Many years ago the issue of homosexuality was for me a matter of theoretical interest. Intellectually I knew there were homosexuals, but personally I knew none. Whoever they were, they were well-closeted, out of sight, out of mind. These last years they have lost their anonymity. Real blood and flesh persons, they come into my study. Now visible and audible, they have come to speak to me. Out of desperation they have left their closeted lives to reveal themselves.
They have come carrying a fateful knowledge, one that most of them discovered early in their lives: They are attracted to persons of their own gender. As they grew up, the whispers they overheard became loud stories: Homosexuals are unnatural, perverse, pathological, sinful. They dress differently, molest children, and are wildly permissive, hedonistic, and outrageous. Gay men have seen themselves portrayed on the stage and on television as lisping, swishy, effeminate wimps whom others call feigele-boychik. Supposedly they live in wretched places and hang out in dark bars and dark bath houses. Lesbian women have heard themselves called "butch-dykes," and are portrayed as angry, unattractive, emasculating man-haters.
Those who come to see me know they are hated, rejected, mocked, scorned, reviled. They are frightened. The hatred they know is not confined to particular places, or to particular groups of people from different ethnicities, faiths, or races. On graduation night at Calabasas High School in Woodland Hills, California, a white middle-class teenager named Robert Rosenkrantz shot his schoolmate Steve Redman ten times with an Uzi semi-automatic rifle. What turns a teenager like Robert into a murderer? It was fear, desperate loneliness, and a rage sparked by Robert's schoolmate and his brother Joey, who spied on Robert in an attempt to prove he was gay. When they caught him in a homosexual encounter, they told his parents. Robert disclosed at his trial that he had hidden his homosexuality from his family in fear of their rejection. Sixteen year-old fellow student Wendy Bell said, "If people found out you were gay at this school, you would be verbally tortured."
What greater humiliation than to discover that in the eyes of your society you are really not human? And what makes a human being more human than his or her ability to love and be loved? But homosexuals are not seen as lovable and are not allowed to love. They live in silent shame, fearful of the revelation that will shake the foundation of their being. Theirs is a monstrous burden to carry. Even the most innocent question can be fraught with emotional terror. To hear well-meaning aunts and uncles say, "Do you have a boyfriend?" or to hear someone plan to set up a date, starts a panic in their hearts: Do others know? How long can I bite my tongue?
They have come to see me because I am a rabbi and they are Jews. Every Yom Kippur they hear the same selection read from the Torah that sanctities homophobia. It is chanted in the afternoon of Yom Kippur when some are reporting headaches and discomforts that come with fasting the entire day. But this day, one young man who reads from the Torah has more than a migraine, and not from fasting. He reads as it is written, "If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them." Such an act is a capital crime punishable by stoning-sekilah (Lev. 18:22 and 20:13). This aliya is no elevation. The young man is cast into despair.
What do they who come to see me want of me? Absolution? Assurance? Protection? A Jewish voice? What does the law state? What does Judaism say? I am faced with not only a text of so few verses but also with human beings I now know personally, and whose families I know. I look from the law into the eyes of those before me. Without knowing them, I might find it an easier matter to judge. But the Talmud says: "You have to judge according to that which you see with your own eyes" (Baba Bathra 43a). …