How Religions Are Updated: Homosexuality and the Torah
A couple weeks ago, I wrote a bit about the ways in which religions are not monolithic and, therefore, why I think that bigoted is the appropriate way to describe people who adopt the version of their religion that allows for condemnation of homosexuality rather than the version of their religion that insists on treating everyone equally.
I could have dispensed with this line of argumentation, as my friend Jamie Mayerfeld pointed out in a Facebook comment, and simply noted that “Religion should not be an excuse for immorality and injustice. Or to put it another way, people should not wait for the permission of their religion to do the right thing.”
I agree entirely with his line of thinking, but I wanted to do what Glenn Loury and Ann Althouse claim not enough people on my side of the same-sex marriage argument are doing, namely taking religion and the claims of religious people seriously.
And so I want to say a bit more, in particular about Orthodox Judaism and homosexuality. I think what I’ll say also has some bearing on most other religious arguments against homosexuality (at least those that stem from Leviticus) so this isn’t all that idiosyncratic.
My understanding of the problem that the Abrahamic religions have with homosexuality is that it stems from a single passage in Leviticus: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.”
The Torah is here describing an action and charging Jews to avoid it. There is no mention of homosexual attraction, only the action of lying “with a male as one lies with a female.” Leaving aside all the things we might say about the clarity or lack of clarity in this passage, it’s clear that sexuality was understood very differently thousands of years ago than many of us understand it today. Sleeping with members of the same sex was a choice, one very much akin to the choice in the next passage about bestiality.
But we — at least a great many of us — today understand that homosexuality is not an action and it’s not a choice. Someone isn’t gay only when he sleeps with a member of the same sex. And someone isn’t choosing to be gay. Whether or not Orthodox Jews — and here I should note that Orthodoxy is itself not monolithic — have come to accept these things isn’t even really the issue (though it undoubtedly will be the issue for some people who read this). The issue is that, even if they accept these things about homosexuality as true, they claim that there just isn’t anything to be done: the Torah says what the Torah says and there’s really no way to disagree with or to update it.
Of course, we know that there are all sorts of prescriptions in the Torah that Jews — even Orthodox Jews — don’t follow today. No one, for example, condones the stoning of disobedient children. So why follow this one, especially if it’s built on a faulty understanding of the human condition? The answer is timing.
There was a time when the rabbis interpreted, discussed, and debated the teachings of the Torah; they wrote down those deliberations and Jews still turn to them today for guidance. But for Orthodox Jewry, the time for such deliberations is over. Coming up with new interpretations in 2012 is problematic, in no small part because of the great gulf that exists between us and the revelation at Sinai. In this way, Orthodox Judaism remains frozen in time (though, importantly, my friend Rabbi Jason Miller points out that even Orthodox Judaism changes … just very, very slowly).
And this frozenness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Orthodox are keepers of a long, unbroken tradition that otherwise might have been lost already or that surely would be lost before long. Non-Orthodox Jews are lucky to have the Orthodox around, even if they don’t know it or don’t want to admit it.
The trouble is when the Orthodox frozenness runs up against science or when it bumps up against other values that Jews hold dear (like respecting human dignity). While it’s true that we’re always getting further from Sinai, it’s also true that we’re learning more about ourselves. The rabbis of old found ingeneous ways to deal with problematic passages in the Torah in the past, not by denying their existence or choosing to ignore them but by finding ways to embrace those passages while, at the same time, nullifying them. The example of the disobedient child is instructive. The rabbis ruled not that the Torah is wrong in calling for the stoning death of such a child; instead, they argued, such a child ought to be stoned if he were ever to be found … but they understood the definitions of both childhood and disobedience in such a way that no such child will ever exist.
This is where Conservative Judaism parts company from Orthodoxy, in that it respects tradition but allows for continued argumentation about and interpretaton of the Torah. There is, of course, some unfortunate slippage — not as many Conservative Jews observe the laws of kashrut or refrain from all work on Shabbat — but there’s also greater inclusivity. Because Orthodox Judaism changes so slowly (if at all), it runs the risk of complete ossification, which might not be so bad except that it allows those who adhere to it to avoid the difficult conversations that arise from changing times and changing understanding.
The Torah’s condemnation of homosexuality proceeds from an understanding of human sexuality that no longer holds much water. But the appeal above — the Torah says what the Torah says and there’s really no way to disagree with or to update it — allows Orthodox Jews to sidestep the whole debate about welcoming gays and lesbians, to either cling to a misunderstanding or to simply put the needs of their fellow human beings out of their minds. The most learned rabbis of old found such interesting ways to intepret the teachings of the Torah so that unpleasant edicts might be avoided; there’s very little reason why the most learned Orthodox rabbis of today couldn’t do the same.