Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On Being Gay and Jewish (Or: Why YHVH Isn't a Homophobe)

For Halloween this year, I wrote up and ran my very first explicitly Jewish magical ritual. (I had done plenty of magic before, and also plenty of Jewish rituals, but not any of what I'd call actual Jewish magic.) I plan to talk about this in a future blog post, so this is really just a teaser - and a reminder to myself to come back to the topic. Instead I'd like to talk about an issue very near and dear to me: how to deal with the apparent contradiction of being both a practicing Jew and an unapologetic queer.

When I was younger, the whole issue seemed pretty cut-and-dried to me: The Torah prohibits gay sex, so obviously I needed to look elsewhere if I wanted to find a spiritual path. Mythology and religion have always interested me - I remember switching to Norse mythology as early as elementary school, since I was already bored with Greco-Roman - so I started reading about other religions. Like most magicians, I went through a short but very educational Wiccan phase, and for a little while I was even calling myself Judeo-pagan. While I'm still a member of the <a href="">Jewitchery Yahoo group</a>, and highly recommend it for discussing all things Jewish and magical, I no longer consider myself pagan or a "witch" per se. But it's always been important to me to find a way to resolve the problem of following a religion that seems to condemn my lifestyle - a lifestyle that I don't believe was a choice.

The turning point in figuring out how this can work came for me when a client of mine - a former Catholic cantor who lives with his boyfriend of several years - told me about Rabbi Greenberg's book "Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition". (It's featured in the reading list to the right of this blog post.) As the only openly-gay Orthodox rabbi in the world, he too had a vested interest in the same problem I found so troubling. So he started with the Torah and then worked his way through the Talmudic prohibitions later. His book is great and I highly recommend picking up a copy if this blog post interests you... but I'm going to summarize some of his main points here so that I can comment on them if you haven't read it (and I assume most of you haven't).

Let's start with Leviticus 18:22. The JPS version has: "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman: it is an abhorrence." Everett Fox (who's usually closer to the truth of the Hebrew, since he doesn't have an Orthodox Jewish agenda in his translation) has this: "With a male you are not to lie (after the manner of) lying with a woman, it is an abomination!" So in this case, these two translations pretty much agree. In his book, Rabbi Greenberg points out that the phrase "lie as with a woman" is a translation of the Hebrew mishkeve ishah. He goes on to explain that the word mishkeve only appears one other place in the Torah, where it could mean sex intended to humiliate the other person. Therefore, he posits that the commandment could reasonably read, "With a male you are not to lie in order to humiliate, it is an abomination!"

This is an attractive translation for more reasons than just the way it potentially permits male-on-male intercourse. It's also very close to being a Torah prohibition on rape - which personally I'd like to believe the Torah explicitly contains. In addition, it speaks to a practice that was common in Greece and Rome - anal rape of another man in order to humiliate him and force him to submit to your will. Pretty disgusting, and rightly condemned in our holy book if Rabbi Greenberg has it right. And since the Zohar teaches that each Torah verse has a near-infinite number of possible interpretations, each and every one of them specifically intended by God, Rabbi Greenberg does indeed have it right. ;)

Then there's Leviticus 20:13, which at first glance appears almost identical to 18:22. Fox renders it like this: "A man who lies with a male (as one) lies with a woman - abomination have the two of them done, they are to be put to death, yes, death, their blood-guilt is upon them!" Sounds pretty harsh, right? But in fact this commandment may be about temple prostitution, which often involved intercourse with castrated male priests. For more on Rabbi Greenberg's interpretations (and his justifications) for both this verse and the previous one, have a look at his essay here.

As he says in the essay, the Torah itself appears completely unconcerned with homosexuality as a concept. That's the reason there's nothing in it about other sex acts between men, nor about lesbianism at all. An old rabbi of mine, Rabbi Schiff, actually said he thinks the commandments above aren't about homosexuality at all, but rather about "heterosexuals behaving badly", since it's only been within the past century or so that even our society has accepted the idea of someone being solely same-sex-attracted. (In older cultures, while it was in many cases considered more normal, that was more in the sense of a phase - something you'd eventually grow out of.) He told me this when I asked him "why the Torah teaches intolerance" when it comes to gay people - the question that started my entire journey toward eventually writing this blog post.

I found this interpretation a bit too convenient at first, but the Talmud actually bears it out: everyone knows how the Talmudic rabbis feel about men and women spending time alone together, but did you know two men aren't supposed to study alone together either? Yep. Apparently it's not enough for women to have to dress modestly and avoid touching any man who isn't their husband - men are so easily tempted into sex that even another man might do in a pinch. Either the Talmudic rabbis came up with the idea for Baitbus (NSFW) hundreds of years ago, or they considered sexuality to be far more fluid than most of us do today. This means if confronted with the idea of a man who's only sexually interested in other men, they'd probably think it was a myth or a joke - and it also means it wasn't what they were talking about.

Since he realizes many people will disagree with his interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, he also goes on to explain how he feels the commandments should be enforced if they are indeed translated correctly in the JPS version. While I think it was a mistake to tell this to an audience full of married Orthodox couples, I do think he's completely correct that an Orthodox couple who has sex while she's menstruating (or afterwards before she's gone to the mikveh) is worse-off halachically than a gay male couple who just abstain from anal sex altogether. It seems to me this would be a workable (if difficult) path for two Orthodox men who were in a relationship. As for lesbians, I know some of the Talmudic rabbis condemn "women who rub" (as they call them), but the Torah doesn't, and I think this is just another case of the rabbis ruling on something they know nothing about. Plus, they probably didn't want to think about their wives having that much fun behind their backs.


A good friend just posted this on my Facebook wall. It's wonderful to see modern Orthodox rabbis making up for the mistakes of their Talmudic forbears. I applaud their courage and compassion. Their emphasis on maintaining prohibitions on sex acts the Torah says nothing about is troubling, and their expectation that gay Orthodox Jews should just be celibate and avoid romantic relationships is ludicrous... but this is still a step in the right direction.

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