It is with great sorrow that I begin this post in the wake of the worst terror attack in the United States since 9/11 (the Orlando shooting). Scrolling through various news sources and forms of social media, it is not surprising that people are already using this attack as ammunition for their various political agendas. I have no desire to comment either way on gun control laws or government surveillance. As for my opinion on using this event to fuel the already growing flame of Islamophobia in this country, see my post here.
What I do want to talk about is a very short and simple law (almost too simple) taught by the Torah. In Leviticus 18, amongst a chapter dealing with forbidden sexual relation, the Torah writes:
“Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)
Then, just a few chapters later, the Torah spells out the punishment that the perpetrators of this act deserve:
“And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13)
These verses make the biblical view of homosexuals unequivocally clear, on both a practical and philosophical level. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (a large portion of the Quran has its basis in biblical literature) all view this verse as Divine, directly leading to the horrible violence and hatred against the LGBTQ community.
Now, before I begin my main point I want to make a few things perfectly clear. Already starting during the late Second Temple period with the Pharisees, and eventually becoming solidified during the subsequent periods of the Tanaim and the Amoraim, interpretation of the Torah would change forever. This is not the place to engage in a lengthy discussion on how much the Rabbis reinterpreted the Torah, but it is clear that they were able to change or reread a number of the laws spelled out in the Torah. A famous example of this is in the last Mishna of the first chapter of tractate Makot, where Rabbi Elazar claims that a court that kills once every 70 years would be completely bloody – only to be outdone by Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon who claim that if they were running the court, no one would ever be put to death (Makot 1:10).
If we imagine the intellectual gymnastics needed to go from the simplicity of the commandments in the Torah such as: “Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 31:14) or “You shall not allow a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18) to the idea that a court should never put anyone to death, we can come to a full understanding of how radical the philosophy of the Talmud differed from that of the Bible.
However, the fact that the Rabbis were able to reinterpret the Torah as to prevent the court from killing, does not change the fact that these verses are in the Torah in the first place. No amount of creative exegesis can change the fact that the Torah condemns the act of homosexuality in the strongest way possible. Yes, one can argue that the Torah is only against the actual act of homosexual sex – but I don’t think that this actually changes anything. The truth of the matter is that 99.99% of fundamentalist religious communities are going to be against any individual who identities as homosexual, along with the entire homosexual community as well.
For a while I was a big fan of the Jewish Conservative movement’s responsa on homosexuals. The responsa basically combines different Talmudic ideas (such as the idea that sometimes a negative commandment can be broken to prevent human embarrassment/suffering) to say that certain forms of the homosexual lifestyle should be permitted under Jewish law. However, this too is still under the initial assumption that there is something inherently wrong with the act of homosexuality – and so too, goes through intellectual gymnastics to permit something that is pretty explicitly forbidden.
At this point, I would like to take a step back and restate one of my missions in creating this blog in general. I view the Torah as an amazing work, filled with hundreds of valuable lessons. Moreover, I think that the Torah was a massive leap in progression for its time in history. I view the Torah and the vast corpus of Jewish book very similar to the way that I view my teachers. I understand that the knowledge contained within it is profound and is worth studying and learning from. That said, just like I do not feel obliged to listen to my teacher’s every opinion, so too, I do not required to listen to the Torah or Jewish law in every case.
And this is one of them.
A few month ago I watched a talk given by Richard Dawkins, where he discussed his opinion on the moderate religious community. Dawkins said that he dislikes the moderate religious community, for the simple fact that they give power to the extremists. At first I did not like this argument (and still do not like it overall), since I feel that religion is a very important part of the human experience. However, I think that this chapter reflects this exact fear to which Dawkins was alluding. Although no reform Rabbi is going to positively portray these verses, the very fact that they are sitting there in his Bible, will give them power.
I am not here trying to convince people who believe that the Torah was handwritten by God or Moshe to cut verses out of the Torah. That would not work out so well. I am trying to convince people who are in a similar camp to myself, that we must completely do away with these horrible verses once and for all. I know many people, among them people who consider themselves left-wing Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or post-denominational, who deeply value the Torah and its teachings – but do not necessarily believe that every word is divine. For all of the people reading this post who fall under that camp I implore you to refuse this verse a voice in our community. This verse should not be read out loud during the weekly Torah reading, should not be taught in a religious setting (of course studying the academic history of this verse is extremely important), and should not be considered by Rabbis or community leaders when giving advice.
Quite frankly, the idea that these verses sit in my copy of the Torah at all upsets me. The fear that I have is a very real and living one. Often times the people that actually go through with these hate crimes are a bit mentally insane. These people are not the ones who are able to critically analyze information, and are quick to accept any “fact” or idea that they are presented with as the truth. The very idea that a person like I have just described (which over the years that I have been involved in Jewish education, have seemed quite ubiquitous) can open a Bible and after about 8 seconds conclude that all homosexuals deserve to die, really scares me.
Homosexuality is not some corrupt state or horrible mental disease that can be fixed via counseling (read: torture). Telling someone that they are doing something wrong for being a homosexual is like telling someone that they are corrupt for having blue eyes. Furthermore, upon historical analysis it becomes clear that the law against homosexuality developed for reasons that are no longer relevant in today’s day and age. (Click here for more on that last idea).
After witnessing a plethora of hate crimes against the LGBT community, I feel no choice but to come out with a strong message (there was even a potential bomber at the LA gay pride parade who was luckily stopped by police). As people who are a part of the moderate religious community we need to take a strong position that we will not tolerate any sort of negativity towards the gay community, regardless of what the various scriptures write. It is not enough for us to remain silent in regards to this issue, when there are so many people on the offensive; for as the Talmud says “Silence is like Agreeing.” If we really want to see a world where every human is given the respect they deserve and is not viewed negatively then we need to take action.
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