Rabbi Kenneth Auman once clearly delineated the difference between rights and obligations in the conception of Judaism and the halakha. I think a similar distinction ought to be made here.
God owes us nothing. We owe God everything. If not for Him, we would not exist. We would not live, breathe, feel or think. The only being in the world to whom we can and must pledge ourselves wholly is God. Everyone else may fall away.
Thus, there is no such thing as our deserving anything within a Judaic conception of the world. Were we to spend all of our lives occupied in nothing but the total service of God, we would still be unable to repay Him for the goodness He has bestowed upon us. For people who have good parents, you know this feeling as well. I could pay my parents back all the money they spent on me and it would still not suffice. There is no way to ever repay. I can only live in their debt and express my gratitude in any way I can.
If you look at the advertisements in magazines like InStyle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, W, Redbook, Vogue and Lucky, you will note a common theme. The advertisements continually end with the words, "Because you're worth it." Or alternatively, "You deserve it." America is a country which desires to make you believe that you should spend money to satisfy all your desires and needs because you are worth it. And on the surface, that seems to be a very satisfying philosophy. There shall be no people with low self-esteem in America; we have magically whisked them away. In their place, we shall have people who always believe that they are 'worth it.'
I look at these advertisements and laugh at them. Firstly, because I find it demeaning to be told that I am supposedly worth a very expensive bottle of Olay lotion. I am a human being created in the image of God; I am worth far more than that. Secondly, because I don't believe in the conception that we deserve anything. We deserve nothing. What God gives to us is a gift.
This is something that the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, understands entirely. This is why he developed a philosophy of sacrifice. Everything balances in the Rav's philosophy of dignity in defeat. We are permitted to eat kosher but not non-kosher. To engage in relations with our spouse but not with others. We must abstain from having relations when our wives are niddot. We can work during the week but not on Shabbat. Everything is a balance. And this philosophy, according to the Rav, helps train us so that we can accept dignity in defeat even when that defeat is not of our own making. For example, when it is the halakha that binds us and nothing else.
As he writes:
- Dignity in Defeat
If man knows how to take defeat at his own hands in a variety of ways as the Halakhah tries to teach us, then he may preserve his dignity even when defeat was not summoned by him, when he faces adversity and disaster and is dislodged from his castles and fortresses.
What is the leitmotif of the strange drama that was enacted by Abraham on the top of a mountain when, responding to a paradoxical Divine summons to take his son, his only son, whom he loved, and offer him in a distant land called Moriah, he surrendered his son to God (Gen. 22)? It was more than a test of loyalty that Abraham had to pass. God, the Omniscient, knew Abraham's heart. It was rather an exercise in the performing of the dialectical movement, in the art of reversing one's course and withdrawing from something which gave meaning and worth to Abraham's life and work, something which Abraham yearned and prayed for on the lonely days and dreary nights while he kept vigil and waited for the paradoxical, impossible to happen. And when the miraculous event occurred and Abraham emerged as a conqueror, triumphed over nature itself, the command came through: Surrender Isaac to Me, give him up, withdraw from your new position of victory and strength to your old humble tent, all enveloped in despair and anxiety, loneliness and gloom. Abraham, take defeat at your own hands, give up heroically what you acquired heroically; be a hero in defeat as you were in victory.
Abraham obeyed. He realized that through this dialectical movement a man attains redemption and self-elevation. And the improbable happened; as soon as he reconciled, as soon as he gave Isaac up, the forward movement, the march to victory was resumed again. He received Isaac from the angel and the pendulum began to swing to the pole of conquest.
This drama is reenacted continually by the man of Halakhah, who is dignified in victory and defeat. The Halakhah taught man not contemptus saeculi, but catharsis saeculi.
Halakhah wants man to be conqueror and also to be defeated- not defeated by somebody else, not defeated by a friend, not defeated by an outside power, for there is no heroism involved in such a defeat; such a defeat, on the contrary, demonstrates cowardice and weakness. Halakhah wants man to be defeated by himself, to take defeat at his own hands and then reverse the course and start surging forward again and again. This directional movement, like a perennial pendulum, swinging back and forth, gives exhaustive expression to man's life and to Halakhah. [Emph mine.]
Is this important for mental health? I believe so. Of course I cannot spell out here how this doctrine could be developed into a technology of mental health, but I believe this doctrine contains the potential out of which a great discipline of the Judaic philosophy of suffering, an ethic of suffering, and a technology of mental health might emerge.
What I have developed is more a philosophy of the Halakhah. How this philosophy could be interpreted in terms of mental health is a separate problem, one that is quite complicated. But I believe that the trouble with modern man and his problems is what the existentialists keep on emphasizing: anxiety, angst. Man is attuned to success. Modern man is a conqueror, but he does not want to see himself defeated. this is the main trouble. Of course, when he encounters evil and the latter triumphs over him and he is defeated, he cannot 'take it'; he does not understand it.
However, if man is trained gradually, day by day, to take defeat at his own hands in small matters, in his daily routine, in his habits of eating, in his sex life, in his public life- as a matter of fact, I have developed how this directional movement is applicable to all levels- then, I believe, when faced with evil and adversity and when he finds himself in crisis, he will manage to bear his problem with dignity.
-Out of the Whirlwind by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, pages 113-115
I consider myself a compassionate person. The fact that my heart went out to those bound by the halakha when it comes to the LGBT movement particularly was a demonstration of this, I believed. Then I met Jordan and he, as usual, proved me wrong. Jordan was in fact more compassionate than me! "What of someone who is a kleptomaniac?" he asked me. "He has an urge, perhaps even an illness that makes him want to steal. Do you feel compassion for him?" I shook my head no. "What you have done is made a mental judgement that one kind of suffering is worse than another," he rebuked me. "Who is to judge the strength of desire? Who is to say that one desire trumps another? The same desire that a man may feel to love and cling to and totally mold himself with another man may express itself in the man who wants to steal. How can you know the strength and power of desire to decide that some are reasonable and some are not?"
"But," I argued, "the difference is that this has to do with living one's entire life. To live your entire life alone? Celibate, without anyone to share it with in that way? It seems cruel. Also, consensual homosexuality hurts no one whereas murdering or thieving takes someone or something away from someone else."
"Then tell me," he says, "what if someone has an impossibly powerful desire to eat treif? Do we say it is not a sin? Do we form a support group for those who eat treif, decide to have a Mechalelei Shabbos club in shul for those overpowered by that desire? The strength of one's desire proves nothing. Unlike you, I feel for everyone who suffers desire like that. The woman who has not been given a get and is an agunah; suppose she gets remarried without her get. Do I feel for her? Of course I do. Would I start a support group in shul for women who remarry without gittin? We cannot do so."
And he was right. I had decided, simply based on my own personal feeling, that the desire an LGBT person feels for someone else was more important and thus more heart-wrenching. I felt compassion for them when I would not feel that way towards others who broke the law. I had bought into the Western judgment which believes that we all deserve to be happy - or at least to engage in the 'pursuit of happiness' and also deserve to fulfill all desires so long as they don't harm others. But this is not the truth. We deserve nothing of God. Should He bless us, if we are lucky enough to live beautiful, fulfilled lives, we shall be the luckiest people in all the world. But if we do not receive these blessings, can we really accuse Him, tell Him that we deserve that perfect life, that we are somehow entitled to it; it's coming our way? I don't think so.
The reason I went to the event entitled 'Being Gay in the Orthodox World' is because I don't believe in going beyond the law. The law says a man who sleeps with another man like he would lie with a woman is committing a grave sin. It does not say that we must refer to that man as a 'faggot' or act cruelly to him. Most yeshivot, and YU is no exception, are homophobic. I went to the event because I thought it was important that people see that people who are homosexual are just like you and me. They are our classmates and our peers. And thus people would learn not to be needlessly cruel, to go beyond the law in their cruelty with words and actions.
I love people who happen to be attracted to members of the same sex. I find much to love in them. Some of my best friends are gay. But I cannot condone, countenance or believe in 'giving up' parties where people want me or anyone Orthodox to be okay with the fact that they are breaking the law (assuming they are acting upon their desires.) I will never be okay with that. And that means I may make decisions you will not like. When my child asks me about the kid who has two daddies, I may explain that according to Judaism it is forbidden, that s/he can love and appreciate the people and nonetheless know this is not in accordance to the law. I love many people who break Judaic law. The distinction here is that you absolutely know that this is not what God desires and you have made a decision to put yourself first, not to struggle any longer, not to strive to sacrifice even though it would be immensely painful to you, simply because you 'deserve to be loved.'
My heart goes out to all who struggle. But if the struggle is over, if you are 20 years old and have made a rational decision to break the halakha, that saddens me. I think you are too young to give up the fight just yet. You cannot tell me it is impossible to live a celibate life. I know women in their 60s who are virgins and will never touch a man for as long as they live. It is not because they don't want to. It is because they fear God. Is it awful, miserable, unhappy and lonely not to fulfill your love for another? Absolutely it is. But it is not impossible. And to me, the rationalization that you deserve to act on your feelings contra God because they will make you happy will not stand up.
This does not mean I would shun you or hate you or otherwise not love you as a person. But I will believe that you are doing wrong, that this is a sin, and you cannot expect my support of this sin. I love you. I don't believe in calling you names. I believe it is important for people to realize that you are human and struggling and to empathize with you. But we have been created by God, given the incalculable gift of life, and it is our job to attempt to repay through sacrifice. Even if we hate it. Even if we are angry with God. Even if we feel that He is cruel. And I cannot support anyone who has decided the struggle is over and the decision is made. I do not believe that is what Judaism is about. There is no point at which we simply give up. We are living for God and for this reason we must struggle to do as He wills.
The woman for whom I am named was murdered because she was a Jew. If she can die for being a Jew, must I not struggle with all I have, with all I am, to live as a Jew? To hate the times that I fail to serve God as He wishes? To try my utmost to do so, even when He hurts me, even when I am angry with Him, even when all I want is to run from Him? If I must give up my life for Him, must die for Him, then can I not give up my dreams for Him, my would-be spouse, my unfulfilled love?
We have raised a generation that does not understand why they must die for God, and thus it follows that they find it extremely difficult to live for Him. As a member of this generation, I feel with you, alongside you. I know how it hurts to live for God. I know the pain and the anger and the hatred, how you feel raw inside, the words unexpressed, the silent scream you wish He could hear. I know that anger because I live with it. But what I cannot do, what I cannot accept, what I will never accept, is that it is a legitimate choice to decide not to live for God. You may feel it to be a necessity, the only way you will stay sane, the only way to survive and I cannot judge you for that. But the point of view that states that it is legitimate to make such a decision-that I should see it as normal and think nothing of it, that it is acceptable to decide that you will not live for God- that I cannot accept. And if you wish to tell me such a point of view is legitimate, I will fight you with everything that I have. Because Jordan would take a bullet in his head for his Judaism and for God, and after knowing such a person, I cannot accept that we ought to be satisfied with anything less.