Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition
Judaism and Homosexuality
1 A second look on homosexuality 2/04
2 New books: ‘Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition’ and ‘Queer Theory and the Jewish Question: between queer and Jewish identities’ 5/04
3 Comment: Reflections on Yom Kippur and homosexuality within Judaism 9/09
Rabbi Harold Schulweis Archives
24 February 2004
A second look on homosexuality
by Rabi Harold M. Schulweis
The rabbis in the Talmudic era declared that two bachelors are permitted to sleep beneath the same blanket because Jews are not suspect of homosexuality. (Kiddushin 82a) Were the rabbis treating homosexuality in the first centuries the way we once dealt with drug addiction, alcoholism, wife abuse and declared, “This is not a Jewish problem”?
We can pretend that it is not a Jewish concern, though a number of scholars have speculated that homosexuality exists in 10% of the population, and by extrapolation likely pertains to 10% of the Jewish population. There are none so blind as those who will not see.
Many years ago the issue of homosexuality was for me a matter of theoretical interest. Intellectually I knew there were homosexuals but personally I knew none. Whoever they were, they were well closeted, out of sight, out of mind. These last years they have lost their anonymity. Blood and flesh persons come into my study, visible and audible with faces, eyes, lips who have come to see me. Out of desperation they have left their cloistered lives to reveal themselves.
Why have they come to me? I am not their parents. But parents are the last ones they would speak to. They are too ashamed and too frightened. They have come because I am a rabbi and because I represent Jewish ethics and Jewish law. They have come because some I have confirmed and some have heard me speak about God, love, compassion and justice in class and from the pulpit. They have heard me teach that a root principle in Judaism is our belief that God has created each of us in His divine image.
They do not feel that they were created in God’s image. Quite the contrary, they feel that no one regards them as human, normal, or recognizes their personhood.
They have come carrying a terrible knowledge, one they discovered early in their lives. They are attracted to persons of their own gender. Theirs is a fateful knowledge. As they grew up they heard whispers grown into roars, stories about gays who are unnatural, perverse, pathological, sinful. They dress differently, molest children, and are wildly permissive, hedonistic, outrageous. They have seen them portrayed on the stage, on television, gay men who lisp, swishey, effeminate wimps whom others call “feigele-boychik”, who live in wretched places, hang out in dark bars and dark bath houses. And they have heard of lesbian women called “dykes”, “butches”, angry, unattractive, emasculating, man-haters.
And those who come to me know that they are hated, rejected, mocked, scorned, reviled. They are frightened.
The hatred they know is not confined to the inner city or to people of different ethnicities, faiths, or races. At Calabasas High School in Woodland Hills California, on the night of his high school graduation, Robert Rosenkrantz shot his school mate Steve Redman ten times with an Uzi semi-automatic rifle. What turns a white middle class teenager, Robert, into a murderer? It was fear, rage, desperate loneliness. The friend, Steve and his brother Joey had spied on Robert in an attempt to prove that he was gay. When they caught him in a homosexual encounter, they told his parents. At the trial Robert disclosed that he had hidden his homosexuality from his family for years in fear of their rejection. Wendy Bell, aged sixteen, a student at Calabasas High said “If people found out you were gay at this school, you would be verbally tortured.”
What greater humiliation than to discover that in the eyes of your society you are really not human. What makes a human being human more than his ability to love and be loved?But they are not lovable and are not allowed to love. They live in silent shame, fearful of the revelation that will shake the foundations of their being.
Theirs is a monstrous burden to carry. Even the most innocent question is fraught with emotional terror. Just to hear once more well-meaning aunts and uncles say “Do you have a boyfriend?”, to hear someone plan to set up a date, sets up a panic in their hearts. Do others not know? How long can I bite my tongue?
They have come to see me because I am a rabbi and they are Jews. Every Yom Kippur they hear the same selection read from the Torah which sanctifies homophobia. It is chanted in the afternoon of Yom Kippur when some report headaches and the discomforts which come with fasting the entire day. But this young man who ironically reads from the Torah has more than a migraine, and not from fasting. It is written “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.” It is a capital crime punishable by stoning – sekilah. (Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13) This aliyah is no elevation. It casts him into despair.
What do they want of me? Absolution? Assurance? Protection? A Jewish voice? What does the law state? What does Judaism say?
I am faced not only with a text of a few verses but with human beings I know and whose families I know. I look from the law into the eyes of those before me. Without them, it might be an easier matter to judge. But the Talmud says: “You have to judge according to that which you see with your own eyes.” (Baba Bathra 43a)
What do I see with my own eyes? Honest, decent God-fearing, loving men and women. And what do I hear but the penetrating words of Micah, the prophet who tells me what God requires. “It has been told you O man what is good and what the Lord demands of you — to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with the Lord thy God.”
What is just and merciful here? The persons who have come to me carry their own testimony. They have not chosen a lifestyle. Theirs is not a matter of sexual preference. They have chosen nothing except to bury the terror. “It has been for me a living hell. I no more chose my attachments to another of my own gender than you, Rabbi, chose the love of a woman. It was not something taught or modeled or revered in my home or in my circle. But I sensed it early in my childhood. I denied it, fought it, but it would not be denied.”
I read that most psychologists maintain that sexual orientation is determined by the time the child is five years old.
I am told by the wisdom of Halachah to listen to the heart of the one who stands before me. As the Talmud (Yoma 83) cites the verse (Book of Proverbs 14:10) “The heart knows its own bitterness and a stranger cannot share in its joy.” The verse is cited by the Rabbis in the context of declaring with people who are ill on Yom Kippur. “If a sick person says he must eat and a hundred physicians say he does not need to eat, we must listen to him. For the heart knows its own bitterness.”
Those I speak to in the privacy of my study have not chosen their sexual orientation. Their testimony of the heart is important in the mind of Halachah. According to Jewish law, activities that are under compulsion or constraint, even if they are prohibited, are free of liability. “Patur aval asur.” Say I have vowed to do X and can’t fulfill it because of a flood or because of sickness, is not punishable. The halacha recognizes that an act must be free if it is punishable and behind this ruling reigns a religious statement from the Mishnah. “Ones Rachmana Patrei” — “The Merciful One frees from punishment one who is coerced. (Mishnah Nadarim 33)
Scholars agree that the authors of the Bible and Talmud took their position on the issue of homosexuality on the assumption that homosexual behavior was an act of freedom of choice, that the homosexual acted either to defy God, or to oppose the law, or as a holy prostitute using his or her body, to serve a pagan cult.
The assumption of the ancients about the motivation of the homosexual was based on factual error. One cannot blame the rabbis of the first centuries for not knowing the etiology of homosexuality, or the character of constitutional homosexuals. They judged acts with the knowledge of their time. But it does not exonerate rabbis living on the edge of the twenty-first century. One cannot blame the ancient rabbis for their position on the matter of homosexuality any more than they could be blamed for the Talmudic position on the deaf mute, the “cheresh”. In the Talmud a “cheresh” fell into the category of a “shoteh” and a “katan”, a person who was “non compos mentis” — someone who was mentally incompetent. Therefore until the 19th century halachists held that the deaf mute cannot serve as a witness, dispose of property, be counted into the minyan, effect a marriage or divorce. The assumption was clear. Since the “cheresh” cannot communicate, cannot speak or hear, he was considered to be “dumb”, a word which originally meant mute and was turned into a colloquial _expression meaning stupid.
But traditional law is not frozen. When Rabbi Simchah Bunem Sofer of Hungary on a visit to the Vienna Institute for the Deaf and Dumb observed the accomplishments of its students, he recognized that the “cheresh” is far from mentally incompetent. And in our times, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog maintained that the laws prohibiting the deaf-mute from ritual and commercial acts are now void, and that the “cheresh” today can indeed participate fully in religious life.
It is a calumny against Halachah to treat it as so much dead weight. Those who know its history know that Halachah changes with new knowledge and with new moral sensibilities. Consider only the cases in which the rabbis nullified or circumvented the biblical law as in the case of the “ben sorer v’moreh” the rebellious delinquent son who could be brought to the elders and be stoned for his abominable acts (Deuteronomy 21:18) or the case of the “sotah”, the wife suspected of adultery to whom the ordeal of jealousy was given (Numbers 5:12), or the case of the “ir nidachat” — the heretical city tainted with idolatry which was to be destroyed (Deuteronomy 13:13). All these biblical laws were dismissed by the rabbis of the Talmud as purely theoretical but having no application to life. “Lo hayah v’lo atid lihyot.” The same Talmudic courage and sensitivity should be applied to the homosexual who testify that their sexual orientation is not an act of will.
Moreover, we are dealing with mounting evidence that there are genetic factors which play a large role, perhaps a determining role, in this behavior. On both moral and Halachic grounds it is wrong to take one or two verses in the Bible, stripped of their historic context and devoid of medical knowledge, and apply them to punish innocent people who cannot deny their basic instincts, impulses and sexual attractions. To inflict punishment upon the innocent violates the spirit and intent of Jewish law.
There are questions from people, far from homophobic, that deserve answers. I have heard it said that if this inclusiveness toward homosexuality is accepted, why not extend that same kind of tolerance toward the non-converted mixed married? But when we speak of homosexuals and gays, we are speaking about Jewish homosexuals and Jewish gays upon whom we make the same demands of loyalty to people and to Jewish faith. We make Jewish religious and moral demands upon Jewish homosexuals and Jewish gays in the same manner that we do for Jewish heterosexuals. Faith and religion are matters of choice. The non-Jew can freely become a Jew by choice. The non-Jew can convert, but the homosexual cannot convert his/her sexual orientation.
For those who are constitutional homosexuals there is no option except denial of their sexual life. It means for me to deny them the deepest _expression of love. What else can be said to the Jewish gay person? Their options are “either closet or cloister” For them there is no alternative but celibacy and sexual abstinence. That counsel is contrary to the affirmation of life and of sexuality that is so basic in Judaism and in its opposition to sexual askesis.Contrary to Stoic, Christian and Buddhist philosophies, even medieval Jewish pietistic mysticism did not encourage the denial of sexual expression. To the contrary, the joys of sexuality were lauded as manifestations of God’s beneficent creation. Shall I respond to the yearnings of their heart by saying “Get thee to a monastery. Get thee to a nunnery?”
I hear it further said that if homosexuality is countenanced, why not condone polygamy a practice that is not even enjoined in the Torah. But monogamy is not a deprivation of sexual expression. If there is serious dissatisfaction, the Jewish divorce offers relief. If anything, polygamy is an excess of choice. Nor is the prohibition of incest or bisexuality analogous to homosexuality. For these there are alternative sexual expressions. For the homosexual there is no sexual expression except a sexless existence in which even masturbation is halachically prohibited. Would a loving God create such a being in His image to be condemned to life-long suffering and frustration?
Others argue that the purpose of union and of marriage is procreation; and that homosexuality is prohibited because it denies history, denies the future and defies the purpose of marriage. Are we not mandated to multiply and fructify and fill the earth? Is that argument not further substantiated by the Talmudic ruling: (Yebamoth 64a) “If a man took a woman and live with her for ten years and she bore no child he may not abstain any more from the duty of propagation.” Consequently, the man is justified to divorce her and to marry another after a decade of barrenness. Yet, the rabbis could not find it in their heart to dissolve such a union. “Lo m’laah libam”. Such a divorce would wrong another human being. They may live together since the purpose of union is not just procreation. The purpose of union includes the blessedness of companionship and of love that does not always eventuate in having children.
Were having children the only justification of marital union, would we deny “kiddushin” because of the infertility or medical disability of either or both bride and groom? The head and heart of Halachah concede that procreation is not the only goal of human sexuality.
Moreover, in an age in which artificial insemination and adoptions exist as choices, a homosexual union is not a barrier for the raising of family and the having of children.
There are numerous questions that are raised about the etiology of homosexuality. But ultimately my Jewish response to the lot of the homosexual remains a moral one. There is a morality in Jewish law that must not be ignored. As a moral, spiritual Jew I have to ask myself not only what the literal law declares but, especially in this issue where the law consigns to living hell such innocence, I feel obligated to deal with the purpose and intent of Jewish law.
I have been taught and believe that Jewish law is not a dead hand without heart and soul. Even the most stringent followers of the halachah would not today apply the law that demands death to the homosexual. Who calls for us to criminalize homosexuality?
The underlying issue is moral, not textual. We cannot as thinking, feeling Jews base our judgment on a verse or two in the Bible. There is an entire corpus of religious text and spiritual principles that forms rabbinic conscience. “The Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” The Torah cultivates Jewish conscience. It reminds us that we are to love the stranger and to know his heart. If we don’t know the heart, if we do not know the humanity of the pariah, we do not know our own humanity.
As long as we have not discovered the stranger in our midst as “human being”, we will not discover our own humanity.
The community and its rabbinic leadership have powers to turn the earth into a living heaven or hell. Over some issues we mortals have little control. We have little control over natural catastrophes: earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes. But there are catastrophes over which we have control because we have created them. The curse upon the gay person we have pronounced. This tragedy we have imposed on our children is not the will of God. It is our doing. The blessing and curse, life and death given us is our choice. We are not coerced to silence.
The law is not a monster. Jewish halachah, was not instituted to make life miserable.On the contrary, it was to enhance life, to introduce love and compassion and softness into a hard and abrasive universe. The entire rabbinic tradition was motivated to make the ways of the Torah pleasant and joyful and peaceful.
A wonderful commentary by Maimonides in his Book of Laws regards the Sabbath. There he explains that the commandment of the Sabbath while it is a biblical law may be set aside if human life is in danger. “If it is uncertain whether the Sabbath needs to be violated or not or if one physician says that violation is necessary and another says that it is not, the Sabbath should be violated for the mere possibility of danger to human life overrides the Sabbath.” (The Laws of the Sabbath: Chapter II)
Ask why should the Rabbi be implicated in these rulings? Maimonides goes on to say: “And if these violations of the Sabbath are to be done they should be not left to heathens, to minors, to slaves or women lest these should come to regard Sabbath observance as a trivial matter. If you violate the Sabbath it should be done by adults and scholarly Israelites. And it is forbidden to delay such violation of the Sabbath for the sake of a person who is dangerously ill. For the Bible tells us (Leviticus 18:5) which if a man do he shall live by them. He shall live by them and not die by them. Hence, you learn that the laws of the Torah are not cruel or vengeful to the world but are a source of compassion, loving kindness and peace.” There are fundamentalists, and Maimonides may be referring to the Sadducees and the Karaites who assert that this permissiveness is a violation of the Sabbath and therefore to be prohibited. Maimonides responds to obedience to such a literal reading of the Torah, with a quotation from Ezekiel 20:25 “Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good and ordinances whereby they should not live.”
Micah’s question to us is not to be denied. What is required of us? What is demanded of me and of every Jew is to protect the hounded, the persecuted, the humiliated, the ostracized, the pariahs created by human beings and not by God. What is required of us is to accept the dignity of each individual, to know the heart of the stranger, to make them feel as home with us and to encourage them to live out their own lives with dignity and within a compassionate community.
The Lord God formed the human being of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the human being became a living soul.” Every human being is created in God’s image. To make the innocent afraid, to make the human being cry, to force a human being to hide from his own flesh, to humiliate God’s creation, is to spit in God’s face. We are taught by the rabbis that to shame God’s creation is to shed his blood. That shaming is an abomination which we can cleanse from our midst. Our sages have taught us: “Better a man cast himself in a fiery furnace than that he put his fellow to shame in public.” (T. Berachot 43b)
We read in Deuteronomy 23:2 that the eunuch shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord. But the prophetic conscience would not be stilled. “Let not the alien say who has attached himself to the Lord ‘The Lord will keep me apart from his people’; and let not the eunuch say ‘I am a withered tree.'”
For thus saith the Lord, “As for the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire and hold fast My covenant, I will give them in My house and within My walls, a monument and a name. Better than sons and daughters, I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish.” (Isaiah 56)
The prophetic conscience resonates in our hearts and minds. Open the gates for the pariahs, gather together the dispersed and despised. “I will gather still more to those already gathered.”
Ha’aretz, Tel-Aviv, Israel ( http://www.haaretzdaily.com )
May 14, 2004
New book, Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition
by Jay Michaelson
Imagine learning that, because of how you were born, God hates you. Imagine being raised in a traditional religious world, where obeying God is the primary value, and then, just as you were becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, coming to realize that you are incapable of doing so. Over the next several years, you try your hardest: You fight against the urge, repress it, deny it, even try to change it with aversion therapy. You can’t tell anyone, because even to reveal the truth would cast you out of the community. But, in private, you try, and try and try – and fail. What would you do? Until recently, the only alternatives in the traditional Jewish world were to lie, to die or to leave.
As they have throughout history, many gay Jews conceal their identities and marry people of the opposite sex. Today, they fill chatrooms and listservs with their private struggles. Many others cannot cope, and choose to end their lives. Although statistics for the Jewish community are not available, studies show that 30 percent of gay youth attempt suicide by the age of 16. About 276,000 American teenagers try to kill themselves every year, and it is estimated that a third of these attempts are related to homosexuality. Many gay Jews leave behind the Orthodox world, or Judaism entirely, after experiencing what’s sometimes called a “Huck Finn moment.”
In Mark Twain’s novel, a turning point occurs when Huck decides he’d rather help Jim, the runaway slave, even though he’s been taught he’ll go to hell as a consequence. “Well, I guess I’ll go to hell then,” Huck says, and follows his conscience instead of his religion. Gay Orthodox Rabbi Steve Greenberg is unsatisfied with these alternatives. His new book, “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition” refuses to lie, die or leave. The book was born of Greenberg’s own years-long struggle as an Orthodox rabbi with a secret. When he did finally admit to himself and others that he was gay, he said, “I realized I would have to leave the rabbinate or make sense of it.” He chose to stay, and “Wrestling with God and Men” is the result. The book is divided into four parts.
The first discusses homosexuality in sacred Jewish texts – chiefly the prohibitions in Leviticus. The second addresses evidence of homosexuality in Jewish history, from David and Jonathan, to homoerotic tales of the rabbis, to medieval gay love poetry. The heart of the book tries to understand the meaning of the Leviticus prohibitions, and in the concluding chapters, Greenberg – recognizing that few Orthodox rabbis will accept the interpretations he has offered – suggests a basis for mutual respect and recognition between the Orthodox community and its gay and lesbian members. Chapter and verse Leviticus 18:22 states: “And with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman: it is a toevah.” Contrary to popular belief, Greenberg demonstrates that the verse is extremely unclear.
The “lyings of a woman” is a unique phrase, echoed only one other time in the Bible, and a redundant one; the verse could simply say, “You shall not lie with a man.” (The Hebrew word for “lie,” shachav, is unambiguously sexual.) The word “toevah,” rendered “abomination” by the Christian world, is actually closer in meaning to the word “taboo”: a practice done by other groups, but precisely for that reason, not done by us. (Elsewhere in the Torah, for example, we learn of practices that are toevah for Egypt, but not for Israel.) And, as it was for many centuries of Jewish discourse, lesbianism is not mentioned at all. Yet even with these ambiguities, how does Greenberg reconcile the apparent prohibition of some forms of same-sex behavior with his own gay identity? First, he claims that avoiding the issue is false consciousness.
“I don’t want to get around Leviticus. I want to get into Leviticus, to find out what it really means,” he said. He recognizes that traditional interpretations of the verse expand it to prohibit all forms of homosexual behavior between men. But one Yom Kippur, when Greenberg deliberately took the aliyah (ascension to the Torah) containing the verse in question, he realized that “these verses have never been understood, because gay and lesbian people haven’t been at the table to interpret them and give their testimony. These verses are not known.” Therefore, his project is not one of apologetics – why it’s okay to be a gay Jew – but hermeneutics: trying to understand what a verse means, now that those who have been silenced are silent no longer. The “new information” offered by formerly silenced gay and lesbian Jews is critical. If it is false consciousness for gay religious Jews to ignore Leviticus, it is also false consciousness for interpreters of Leviticus to ignore gay Jews. Clearly, God makes some people gay. What, then, is the meaning of the verse?
In fact, “Wrestling with God and Men” offers two answers to this question, one that Greenberg believes to be true, and another that he believes to be acceptable to those who don’t agree with him. Drawing on traditional sources as well as historical ones, Greenberg claims that, ultimately, Leviticus 18:22 is about violence and degradation. In the ancient world, people were divided sexually into penetrators and people who were penetrated.
To be in the latter category was to be demeaned; in most cultures, it included only women, slaves and non-adult boys. In typical fashion, ancient Judaism extended the sphere of moral consideration, and said that no man should be “womanized.” Greenberg observes that the verse really says “v’et zachar,” which is better rendered “And to a man you shall not lie …,” rather than “And with a man.” In this reading, penetration is something done to a person, not with them, and it is a form of humiliation. What the verse says, in effect, is “Don’t make a woman of a man.” Linguistic sense Greenberg’s reading has several attractive features.
First, it makes linguistic sense of an otherwise puzzling verse. Second, it situates Leviticus 18 within an understanding of sexuality that can be found throughout ancient texts. (Effectively, Greenberg says the verse is about misogyny, not homophobia.) Third, and most importantly, it meets Leviticus 18 on its own terms, and understands it in light of categories that were absolutely critical for ancient Judaism, and yet are absolutely foreign to contemporary, loving, same-sex relationships. In fact, only a narrow band of homosexual activity is prohibited by Leviticus 18 – perhaps none, if “the lyings of the woman” refers solely to degradation and not to anatomy.
And ultimately, just as straight couples are not interrogated by their Orthodox communities about how they observe the laws of family purity, so gay couples need not be interrogated about their interpretation of this particular verse. They can be both honest and accepted. To be sure, Greenberg also addresses various other rationales that have been offered for the prohibition – reproduction, category confusion, idolatry – but he says that these all fail to explain the verse’s wording and meaning. Notably, Greenberg does not address the argument that “homosexuality is unnatural,” even though it was a fundamental point in a noted Conservative Movement responsum. In this interview, Greenberg called the category “not Jewish,” noting that “plenty of sins are natural, and plenty of commandments are unnatural” and observing that no traditional rabbinic treatments of homosexuality used the term to describe it.
In any case, he claims that he is not seeking a rationale. He is seeking the truth, in a way that is impossible to accomplish when the facts of sexuality are suppressed. At the same time, Greenberg is very pragmatic. He recognizes that few Orthodox rabbis will accept his interpretation, and fewer still would agree to change Jewish law on the basis of it. Thus, having spent 100 pages developing and proving his argument, Greenberg abandons it for the last portion of “Wrestling with God and Men,” turning to a legal compromise that he argues would allow gay people and Orthodox people to coexist. Essentially, the compromise places gays and lesbians under the category of “oness,” or duress.
They are like obsessive-compulsives who can’t help themselves, and whose sin is therefore virtually excused. Critically, Greenberg does not suggest gay people have this view of themselves. “I want to open up the possibility of remaining in the community,” he said in the interview. “And that means, I have to accept compromise. It’s all right for an Orthodox rabbi to have a limited perspective of me, as long as he doesn’t expect me to have that perspective of myself.” Coexistence, not immediate legal change, is the goal.
In Greenberg’s view, “hearts and minds change first. The law is the last thing to change in a social movement.” And for that to happen, gay people need to find a way to accept the Jewish tradition (hence Greenberg’s “real” reading) and Jewish traditionalists need to find a way to accept gay people (hence the compromise). Greenberg says that gay people should not expect advocacy from Orthodox communities. But his ultimate goal is that “a 16-year-old gay Orthodox kid has a life-trajectory that’s pretty good. No humiliation, and no lying.” Greenberg recognizes that “for many Jews, homosexuality is not on the line; Judaism is.”
Slivers of Spirituality
I was one of those Jews myself, and for me, “Wrestling with God and Men” is not a sufficient answer. Greenberg says that he remains Orthodox because it is “a spiritual and moral ground from which to contend with life’s myriad possibilities, a disciplined and balanced way to live a great life in the midst of inevitable uncertainty.” But so are other forms of Judaism, and other forms of life, that don’t involve being regarded as an obsessive-compulsive (at best) by one’s community.
In my own life, I found I didn’t have to choose between God and self-acceptance. When I had my own Huck Finn moment, I found that as soon as I was willing to go to hell, God was willing to go with me. This, ultimately, is the greatest flaw with “Wrestling with God and Men”: It contains only slivers of the deep spirituality that Greenberg himself possesses. Indeed, the heartbreaking letter from a gay Orthodox man that Greenberg reprints in the book’s introduction contains more spiritual essence than any of the legal or textual arguments. “I would love to ‘love a woman’ … Whether [homosexuality] is genetic or socially acquired makes no difference to me. I hate it and myself for feeling this way and am beginning to lose the battle.” The man writes of failed conversion therapy (“nothing but mental torture”), of depression (“Outside of work, I rarely leave home anymore”), and of despair (“I’m running out of options”).
Like the voices in the 2001 film “Trembling Before God” – and Greenberg’s was one of them – this letter, like many others I have seen that resemble it, is filled with the Jewish struggle for Godliness. It also proves that we must be reading the verse wrong. How could a loving God want this? Conversely, “Wrestling with God and Men” contains little in the way of the distinctive contributions gays and lesbians have made and can make to the Jewish people.
For a book subtitled “Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition,” it is overwhelmingly focused on the negative. Non-Orthodox gay Jewish icons (Tony Kushner, Harvey Milk) are absent, and one is given the impression that gay Jews want little more than mere acceptance. This may be how traditional Jewish readers see the essence of gay Jewish identity, and such readers are Greenberg’s primary audience. Today, though, following the footsteps of non-Jewish writers like Toby Johnston (“Gay Perspective”) and Mark Thompson (“Gay Soul”), many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews are not asking to be treated just like everyone else – they are discovering what unique gifts they bring to the Jewish world.
Coincidentally, “Wrestling with God and Men” is being published almost simultaneously with “Queer Theory and the Jewish Question,” an anthology of writing on the intersection between queer and Jewish identities. That anthology observes how the West has long analogized non-heterosexuality and non-Christianity, and how, today, the two identities productively interact – from Barbra Streisand’s cinematic cross-dressing to Proust, Ansky and Dickens. Queer theory and Jewishness are both modes of difference, of resistance to domination; all the more a pity that so few who write on sexuality in the traditional Jewish world seem even to have read “Epistemology of the Closet” or other classics, let alone the new work in “Queer Theory and the Jewish Question.”
As for Greenberg, he notes that Judaism loves difference – God is blessed as the One who varies creatures – and that difference is more than pluralism. But his book rarely goes beyond a plea to be accepted. In fairness, acceptance is still so far from reality in most Orthodox circles that Greenberg’s book is both noble and necessary. It is, by far, the most comprehensive treatment of homosexuality within the Jewish legal tradition, and a convincing argument according to halakha (Jewish law). Greenberg did not set out to do more. Yet on the Jewish spiritual path, these legal jots and tittles are mere dances of the One. We know that God wants love because God loves. And when everything is God – the angel as well as his opponent – all the tortured wrestling is seen for what it truly is: a loving embrace of the Knower and the Known.
Jay Michaelson is the director of Nehirim: A Spiritual Initiative for GLBT Jews (www. nehirim.org) and a contributor to the forthcoming anthology “Mentsh: On Being Jewish and Queer” (Alyson, 2004).
September 29, 2009 – PinkNews
Comment: Reflections on Yom Kippur and homosexuality within Judaism
by Benjamin Cohen
PinkNews.co.uk founder Benjamin Cohen reflects back on yesterday’s Jewish festival of Yom Kippur and what it means for an openly gay Jew. Two years ago, I wrote about my experiences in Synagogue over Yom Kippur, the day of atonement when according to Judaism, all men and women are judged and God decides whether to write them into the book of life for the following year, who will die at his allotted time and who before. It’s also the day that God decides who will have a good year and who will have a year of struggle. As I left yesterday’s service, I felt that it would be apt to update the original article.
As I sat in Synagogue yesterday during Yom Kippur I once again regretted that I’m still an attendee of the United Synagogue. The United Synagogue is Britain’s largest Jewish community and represents what it defines as “modern Orthodoxy”, a centre ground which aims to embrace modernity with a traditional slant. Despite their orthodox claims, the majority of those who belong to the movement are certainly not orthodox in the strictest sense of the word. They may attend synagogue regularly but they’ll often watch television and drive on Shabbat (the Sabbath) something which is banned.
But in terms of morality, particularly sexual morality, those Rabbis in charge of the synagogues have failed to recognise the strides forward both society as a whole and the Jewish community in particular have made in the past few years. Many of my parent’s friends are clearly subscribers to the modern orthodox doctrines; strictly keeping Kosher, refraining from all forms of work on the Sabbath (even switching a light on) and attend Synagogue at least once a week. But all have accepted my sexuality, one even saying that I was “silly to have thought they would have behaved otherwise.”
Yet as I sat in the Yom Kippur service yesterday afternoon, I was reminded that the movement still has a long way to go. The Torah reading for the afternoon was from Leviticus, particularly those verses concerning forbidden sexual relationships. Whilst most right minded people will believe that a man should not sleep with his mother or that a woman should not have sex with an animal, the ban on homosexuality; “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” appears somewhat out of place. The above verse is obviously a translation into English from ancient Hebrew. The literal translation of “V’et zachar lo tishkav mishk’vey eeshah toeyvah hee” is “and with a male you shall not lay lyings of a woman.” This is not quite the same thing.
Some commentaries understand this as a ban on men sleeping together in the bed of a woman, certainly no bad thing as it’s clearly poor etiquette, especially if it were done behind her back. Others understand this more as a ban on the pagan rituals of anal sex within religious pagan temple ceremonies. But the United Synagogue seems to prefer the clearer translation, essentially a ban on gay sex. 2 years ago, I decided to leave the building as those verses were read, my own silent protest at firstly its inclusion in the service and the interpretations of the movement as a whole. This year I decided not to attend that service at all. But constantly throughout the rest of the day’s proceedings I found myself “confessing” for my “abominations”- perhaps a reference to the Torah’s description of a man lying with a men as with a woman as an “abomination,” something that carried the death penalty in biblical times.
Of course, I could choose to join the Liberal or Reform movements, both of whom have adapted their liturgy to remove condemnations of homosexuality. Indeed, Liberal Judaism has introduced a gay wedding ceremony and has many openly gay and lesbian Rabbis heading their communities. But I do enjoy the services at the United Synagogue, sitting next to my father, grandfather, brother-in-law and seeing family and friends. I do however regret that it would seem highly inappropriate for my non-Jewish same sex partner to sit next to me.
I still do hope that by remaining within the movement, I like other LGBT Jews can act as an impetus for reform across the board, not just for LGBT rights but also to improve the role of women as leaders in our community. But I fear, as both the liberal/reform and ultra-orthodox communities within Britain increase in size, the United Synagogue may feel the need to lurch to the right rather than stake a claim in the centre ground embracing true equality regardless of sex or sexuality.
Benjamin Cohen is the founder of PinkNews.co.uk and is a correspondent for Channel4 News and the views expressed within this article remain his personal views and do not necessarily reflect the policies or editorial stance of either organisations.
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