I read an article that saddened me. It was written by a Gay Orthodox Rabbi. You can imagine the conflict with which he has to struggle. Here is a man who, if he acted upon his natural sexual orientation would be judged for breaking with Halacha, Jewish Law. And yet knowing that he would be condemned he presided over a ‘commitment ceremony’ for two men. In every Jewish movement other than the Orthodox and the Hasidim, there has been some form of awareness and acceptance of gay men and women or, as the latest acronym that is considered ‘pc’ puts it, the LBGT community. Reform Judaism was the first movement to accept LBGT folk in the 70’s and the Conservative movement was the latest in 2006 but with dissent. Each movement went through serious machinations to find a way of accepting the sexuality of this group of Jews. Some of the arguments moved far from the traditional methodology for interpretation. But that option is not open to traditionally halachic (law abiding) Jews.
I daven often with Hasidim and I feel for the traditionally halachic communities who struggle with the challenge of keeping ‘Torah True’ while trying to be inclusive and welcoming. The need is for a Posek, a determiner of Jewish Law to come forward with an understanding that will bring together two disparate and desperate parts of our community. There is a need for a great scholar, brilliant and brave, compassionate and caring, highly skilled in the hermeneutics of Jewish Law (Halacha) and aware of the modern challenges that Jews face every day. But there are none willing to accept the challenge, or at least come up with a response that I like. So, I am going to leap into the breach.
What follows is a short interpretation of the apparent Torah ban on homosexuality and a solution to this particular challenge for the traditionally halachic community.
The source of the law that is thought to ban the actions of the LBGT folk is found in two places in Torah. The Halacha is said to be a Torah law (referred to as D’Orita which is different than a law found in the Talmud (called D’Rabbanan). Since Torah often gives short quick statements of law, it makes these laws open to interpretation. Indeed that is one of the reasons that Talmud came into existence. Liberal and modern Halachic Jews believe that Talmud is an encyclopedia-sized work of process while traditionally Halachic Jews refer to it as “Torah SheBa’al Pehתורה שבעל פה“ (the Oral Torah) handed to Moshe by G. Both groups find great value in Talmud to help understand Torah.
It is also true that the Rabbis of the Talmud have, on occasion limited out of existence, certain Biblical Laws. The most notable of these is the rebellious child law. Torah insists that the rebellious child be put to death. Talmud limits the scope of the charge and ability to prosecute such a case. Speaking for myself, I am very happy that the Rabbis stepped up to the plate on this one, or I would not be here.
So let us look at the Torah passages.
(1) Leviticus 18: 22; which states: ואת זכר לא תשכב משכבי אשה תועבה הוא “Do not lie (sexually) with a male like as you would with a woman, since this is a forbidden thing (תועבה TO’EYVAH)”.
(2) Leviticus 20: 13, which states: ואיש אשר ישכב את זכר משכבי אשה תועבה עשו שניהם מות יומתו דמיהם בם “If a man has sexual intercourse with a male person, like as with a woman, they have both committed a תועבה-TO’EYVAH (a forbidden act). Their death is their own fault”.
I find a powerful Remez-רמז (hint or as I like to call them ‘Key clue’) that would be helpful with this challenge. The Remez-רמז is that in both cases there is the addition of the statement “lie (sexually) with a man as you would with a woman”. In no other passage of sexual law do you have the addition of the words “as you would with a woman”. Since it is clear that Torah is talking about sex, the addition of the comparison to sex with women is strange. The idea of having sex with a relative, or with an animal is simply and strictly forbidden. There is no qualifier necessary for there is no circumstance when such an act is acceptable to Jewish law. But in speaking of a homosexual act an extra statement is added. The question is why.
Rabbi Gershon Steinberg-Caudill believes that the so-called “homosexual” act in the Bible that is prohibited is actually an act of HETEROSEXUAL SUBSTITUTION of a male in place of a female by a heterosexual male, and, possibly, may even need to be done in an idolatrous worship scenario. Rabbi Steinber-Caudill recognizes the strange formulation. To the second part that of an idolatrous practice, we have ample evidence of other cases in Torah that speak to the idea of separating ourselves from other tribes. Indeed the reason that we do not “Seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” is because that very meal was described in Ugaritic texts as a ritual meal served to the high priest by his people before he had ritual sexual relations with two high priestesses twice a year. Indeed, TO’EYVAHתועבה- (forbidden by Jewish law and often translated as abomination) is used in conjunction with idolatrous practices of other nations including child sacrifice and using a seer or magician to contact the dead or predict the future But I believe that is a stretch here. Homosexuality is found throughout history in virtually every part of the planet and the animal world. There is not a sense that homosexuality in any culture relates solely to an idolatrous religious practice. I think we have to go back to the second part of the Torah statement “lie (sexually) with a man as you would with a woman” for our answer.
The statement cannot be referring to vaginal intercourse because it is physically impossible for a man to have that type of intercourse with another man. And the phrase “as you would with a woman!” would be a strange pronouncement in regard to the forms of sexual relations that can be done EITHER by male with female or male with male. What then is the meaning?
My interpretation is similar to the first part of Rabbi Steinberg-Caudil; substitution I believe that this statement is here to teach us that blind lust is the תועבה-TO’EYVAH (a forbidden act). There are many reasons for sexual relations. The highest levels include a consummation of deep love and to bring life into this world. Sexual excitement is not a negative. But if sex is used as a weapon to hurt feelings or to prove power, those would be on the negative side. We each can fill in the blanks adding reasons on both sides. Where does blind lust fall on the spectrum. “I need sexual relief and I don’t care how I get it!” That is a frightening and threatening statement. If all I care about is my own momentary excitement, my immediate sexual gratification and I do not take into consideration the other party, that is, I don’t care if I receive that gratification from male or female and I act on it, then I have committed a TO’EYVAH-תועבה (something forbidden in Judaism) because it denies the dignity of humanity and the life forces in all of us. The statement “Do not lie (sexually) with a male as you would with a woman” means, in my opinion, don’t have sexual relations indiscriminately with either male or female. That is a short term selfish act. Rather the act must be one sharing where both parties are considered. The sexual act is life affirming, one shared between people who care for one another.
In the Talmud Bar Kapparah makes a play on the word to’eyvah (which some translate as abomination), claiming that it means to’eh atah ba (“you go astray because of it”). Both Tosefot and the Asheri (medieval commentators) comment on this passage saying words to the effect that a man will leave his wife and family to pursue a relationship with another man. In other words, homosexuality undermines and threatens the Jewish ideal of family life, of marriage and children, articulated in the Torah. Heterosexuality is the communal norm for Jews; homosexuality, a perversion of that norm.
While I like the play on words, I come to a different conclusion. It is clear from the many committed homosexual relationships that I have seen that homosexuality does not undermine the family values of Judaism. It is not a perversion of the norm; it is simply a different norm. But substitute the words ‘blind lust’ for the word homosexuality in the above Talmudic interpretation and it all falls into place. Blind lust can lead people astray; sexual addiction can be as destructive as any other form of addiction.
Of course you may ask: “What gives us the right to struggle with the interpretation of the law of Torah just to fit in with modern times?” I am glad you asked.
I go to this very example, that of homosexual actions. In the Talmud in KIDDUSHIN 82A the following strange statement is found. “Mishna: Rabbi Judah said: ‘An unmarried man must not tend cattle, nor may two unmarried men sleep together under the same cover.’ But the Sages permitted it. Gemara: What is the reason? Said they to R. Judah, “Israel are not suspected of either pederasty or bestiality.”
Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law accepted by all traditionally Halachic communities written in 1565) quotes the Talmud (and the RaMBaM) but then adds that “in these times that there is great licentiousness, two men should not be alone together (or sleep in the same bed).” While we might not agree with his point of view, one thing is eminently clear. The Halacha (Jewish Law) responds to societal change. It is clear that Jewish law reflects the challenges and realities of society.
Therefore I as an ordained Rabbi, with all of the ego-trip involved, declare as a matter of Jewish Law, that Homosexuality of any sort is not forbidden, is not a TO’EYVAH-תועבה (something forbidden in Judaism). Anyone who accepts me as a Posek, as a Rabbi with the right to make Jewish legal decisions must accept my ruling. So far the number who accept my pronouncements is approximately 3, depending on the pronouncement. More importantly (and more seriously), I would welcome your comments and pronouncements. Let us all be our own personal Posek. The only requirement is that we involve ourselves in the process and that tradition has a part to play.
The “stubborn and rebellious” son (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21) is the greatest example of legislating out of existence. It ends the intricate discussion on just what constitutes a “Stubborn and Rebellious Son” resolving the halacha (the way the law is practiced) according to the decision of Rabbi Yehudah, who states: “THERE NEVER WAS A REBELLIOUS SON, NOR WILL THERE EVER BE.” The rabbis of the Talmud put fences around the Torah to negate the Capital punishment that the Torah requires. One might ask as does one redactor of this Mishnah: “Then why was it written?” The Gemara responds: “So that people might study it (wrestle with it), and receive reward for their efforts.” This is a great lesson on the understanding of the purpose of Talmud. It is not simply a law book, it is an exercise in ‘process’.