Friday, December 08, 2006

Conservative Judaism and "What Gay Men Do": Clearing Up A Misconception

This week, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Jewish Movement accepted three teshuvot (legal opinions about Jewish law, singular teshuva) about the status of gays and lesbians in Jewish law and in the Conservative movement. (More information here and here.) Because of the rules of the Conservative movement, all three opinions are now acceptable options for individual rabbis and institutions (such as Conservative Jewish seminaries). Two of those opinions simply re-stated the status quo -- i.e., gays and lesbians are tref (although we shouldn't go out of our way to be mean about it) -- and hence aren't particularly newsworthy. The third opinion, however, accepted (with a caveat) gays and lesbians, welcoming them (almost-but-not-quite) fully into the Conservative movement, and saying that they should be allowed to become Conservative rabbis, and that their permanent relationships should be celebrated (while side-stepping the issue of whether they are "marriages" under Jewish law).

There's a lot to say about this -- about which the most basic thing to say is simply that this is a serious and important step towards justice and equality for gay and lesbian Jews. The side of good and right won this week; justice was pursued.

But here are some other points to make about it. This post will begin by addressing one of them; if I feel inspired/up to it, I'll do some follow-up posts on other aspects of the issue. (Update: I now have a second post on the topic here.)

It begins with the "caveat" I mentioned above. Because even aside from the question of marriages -- which the liberal teshuva simply punts on -- the "caveat" is that the liberal teshuva still holds anal sex between men to be prohibited. This is (basically, simplifying greatly) so they can still uphold the biblical verses Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Their opinion (online in a pdf file (via Jspot)) argues -- credibly, so far as I can tell, but I'm not a rabbi and am hardly expert in these matters -- that the biblical prohibition originally was interpreted to apply only to anal sex between men, and that the extension of the prohibition to all gay sex, and to lesbian sex, was a rabbinical extension of the basic biblical law. Since (still simplifying) it's easier to overrule rabbis than God, they hold that our current knowledge about homosexuality justifies overruling the rabbinical extensions but not the underlying law.

(Incidentally, this is an argument also made by Steven Greenberg, the first (and, I believe, to date the only) openly gay Orthodox Jewish rabbi in his wonderful book Wrestling with God and Men.)

Now, aside from the question of the rulings legal reasoning (about which I'm not competent to judge although, based on a quick reading of it, they present a serious argument), and aside from the question of whether such a ruling really does full justice to gays and lesbians (as we must strive to do), a lot of people -- primarily, I suspect, straight people -- are fundamentally confused about it. To quote the questions asked one blogger:
One person asked me why the rabbis picked on what gay men do, but had nothing to say about lesbians?
A few wondered how gay men can be considered equals if they are not allowed to have gay sex?
Again, the questions of the differing treatment of lesbians, and the ongoing question of the status of gay men, are good ones. But there is another point here, something which both questions assume, but which simply isn't true: that anal sex is "what gay men do"; that if men can't have anal sex, they can't have gay sex; or, as the above-linked blogger titled his post, "Gay Men are OK, But Not Gay Sex"

Now, I will admit that as a straight man in a monogamous straight marriage, I'm probably the last person on earth to talk about this. But since I haven't seen anyone else make this point, I'll weigh in on it. (Update: After I wrote this, I saw at least one other blogger had made this point, although more briefly than I do.)

Anal sex between men is not all gay male sex; it is not (all of) "what gay men do".

This is, I think, a misconception that results from applying the cultural model of straight sex to gay sex. (Please add caveats about how different cultures vary, none of these models are inevitable, what I am saying applies only to our culture, that there are exceptions even within our culture, etc., to taste.) In straight sex, intercourse -- vaginal intercourse -- is the end-point, the main event, the real thing. Other sex -- petting, oral sex, whatever else that "straight couples do" -- is foreplay: it's not "real". That's why you get straight couples who "do everything but" -- it's because intercourse is the real thing, and everything else is leading-up.

But this isn't true for gay sex. Gay sex -- and I am relying on the reports of friends, books I've read, and so forth here -- has a much less defined model. Some gay men focus their sexual energies on anal sex. But many don't. To take just one example, SF writer Samuel R. Delany, who has written a lot of non-fiction which is explicit about his own sexual practices and desires. Delany -- despite a life that most people would describe as very active, even promiscuous -- never has anal sex: his sex life is based around oral sex.

This is a point that a lot of straights -- particularly homophobes, who often seem oddly obsessed with anal sex, but I think a lot of sympathetic straights too -- get wrong. Thus to them the idea that a ruling might exclude anal sex sounds equivalent to saying that gay sex isn't okay. But it isn't.

Here's another way to think about it -- a bit exaggerated in the other direction, but probably a useful corrective. Imagine a ruling that straight couples couldn't have anal sex. Now, a lot of straight couples do have anal sex, so this wouldn't be meaningless. But it wouldn't prohibit straight sex, even if it would affect the sex life of many straight couples (if observed).

Or, another way to think about it: imagine a ruling that straight couples couldn't have sex while the woman is menstruating, nor for a week after. This would make a lot of straight couples -- probably a large majority (although who the hell knows) -- technically in violation of the law. But you couldn't tell, simply by the fact that you knew a couple, whether or not they were following this rule. Certainly straight sex is possible within the rule.

In fact, you don't have imagine this ruling: it exists. This is a basic notion of Jewish law, known as the laws of nidah. The polite thing to do in observant Jewish circles is to assume that Jews are in compliance with them -- not to quiz them before giving them a Torah honor, for example. But many of them might not be. The point is that you can't deduce from the fact that someone is in a straight couple whether or not they are violating a basic law of Jewish sexuality.

The same is true for gay Jewish couples. You can't tell from the fact that they're in a gay relationship that they're violating Leviticus 18:22 (on the anal-sex prohibition only interpretation of it), even if they are having sex. You'd actually have to quiz them about their sex life. Nor is it ridiculous and unthinkable to think that a married gay couple might not have anal sex, because there are a lot of gay men who express their sexuality in other ways. Indeed, some are almost certainly already following this rule anyway.

A lot of gay men at this point will be sniggering, because I am going on and on about the obvious. But this seems to be something that a lot of straights -- even sympathetic straights -- don't know. So ideas such as the one just put forward by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards sound like they are asking gay men to behave like teenagers saving their technical virginity forever. But that's simply an inapplicable model.

I'm not saying the rule is meaningless, nor defending it on moral grounds, nor saying that it does sufficient justice to gay men. But it is worth noting that it does not say that (all) gay sex isn't okay, just that some gay sex isn't; that there really are gay couples whose sex life doesn't involve anal sex. As long as straights get this wrong, these arguments will sound a lot sillier than, in fact, they are.

If you want to criticize this ruling on legal grounds, or religious grounds, or moral grounds, or gay-rights grounds, go ahead. But on its own terms it does make sense, and straights should understand that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Has the question of "spilling of seed" ever been addressed by the CJLS? Unless the CJLS has stated otherwise, this would still be prohibited for heterosexual married couples, meaning that many of these "everything but" acts would not be recommended.

Conservative rabbis are not allowed to perform, and not even to attend, interfaith weddings. Did the Dorff opinion find that the same-sex non-marriage union ceremonies would not be allowed to be interfaith?

This is a good opportunity for discussing niddah and other sexual regulations and should not be wasted.