, and if this show is not going to address issues like this, then what is it going to address?
So I decided to talk about this topic. Obviously, given the limits of a one-hour radio show, it’s going to be difficult to exhaust it on all levels, but let me first begin by voicing my own personal feelings.
Whenever one talks about the issue of sexuality, on any level, I think it’s important to qualify that we’re immediately delving into and getting involved into something that is subjective and emotional for people.
The reason for this is that we all have a sexual personality. No one is neutral when it comes to that. Therefore, we all have attitudes—healthy or unhealthy, but we have them—and those attitudes are very deep rooted, embedded in our psyches, often from young childhood on, so whenever you discuss a topic like this, it’s extremely difficult for everyone, including myself, to step aside and say, “Okay, how can we address this in a objective, dispassionate light?”
You can do that when it comes to issues like physics and mathematics, even other philosophical quandaries that are not that personal—they’re easier to discuss. But when it comes to this, that emotional subjectivity gets in the way of the discussion, because if someone is invested in a particular choice that he or she has made, or is invested in a life that they feel is meaningful or is giving them some type of nurturing—again whether it’s healthy or unhealthy is not the issue—it is uncomfortable for anyone, including myself, to challenge that, because you’re challenging someone’s comfort zone, and comfort zones, particularly ones that are deeply rooted and deeply embedded in our sexual consciousness, are very, very difficult to broach.
It’s hard to find a person who’s ready to sit down with you and say, “Okay, let’s objectively review this without any preconceived notions,” because none of us are without preconceived notions when it comes to sexuality. And frankly, the topic of homosexuality, as the questioner who wrote me this letter asks about marginalizing—how we address someone, in this case a brother, who’s chosen to be gay—is one that immediately, as he put it, brings people to one extreme or another. Some are repulsed by it and simply dismiss people who have chosen that, and others are completely accepting and feel that they should have equal rights and that it is a legitimate lifestyle choice equivalent to heterosexuality.
Is there anything in between? I felt it’s important to begin with this disclaimer, particularly, as I said, because the topic is emotionally charged, and that’s why, with any question that will be asked, whether it will be from callers who call in by phone, or my own, will definitely be colored somewhat by our own personal attitudes and our own personal emotions on this topic.
With that being said, I want to begin with an overview from the perspective of where I come from. Everyone has his or her perspective, including myself, and just to put this in a context, when dealing with a topic like this, it’s important to distinguish between people’s choices and people. I give a class every Wednesday night on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (which incidentally, you’re all invited to, at 346 West End Avenue, corner of 89th St. at 8pm), and there was someone who came to the class who considered himself gay. He felt comfortable speaking to me, so he invited me to give a talk to a group of his friends who, one would say was a group of gays (I assume that they were all gay), and I agreed to discuss and present my thoughts on the matter based on Torah, based on a spiritual template and intimate spiritual experience that I personally been exposed to in my own life. To say it was a captive audience, one cannot: it was quite hostile, actually, but I felt comfortable saying what I had to say, because I felt that I would sincerely try to transmit my feelings.
The first thing I said was, Listen, I don’t want to be on the defensive here in speaking to you. I don’t want to be accused in some way of undermining your rights to make choices or your personal rights and discrimination and all of that.
The first thing I want to state is that one must distinguish between a person and the person’s choices. I find it offensive, I said, that things have become politicized, where if somebody disagrees with your lifestyle choice, or any other choice that you make, it means that they invalidate you as a person.
That’s not correct. I can have a child who may behave in a way that I don’t find appropriate, and I can still love the child unconditionally, yet that doesn’t mean that I have to condone or endorse every choice that child makes. So clearly we have to distinguish between the two.
Often, when something is politicized, if you want to know what is a good litmus test of the politicization of any given topic, see if people can distinguish between choices and the people themselves.
The Torah, on which this show Toward a Meaningful Life is based, is essentially based on the belief that every human being has a soul, a Divine image in which they were created, that is the inherent right of every human being, man, woman and child throughout their entire lifetime. Nothing can be done to destroy that soul, because it is G-d-given, and that remains consistent no matter what choices a person makes.
For me, that is the prevailing factor in communicating with anyone. Whatever sexual choice a person may make—heterosexual, homosexual—that soul is always there. At the same time, accepting that and respecting someone’s soul and therefore loving them for that, does not mean that none of us can make mistakes. I make mistakes just as every individual is capable of, and does make, mistakes.
What does a mistake do to your soul? It doesn’t destroy your soul but it definitely closes off some of the channels of your soul’s expression in this world.
So I said to this group, “The first thing that I want to state here is, I love you all. Unequivocally, unconditionally. You are human beings created by G-d, and the choices you make are between you and G-d, and this love is regardless of your choices.
“At the same time, I don’t necessarily have to embrace the choice you make in order for me to accept you. I don’t believe that you should be discriminated against; I think that a human being is, as I said, divine, yet, at the same time you have to realize that the choices you make have consequences.
“A second point that I’d like to make is that the issue, from my perspective, is not one of subjective repulsion or subjective liberalism here. In other words, the issue is not about whether I’m repulsed or some individual is repulsed by a certain lifestyle. The issue is more a question of right and wrong. And this touches on the core of the entire issue, which goes far beyond homosexuality, per se, it goes into the area of sexuality, of life itself, of love, of intimacy. It comes down to, as human beings with personalities, how do we see our sexual personalities, and is there such a thing as an objectively sexual lifestyle that is correct and one that is not correct?
Now, if a person makes a choice and says, “Listen, this is arbitrary. Anyone can really choose what they wish,” then the axioms of that type of discussion are different than if we agree upon and say that no, there is a certain definition of sexual personality.
Now, for all practical purposes, since I’m the host of this show, I have to state a certain axiom from where I come from, and that is, since G-d created a human being, and that’s the reason we have that Divine right to personal freedom, and we all have to love one another unconditionally, G-d also defines our sexual personality, and what is best for a human being to express him or herself sexually.
The fact that human beings may say, “Well, my tendency or my lifestyle or my choice is different,” well, we have to weigh that against the backdrop of what our quintessential personalities are in life.
The fact is, people can distort their own personalities in many areas, but even though they’re comfortable with it, it doesn’t mean that they’re living up to their highest potential.
So from my point of view, we live in a time of crisis in the area of sexuality and it’s incumbent, and it behooves us all, to look at ourselves—and the Torah helps us look at ourselves in that light—as to what does it mean to be a sexual human being, what is sexuality, what is intimacy, and what’s the healthiest and strongest way to use that as a tool to self-actualize, and actually sanctify our personal lives.
With that being said, I know I’ve dropped a few little bombshells here, even though they’ve been brief, but I just wanted to lay out the groundwork for the discussion here tonight and reiterate again that it is a sensitive topic, one that is charged and where people have opinions of all extremes. Coming from a Torah approach, I want to clearly state that it’s time that we have a meaningful dialogue on a topic like this, one that does not have to cater to any of the two extremes, whether it’s religious extremism that completely marginalizes and dismisses other people’s choices, or whether it’s condoning or accepting anyone’s choice.
I think that there is an in-between place, and it has a lot to do with the tone and you can even call it the ambience of the discussion. I don’t believe in the fire and brimstone approach, because the fact is that even according to a religious perspective (where the Bible clearly states that homosexuality is not an option), the point is that it’s not an option because G-d said that sexuality is to be lived up to a certain way, and other styles, no matter how comfortable they may be for a person, do not allow a person to live up to his or her greatest potential.
At the same time, that doesn’t mean that someone who is struggling with the issue (and I’m sure many people have struggled with this issue of homosexuality—it’s not something that people just fall into—there’s much agony that goes into those choices), should have it be dismissed; rather, we have to address it in a serious and in a very personal way, which frankly is much easier to do one on one, but I think that this show is a good platform, nevertheless.
Of course one of the aspects of this issue, recently in the news, has been the Reform Judaism’s ruling where they overwhelmingly passed a resolution that the “relationship of a Jewish same-gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”
That’s one of the issues that’s been in the news recently. Here is, I believe, a first within Judaism: that a denomination called Reform Judaism has clearly stated their condoning of and affirming this type of lifestyle.
So I’d like to hear from the callers some of your opinions on that ruling, like, what exactly is the problem with that ruling if you feel there’s a problem with it; do you agree with it, do you disagree with it? What do you think is the attitude that Jews should have toward it? How do we address the fact that in the Bible there’s a clear statement that homosexuality is not an option, that it’s considered an aberration; an abomination? How do we deal with that?
I am specifically avoiding commenting on this ruling because I’d like to discuss it more in the context of the entire picture. When you talk about the entire picture of sexuality, (which as I said is an issue that goes far beyond homosexuality, the real issue is, in general, what is sexuality?), I think I’d like to share one or two points in discussing that because I believe that would put things in context.
By no means am I a doctor or a psychiatrist, and therefore I speak from a particularly spiritual, Torah perspective, which I think is important to state. At the same time, of course, the issues that are discussed when dealing with homosexuality are: is it nature or nurture? Is it the gene, the “gay gene,” as it has been called? and so on. I think that to do justice to this topic, it has to be addressed in an objective medical and scientific forum, but I believe that the Torah and the spirit of the Torah, and particularly its views on sexuality have much light to shed on this issue.
I think if we were able to create some type of incubators where we could interface the scientific and medical community with the Torah’s profound and comprehensive views on sexuality, we could probably come up with a very clear understanding that would transcend the political side of it, because there’s no doubt that politics have played a big role here. Actually, I would recommend, if any of you are interested, a very fascinating book that I’ve read recently called Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth, written by Jeffrey Satinover, M.D., where he really does a very extensive overview of the entire issue of homosexuality and the politics of it.
I don’t want to quote too much of it (it would be good if any of you listeners actually read that book, because he touches upon the issue in a way which I’m sure won’t be to the liking of everyone who reads it. Nevertheless, whether someone agrees or disagrees with it, it’s definitely legitimate enough to deserve rebuttal from those who disagree with it; it presents an academic, medial perspective on the issue). Essentially, one of the points he makes is that he personally, and many of his colleagues, have treated homosexuality as an aberration and something that was hurting people’s lifestyles, and helped bring change to people who were really committed to change.
To change entirely? That’s another question that he addresses, and one of the important points that he made was that even though one can argue that homosexuality has some natural causes, or that there’s a gene or a genetic element to it, still there are genetic causes to many illnesses and no one would argue that being genetic we cannot battle disease. In addition, genetics, too, is a very complex study. What is genetic? What is nature? How much do nurturing and early childhood affect our brain cells? There are so many factors involved when you’re talking about hereditary and genetic elements. But even if we say that its genetic does not mean that we cannot or should not overcome it. An additional point: we all have dispositions, for example, many of us are born with a mean streak. We may be born with many predispositions that are not necessarily the best for us, and our job is for us to channel and discipline them.
The issue here is not one particularly exclusive to homosexuality; it is relevant even to heterosexuality. A person can behave in a very distorted heterosexual fashion. That too has to be disciplined and channeled.
What Judaism, and the Torah, teaches is that sexuality is a sacred force in our lives; it’s a holy sacred force that when used properly can be the most powerful, potent element that can help you to be not just a loving person, not just a healthy person, but to reach the heavens directly. It helps you sanctify your life; it helps you self-actualize and be the best you can be.
At the same time, sexuality is also a potent force that when misused, or when not channeled properly or disciplined, like any potent force, like nuclear energy, can create much destruction, as we see. Sexuality has been the force of building great good in our lives and it can also be the force of unbelievable corruption, addiction, and obsession, that can drive people to behave in ways that are completely irrational and not in the spirit of anything that is healthy.
So the issue of genetics is not one that is to be dismissed lightly. So that we should just say, okay, genetically someone is that way, so therefore, that’s it: we must accept two legitimate lifestyles. It has to be looked at from a medical/scientific point of view. And there are many doctors who will argue and say that even if it is genetic, that does not necessarily mean that this is the healthiest way for a person to express him or herself sexually.
On the other side, there are many who say that genetics is complicated because there are other factors involved; for example, what happens if a person through early childhood has had a certain experience: whether it was a distant father or an overbearing mother, or whatever it is, there are many psychological forces that cause people to have certain predispositions in their sexual preferences. Forget about homosexuality. Even in the heterosexual world. And isn’t that legitimate enough? If a person, due to his or her childhood experience (forget about genetics) has certain leanings, why should that not be legitimized? So here the issue is not one of, what are the forces that influence us, it’s rather, what is the healthiest way to be a sexual human being, the healthiest way to express our sexuality.
I think that the challenge in our time, the crisis of intimacy, is to get to the root of the problem instead of the politics of it. We must be able to somehow transcend human subjectivity (as much as possible) and get to the root of it. What is really going on at the root of these issues?
Okay, let’s go to the phones. We have Joseph on the line.
Caller: Hello. I think Rabbi Jacobson you already touched upon what I wanted to bring up. I think that perhaps from Judaism and perhaps other religions there’s the concept that G-d put some people to a particular test—some people are put to the test with stealing, for example, while another person isn’t tempted.
For example, I think that “thy neighbor’s wife,” even though there’s no parade for it, has been somewhat legitimized in the same mainstream society that rejects homosexuality and other forms of sexual deviation. Everybody is put to his particular test.
Jacobson: Joseph, I think that’s a very good point; I didn’t really make that point but I appreciate your call. Do you have an opinion on the Reform ruling about this issue?
Caller: Sorry, I have to say that I don’t consider Reform Judaism because I think it’s an oxymoron. The Orthodox Judaism belief is that [the Torah’s] unchangeable, even when sometimes it seems that in certain generations certain rabbis make certain declarations—basically we’re still following the same blueprint, and the word Reform is antithetical… “Orthodox” Judaism I think only arose because people came up with the idea of Reform Judaism. Once upon a time there was no Conservative, Reform… there was just Judaism.
Jacobson: Good points and I thank you Joseph for your call. Both your points are well taken. The point of there being a challenge in life is an important one because the fact is that all of us are challenged, and it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone else’s challenges. In no way can we judge another person’s challenges because if you were in those shoes you may not be able to withstand it yourself. But I think that’s part of the importance—that even if we come with a Torah perspective that sexuality does have a definition given to us by G-d, the mysteries and mystique of sexuality and intimacy have been given to us and blessed by G-d, and at the same time teaches us how to actualize them, we still need to have that sensitivity, because many people are faced with serious sexual challenges in their lives and this goes far beyond, as stated earlier, homosexuality. It touches upon heterosexual lifestyles as well. We live in a time when sexuality is, at best, confusing, and at worst, one can call it a real holocaust because, as you hear people say, “you can’t live with them, you can’t live without them”—people have a real crisis of intimacy and I think this crosses and touches all people today, no matter where we come from.
Let’s go to Rebecca on the line.
Caller: Hello Rabbi. My brother is in his 60’s; I’m in my 40’s, and he has been with his partner for about 40 years. They met when they were both young men, and I think ideally I would have loved my brother to have been married and to have had a family. I think in my heart of hearts that would have been my preference. But they have had such a stable relationship, probably the only stable relationship in my immediate family—I’m divorced, my sister is divorced—and I guess it’s very hard when someone’s partner has become like a brother to me, to think of it in terms of an aberration. Because I see around me so many heterosexual couples to whom the word “self-actualize” doesn’t even enter into their relationship; there’s so much negativity there. And these two men (again, in my heart I would rather it hadn’t been the case) but particularly his partner toward my brother, we came from a rather dysfunctional family—a lot of violence—if it wasn’t for this partner, I don’t know if my brother would have been here today. He might have committed suicide years ago. It’s difficult sometimes… when parents have children who are gay they have images of them going in and out of these relationships and it’s very self-destructive—and many of them do—but occasionally you do have people who are truly partners for many years and it’s really very difficult to negate it as much as you would like to, but you can’t because you see the validity of it there in their lives together.
Jacobson: Rebecca, I appreciate your call. This show is not for people who just agree with everything I say. I want to ask you a question. Based on what you’ve been saying, should we condone homosexuality based on the exception, for example, in your brother’s case?
Caller: You know, it’s an issue that I grapple with all the time. I have another woman friend who has married, divorced, had very destructive relationships with men, and in her early 30’s, began a relationship with a woman and has basically declared herself a lesbian for the last 15 years. I find that a little bit more troublesome, and there’s a part of me that thinks it’s a by-product of her bad relationships with men. So it’s easier for me not to condone that.
It’s something I grapple with. I wish I had an answer.
Jacobson: Let me ask you a question. Forty years ago, when he made that choice, how did you feel then?
Caller: Well, I was a kid. Now I’m 45. So all of a sudden I remember this young man being in our lives.
Jacobson: And your parents?
Caller: My father passed away many years ago. No one “came out” in those days and I think my parents were in denial for many years. My father loved this guy as a son and accepted him. He would come to our house for holidays, etc. I don’t think my father ever mentally verbalized it, and my mother never did either.
Jacobson: Were there any religious experiences in your family life?
Caller: Mixed marriage. Jewish and Catholic. Both obviously not condoning of homosexuality. But religion didn’t really enter into the picture.
Jacobson: Well if I may say, listening to what you’re saying, I think what you’re describing is more of a testimony to the sorry state of sexuality and heterosexuality in our society than an endorsement or tribute to homosexuality. I personally, and I say this with all respect to your brother and to yourself as well, I personally see that based on two evils, he chose the one that brought some nurturing and some comfort, and the sorry state of it is that there was no alternative. In the sexual environment that children grow up in in high schools today, and I state it again for the record as I’ve said several times on the show here tonight, there’s a sorry state of sexuality that’s affecting all of us. As a matter of fact, I find that most people are offended by homosexuality for the wrong reasons. They’re offended for personal reasons—they’re repulsed by it, they can’t identify with it, they can’t relate to it—and not for the reason that I’m stating here, that G-d gives us sexuality and also tells us the tools how best to experience that sexuality.
There are men who decide that their personal genetic impulses is to have a different partner every night in a heterosexual relationship and they’re completely uncommitted. That’s equally unhealthy. And as a result I think that many people turn to homosexuality almost because of the damage in the sexual area, this being almost some type of outlet, and I say it again with all due respect. I’m not judging your brother and I’m not talking to him as an individual. Every individual has to be loved for who he or she is, but nevertheless, it just states how bad things are that he could not find expression in a heterosexual relationship.
I’m sure that you’ll hear fire and brimstone people who will completely dismiss your brother’s life. I’m not ready to dismiss that because I believe that within the root of any drive lies something sacred; however, the expression of it can either be healthy or not. And that’s where sexuality comes into play, when I see somebody who is in general behaving in a sexually aberrant fashion, my goal is not to have them experience abstinence or celibacy, but to try to channel and get to the healthy root of the need that they have and find a healthy outlet of expression. Because imagine what type of father your brother would have been.
Jacobson: He’s not on the phone here so I can’t say much to him, but I say it to you, what you can do about it—I don’t know if you should or could, but your call and your description of your brother’s situation gives me very mixed feelings. On the one hand I’m happy to hear that somebody had some happiness in his life, but on the other hand, in a way, it confirms how bad things are, if you know what I’m saying.
I’ll tell you a story. I remember there was a guy who came to one of my classes. He was clearly stoned when he walked into my class, possibly on LSD or something. And he asked me a question. He said he lost his religious faith as a young man, and he regained it through drugs, through LSD. He discovered G-d through LSD. And he asked me what my opinion was on the matter—this was in front of a group of about 50-60 people—and they wanted to see if I would give an endorsement now for an acid trip as a way of finding G-d. For many, that was the way.
Obviously I was not going to do that so I said, “You know, I’ll give you an example. A person is G-d forbid in an accident, and they’ve fallen into a coma. And nothing helps. The doctors say the only thing we’ll try to do is give them an injection of drugs to shake up the system, to wake him up so to speak. You’d never give a healthy person that type of injection.
Yet this may work. So let’s say the person is revived. What’s the answer? The answer is that there are healthy ways of waking up from a comatose state. You were in a spiritual coma, I told this fellow. For some reason G-d planted into some plants and chemicals, in some artificial way, the power to induce a spiritual experience. But once you’ve come there, there are healthy ways to experience it. To me it’s a sad testimony to the state of religion that it could not bring G-d into your life in a relevant way, and that you needed some type of massive injection, so to speak, to get you out of the coma.
But now that you’re out of it, you should be going and speaking to people, to young men and women who are now what you were like back then, facing similar challenges and telling them there’s a healthy and natural way to achieve a transcendent experience.
I think the same is true with sexuality. Human beings need love and nurturing in our lives. And if we don’t find it in a healthy way, we’ll find it in an unhealthy way. And what we’ll do is we’ll begin to justify it, snowballing the healthy and the unhealthy. You’ll say, well, it may not be completely healthy but it has healthy elements. And look at how many heterosexual relationships break apart, as you described, in divorce.
So from my perspective, we expect people to live up to the divine image in which they were created in the highest standard. Why cut corners? Just because we live in a society that has screwed up so many areas of sexuality, should we undermine, should we not live up to our greatest potential?
That’s what I would say to your brother and to his partner as well. I would say that they both have potential that’s far beyond what they’ve experienced. So in a way, under damage control circumstances, they’ve made the best with what they have. But there’s the best under certain circumstances, and then there’s better. That’s generally my view on the topic. So I appreciate the call and I hope that my comments are taken in the right spirit.
Caller: Oh, absolutely. Thank you very much.
Jacobson: Okay, we’ll go to AJ on the line.
Caller: Good evening. I must compliment you on your very intelligent way of handling this very sensitive subject. But people have to understand that religion is not a moving target; it’s not something that’s supposed to be convenient for everyone regardless of what they might happen to choose. The Ten Commandments were specific and there has to be some sort of specificness in religion, otherwise it’s not going to be religion.
For instance, sado-masochism and masochism is hardly something that we would want to condone, and yet it takes on some very sexual aspects to it time and again, and something like that has to be dealt with and tried to be removed. So, people have to understand that if you’re going to say a thing as a religion, and there are objective truths, you have to come to some point where everything is not just a convenience thing, it’s got to be objective some time or another.
Jacobson: Very well articulated and I really appreciate it. You’ve hit the nail on the head. I do agree—because it’s either anarchy or some type of objective higher truth, and particularly when it comes to sexuality, which we are so subjective in, we can’t really be trusted with our own feelings because it’s just too powerful. I mean, which person has not been consumed at some moment with some sexual passion? We know how distorted and how far we can fall when we’re consumed in that way.
So I appreciate your call. Any other thoughts?
Caller: Well, I’d just like to mention that there are, in the animal fields, animals that marry for life, like the lone wolf. There’s a marriage and that’s it. If one of the partners dies, that’s not just with the wolf…
Jacobson: I think the dove as well.
Caller: He’s a lone wolf for the rest of his life. They choose partners and that’s it.
Jacobson: Is that why they’re called lone wolves?
Caller: Yes. Well the one that didn’t die. That one becomes the lone wolf. Never remarries.
Jacobson: That’s very romantic. Okay, thank you for your call, AJ. We have David on the line.
Caller: Hello, Rabbi. Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to ask your thoughts on something. It seems to me that a lot of the commandments in the Bible, or most of them, make sense in a social way, very obviously, such as the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, and so on. If you break those commandments, it’s very clear that you’re harming other people and harming society. And the thing that I’ve tried to figure out, and I hope you can talk about this, is the restriction against homosexuality. In what sense would you be harming society if you broke that rule?
Jacobson: Okay, thank you David for the call. You’re touching upon the issue itself which I hope I’ve addressed somewhat. What’s key to point out here is, the perspective that I’d like to present, is not just about damaging society, it’s about damaging oneself. When we speak about a G-d that created the system, let me just make a comparison. You buy a computer. You come home with a new computer and there’s a computer manual that tells you how to use it. Someone will say, well, I don’t want to follow the manual, I’ll just use it any way I wish—at the risk of destroying their computer, erasing their hard drive.
So the engineer of the machine has given you a blueprint, a manual, how to use that machine most effectively. Once you’ve mastered that, the sky’s the limit. You can use the machine, perhaps even discover things that the engineer himself didn’t put into that machine, once you follow those guidelines.
If that’s the case with a machine like a computer, how much more so with an organism called life, existence itself. Particularly the complex individuals that we human beings are, and part and parcel of that is our sexual personalities, which perhaps, within the human system is the most complex of the complex. As we see, it continues to mystify us, it continues to be misunderstood, it continues to be the secret to life itself, the secret to intimacy, the secret to love and nurturing. So the belief is that the Torah is the operator’s manual for life. It is your guidebook, your operator’s manual how to live your life in the best way possible.
When a person does not follow an element in the Torah, it’s not just a crime against society, it’s a crime against yourself. It’s like when you put your hand in fire and your hand gets burned, no one is going to suggest that the fire is getting even with you or that there’s some conspiracy—it’s the natural cause and effect of our system. That certain things help that system grow and certain things damage the system. When it comes to sexuality, that’s the case.
It’s hard for us to accept because we’d like to sometimes just follow our own hearts and just live the way we’d like to live, but essentially, that leads toward anarchy.
Now I’m not getting into an argument which way you want to choose your life, everyone has his or her choice to make and that’s between you and G-d, but I will say that there is a strong argument to make that we have a soul, and sexuality is one of the most powerful tools of how to access your own soul. It’s not just about how to have children and it’s not just about procreating and it’s not just about nurturing or pleasure, and having an intimate partner in your life and having the type of comfort that sexuality brings, it’s about accessing your soul, of reaching the most deepest, intimate resources of your personality.
When sexuality is healthy, it spills over and affects your entire life. You become more creative, you become more upbeat. You’re a happier person. It affects your work. It affects your relationship with other people and friends.
Unhealthy sexuality, rest assured, is always connected to isolation. It becomes compartmentalized. It may be pleasurable for the moment, but it does not spill over into the other areas of your life in a healthy way. It may spill over, but more as an obsession that destroys or compromises part of your life.
Healthy sexuality is all encompassing. It becomes something that is seamless, part of your entire life. Because the intimacy that it reveals, that opens up, opens you up on many levels. So there is a manual, and the operator’s manual called the Torah tells us what is healthy sexuality and what is unhealthy sexuality.
That doesn’t mean that unhealthy sexuality isn’t powerful and completely unhealthy. It means that it could have a healthy kernel, but it could be packaged in distorted ways.
I mean, I don’t even know if there is such a thing as healthy sexuality in the world that we live in today. But we’re all aspiring to reach that health. The thing that disturbed me most about the Reform ruling was, without getting into who’s an authority, but the ruling itself, I mean, what are they tampering with here? If we believe in a G-d, that G-d gave us rules of how sexuality is to be lived up to, I mean, shouldn’t we be asking G-d what G-d says about sexuality, not any group of rabbis? This isn’t a consensus issue. It’s not an issue of new medical breakthroughs. It’s an issue of what is the healthiest way you can be and way you can live to your greatest potential. Unfortunately, many of us have succumbed to a certain resignation of “let’s make the best with what we have.” We live in a dysfunctional society, with dysfunctional families, so we make do with the best of what we have.
The Torah says unequivocally no. You can live a meaningful life and live up to your highest potential, and why should you undermine that? Why should you in any way undercut your greatest abilities?
That’s what this is about. So this is much more than just an issue of homosexuality, of the limitations… Some will argue the issues of homophobia of our society. It may be true that people are very homophobic. But even if people are homophobic, it doesn’t mean that homosexuality is the best way to be a sexual human being. You know, it could be that we’re all limited, and this maybe is an opportunity to finally get to the root of seeing ourselves as divine human beings, and seeing sexuality as an inherent component in human growth and in the capacity of a human being to reach the greatest heights.
So in answer to the question that was just asked to me, I would say that this isn’t just about harming society necessarily. While I believe that if you harm yourself you also harm society, this is about harming yourself, it’s about living up to your greatest potential and then ultimately, I think that they’re interwoven.
Why do we mobilize the police force and the fire department when someone wants to jump off a bridge? You could say, suicide is between him and G-d. He’s not harming anyone. Let’s talk about the suicide of a loner, of an individual who doesn’t have a family. But society has determined that if you allow someone to commit suicide it’s a crime against the entire society, it’s the standard of life. Sometimes we have to protect people from themselves, from their own self-destructiveness.
Now this is a touchy area. I’m not suggesting there should be legislation in every private area of a person’s life. Our goal here is to find, as individuals, as a grassroots community, to live up to our greatest potential and to do everything possible to achieve that.
So let me go back to the original question on this show and that was the letter that was sent to me. What should be the attitude of a Torah-observant Jew to his brother who’s announced to his family that he’s gay.
My response is very direct. He is your brother and you have to love him unequivocally and unconditionally. He should be invited to a seder, he should be invited to the shul, the synagogue, and should be treated like a human being. He is a human being, he’s not an animal. Regardless of his choices. And he should be treated with that type of love. We should not allow ourselves to succumb to human repulsion.
At the same time, if you truly love someone, you want them to be the best they can be, to live up to the greatest potential they have. And I think as a brother (I’m speaking to the writer of that letter) you should do everything possible to encourage him to explore his sexuality, to explore what intimacy really means from a divine, Torah perspective. There’s much to be said about the exploration of our inner souls. Understanding the depth of your soul helps you understand the depths of your sexuality.
A person may have strong homosexual leanings and wants to choose that lifestyle, but there are ways to address that in an intelligent manner. Obviously, your brother may be very emotional and subjective about it; he may not be open or responsive to anything. I still would not give up on him. He’s your brother and you have to do everything possible. Encourage him to come to a class. I would suggest the reading of this book that I mentioned by Dr. Satinover, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth.
I ultimately believe in the integrity and the honesty and sincerity of people. Even subjective human beings. Each of us has the ability to rise above our subjectivity, which is critical when addressing a topic like this, because you can be doing the greatest disservice to yourself, particularly in your sexual life, if you just allow yourself to be consumed by the immediate passions, the immediate view or the immediate condoning of — that’s based on politics.
How would you like to find out one day that your sexual life could have been so much more profound, so much more intimate, and so much healthier, but simply the politicization of gay politics in some way has undermined that. And I think it’s very important to realize that we don’t want to build systems based on individual passions, individual distortions and sexual preferences, because particularly in the area of sexuality, a society without rules around sexuality—and when I say rules, I don’t mean superimposed rules, I mean divine rules, divine channels with which to express it—will be a society that destroys itself.
Let’s just take a moment for a station ID. This is Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. We’re on every Sunday from 6-7pm at 1050AM. You can contact me at email@example.com or at our website: www.meaningfullife.com or by mail at Meaningful Life Center, Suite 303, 788 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11213.
I’d like to also invite you to my weekly Wednesday night class in Manhattan which is an in-depth discussion of topics like you hear here on the radio. It’s at 8:00pm, 346 West 89th St., corner of Riverside Drive. All are welcome. No matter what persuasion, what background, male or female. Please, point yourselves out to me. I’d love to meet any of you who come to the class.
Finally, I’d like to say that since we are in the 49 days between Passover and Shavuos, there’s a book called The Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer. You can obtain it by calling us at 1-800-3MEANING (1-800-363-2646) as well as by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would also like to thank the sponsors of this particular show and namely Ivan Stux and James Garfinkel and many of the other supporters who have always been helping us to bring shows like this on the air. I hope to be able to bring more frank, candid topics like this one that we can all talk about in a very humane way, in a loving way, but at the same time without compromising our standards. I do believe the Torah offers a blueprint for life, a blueprint that becomes a standard that makes us better than we think we can be, better than we expect of ourselves, and there’s nothing greater than to be able to hear from someone, whether a mentor or a parent or a system that says to you, as good as you think you can be, here’s something that can make you even better. I expect more of you.
And I think this controversy and this topic about homosexuality, as any topic, is really a catalyst and an opportunity to address our own intimate sexual lives in a deeper way. Whenever there’s a challenge, it forces us to dig deeper into our treasures, into our resources and see what we come up with. So for me, I embrace this dialogue on whatever level it may be. Obviously we’re looking to experience it in a way that’s humane and also one that we communicate instead of one driven by politics or personal gain.
So you’ve been listening to Simon Jacobson with Toward a Meaningful Life and please listen again next week, 1050AM, 6-7pm every Sunday. Thank you and good night.