Orthodox Judaism, politics, and the gay problem

By | February 28, 2008

Political discussions among Jews who align themselves with the Democratic party frequently turn to the question of how it can possibly be that any Jew would choose to be a Republican (yes, we really do find it hard to believe!) and how to win them over to the Democrats. I have written previously about how some Jews who are “straight-Israel-ticket” voters who believe that the Republicans are better for Israel. However, there’s another issue which is more important to many Jews than even support for Israel, and that issue is homosexuality.

Broadly speaking, Orthodoxy in America can be divided into five camps on the gay issue — Tolerants, Suppressors, Heads-in-the-sand, Homophobes, and Independents.

  • Tolerants accept that homosexuality is an inborn condition that cannot be “cured” and that homosexuals are not inherently evil. They believe that Orthodoxy must find a way to welcome open gays into the community rather than ostracizing them. They believe that Orthodoxy must find a way to adjust to this new reality while still remaining true to the Orthodox halachic process. That, in particular, is a tough sell, but if JOFA can do it for feminism, then perhaps it can be done for gays as well. My impression is that the Tolerants are a very small segment within Orthodoxy, simply because it is so difficult to reconcile their beliefs with Orthodox halacha. (There are actually two kinds of Tolerants, activists who are openly working to change Orthodox beliefs and practices concerning homosexuality, and passives who are waiting for Orthodoxy to change but are not actively engaged in the struggle to make it happen.)
  • Suppressors start from the same assumptions as the Tolerants, i.e., that homosexuality is inborn and homosexuals are not inherently evil, but they believe that practicing homosexuality is prohibited by halacha and this cannot and should not change. They therefore believe that gays who wish to be part of the Orthodox community should live a celibate lifestyle. They believe that every one of us has “appetites” which would lead us astray from living a life of Torah Judaism, and while the desire to practice homosexuality may be stronger than the other appetites Orthodox Jews are expected to resist, it is not qualitatively different.
  • Heads-in-the-sand would just like the whole issue to go away. They yearn for the days when homosexual Jews had to remain closeted, simply because all homosexuals had to remain closeted. They find the movement toward greater acceptance of homosexuals in society to be threatening, because the more tolerated homosexuality is, the more likely it is that they’re going to have to deal at some point with the reality of having close friends, relatives or (gasp!) children who are gay, and facing the challenge of integrating that into their Jewish beliefs, which they just can’t figure out how to do. They are homophobic at some level but don’t like to admit it to themselves or others because they know that homophobia contradicts the “modern social values” which they believe they hold.
  • Homophobes believe that homosexuality is evil, gays are evil, real Jews aren’t gay, homosexuality can be “cured,” their kids will never turn out to be gay since they were raised properly, etc.
  • Independents truly don’t believe that homosexuality should have anything to do with politics, and their personal beliefs about homosexuality have no bearing on how they vote.
    Nearly all of the Homophobes affiliate themselves with the right-wing Republican party. I see no hope of ever bringing them over to the Democrats in significant numbers. It’s not worth the energy to try.

The Heads-in-the-sand are by far the biggest group, and they’re the ones who are lying to themselves about why they’ve aligned with the Republicans. At some level, they want to believe the Republican fairy-tale that if only they were in power everywhere, they would be able to put the genie back in the bottle and reverse the trend of acceptance of homosexuality, bringing America back to the bygone days when gays had to stay in the closet and most people could get away with pretending they didn’t exist. They can’t admit this openly, certainly not to others and perhaps not even to themselves, because of their own ambivalence about their feelings toward gays.

The Suppressors divide between the Republicans and the Democrats. Some of them align themselves with Christian Republicans who hold similar views, while others align themselves with Democrats because they believe in Democratic values and their position on homosexuality is tolerant “enough” that they are able to peacefully coexist with Democrats who go all the way to tolerating practicing homosexuals.

The Tolerants also split between the Republicans and the Democrats. Those who align with the Republicans generally do so because they consider the Israel issue to be of primary importance and they believe the (false) rhetoric that the Republicans are better for Israel.

If you want to convince an Orthodox Jew who has in the past aligned himself with the Republican party that he should instead align himself with the Democrats in general or with Obama in particular, then the first thing you need to do is figure out which of the above categories he falls into, because the correct approach to use depends on the answer to that question:

  • Don’t bother trying to convert a Homophobe. There’s no hope. Conserve your energy for battles you have a chance of winning.
  • When you’re dealing with a Tolerant, Suppressor, or Independent, you need to use a two-pronged attack, on the one hand addressing the Israel question (there are many strongly pro-Israel democrats; anti-Israel claims about Obama are lies and here’s the proof; support for the two-state solution is inevitable among American politicians and doesn’t mean disregard for Israel’s security; the only two successful peace treaties Israel has ever signed have been negotiated by Democratic presidents; support for the Iraq war and support for Israel’s security are not the same thing; etc.), and on the other addressing the values question (the planks of the Republican platform do not represent true Jewish values; see my blog entry referenced for more about this). It’s not necessary to get into the gay issue at all.
  • The real hard cases are the Heads-in-the-sand, which is why I’m not hopeful about the likelihood of winning back the votes of a lot of Orthodox Jews. You can’t address their feelings about homosexuality openly, because they don’t address them openly. You can’t point out the absurdity of Republicans’ claim that they can turn back the clock on the gay issue, because the Heads-in-the-sand don’t admit to themselves that that’s the fairy-tale which is keeping them stuck to the Republicans. And you can’t win them over with either the Israel argument or the values argument, because neither of these is the real reason why they’re voting Republican, even if they claim that it is.

I want to make it quite clear that I am not saying that all ardently Republican Jews are closet homophobes. There are certainly Independents on the homosexuality issue who sincerely believe in Republican politics and sincerely believe that Republican candidates are better for America’s and/or Israel’s security. However, what I am saying is that many of the Republicans who espouse these beliefs are Heads-in-the-sand who do so in order to justify their affiliation with the party with some reason other than homophobia.

So there you have it, my theory about the elephant in the room of Republican Jewish politics. I am interested in hearing what other people think about it.

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