Why our fundamental values support, rather than oppose, equality for sexual minorities.
Introductory text for Part One of his book
God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality
I would suggest that you read the book “God vs. Gay by Jay Michaelson.” He’s a Jew and does a great job of exegeting the Hebrew scriptures.
-from a post on Facebook
Michaelson’s book is divided into two parts. Part One derives some basic principles from the Bible, such as love, fairness, compassion, and justice, to create a framework by which one can integrate people in “loving same-sex relationships” into the overarching intent if not the actual narrative of the Bible. Part Two is more about the “nuts and bolts” of the Biblical passages that speak of homosexuality, particularly those that appear to prohibit or condemn homosexual practices.
Today, I’m reviewing Part One.
First of all, I commend Mr. Michaelson as a writer. He’s clear, concise, easy to access, and even entertaining. If I were reading his book with an uncritical eye and had no particular viewpoint on the issues involved, I could see myself becoming convinced by him within about the first thirty pages or so of his book. I definitely can see those people who already possess attitudes like his or who tend to be sympathetic to the matters he raises being convinced pretty much right away. After all, who could possibly be against caring for vulnerable and injured human beings and standing up for the underdog?
On the other hand, to paint the proper portrait of the Bible establishing principles that support and even demand that same-sex partners in loving relationships belong in the Church and be accepted by Christianity (and also by Judaism), requires that he read and interpret Biblical passages from the broadest possible perspective.
Loneliness. “It is not good for the human being to be alone,” God says in Genesis 2:18. In context, this is a shocking pronouncement. Six times God has remarked how good everything is: light, heaven and earth, stars, plants, animals — all of these things are “good.” The entirety of creation is “very good.” Yet suddenly something is not good. Suddenly, God realizes there is something within the world as we find it that is insufficient, something all of us experience in our own lives and strive to transcend: the existential condition of being alone.
Chapter 1: “It is not good for a person to be alone”
Michaelson’s treatment of scriptural quotes follows a pattern throughout the chapters in Part One of his book in that they are read from an overly broad viewpoint and often given an unusual or unique interpretation. After all, can God really be surprised? Did He not plan to form a counterpart for Adam from the very beginning? All of the created animals were created male and female. Were not human beings planned to be male and female as well? It seems rather odd that God should create Havah (Eve) as an afterthought and more odd still that, from Michaelson’s point of view, Eve, except for the part having to do with procreation, could easily have been replaced with a male. It’s a terrific stretch to say, as Michaelson seems to, that Genesis presupposes homosexual humanity.
What some folks don’t understand about the closet is that it’s not just a set of walls around sexual behavior. It’s a net of lies that affects absolutely everything in one’s life: how you dress, who you befriend, how you walk, how you talk. And how you love. How can anyone build authentic relationships under such conditions? And if you’re religious, how can you be honest with yourself and your God if you maintain so many lies, so many walls running right through the center of your soul?
This is the other argument Part One presents. It’s not based on the Bible particularly but rather on the presentation of pain, isolation, and loneliness and the desire for companionship and community, including religious community.
On top of that, Michaelson declares “Sexual diversity is real” (p.10), and accesses some scientific evidence to establish that it is natural and normal for various creatures in the animal kingdom and for human beings to display said-diversity, inferring that since sexual diversity is (supposedly) in-born, it must be an intended creation of God’s and thus part of God’s plan for human beings.
However, this requires a tremendously skewed view of the Biblical text along with infusing popular opinion and modern progressive values on sexuality, both as it was considered in the ancient world and today, in order to come to this conclusion.
But he may have shot himself in the foot by stating the following (p.11):
…as I have remarked already, our current sexual categories are of relatively recent coinage.
It seems rather strange that all of recorded human history just “missed” this “coinage” and that “loving same-sex relationships” haven’t, in some sense, been the norm across all cultures across all time, but the terms and concepts associated with the modern LGBTQ community are only decades old (if that, in some cases). While, as Michaelson says, we have visual and textual evidence of homosexual practices in our history, their function, purpose, and meaning is hidden from us, or if not hidden, at odds with the current conceptualization of same-sex relationships being completely comparable to opposite-sex relationships.
But if Genesis is any guide, and if our conscience is any guide, then we must see that having people in love with one another, building homes and perhaps families together, is religiously preferable to its absence.
Except I cannot derive this from anything in Genesis unless I read the chapter in the broadest and most allegorical sense. Certainly no literal or semi-literal reading of the text renders such a meaning, and no accepted exegetical praxis can automatically come to the conclusion Michaelson presents in his above-quoted words.
I could condense the next two chapters into the following statements and quotes.
What about Leviticus, Romans, and Corinthians? Love demands that we read them narrowly, just as we read narrowly the commandments to stone rebellious children to death, or to sell people into slavery. They are already marginal texts — homosexuality never appears in the teachings of Jesus, or the Ten Commandments, and love does not erase them. But it does limit them.
Chapter 3: “Love your neighbor as yourself”
There are exegetical and logical errors in the quote above but it communicates Michaelson’s understanding of how to read the Bible and find acceptance of LGBTQ people in the community of faith. Here’s one more:
One New Testament scholar has written that “any interpretation of scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable.” This is a crucial point. If we approach “the question of homosexuality” as a legal, academic, or hermeneutical enterprise, we will get nowhere religiously. All the arguments work, and the anti-gay ones are just as clever as the pro-gay. No — to be responsible members of a faith tradition, we must first open our hearts, allow them to be broken by the heartrending stories of gays who have suffered from exclusion, plague, and self-loathing, and uplifted by inspiring stories of integration, love, and celebration.
I suppose I should add:
“All you need is love.”
Sorry if that last bit sounded cynical, but Michaelson isn’t saying anything different from what I’ve read before. You’d think he’d want to bring out the “big guns” in the very beginning of his book to “hook” his doubting audience and cause them (us, me) to believe that the Bible has been so grossly misinterpreted due to cultural prejudice against gays that the “truth” has been hidden until now.
Unfortunately, he throws exegesis right out the window or at least replaces the complex matrix of interpretive methods we apply to the Bible with “all you need is love.”
If God doesn’t want people to suffer and we, as believers, don’t want to be unjust and cause needless suffering, then we must allow ourselves “to be broken by the heartrending stories of gays who have suffered from exclusion, plague, and self-loathing, and uplifted by inspiring stories of integration, love, and celebration.”
I’m sorry. I don’t want to be mean, cruel, and unfair, but the only thing Michaelson has established for me so far is that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the Bible and how gay people experience their own identity and sexuality.
Chapter 3 ends with:
No religious tradition tells us to close our eyes, harden our hearts, and steel ourselves against the demands of love. Though it may occasionally offer us shelter in an uncertain world, rigidity of spirit is not the way to salvation. On the contrary, our diverse religious traditions demand that we be compassionate, loving, and caring toward others, even others whom we may not understand. The Golden Rule demands reciprocity and compassion, and basic equality. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; give them the same privileges, civilly and religiously, that you would want for yourself. These are core religious principles, found over and over again in the Bible and in thousands of years of religious teaching. Compassion demands that we inquire into the lives of gay people, and discover if the “other” is like us or not. Look for the truth, and you will find it, indeed, it will find you.
As I said, Michaelson is a very talented, clever, and convincing writer. He also takes some general principles one can glean from the Bible and applies them to an arena that no Biblical scholar, saint, or tzaddik would have done at any point in the past. Where in the classic Christian commentaries or the judgments of the Talmudic sages is God’s intent expressed in the same manner as Michaelson’s? I can feel him attempting to tug at my heartstrings, but when I look back into the Bible or even into the secular historical record, I don’t find “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” or “loving same-sex monogamous relationships” written anywhere on any of their pages.
Then, starting in Chapter 4: “By the word of God were the heavens made,” Michaelson throws something new into the mix.
Homosexuality is normal. The sentence is simple, honest, and supported by science — and yet, to many religious people it may seem surprising, even blasphemous, at first. Yet sexual diversity is part of the fabric of nature, and if we believe that fabric to have been woven by God, then it is part of the mind of God as well. Same-sex behaviors are found in over one hundred species, from apes to elephants, guppies to macaques. Put in stark religious terms, sexual diversity is part of God’s plan.
If it weren’t so tragically wrong that paragraph would be almost laughable. According to this “logic,” if something, anything exists in the world, it must be part of God’s plan and part of the “mind of God.” Really? What else exists in our broken and damaged world? War, rape, child abuse, robbery, prostitution, birth defects, divorce, death. Did God intend all of that when He created the universe?
Our world became broken the first time a human being disobeyed a commandment from God, and it’s been broken ever since. In Christianity, it’s called “Original Sin”. Judaism has no such concept, but it does have Tikkun Olam, or “Repairing the World.” The idea is that the world is imperfect and requires that people participate in its perfection. It is accompanied by the idea that only the Messiah will be able to complete the task of fully perfecting the world, even though each and every one of us has a part in the “repair job”.
Either way you slice it, the world we live in isn’t the world God intended. It’s the world we created by human disobedience and human ego. You cannot say that God intended everything that is “natural” because death and suffering are natural, and are also the result of people, not God. Yes, God permits it, but only because we’ve earned it. We’ve got free will. We can screw up a free lunch. Thus Michaelson’s argument of “if it’s natural, it’s part of God’s plan” is dead wrong.
Dennis Prager in his article Judaism’s Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism (and then Christianity) Rejected Homosexuality paints human nature with very different brush strokes:
It is probably impossible for us, who live thousands of years after Judaism began this process, to perceive the extent to which undisciplined sex can dominate man’s life and the life of society. Throughout the ancient world, and up to the recent past in many parts of the world, sexuality infused virtually all of society.
Human sexuality, especially male sexuality, is polymorphous, or utterly wild (far more so than animal sexuality). Men have had sex with women and with men; with little girls and young boys; with a single partner and in large groups; with total strangers and immediate family members; and with a variety of domesticated animals. They have achieved orgasm with inanimate objects such as leather, shoes, and other pieces of clothing, through urinating and defecating on each other (interested readers can see a photograph of the former at select art museums exhibiting the works of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe); by dressing in women’s garments; by watching other human beings being tortured; by fondling children of either sex; by listening to a woman’s disembodied voice (e.g., “phone sex”); and, of course, by looking at pictures of bodies or parts of bodies. There is little, animate or inanimate, that has not excited some men to orgasm. Of course, not all of these practices have been condoned by societies — parent-child incest and seducing another’s man’s wife have rarely been countenanced — but many have, and all illustrate what the unchanneled, or in Freudian terms, the “un-sublimated,” sex drive can lead to.
Prager attributes Judaism and God’s insistence on monogamous male-female romantic/erotic relationships with the creation and sustainment of Western civilization. We don’t often think of heterosexual monogamous marriage as “revolutionary” but compared to what all of the pagan cultures before and after the establishment of Judaism and Christianity were practicing, it certainly was.
From Prager’s perspective, what is natural is actually contrary to rather than in compliance with the plan of God for humanity.
More from Chapter 4 of Michaelson, p.33:
Still other scientists have observed that, in animal species close to our own, sexuality performs many functions other than reproduction. Bonobo apes, for example, engage in sexual behavior to build all kinds of relationships, to establish power, and, apparently, for fun.
That’s supposed to counter the Christian/conservative argument that sex is exclusively or primarily for reproduction. Of course, most of us won’t argue that sex is also “fun,” but did God intend for us to imitate Bonobo apes? Sex to establish power is often called rape. In the Roman culture of time of the apostles, male Roman citizens would participate in same-sex sex, but only as the “penetrator” in order to establish power and control. Only non-citizens and slaves were to be the “receivers” of the “contact” with the Roman males.
Yes, sex can be used to establish all sorts of relationships as science and history testify, but this can hardly be mixed into God’s intent for human intimacy. Michaelson scrambles science and religion in a way that looks like a hot pan full of “failed omelet.”
Michaelson’s reliance on science includes results of various studies but what he fails to mention is that given the current political and social bias toward support of normalizing the LGBTQ community in western culture, no one is going to fund any scientific research that could even potentially come up with a result other than the desired one (that is, desired by social progressives). No scientific funding will ever be provided to discover why a small percentage (about 3 to 5 percent, although Michaelson says the figure could go as high as 10 percent) of the general human population is gay, including the possibility that this is not a “normal” and expected variance in human sexuality.
On page 40, Michaelson compares the diversity of human (and animal) sexuality to the differences in the colors of flowers. Just as God created flowers of different colors, He created people with different sexualities, which seems to be an extremely loose and dubious comparison.
In Chapter 5: “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” a Biblical statement prohibiting lying under oath in a legal proceeding, Michaelson grossly generalizes the scripture to being “in the closet,” a state in which all gay people must lie about every aspect of his/her life. Basically, being in the closet violates the word of God and “coming out” upholds being a “true witness”.
In the Jewish tradition, there’s a concept called “chillul hashem” — the profanation of God’s name. Anytime a religious person does something odious and it becomes public, it’s a chillul hashem: rabbis committing adultery, religious Jews convicted of bribery, and so on. Having spent a decade of my adult life in the closet, and a decade out of it, and having spent many years witnessing the effects of religiously justified hatred of gay people, I feel certain in my heart that the anti-gay distortion of religion is a great chillul hashem.
It’s an interesting piece of logic. If lying or deceit is a desecration of God’s Name and truth sanctifies God’s Name, and if coming out of the closet is telling the truth, then “coming out” sanctifies God’s Name. Moreover, religious traditions that have historically contributed to the “bludgeoning, burning, and torturing of gay people, literally and figuratively for centuries” is a desecration of God’s Name.
Michaelson paints the reader into a corner, or he tries to, such that if the reader, for any reason whatsoever, is not completely supportive of the LGBTQ community being normalized within the local church and synagogue, then they are automatically committing “chillul hashem,” whether that is actually true from God’s point of view or not.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m hardly supporting the “demonization” of gay people and certainly not contributing to verbal and physical harassment and injury of people based on sexual orientation, but I don’t think that the only other possible alternative is unconditional acceptance of all gay people everywhere into the ekklesia of Messiah without so much as a “by your leave.”
In most states, gay people can be fired from their jobs or denied housing because of their sexual orientation.
Chapter 6: “Justice — justice you shall pursue”
True as far as it goes, but what does that have to do with religion and God? Well, as a principle, and especially in denominations and religious movements that emphasize social justice, it’s a call for Christians and Jews to support LGBTQ equal rights by advocating changes in the political arena, locally, statewide, and nationally.
Michaelson builds one concept upon the other so that, if the reader is convinced by his arguments up to this point, then as a kind and good person and a person of faith, they must take the next step and vote with their conscience, which means voting in support of all pro-gay initiatives.
After all, aren’t we to “love the stranger and not oppress him” (see Lev. 19:34)? Except the “stranger” or “ger” being referenced in that passage of scripture is the non-Israelite who, along with the widow and orphan, did not have an affiliation to a tribe and thus had few if any rights in Israelite society. It is a specific legal status that no longer exists as Israel is no longer tribal, and thus cannot be applied as Michaelson is doing.
He does make a good point on page 50 that, if we shun gays based on the Bible, why don’t we also shun people who are divorced for any reason other than marital infidelity (see Matt. 5:32)? It is true that Christians tend to treat “homosexual sin” differently than any other kind of sin. It would be better to be a convicted murder, have done your time, come out of prison and go to church than to be openly gay.
But having reached the end of Part One of Michaelson’s book, I hope you can see my problem with it. This author’s arguments are hardly iron clad and in fact, most of them are ephemeral and gossamer. Does this mean I hate gay people and want them to suffer? No, of course not. However, compassion does not presuppose unconditional acceptance of gays into the covenant community nor ignoring the fact that, even if Michaelson can possibly prove beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty that the Bible (and thus God) never, ever condemns homosexual erotic activity, he may never be able to establish that the Bible directly supports marriage equality, at least beyond “establishing” some exceptionally broad principles from various scriptures taken very far out of their original contexts.
I’ll write my review of Part Two once I’ve finished reading Michaelson’s book.
Addendum: I know from reading Michaelson’s book that like most (or all) other gays and most of their “allies,” he strongly opposes what has been called “reparative therapy” also called “conversion therapy,” which is designed to assist a homosexual individual change his/her sexual orientation to heterosexuality. This therapy is considered by the LGBTQ community to be at best useless and at worst torturous, shaming, and potentially lethal (driving some gay people undergoing the therapy to attempt suicide). I can’t argue against their perspectives and the apparent negative effects this treatment has had on numerous gay people, but then again, if sexual orientation can never be changed, what do I do with people like this one?
Also, in anticipation of Michaelson’s arguments in Part Two of his book, I’m saving a link to my previous blog post Leviticus, Homosexuality, and Abominations here.