Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dealing with the Devil

Years ago, whilst I still lived in the States I frequently counselled Orthodox young men who were gay. They sought help as they wrestled with the conflict between the urgency of their sexual orientation and the laws of the Torah. Many, like the ones whom I met, had already left the fold of the Observant. They could not bear the strain of the contradiction between their personal life needs and the condemnation of tradition. It was too difficult for them to keep all the mizvot in the context of a hetero-sexual community and secretly yearn for the forbidden same sex intimacy.
Those who came to me were determined to persevere, despite the challenges, living an Orthodox lifestyle while acknowledging there sexual orientation, albeit in secret.What they sought from me was some validation that they remained good even while living a compromised faith.

I never failed to be moved by their stories, and their were many, each unique and compelling. The first thing I told each young man was that he was a hero in my eyes. His challenges were not my challenges.His temptations were not my temptations. His observance of mitzvot was not the same as mine. Everything he did in keeping the Torah was so much more powerful and significant inasmuch as he lived with his struggle, that he overcame his inner conflictedness and continued to maintain tradition. I would tell him that true, the Torah condemns homosexual practices, but the Torah was written for all Jewish men. For most, like me, keeping that mitzva is hardly a great act of devotion. I have no desire for intimate relations with those of the same sex. But he has such desires and they are his only sexual desires. If he is to have romantic love, sex and intimacy in his life it will only be with a man. Rather than focus on the times he surrendered to his desires, I encouraged him to look at the times he fought them, the moments he held back, and the regret he felt that he could not lead life as the typical hetero-sexual. I told him in those moments he evidenced an unparalled expression of love of G-d and Torah. And in those moments, private as they may be, he was a hero of the faith. I encouraged him to look at the positives of his behaviors, that he too could so easily have surrendered the commitment to Torah, as did so many others like him. Yet he did not. I told him his reward was far greater than his culpability for his moments of compromise. I said to him that I was envious of his share in the World-to-Come. And I meant it.

This week in the Parsha of Kee Taytzay, we find the Torah, to my understanding, teaching the same truth. In the opening verses it give us the laws of the 'Y'fat To'ar', the beautiful woman taken captive in war. The Torah permits something most surprising. It allows the Jewish soldier to take a non-Jewish woman,and have relations with her (whilst she is still not Jewish).Only later, if he wishes to marry her, does she need to convert. The Sages of the Talmud understood this law as a special consideration of the soldier's wartime psyche. Knowing in wartime it would not be realistic to forbid the Y'fat To'ar the Torah permitted her to the soldier with certan provisos. Even whilst the Torah allows for the initial intimacy it demands the captive woman be treated respectfully. She must be allowed time to grieve her family of origen before marriage, if the soldier rejects her she must be set free. She may not be sold into slavery etc. The words the Talmud uses to explain this surprising allowance to the soldier is that here "the Torah addressed the 'yetzer hara', the evil inclination within the person."

Later Rabbis, after the period of the Talmud, wrestled with the laws of the Y'fat To'ar. They struggled to understand the principle at work here and what can be gleaned from it about Torah values in general. In concert with the concept of this blog "The Torah and the Self", I like to keep things simple. What can I understand from the laws of the Y'fat To'ar that pertain to me and my observance? How is it relevant to my life and self?

The story of my experiences with the gay Orthodox younge men calls out to the relevance of the Torah narative here. When we are in a situation where it is near impossible to expect that we will be able to overcome our temptations the Torah makes room for us. I am not meaning here to condone homosexual practice. The laws of the Y'fat To'ar are the exception rather than the rule. I am simply saying we need to make room for men and women with a homosexual orientation to be included rather than excluded of our community. We need to recognize that their are those for whom the traditonal way will not fit. For them we need to create models that recognize the reality of their situations and, acknowledging that even though homosexuality is not in keeping with the Torah, it is for those of that orientation, a reality that will not disappear. To pretend that we can rule it out and make it disappear is to align ourselves with the 'yetzer hara'. In doing so we make it impossible for men and women with a homosexual orientation to find a place in our communuty. We exclude them and drop-out from all Torah observance is the inevitable outcome.

The newspapers here and abroad have featured the story of Rav Harel, an Israeli rabbi living in the Gush who has started a match making service bringing together Orthodox gay men and women who desparately want a home and children. The idea is the couple agree to marry and together have and raise children.True they will not be romantically attached, and they may have their separate liasons outside their marriage with a same sex partner. But the model will allow them the joys so much a part of tradition, family, home and children. While some have criticized the Rav's plan, it is the very idea the Torah gave us this week and explaind in the Talmud as the Torah addressing the yetzer hara. While wrong, we cant change the homosexual behavior, nor can the homosexual. Lets work with it so that the yetzer hara's victory is limitted, indeed, it might well be argued, no victory at all, since no one chooses their orientation. To me Rav Harel's efforts are inspiring.

But we don't need to go so far as those with a homosexual orientation to find meaning in the laws of the Y'fat To'ar. How many women know that putting on make-up on Shabbat is forbidden yet can't resist putting it on when they go to shule on Shabbat? I mean frume women, observant in every other way. Yet no matter how exacting they are in keeping all the mitzvot, this they cannot do. How many of us go to shule to minyan each morning, often early, often when its not convenient, expressing wonderful devotion to G-d, yet come home down from our efforts because we felt bad that we did not daven with 'kavana' concentration.

We each have our places where we get stuck in our observance and can't seem to overcome. We fail and fail again. And while our inability to overcome does not contain near the obstacles as the person with a gay orientation dealing with his/her homosexuality, it is for us a sin we can't get past. If we follow the 'yetzer hara' in us we will beat ourselves up over our failing. We will forget about all the good we did, in our examples, all the care the woman took to make Shabbat for her fsmily and to keep all the other aspects of Shabbat observance so meticulously, in the case of the prayers, the effort we make to get up early, go to shule , daven with a minyan, answer kedusha, kadish etc,.
Instead we only see where we were compromised. Rather than affirm ourselves, while taking note of our shortcoming, we condemn ourselves. In the process we rob ourselves of the joy of keeping mitzvot. Our all or nothing mentality makes keeping mitzvot depressing. This is the work of the evil inclination. And only feeds our temptation to distance ourselves from the holy.

Look at the story the Torah gives us of the soldier driven by desire to take the beautiful captive woman. Recognizing his passion, the Torah does not say "no". Instead it puts curbs on it. It gives the soldier mitzvot to perform with regards to the woman, mitzvot of kindness and respect. He is mandated to curb his passion and keep it within bounds. In the end, rather than feel badly about his earthiness, the soldier is left with a positive feeling.He did mitzvot even as he succumbed to the desires he could not control.

You and I need to learn that while each of us has our place of failing, and we each need to continue to make efforts to improve, we must not let the little bit of ugliness in our life destroy all the beauty we create. Beating ourselves up over our failures gives victory to the devil. It make us feel unworthy and despondent. Our G-d wants our happiness.
In truth, the sense of unworthiness leads to stuckness. Its the realization of our goodness that makes change possible.

Shabbat Shalom

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