On the plane back to Rome from his trip to Brazil, Pope Francis caught the attention of reporters - and then the world - with an unprecedented conciliatory remark on gay priests. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis told reporters, speaking in Italian but using the English word “gay.”
In his New York Times op-ed, John Corvino provides the context for the pope’s statement. “Pope Francis’s surprising remarks came in response to a question about an alleged ‘gay lobby’ in the Vatican. His response: ‘When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency is not the problem.’ He added: ‘They’re our brothers.’”
The seismic shift in attitude represented here should be understood in marked contrast to the longstanding public position taken by the Church, articulated by Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, early in his papacy. In 2005, he wrote that homosexuality was “a strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil … an objective disorder.”
The limit of Pope Francis’ remarks must also be fully noted. There is no change at all in the Church’s position vis-à-vis gay relations or marriage. At core, it is an expression of the Church teaching, “to hate the sin, but love the sinner.”
Corvino astutely notes in his article, “As for ‘who am I to judge,’ surely the pope is not relinquishing the Church’s assertion of authority in matters of faith and morals. But he was adopting a tone of humility. And tone matters.”
Orthodox Judaism, no less than Catholicism, struggles with how to relate to homosexuality and the gay community. With an explicit verse in the Torah, “A man who lies with a man as one lies with a woman, they have both done an abomination,” (Leviticus 20:13) there is no space to dance around the prohibition. But, we must be careful to understand that it is the act that is proscribed, not the individual.
Broadly, there are commandments in the Torah that are between people and G-d. There are also commandments that are between people. With the disbanding of the Sanhedrin, the high court of elders in 358 C.E., after the fixed Jewish calendar was established, the earthly authority to enforce Torah law on prohibitions carrying a capital sentence was suspended. Our focus and challenge from then until today needs to be on how to relate to gay people, not to homosexuality.
And here we are guided by two overriding commandments stemming from a first principle. As stated in Genesis 1:27, G-d created Adam B’tzelem Elokim, in His own image. From these words, many sages in our tradition understand the essential holiness of all people. The two corollary meta-halakhic mitzvahs then that naturally follow are, “V’ahavta reicha kamocha,” the injunction to love the other as oneself, and “B’tzedek tishpot amitecha,” to judge others with righteousness.
My framework in applying these principles is best expressed in a story verified by Rav Benji Levene, grandson of Rav Aryeh Levin, the Tzadik of Yerushalayim.
When he was a small boy, Rav Benji was walking on the pedestrian mall in Jerusalem on Shabbat afternoon with Rav Aryeh. There were several cars driving by and Rav Benji looked up for a response to the Chilul Shabbat (desecration of the Sabbath) from his grandfather. What he heard was, "Kol kach pikuach nefesh, how much danger to life.” In other words, Rav Aryeh was re-framing the driving on Shabbat as a response to a need to save a life, which is required on Shabbat.
One should not make the mistake of thinking of Rav Aryeh as naive. The contrary is true. His absolute ahava (love) and belief in the essential holiness of each person’s Tzelem Elokim required him to re-frame what he saw, and in the process, transform it from a personal point of judgment, from an aveira (in this case a capital sin) to a mitzvah (saving a life.)
Individuals are responsible for their actions. That accountability is between each person and G-d and among people. All of us are responsible to love the other and to judge favorably; principles to which I feel confident that not only Rav Aryeh, but also Pope Francis would subscribe.
Rav Aryeh’s stories, along with those of Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, among others, can touch us at the deepest point in our beings. In a world of disconnectedness, they can also provoke a cynical response. The moral challenge in attempting a paradigm shift in how we relate to people, in our case gay men, is this: Do we really want to emulate these tzadikim and truly change our perspective, or will we settle for a feel-good story and then move on to the more fascinating, demeaning business of speculating about what is going on behind the bedroom door?
The power of Rav Aryeh's construct and Pope Francis’ question pushes us to bring the other closer through not judging and expressing unconditional love. At the same time, we respect the other’s privacy - something each of us needs in our-all-too-public lives.
We continue to live in a fractured world filled with sinat hinam (baseless hatred), which each of us has an individual responsibility to counter with ahavat hinam (baseless love).
The first step to repairing the world is for more of us to re-imagine it, particularly in relating to the other. Through acceptance, respect, and love, we invite the other in to share a safe space where we can become our best selves together.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.