Homosexuality, Orthodox Judaism and shaving
Matisyahu and Y-love are engaged with their religious journeys. It’s time that we all began our own.
Yitz Jordan has been known by a number of names. His stage name is Y-love, but he’s been known as the African-American Hassidic Rapper, and the African-American Ex-Hassidic Rapper. He has now come out of the closet, and will inevitably be known as the Gay African-American Ex-Hassidic Rapper. In the relatively small world of Religiously Jewish Pop Music, Yitz Jordan is likely to be compared to Matisyahu: born Mathew Miller, he became Matisyahu, the Lubavitch reggae star, and metamorphosed into the post-Lubavitch, neo-Hassidic pop-rock star. He then posted an infamous photo on twitter of his newly de-bearded face, declaring, “No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me”.
Within Orthodoxy, there are those who still promote the notion of “curing” people of their homosexuality. This stance is becoming harder to defend. The most respectable research supporting the notion of “treatment” for unwanted “same-sex desire” has just been retracted by its eminent author, who has become convinced of its unreliably. Homosexuality, much like heterosexuality, is not chosen, and it can’t be changed.
Rabbis around the world routinely invite Shabbat violators to their dinner tables; they routinely invite intermarried couples, on the grounds that it’s better to keep the Jewish half of the couple close than to push them away; I have even been to synagogues and seen seemingly unrepentant adulterers being called up to the Torah. Openly gay Jews, on the other hand, don’t get too many invites. Orthodoxy is bound to view the homosexual act as a sin, but we have no excuse, other than homophobia, for the sort of isolation that our communities all too often inflict upon the openly gay.
The recent statement of principles, however, signed by many leading Orthodox educators, is a testament to the fact that progress is being made. "I fully expected to lose most of my Orthodox fan base," Y-love wrote in an e-mail to Haaretz. "Not only has this not been the case, but I am seeing an outpouring of support which has completely taken me aback". This provides us with further, refreshing, evidence that attitudes are changing within Orthodoxy.
Y-love realises that he’ll never be welcome in the ultra-Orthodox world to which he once belonged. But, he can still strive to observe Jewish law without their embrace. "Do I still perform mitzvot?” he asked, “Yes, of course; but I know that the Haredi/ultra-Orthodox world will never consider me 'observant' if I'm out.”
Why he felt he had to make his sexual preferences public is a matter for him alone. Certain desires literally define the contours of your identity. Perhaps he felt that, in the closet, he was living some sort of lie. He talks about the tensions that led him to contemplate and attempt suicide, as well as his aborted heterosexual marriage and his damaging attempts to “treat” his homosexuality psychologically. This is a man who has been and continues to go through tremendous psychological strain as he seeks to juggle his deeply held religious convictions with his most human desire to live within an intimate and loving relationship. Orthodoxy has to learn how to embrace people who are in such a situation without judging them, and, slowly slowly, with lots of hiccups along the way, I think that we, in the Modern Orthodox camp, are learning.
I want to change the focus of this discussion. I want to ask, why do we care so much about Y-love’s sexual orientation; why do we care so much about the state of Matisyahu’s facial hair? Having a clean-shaven face is not, given some qualifications, something that the Torah forbids. Nonetheless, I had a number of students talking to me, into the small hours of the morning, about their reaction to Matisyahu’s shaving. Some of them weren’t bothered at all, but some of them were deeply troubled. Why?
Matisyahu and Y-love are in the unenviable position of having their painful religious journeys followed by thousands of onlookers. Any sincere religious journey is painful. The person of faith is filled with desire for God and yet the chasm between our finitude and His infinitude often seems unbridgeable. As Rav Soloveitchik wrote, “Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate”; the religious journey “is not the royal road, but a narrow, twisting footway that threads its course along the steep mountain slope, as the terrible abyss yawns at the traveller’s feet.” So, Matisyahu and Y-love are not alone in their painful soul-searching, but unlike them, we don’t have the prying eyes of thousands of interested onlookers, as we thread our way past the abyss. We don’t have people writing blogs about us on Haaretz.
Why are we interested? Why were some of my students, who happened to be clean shaven themselves, so disturbed by a person shaving?
I grew up in a small community in England. One of the most learned rabbis that ever graced our community was a Modern Orthodox graduate of the Yeshiva in which I now study. Like me, he would, from time to time, go to the cinema. This does not stand in contradiction to any Jewish law, providing the film that you’re watching is appropriate. The same Rabbi also went to a mixed gym, the only local health training he could afford, in accordance with the advice of his doctor and his own rabbi in Israel. A certain member of the community was furious. “Rabbis shouldn’t go the gym!” I heard him declare. “Rabbi’s shouldn’t go the cinema.” Of course, the Jew in question went to the gym and the cinema himself. He just didn’t think that rabbis should do it. He had his own, albeit ill-informed, interpretation of Judaism, and though he didn’t want to live by it, he did want to make sure that the Rabbi employed by his community lived by it. For some of their fans, Matisyahu and Y-love were living their religion for them. Their twists and turns ushered all of their fans along that narrow, twisting footway with them. People were living out their religious commitments vicariously. This isn’t the job of a singer or a rapper.
When Shavuot comes this year, we stand again at the bottom of Mount Sinai. Moses can’t keep the commandments for us. That’s not his job. That kind of dependence on others leads to the creation of golden calves – Moses didn’t come down in time, so we created a replacement. Matisyahu and Y-love are engaged with their religious journeys. It’s time that we all began our own.
Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.