Contrary to what some assume, no inclination or orientation
is condemned by the Torah. It is Jewishly axiomatic that only
acts and willful attitudes (like nurturing improper desires)
can be prohibited, never innate proclivities. But there are
acts, however, that the Torah clearly regards as immoral --
regardless of the actors' inclinations or self-definition.
In the context of contemporary popular culture, that might
seem unfair. Why interfere with feelings? Why limit the
expression of deep and sincere feelings?
But human beings are subject to many unsummoned desires, and
can experience deep urges for an assortment of illicit acts,
both common ones like slander and more rare ones like
The Torah is not a template onto which we lay what we wish to
do. It is a code of behavior for those who (apologies to
JFK's speechwriter) seek not to tell G-d what He must do for
us but rather what we must do for Him. The premise of the
Torah's moral code (much of it, as per the Sheva Mitzvos
Bnei Noach, intended for all of humankind) is that living
a divinely-directed life means controlling, not venting,
urges that run contrary to its mandates.
The Talmud even asserts that people with greater
spiritual potential have stronger proclivities to sin. By
choosing not to succumb to, but rather to fight, those urges
-- to channel their energies to doing G-d's will -- they
realize their deepest potential.
Our mesorah is replete with narratives that make that point.
One of the most famous, of course, is the story of Yosef, who
merited the epithet "tzaddik" precisely because he
withstood a great temptation to submit to his natural
Part of being human is being subject to desires, and that
includes desires for behaviors deemed improper by the Torah.
But no predisposition or desire, no matter how strong, is
beyond the most powerful and most meaningful force in the
universe: human free will.
We are not mere animals, responding to whatever urges
overtake us. We are choosers. And at every moment of our
lives, can choose right or choose wrong. If we subscribe to
the belief that we are here not to "be what we are" but
rather to "be what we can," we must endeavor to choose
One of humanity's saving graces over history, the Talmud
teaches, has been its refusal to legitimate certain
forbidden relationships. It is distressing that much of
American society and popular culture seems to be abandoning
respect for fundamental aspects of the Torah's moral code
intended for all of mankind. Jews, though, must not allow
themselves to be pulled aboard the cultural bandwagon.
We must instead remind ourselves that, no matter how the
society around us may devolve, we remain answerable to a
truly higher, and unchanging, Authority.
The current American cultural milieu will redefine morality
as it sees fit. So, for better or worse, will other religious
organizations and movements.
Torah-conscious Jews, whatever they are told by the media or
politicians or even clergy, know that we are a people chosen
to show the world what it means to bend human wills to that
of the Creator.
Our father Avrohom, our mesorah teaches us, was called the
"Ivri" -- the "other sider" -- because "the entire
world was on one side" of a conceptual river, and he "on the
other." Nothing is more fundamentally Jewish than to stand
apart from the Zeitgeist and affirm timeless truths in
the face of an unbridled society.
As heirs to a timeless and holy wisdom, and bearers of the
responsibilities it entails, we Jews live up to our name and
our mission when we resist society's shifting mores. We must
all endeavor, here as everywhere, to be a light, even -- no,
especially -- in an increasingly darkening world.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for
Agudath Israel of America. This article appeared recently in
the Baltimore Jewish Times.