Wednesday, April 23, 2014
The Individuality of Spiritual Heroism- A response to David Benkof's article
David Benkof has written a very powerful article on Times of Israel. In it, he discusses his experience as a gay man, and his attempt to live a celibate life. I, along with many others, are impressed by his candor, and willingness to share something so personal. His desire to live a religious life, and thus, be “koveish es yitzro”, is nothing short of heroic. This article will, no doubt, be part of the conversation about Orthodoxy and how it deals with homosexuality. That said, I am worried about how this article might be used.
Benkof is very open about his personal life, including his lack of celibacy before he became Orthodox. This alone means that he is not dealing with the same challenge as an Orthodox homosexual who has grown up as an observant Jew. While Benkof's is a great challenge, it can not be denied that it falls short of what is asked of a homosexual man who is not a Ba'al Teshuva. As such, while his story can serve as an inspiration to any Orthodox homosexual who seeks to live a fully observant life, indeed to any Orthodox Jew who seeks to live a fully observant life, it should be read, as the author wishes it to be read, as a personal account of dealing with a challenge, and not as a message of “If I can be successful, anyone can be successful”.
There is a greater concern, which follows upon my first point. I fear that this article will be used by those who suggest that homosexuals can be celibate as a way of criticizing and attacking those who are not. Even if Benkof was a FFB, and had been celibate his whole life, that would not mean that every homosexual man could pass that test, something with which I believe he would agree. If so, what is the message that could apply to any such man, and to all of us who struggle in the inherent battle to channel and/or overcome our Yetzer HaRa?
I would suggest that an aanswer, if not the answer, can be found in the “Michtav MiEliyahu” by by Rav Eliyahu Dessler ZT”L. In an incredibly psychologically profound essay, Rav Dessler discussed the limitations of free will. Although we like to think that we can choose to do anything we want, or refrain from doing so, he suggests our choices are more limited. There are certain sins with which each of us do not struggle. Although I struggle at times to control my anger, I have never been tempted to murder someone who was the object of my anger. Conversely, which I admire the saintliness of the Chofetz Chaim ZT”L, I do not believe that I could completely stop speaking Loshon HaRa at this point in my life. Rav Dessler terms the middle area between the areas that are out of our control, as the “Nekudas HaBechira”, the point at which we can choose to exercise free will. It varies for each person, and it varies throughout a person's life.
We all have spiritual challenges with which we struggle. My test is not your test, and yours is not mine. What might be easy for one person to overcome, takes tremendous heroic restraint for another person to overcome. While there are objective actions which are halachically forbidden, each of us deals with, and responds to those prohibitions with varying levels of success. For those of us who might feel that we have easier tests to overcome, it behooves us to not be smug and tell others with tougher tests how they must think and behave. Benkof, in writing a first person narrative, has avoided telling homosexual men how to to deal with their challenges. It behooves the rest of us to follow his lead.