The announcement of a talk about Jewish sexual mores, to be given by Rabbi Yona Reiss of Yeshiva University, provoked an interesting exchange in which I participated. It dealt with issues of Homosexuality, which one recipient of an invitation to the talk immediately raised as an important issue for such a talk to address.
The same individual who received the invitation questioned how Rabbi Reiss could be taken seriously on the question since, according the questioner, that same rabbi had described a program on homosexuality, held in an auditorium on the YU campus, as having “defiled” the beit midrash, or central study hall and synagogue on the same campus.
A respondent to this observation, himself a Yeshiva alum, commented that “homosexuality in fact defiles the beit midrash”. My response to that observation follows:
What does that statement actually mean? I appreciate that it’s viscerally satisfying to say such things, but given the fact that words like defile have precise meanings in Jewish law, what do you or anyone who uses that language really mean?
What does it mean to defile a place, especially in a world that does not operate with the norms of ritual purity and impurity, except for ritual related to post-menstrual immersion in a mikvah? Why do you think that the presence of a gay person, or talking about homosexuality ever defiled a place?
You know, I hope, that neither ever did, even when the purity code was fully observed, and certainly not now. I think that for those of us who really value these categories, caution in how we use them is demanded.
When asked why I was so tough on the questioner, I responded that the combination of my affection/respect for the speaker and my own deep concerns about the insufficiency of current responses from the so-called traditional or Orthodox community with which I too am associated, to sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, compel me to ask tough questions about how we inure ourselves to the challenges we face and the pain we create (or at least fail to adequately address) for others.
Like President Obama, about whom I wrote yesterday, I feel myself struggling with competing claims upon my conscience – probably a good, if deeply uncomfortable place to be.