Late in the Day

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My last post re Conservative clergy mulling homosexual ordination generated comment from several people who communicated their distaste for what I wrote. They raised issues that I feel I should address, and, indeed, I’ve directly contacted two of them to discuss their concerns. I feel I should discuss this on Cross Currents as well and will, bl”n, do so in a coming post.

But for now, I thought I’d reprint here an article of mine entitled “Judaism, Nature and Homosexuality” that appeared in the Forward in February 2001, both because of its general relevance to the current Conservative situation and its specific relevance to the following Ha’aretz news item cited in Shira Schmidt’s recent comment:

“Rabbi Alan Cohen of Overland Park, Kansas, said his synagogue, in a show of sensitivity to gays, years ago replaced a traditional Bible reading on the afternoon of the Yom Kippur Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year.His congregation dropped the reading that included Leviticus 18:22, which says: ‘Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.'”

Here, pace clergyman Cohen, is my piece:

Only months after its decision to sanction rabbinical officiation at same-sex commitment ceremonies, the Reform movement has again assumed the role of religious trendsetter on homosexuality. The movement’s action this time, however — urging its congregations to terminate Boy Scout chapters because of that group’s policy banning openly homosexual troop leaders — signals that not only is the homosexual lifestyle worthy of a religious imprimatur, but that it is unjustifiable, even immoral, to hold otherwise.

Yet, Reform’s embrace of homosexuality puts it way out in front of virtually every other denomination of any religion. More importantly for Jews, it is radically anomalous within the context of Jewish history. As professor David Greenberg observed in “The Construction of Homosexuality,” even in antiquity, when countless cultures and religions incorporated homosexuality in some form, Judaism absolutely rejected homosexual practices.

To understand just how fundamental to Judaism that rejection is, it might be helpful to clarify why the Torah outlawed a sexual orientation that for many seems to come quite naturally. Whether a homosexual predilection is attributable primarily to nature or nurture is an unsettled scientific question that has also been turned into a political football in America’s culture wars. Doubtless, however, homosexual tendencies — whatever their source — become deeply embedded and most often can be sublimated, not to mention eradicated, only with great effort.

This being so, how is it that the Torah addresses this area in such absolutely unforgiving terms, seemingly oblivious to just how ingrained and “natural” the homosexual impulse is or can become for some individuals? The answer to this question opens a window into the Torah’s view on the purpose of all its commandments (mitzvot), prescriptive and proscriptive, large and small.

A primary function and overall goal of the commandments is nothing less than the transformation of the individual. Judaism addresses the human being as it finds him — in his “natural” state — seething with animal passions, ridden with negative character traits. Through the agency of those Divine tools of refinement that are the commandments, the Torah beckons man to exchange his obsession with sensuality, his pettiness, self-centeredness and worse for a world of spiritual grandeur and ultimate meaning.

The implacable foe with which Judaism’s battle is forever pitched, then, is not so much secularism or even non-belief as it is “nature,” that is, the human being’s intense desire to eschew growth and change, to remain static in the face of God’s summons to greatness. No one perceived — and furiously opposed — this overarching Judaic objective more than the modern-day manifestation of evil incarnate, Adolf Hitler. He wrote in “Mein Kampf,” “a man must…understand the fundamental necessity of Nature’s rule…. Then he will feel that in a universe where…force alone forever masters weakness…there can be no special laws for man.”

The nature of the challenge posed by the Torah will, of course, vary with the individual, based on proclivities both inborn and acquired. For some, that challenge will be the struggle to control anger and aggressiveness, while for others, it will be the attempt to rein in arrogance and reach out in acknowledgement of the other. Yet others’ particularly daunting charge will be combating powerful sensual drives, with their potential to reduce the unlimited human potential to nothing more than the pursuit of shallow, momentary fleshy pleasures. This is no less true for the individual who claims to have been “born gay” than for anyone else.

(As an aside, it is instructive to note the implications for Jewish feminism of the notion of God’s commandments as vehicles for self-improvement rather than as so many trophies awarded to those most spiritually favored. Such an understanding might well dissuade those women who demand total ritual parity with men.)

This rendering of the enterprise of human living is at odds with theologies that locate the source of moral authority within each individual. Such world views, in which the individual is not subject to demands for change emanating from without, will inevitably diverge from Judaism’s view on homosexuality.

The author Milton Himmelfarb relates that in the midst of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ deliberations over the ordaining of homosexuals, a professor at Hebrew Union College reminded the rabbis “that Leviticus 18 — the Jewish tradition’s choice, over 186 other chapters in the Pentateuch, as the reading for Yom Kippur afternoon —— calls homosexual acts an abomination. A member of the majority easily disposed of the objection: ‘It’s pretty late in the day for Scripture to be invoked in CCAR debates.'”

Could it be that the Sages, in instituting that particular reading “late in the day” on Yom Kippur, whose overriding theme is that of the fundamental need for repentance and change, were subtly conveying a message that remains as up-to-date as today’s headlines?

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2 Responses

  1. Lisa says:

    The “alternative reading” for Yom Kippur is provided as an alternative in Conservative machzorim as well. This is hardly a Reform issue alone.

    Speaking as a frum Jew who is gay, I find this “alternative reading” to be utterly offensive both from a Torah perspective and from a gay perspective. From a Torah perspective, the idea of omitting part of Hashem’s commandments because some people take affront to them is ludicrous. If one of the mitzvot bothers someone, they need to work on that. You don’t try to change the Torah to make it over in your own personal image. And from a gay perspective, I don’t engage in any activities which are contrary to halakha. Changing the reading on Yom Kippur ostensibly to protect my feelings and the feelings of others like me, far from being kind, is an accusation. It is a statement of, “These are things that you do, and we just want to be nice about it.” I resent that. It’s actually even worse than a full-on accusation, because it’s hidden behind a facade of “caring”. It gives nothing that can be argued with.

  2. bvw says:

    I think that the very deep sense of the spritual each Jew has acts like compass’s needle — one end points true, the other perfectly away from the true. Without a marking on the face of the compass one can easily pick the perfectly wrong direction.