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Judaism: After the Death of Gay Marriage

A clear explanation of the Torah attitude to homosexuality - and the future plans of fighters for gay marriage.
Published: Thursday, April 18, 2013 9:50 AM


In June, 1989, the American Medical Association (AMA) held its annual meeting in Chicago. The Hirsch family was two months shy of making Aliyah, and on the last Sunday of June, we were driving north to Camp Moshava, Wild Rose, Wisconsin.

After ten years as camp doctor (for one glorious week a year, always the first week, so that the campers weren’t too homesick yet, thereby cutting down on my workload and giving us a family vacation), this was anticipated to be my last stint in Wisconsin after ten summers. As we drove northward, WBBM radio played the following news bulletin:

“The AMA building has been taken over by gay-rights protestors, disrupting the annual meeting. We are live at the site, with an interview with one of the protest leaders. Mr. X, why are you gay-rights activists taking over this building?’"

‘We are demanding rights equal to those of other minority groups. In the light of the AIDS epidemic, we are using this medical venue to demand acceptance of the legitimate civil rights of gays. The fact is that there is simply too much traditional morality in America, and we want to use the AMA and other organizations to teach America otherwise.’ “

We got quite a laugh over that last line about “too much morality”, but as I’ll show, things have certainly progressed in the last 25 years. With dozens of American states now considering gay marriage bills, and the Supreme Court about to deal with the issue, this week’s Parsha, Acharei Mot (After the Death) has a message:

“You are prohibited from doing the sex act with a male, in the manner of sex with a female; it is a to’eiva “ (Leviticus 18:22). King James translates to’eiva as “abomination”, but this may not be accurate. Bar Kappara (Talmud Nedarim, 51a) views the word as a “noterikon”, a contraction of the three words “toeh atah bah”, you are making a mistake”. Torah Temimah explains the syllable “bah” of the three-part contraction as “in this way (derech) “, meaning that you are straying from the fundamental ways of Creation by doing this.

Tosafot in Nedarim translates “bah” differently, as the word can also mean "towards her" saying it refers to one’s wife (or divinely intended wife); that is, one who is involved in homosexual activity is straying from “her”, his wife ( the Torah does not explicitly include lesbian activity in the same biblical commandment, although Rambam notes that it is Rabbinically prohibited ; Issurei Biah, 21:8).

The translation of “error” leads to an entirely different view of homosexuality.

I first heard this view from Rabbi Barry Freundel, who spoke at several summer conventions of the Association of Orthodox Jewish scientists in the 1980’s. I recently serendipitously found his article on the subject when someone discarded it in our synagogue during his pre-Pesach cleaning. The article appears in the Spring, 1986 volume of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (pages 70-87):

There is no such thing as a Jewish homosexual. Nowhere in halakha is a person defined by his sexual orientation. Jewish society consists of halakhically defined priest, levite, king, prophet, Sanhedrin, minor, man(ish), woman, deaf-mute,etc. There are biologically and halakhic definitions of hermaphrodite, menstruant, menopausal female, etc. However, the homosexual does not appear on the list of those with a separate status in the Jewish community.

This is because homosexuality is, as noted above, viewed as an activity, an error -  but not as a definition of a person’s being. “Homosexual” is therefore not a noun, identifying and categorizing the individual, but an adjective describing his sin/error.

Viewed thus, a person who indulges in homosexual activity is to be viewed as no different than one who sins by eating nonkosher food (Deuteronomy 14:3), idolatry(ibid,7:25-26) and committing unethical business practices(ibid, 25:16). All these sins are also described as “to’eiva”. Yet we do not ascribe some special status to those committing these errors.

Furthermore, although the unethical businessman may have deep psychological drives to steal, halakha makes no dispensation for these drives. The thief, murderer, adulterer,etc. is expected to control his urges, and to desist from sin; classically, our rabbis have said that a Jew should say that that he’d love to have a tasty ham sandwich, but that the Torah forbids it.

Even if a genetic or supra-genetic basis for homosexualism were to be found (despite much effort by gay scientists to prove such biological determinism, none has been discovered), the Torah would view it in the same light as the Talmud’s description of King David’s personality: he was a redhead like Esau, with the same murderous tendencies. Yet David controlled his DNA, rising above his biology, “killing only per the sanction of the Sanhedrin”.

Our basic covenant as Jews, the brit of circumcision, enjoins us with the defining command that a Jew rises above the compunctions (viewed as impurity,”tumah”) of the physical, including biology, with its DNA, sex hormones, forces of evolution, etc., and uses conscience, morals, wisdom, belief, and all other human faculties to rise above the level of barbarians (a fact that Hitler, may he rot in Hell, used as his excuse for war against the Jews).

Furthermore, should a Jew commit any sin, he is enjoined to repent, to change his ways - and the sin of homosexual activity is no different. No one can change his DNA, hormones, kleptomania, etc., but a Jew can change his actions.

With this differing view of homosexual activity, Jewish society changes the errant Jew’s perception of himself. He is no longer a reviled outsider, pushed outside of Jewish society and synagogue. Rather, he should be welcomed with the welcome afforded those who eat nonkosher, drive on Shabbos, etc. Lubavich especially has long championed the view that we are all Jews, and as such artificial divisions between us (Reform, Orthodox, gay,etc.) are invalid, and such labels must not be used.

This essentially pulls the rug out of those who advocate gay rights, synagogues, marriage, etc. Gays should be welcomed in our synagogues, as there is no place for granting them separate institutions (any more then setting up a shul called “Rodfei Gezel “, those who pursue theft).

Rabbi Freundel: “ We should couple our tolerance of the individual with disapproval of the activity”.

As a physician, I add that as a young physician in 1981, I saw the issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, which contained three articles on a mysterious illness killing gays in the bathhouses of San Francisco. Later, the overlap of the gay population with the IV drug addicts, whose income was boosted by selling their blood for transfusions, led to AIDS in the general public, as did heterosexual activity by gays. I personally cared for a thirty year old teacher who was killed by the blood transfusion she had received two years earlier during heart valve surgery; and I cared for a 70-year-old who died of an AIDS-tainted transfusion for his bleeding ulcer.

These were innocent victims of an epidemic for whom gays bear guilt. Yet, like other postmoderns, who redefine dangerous behavior that threatens society as benign (as in liberals who redefined the PLO as legitimate freedom fighters and politicians, ignoring Israel’s 1,500 dead and September 11th’s 2,700 dead ), the gays never expressed remorse. AIDS may be treatable, but at tremendous cost, and gays historically played a causal role in the epidemic.

One final point: we find ourselves on a 25 year slippery slope, and “gay marriage” is not the end of it. Recently, well-known gerontologist Aubrey de Grey wrote an article called “The Overdue Demise of Monogamy” (in John Brockman’s anthology "That Expains Everything", pages 15-18). De Grey says that now that gay marriage is a “battle won”, society should now take the next logical step and rid itself of the “inconvenience of monogamy…with all its pain and suffering. For is not sex simply another form of recreational activity?”.

He sees that only problems arise from the “inconvenient responsibilities of deeper emotional attachments”, and sees the benefits of casual sex in a society characterized by “shifts of affection and evolving social interactions”.

De Grey glosses over, as unimportant, the great sexual issues of long-term investment, integrity, love, care, relationship, and what Judaism calls “specialness” (kedusha, also translated as holiness; gentiles too speak of the bond of holy matrimony). Try raising a kid in an emotional quicksand that always “shifts and evolves”. See with what kind of character that child, and his reptilian parents, eventually end up.

That is the future envisioned for us “After the Death (Acharei Mot)” of gay - and all other - marriage.