Confounded by Jewish Orthodoxy

By Lavender February 29, 2008

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In working with scripture and those who hold it dear, I find contrapuntal opposition while striving to honor Jewish Orthodoxy. And when I find an A-versus-B situation, I tend to look for ways to reconcile the two, and progress along a shared path.

I emphatically want to believe in a world where anyone who is queer can justly claim his or her faith—any faith—and his or her sexual or gender identity. The way to reach that beautiful communion of self and belief is, in my experience, to understand the historical context in which a religious system was birthed and codified, and recognize how original intent applies to our modern context.

This is how many Jews, among others, can reconcile eating shellfish or wearing cloth interwoven with linen. These are well-known examples of prohibitions from among the 613 commandments, or “mitzvot d’oraita,” found in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.

Those who are Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist Jews, as well as Christians, can work with the above-mentioned prohibitions in the same way that they can work with Leviticus 18:22, which says that a man who lies with another man is an abomination, and should be put to death.

Usually, we begin by understanding the why of something—why it was believed, why it served the common good, or why other cultural beliefs caused a people to arrive at this or that commandment.

In the case of dietary laws, some would say they were built on ideas of what was then “normal” or “customary” in an animal. Fish were OK to eat, because they had fins and scales, but shellfish were lacking in one or both of these, and that oddness made them forbidden.

And the same thinking applies to Leviticus 18:22. What we expect of men and women, how sexual practice does or does not define who we are, and the need for progeny all have changed over the millennia.

This works well for some Jews and Christians, but how can one reconcile within Orthodox Judaism if one honors the Orthodox commitment to uphold the 271 rules, or “halakhah,” of the original 613 commandments that apply to Jews living outside Israel today?

Some Orthodox Jews well may see the changing context and dated reasoning within the Laws, but to most, the very opportunity to adhere to the Law is a blessing, as it is a way of seeking an intentional awareness of the divine in daily activities.

So, what is an Orthodox Jewish ally or GLBT person to do? If there is to be no changing one’s understanding of Law, if the value is in the very obligation to submit to and to honor the Law as it stands, throughout time, how can we progress together?

R, a gay and Orthodox rabbi in Israel, is leading a movement within Orthodox Judaism there to bring issues specific to homosexual orientation to the table. He has started a group called HOD with a vital online forum of support for queer Orthodox Jews. It is a welcome resource after the previously common “help” offered in the admonition to become straight. See <www.hod.org.il>.

True to an orthodox reading of Leviticus 18:22, Rabbi R is celibate, though he has a partner with whom he shares a house and a life.

To me, sexual expression of love is an inextricable part of the web that is a “relationship.” If you tell me physical intimacy is not acceptable, I believe what you mean is that my relationship is not acceptable.

I ask why holding hands, maintaining joint checking accounts, and doing each other’s laundry are all OK, but penetrative sex is not. And, justly or unjustly, I expect a reason. I see why Leviticus 18:22 was written in the cultural context of Moses, but I do not see why it must be adhered to today.

Judaism stresses action over belief, so, in theory, it is not the orientation but the sexual expression that is condemned. However, the line between homosexuality and same-gender sex easily is blurred, and can slip into the categorical condemnation of an entire people.

In a recent example, Israeli Parliament member Shlomo Benizri blamed homosexual people for earthquakes.

“We are looking for earthly solutions, how to prevent them,” Benizri said. “I have another way to prevent earthquakes. The Gemara [book of Jewish teachings] says that one of the reasons earthquakes happen—which the Knesset [Parliament] legitimizes—is homosexuality.”

Are humans capable of such nuance that they could celebrate and welcome gay and lesbian people who are in intimate, committed relationships, as long as they are sex-free? Benizri is proof that it is not yet feasible.

And what would be the effective policing measures? It seems as though one must choose between blessing homosexual intimacy and condemning same-gender relationships outright.

Here I sit, then, at this tense point of opposition between Leviticus 19:18 and Leviticus 18:22. The former says to love all G-d’s children, and the latter says to stone those men who would have penetrative sex with other men.

I do not know how both to honor the obligations imposed by Jewish Orthodoxy and to reconcile them with our current understanding of human sexuality.

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