Homosexuality, Choice, and Jewish Law

If homosexuality is not chosen, then there is precedent in Jewish law for condoning it.

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Reprinted with permission from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

The approach I took in my responsum for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (of the Conservative movement) in March 1992 adopted a biological argument for condoning homosexual sex. Specifically, there is some evidence that a homosexual orientation is inborn as a product of a person's genes and neurological structure. These, however, are only preliminary results, and the consensus of experts nowadays is that sexual orientation is a product of both nature and nurture. Moreover, even if we assume that there is a biological correlation between certain physical factors (such as the size of the hypothalamus gland) that commonly characterize homosexuals in contrast to heterosexuals, one can, at least at this point in the development of the research, raise "the chicken and the egg question"--that is, do these physical markers cause homosex­uality, or is it homosexual behavior that engenders these phys­ical features?

What was therefore more cogent for me in writing my opinion for the committee was the testimony of actual gays and lesbians, many of whom attest that being gay is not something they chose. In fact, because of the widespread discrimination against gays and lesbians in our society, such people usually denied their homosexual orientation for many years and actively tried to fight off their homosexual tendencies. The fact that society dis­criminates against homosexuals lends further credence to their testimony, for in light of that bigotry, nobody in his or her right mind would ever choose homosexuality over heterosexuality.

Jewish law takes such evidence very seriously. Although ho­mosexuality is not an illness, according to all of the relevant professional organizations, it is a feature of a homosexual's be­ing that he or she is likely to know better than anyone else. In that sense, it is akin (although not equivalent) to the case in which Jewish law recognizes a patient's need for food on Yom Kippur: "Wherever the person says, 'I need it,' even if a hun­dred [physicians] say that he does not need it, we listen to him, as Scripture says, 'The heart knows its own bitterness.'"

Thus even if homosexual desires are culturally as well as bio­logically generated, and even if some people would then claim that the culture must be changed to deter homosexuality in some way, for the individual homosexual those desires are already a fact of his or her existence. Moreover, in line with this talmudic precedent, the homosexual himself or herself provides the most reliable evidence for his or her orientation, and on the best of medical and psychiatric authority, it cannot be altered. The 1973 stance of the American Psychiatric Association, reaffirmed and strengthened in December 1991, is that however a person's sexual orientation is fashioned, it is not a matter of choice. Moreover, "There is no evidence that any treatment can change a homosexual person's deep-seated sexual feelings for others of the same sex"; and furthermore, one should not try to do so, for "homosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social or vocational capabilities," and "gay men and lesbians who have accepted their sexual ori­entation positively are better adjusted than those who have not done so."

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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.