Homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism
A few months ago, Avraham pointed me to this Forward review of Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s new book Wrestling with God and Men. I wrote some preliminary thoughts based on the review, but the YUCS server crashed as I submitted it for posting. This technical glitch proved to be fortuitous in that Rabbi Greenberg visited UC later that week and I was able to talk to him personally and purchase a copy of the book. Although he still did not convince me of his arguments, he conveyed the emotional turmoil with which people live. In halakhic matters, people often ignore the human dimension involved of an issue and develop their opinions in a social vacuum. However, halakha is ultimately followed by people many of whom face difficult conflicts for a myriad of personal reasons. While personal issues alone are not sufficient to change Jewish law, we cannot ignore the tension and struggles that people face in their quest to be observant Jews.
Below is my review of Rabbi Greenberg’s book, as submitted to a writing seminar.
Like all faiths based on the Old Testament, Judaism is currently facing a crisis of how to treat homosexuals. At first glance there shouldn’t be much of a debate since the Bible is clearly views homosexuality as an “abomination.” Leviticus 18:22 prohibits a man from lying with another man as he would with a woman and Leviticus 20:13 mandates that the punishment for this violation is death.
While these verses defined Jewish law and attitudes for centuries, contemporary attitudes towards homosexuals have become increasingly liberal and tolerant (Loftus 2001). This accepting social environment allows many homosexuals to feel more comfortable with who they are, and therefore freer to “come out.” Thus, religious practitioners who are both heterosexual and homosexual Jews must reconcile the new social attitudes and realities with their traditional faiths.
In Judaism, there are currently several denominations with different opinions on how to reconcile ancient Jewish law with contemporary society. The more progressive movements, like Reform, readily adapt or eliminate Jewish laws when they are no longer relevant to the religious society. Regarding homosexuality, the Reform legal committee writes that just as they have “done away” with the dietary rules of kashrut for its lack of relevance, the prohibition against homosexuality is likewise outdated.
- We simply wish to emphasize that Reform Jews are no longer persuaded to avoid a particular act merely because the Torah calls it a to`evah. For us to accept this designation, the act must be abhorrent to us; it must strike us as a transgression against the most basic standards of kedushah that the Jewish people are called upon to uphold. And we no longer view homosexuality as such a transgression (CCAR, 1998). [emphasis theirs]
For Orthodox Jews who closely adhere to the Torah but have not secluded themselves from secular culture, this tension is even more pronounced. From the perspective of the Orthodox community, how should it treat homosexuals in light of the new social reality? Should the Orthodox community adapt their positions to the growing homosexual community, and if so, how? These are just some of the questions the Orthodox community must address regarding this issue.
Furthermore, the tension between homosexuality and Jewish law is not only a communal one. Homosexuals who have been raised as Orthodox Jews are not just looking for acceptance within the Jewish community, but they must also reconcile their personal identity with God. Existentially, many Orthodox homosexuals ask why God would create them with abominable desires. Practically, what can homosexuals do to satisfy the basic human need for companionship, while observing as much of the Torah as they can? Note that these challenges do not arise from a rejection of Judaism, but from an intense religious commitment which surpasses that of most Orthodox Jews. Usually an afterthought in legal discussions, the personal identity struggle is in fact the foundation of the tension.
Although many rabbis have refrained from addressing these issues, Rabbi Steven Greenberg has actively worked to encourage dialogue and to educate the Orthodox community. Rabbi Greenberg speaks from the unique perspective of being both an ordained Orthodox rabbi and as an open homosexual. Consequently, he not only is trained in traditional Jewish law, but he has personally experienced the trauma that many homosexuals face.
Rabbi Greenberg recently published Wrestling with God and Man which not only chronicles his own personal struggles with being an Orthodox homosexual, but also proposes solutions through innovative interpretations of Jewish law. Noticing the unusual phrase of “as you would lie with a woman” in Lev. 18:22, Rabbi Greenberg explains that the prohibition is not against homosexual intercourse, but of demeaning another man by treating him like a woman. He elaborates that in biblical times women were often treated as inferior, and the bible prohibits demeaning men by “womanizing” them. Historically, it was possible for men to engage in homosexual acts and not have their masculinity questioned (Chauncey, 1994). The larger issue is gender confusion – of treating a man like a woman (Greenberg, 2004, 203-208).
Rabbi Greenberg concludes that Lev. 18:22 is more misogynistic than homophobic, and therefore consensual respectful homosexual relationships are not included in the prohibition. He translates Lev. 18:22 as “And (either a female or) a male you shall not sexually penetrate to humiliate, it is abhorrent” (208). Although he does not explicitly apply his reading to Lev. 20:13, it would appear that it would prohibit even consensual sex acts in which the other party is intentionally demeaned i.e. he willingly presents himself as a woman. Thus, the prohibition of gender and role confusion would restrict consensual gender confusion. However, according to Rabbi Greenberg’s new interpretation, if the Torah only prohibits demeaning sexual acts, then homosexual intercourse would not be inherently forbidden. If both parties consent and engage in a loving act, the Torah could not possibly have prohibited such an action.
Acknowledging that many Orthodox rabbis will not accept this interpretation, Rabbi Greenberg suggests an alternative solution to accepting homosexuals in orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Greenberg suggests applying to homosexuals the legal category of “oness,” which means coerced, forced, or acting in a state of exigent circumstance. According to Jewish law, an oness is not considered responsible for his actions when he violates Jewish law. Rabbi Greenberg argues that since homosexuals are born with an intense desire they should not be held accountable for acting according to their innate nature, but they should be treated as having a natural condition. Therefore, although homosexuals might technically violate a biblical prohibition, their legal status would not be classify them as “sinners” (Greenberg, 250).
With these interpretations, Rabbi Greenberg attempts to resolve two of the challenges. First, he offers homosexuals a place within the Orthodox tradition. No longer do homosexuals need to feel that they are created as an abomination since their desires are not prohibited by God. Secondly, Rabbi Greenberg provides an alternative explanation for the non-homosexuals in the Jewish community, especially the rabbis. Ultimately, Rabbi Greenberg concludes that homosexuality is not necessarily inconsistent with traditional Jewish law.
Of course, what is considered to be “traditional” Jewish law is a matter of debate even within the Orthodox community. For example, the Talmud defines a positivistic judicial legal system with mechanisms and limitations for applying and adapting Jewish law. Where Jewish practice contradicted textual law, many later medieval commentators stressed popular practice over textual law, implying an evolutionary model of halakhic development. In the 1700’s, Rabbis were faced with the effects of the enlightenment and the rise of Reform Judaism. To combat these threats some rabbis adopted strong positions against altering even minor customs or participating in modern society (Hildesheimer, 1996), thus freezing the evolutionary process of Jewish law. Reflecting these changes in Jewish legal development, contemporary Orthodoxy is essentially an combination of text-based tradition, accepted innovations, and inherited “mimetic culture” (Soloveitchik, 1994). Rabbi Greenberg appears to argue from a combination of positivism and evolutionary development; the legal process is simultaneously absolute and authoritative but also subject to change. Although this dual system allows Rabbi Greenberg to arbitrarily apply his models to achieve his desired conclusion, it also reveals fundamental flaws in his understanding and application of Jewish law.
Even though Jewish practice has changed, certain fundamental principles of authority have not. For example, assuming Rabbi Greenberg’s biblical interpretation is plausible, his alternative exegesis does not warrant a change in normative Jewish law. Orthodox Judaism is not only dependent on the Bible itself, but the rabbinic interpretations of the bible. Although the legal interpretations are subject to change, all modifications in normative Jewish law must be done through a universally accepted court. Medievalist R. Samuel B. Meir, known as Rashbam, was perhaps the most literal of the traditional medieval commentators. Although he frequently offered different interpretations than the Talmudic Rabbis, he acknowledged that his exegetical interpretations do not affect normative Jewish law.1 In the same vein, Rabbi Greenberg simply lacks the authority to change Jewish law by means of an alternate exegetical interpretation.
Ironically, Rabbi Greenberg often appeals to the Talmud as the source of his authority since the Talmud itself allows for and encourages alternative legal interpretations (Greenberg, 209-210). For example, Rabbi Greenberg cites a rabbinic statement that to be appointed to the high court, one must be able to purify a reptile (31) as well as the general principle that law may change for different reasons (16).
However, while the Talmud does allow for different interpretations, it is also protective of how the law itself may change. Logic is essential for halakhic discourse, but logic alone is insufficient to change Jewish law. Using Rabbi Greenberg’s example, because a Rabbi constructs a case where a reptile could be pure, does not change the law to state that a reptile is pure. Law may indeed change for different reasons, but for observant Jews this cannot simply be haphazard.
Rabbi Greenberg claims that he “is committed to the halakhic system”(13) but immediately advocates a model of unrestricted Jewish evolution not unlike Solomon Schechter’s Catholic Israel or Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization. If “halakha” is in fact a legal system, then it is bound by the laws of Jewish law and cannot be changed based on an individual’s new interpretation. Even the usually progressive Conservative movement is having difficulty reaching a resolution. Rabbi Elliot Dorf, whose daughter recently came out as a lesbian, argues for the social necessity of permitting homosexuality (2004). However, Rabbi Joel Roth, a leading scholar of Conservative halakha, cannot find any halakhic justification for homosexuality, even according to Conservative Judaism’s progressive legal standards (2004).
Assuming the halakhic system is in fact evolutionary, then it still must be subject to the specific Orthodox model. Contemporary Jewish standards do not allow for any interpretation, but are more dependent on certain rabbis making the decisions themselves. No rabbi would dare advocate such a radical change in Jewish law to deny what has until now been always accepted as the authoritative interpretation. Finally, as conceded by Greenberg, historical change happens gradually. While it is understandable that Rabbi Greenberg wishes to accelerate halakhic evolution in this case, he would in fact be violating the halakhic process by proactively advocating a change in the status quo as opposed to allowing for a gradual and natural development.
Rabbi Greenberg’s second argument of coercion is deceptively attractive. Although he is correct that an oness is exempt from divine punishments, applying this status to homosexuals undermines the Jewish legal system. Were rabbis to grant homosexuals a special dispensation, then there is no reason not to apply the principle of oness to every biblical or rabbinic prohibition. Anyone could claim that their sin was merely the result of the way that God created them, and this would be why they committed adultery, murder, or any other transgression.
Perhaps the flaws in Rabbi Greenberg’s argument are the result of his succumbing to personal biases. Although he admits that he is not a disinterested party, Rabbi Greenberg explains that as long as one realizes his prejudices, the scholarship may still be valid (20-22). However, Rabbi Greenberg does not merely approach this topic with a biased worldview, but he in fact assumes his conclusion a priori. In Rabbi Greenberg’s thought, it is impossible for homosexuality to be forbidden since God would never create a person with desires, and then forbid someone to act on them. Therefore, he reinterprets all textual passages to justify his conclusion.
This premise does not only result in incorrect legal rulings, but it also leads him to formulate questionable analogies. Rabbi Greenberg repeatedly compares homosexuals to heterosexuals. While the former are unfairly forbidden from pursuing meaningful relationships in the way of their choosing, heterosexuals face no such restriction. This comparison is simply incorrect. Single heterosexual men are also forbidden in satisfying their desires. True it is possible that they may marry, but not only is this is not guaranteed, until one does get married he is faced with the same repression. Furthermore, heterosexual married couples are not permitted to each other while the wife is menstruating, nor are they allowed to participate in every sex-act which they desire. Even permitted relationships have their own rules and restrictions. Jewish law demands restraint, despite the human desires.
Although homosexual celibacy is not an acceptable option for Rabbi Greenberg (15), the distinction between desire and action is key for future understanding and perhaps acceptance of homosexual individuals in Orthodox Judaism. In advising rabbis for counseling homosexual congregants, Wolowolsky and Weinstein rightly state that “halakha focuses on the ability to withdraw from executing a natural impulse, not from feeling the impulse itself” (1995). When applied to homosexuality, it is crucial to remember that it is act which is prohibited, not the state of being or the relationship. Furthermore, how the community accepts those who are homosexual, and even those who act inappropriately, is subjective. The punishment for homosexuality is identical to that of desecrating the Sabbath. Just as Sabbath violators are not ostracized from the community, the community need not ostracize homosexuals. Regarding the ethical statement of “abominations,” dietary rules are also considered “abominations” (Deut. 14:3) and yet those who do not keep kosher are also accepted in the community.
Complete and total acceptance for homosexuals is unlikely and an unreasonable request. Although they may be socially accepted, certain actions are still forbidden by Jewish law. Forcing changes in Jewish law will not only have long-term ramifications in Jewish jurisprudence, but immediate radical modifications will be rejected by the current community.
However, this does not mean that homosexuals have no place in Judaism; the religious community need not condone the act, but they may accept the individuals. Rabbi Greenberg passionately conveys the personal struggle of homosexuals in the Orthodox community, and the Orthodox community must at least recognize the depth of their anguish. Homosexuals who wish to be part of the orthodox community need not be alone, but they must still act in accordance with Jewish law. The Jewish community then must be sensitive to the internal struggles homosexuals face. For there to be any practical resolution, both homosexuals and the Orthodox community must abide by Rabban Gamliel’s aphorism, “nullify your will for His will.” For homosexuals, Jewish law serves as a boundary – a limitation on their practices. But it also allows for the Orthodox community to comfort those who are still wrestling with God and men.
1. See for example, his commentary to Gen. 1:5 and 1:8. Rashbam’s exegetical interpretation of the Torah differs from the legal Rabbinic interpretation.
CCAR Journal “On Homosexual Marriage” [Special Issue] (Winter 1998) 5-35.
Chauncy, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay
Male World 1890-1940. Basic Books, New York. 1994. (60-62)
Dorf, Elliot. “Medical and Moral Reasons to Change the Law.” USCJ Review, Spring
Greenberg, Steven. Wrestling with God and Man. University of Wisconsin Press,
Hildesheimer, Meir. “The German Language and Secular Studies; Attitudes Towards
them in the Thought of the Hatam Sofer and his Disciples.” PAAJR 62
Loftus, Jeni. “America’s Liberalization in Attitudes toward Homosexuality, 1973 to
1998.” American Sociological Review 66:5 (Oct, 2001), 762-782.
Roth, Joel. “We Can’t Legitimate Homosexuality halakhically.” USCJ Review, Spring
Soloveitchik, Haym. “Rupture and Reconstruction; The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy.” Tradition 28:4 (1994) 64-130.
Woloweksy, Joel B. Weinstein, Bernard L. “Initial Religious Counseling for a Male
Orthodox Adolescent Homosexual” Tradition 29:2 (1995) 49-55