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God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality: My Review of Part One

Why our fundamental values support, rather than oppose, equality for sexual minorities.

-Jay Michaelson
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.

-Michaelson, p.5
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?

-ibid, p.7

Jay Michaelson
Jay Michaelson

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.

-ibid, p.12

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.

-ibid, p.27
Chapter 3: “Love your neighbor as yourself”

oppressionThere 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.

-ibid, pp.28-29

I suppose I should add:

“All you need is love.”

-Lennon-McCartney (1967)

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.

-ibid, p.29

BibleAs 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.

-ibid, p.30

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?

No.

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.

Dennis Prager
Dennis Prager

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.

-ibid, p.43

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.

justiceDon’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.

-ibid, p.48
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.

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What Does God Want From Gay People?

BOISE — After a roller coaster of court rulings, the wait is over for same-sex marriage supporters.

The Ada County Courthouse issued the first licenses to Andrea Altmayer and Sheila Robertson minutes after 10 a.m. Wednesday, to cheers from those waiting in line.

Altmayer and Robertson were among the four couples who brought a lawsuit challenging Idaho’s same-sex marriage ban.

The 9th Circuit Court ruled Monday that marriage licenses could be issued in Idaho beginning Wednesday morning. The order was the latest in a roller coaster of court decisions.

-Katie Terhune, 2:34 p.m. MDT October 15, 2014
“Same-sex marriage begins in Idaho”
KTVB.com

Love doesn’t always look like love.

When I published this blog post two weeks ago, I was prepared for some people to applaud it, and for others to condemn it. That’s what happens whenever you put an opinion out there.

I was fully prepared for the waves of both support and hostility that accompany any vantage point on anything, especially a controversial topic like sexuality.

What I was not prepared for in any way were the literally hundreds and hundreds of people who have reached out to me personally to thank me for bringing some healing and hope to their families. Parents, children, siblings, and adults have confided in me (some for the first time anywhere), telling of the pain, and bullying, and shunning they’re received from churches, pastors, and church members — from professed followers of Jesus.

Scores of people from all over the world have shared with me their devastating stories of exclusion and isolation, of unanswered prayers to change, of destructive conversion therapies, of repeated suicide attempts, and of being actively and passively driven from faith by people of faith.

-John Pavlovitz, Rogue Pastor and Writer
Posted 10/16/2014 1:20 pm EDT, edited 1:59 pm
“Distorted Love: The Toll of Our Christian Theology on the LGBT Community”
The Huffington Post

I don’t have a lot of use for the Huff Post. I read some of their articles, but because they are just as skewed to the left as Fox News is to the right, I can’t see any particular advantage of choosing one over the other, so I don’t consider either reliably credible sources of information.

But given that “marriage equality” has come even to Idaho, and since the Huff Post article was posted to Facebook by someone I admire and respect, I am once again revisiting this topic.

Oh, I’ve been here before. I’ve reviewed Matthew Vines’ book “God and the Gay Christian,” criticized controversial Pastor John MacArthur on his abysmal advice to parents of gay children, and otherwise commented on the intersection of faith and the LGBTQ community within their/our midst here, here, and here (and that’s only a partial list).

michaelsonIn my continued attempt to see what other people are seeing and how they resolve the apparent conflict of cleaving to the Bible as the Word of God and yet accepting actively gay couples into the community of faith, another in a long series of books as been recommended to me: Jay Michaelson’s God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. I don’t high hopes that Mr. Michaelson will be any more successful at showing me what I seem to be missing any more than anyone else has. All of the argument for supporting the acceptance of marriage equality within the Church and Synagogue must either drastically re-write (or at least radically reinterpret) the Bible or baldly insert what isn’t actually there.

I can’t find “loving gay couples” in the Bible, certainly not within the covenant community, nor is what we now call “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” even faintly presupposed in the Biblical text. I can purchase a used copy of Mr. Michaelson’s book for less than a dollar on Amazon, so I risk little in buying and reading what he wrote (and I risk even less because I just discovered his book is available at my local public library).

The core of every gay Christian’s (or ally’s) argument in support of gays participating in the Church while in same-sex romantic/erotic relationships (legally married or otherwise) is that “Jesus is love”. OK, I’m grossly oversimplifying the argument, but stripped down to its nuts and bolts, that’s it.

Pastor Pavlovitz’s article focuses on the damage done to various gay individuals when rejected by their churches and told that their actions and even their desires are sinful (which, by the way, was also a large part of Matthew Vines’ argument). The readers are meant to feel compassion for human beings who were born to desire members of their own sex rather than the opposite. The fault in all this is either God’s or in how we interpret the Bible.

I’m willing to accept the latter argument if you can convincingly show me where the error exists. I’m an advocate for (in theory) taking our understanding of Biblical exegesis “back to formula” and building it up from scratch, since two-thousand years of Christian and Jewish tradition have skewed how we define “sound doctrine” and obliterated how the original writers and readers of the Bible would have understood the message contained therein.

But what I see instead is the desire to not correctly understand the message of the Bible and then conform our lives to a behavioral standard set by God for humanity, but the requirement to fit the Bible into the current societal standards set by progressive cultural and political imperatives.

Besides the recent tide of Federal judicial decisions ordering various states to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Houston (Texas) Mayor Annise Parker and her administration’s subpoenas of the sermons of several local Pastors in relation to a lawsuit regarding the so-called “HERO” (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance ) legislation complicates the “war” between religion and the political structures supporting LGBTQ desires.

Parker
Houston Mayor Annise Parker

And I don’t know what to do with the overwhelming flood of anecdotal reports from people who say they were “born this way” and have never known any other way to relate romantically or sexually. I can’t say “no, that’s not how you feel” or “you are giving in to sinful impulses” when I have no ability whatsoever to experience that person’s reality. On top of that, most religious people who have the concept of sin know, at least on some level, when they’re sinning. But if what straight Christians consider sin is experienced only as love (or maybe sometimes just desire) by gay Christians, what am I to say to that?

I’m looking for an answer one way or the other. Unfortunately, Pavlovitz ends his article only with this:

We are losing credibility to those outside organized Christianity, not because we’re “condoning sin” but because when the rubber meets the road, we really don’t know how to “love the sinner” in any way that remotely resembles Jesus, and our “God is love” platitudes ring hollow.

Church, this is our legacy that we are building in these days to the LGBT community and those who love them, and I assure you it’s not a legacy of love.

I don’t know what the answer is for you, and I can’t tell you how your theology gets expressed in the trenches of real people’s lives. I only know that we as Christ’s church can do better, regardless of our theological stance. We have to do better.

This is where our faith is proven to be made of Jesus-stuff or not.

This is where the love of God we like to preach about is either clearly seen or terribly distorted.

I don’t really care about whatever credibility or lack thereof those outside the religious community see in Christianity since we are supposed to please God, not people. Also, in suggesting that Christianity doesn’t know how to “love the sinner,” he is at least hinting that there’s some sort of sin involved in homosexuality, though I doubt he meant to send that message.

While I agree that “demonizing” gay people is not how the Church should respond to them, I do agree that Jesus didn’t die to excuse or cover up sin but rather, to forgive it (once the sinner has sincerely repented). And again, I crash headlong into the issue of sin vs. (presumably) in-born orientation and behavioral expression of said-orientation.

If we are to respond to all sins as being “the same” with no one type of sin being better or worse than another, then I get it. We can’t react to a gay person in the Church any differently than a bank robber, embezzler, or drug abuser in the Church. Gay sin isn’t any more “icky” than embezzlement sin.

But that’s not the issue from Pavlovitz’s perspective or anyone else who supports wholehearted acceptance of the LGBTQ community within the covenant community. The issue is love equals acceptance and that being gay isn’t a sin, it’s a life. It’s built-in, and that being the case, God must approve since God made the person to be gay even as he made me to be straight.

But there’s no “smoking gun” in the Bible, and to the best of my knowledge, Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, David, Solomon, Jesus, Peter, and Paul…well, none of them were gay nor were any of them in a “loving same-sex relationship”.

Despite the vast number of laws and commandments, both biblical and rabbinic, the rabbis insist that sometimes we are beholden to an even higher standard. This is the idea of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, beyond the letter of the law. The sages recognize that one can observe the commandments and still engage in deplorable behavior, and they call one who does this naval b’reshut ha-torah, a scoundrel within the bounds of the law.

-from Walking with the Mitzvot, p.27
Edited by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
and Rabbi Patricia Fenton
Published by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
aju.edu (PDF)

So who is observing the commandments and still engaging in “deplorable behavior” as far as the current debate goes, the Church or the gay Christians in it? I suppose that remains to be seen.

flag

I’m going to the library in a few minutes (as I write this, I’ve already started the book as you read this) to check out the Michaelson book. I’ll try again. I want to be fair. But more than that, I want to do what God wants me to do. I’m pretty lousy at that sometimes, but I’ve got to keep trying.

Leviticus, Homosexuality, and Abominations

You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination.

כב. וְאֶת זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה

Leviticus 18:22

Ok wait, we know that Leviticus forbids men having sex with each other, and that the penalty is death. But does G-d give us a reason? Yes, She does. “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.” When I was growing up and reading those words, I had no idea what abomination meant, but I knew it must be bad. I had visions of the abominable snowman attacking me if I did any of the mentioned activities that were said to be ‘abominations’. This fearful obedience stopped me from challenging my church’s beliefs about homosexuality for many years.

What does this strange word mean? Well, in Hebrew, the word is ‘to-evah’ (or to-ebah), but that helps little. The word is difficult to translate succinctly, but picture someone or something that is wild and dangerous, highly addictive and contagious. Picture something radioactive, that once unleashed, will spread like wildfire and affect (and infect) everything nearby. It’s not only wild, but disgusting, and describes detestable religious orgies, or idolatrous practices. If you were confronted with that kind of enemy, what would you do? You’d have to destroy it–stop it dead in it’s tracts (sic). If you didn’t, it would soon infect the entire population, yourself included.

One interesting fact is that the first time ‘ABOMINATION’ is used in the Torah is to DESCRIBE WORSHIPPING G-D, when Moses is asking Pharoah to let the Israelites worship G-d in the desert. The Pharoah inquired, “Why can’t they worship right here?” and Moses answered that if the Israelites worshipped G-d in Egypt, their acts would be an ABOMINATION to the Egyptians. Can you believe it? Worshipping the one true G-d is considered an abomination! Why? Because it is the religious rite of a different religion (from the perspective of the Egyptians–the Israelites were going to sacrifice animals whom the Egyptians worshipped, so it was considered detestable). Still don’t believe that toevah is about idolatry? “Do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.’ You must not do the same for the L-rd your G-d, because every TOEVAH that the L-rd hates they have done FOR THEIR GODS” Deut.12:30-1. This makes it clear, the abominations of the Canaanites weren’t just a bunch of random detestable acts, they were FOR THEIR GODS. As a child I wondered what ‘abomination’ meant, now I have the answer. The Bible gives its own definition in Deut. 12:30-31; an abomination is a detestable religious rite of a religion different from your own.

-from the B’nai HaKeshet (Children of the Rainbow) website

My stated intent to review Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian has inspired a lot of attention and responses on my blog post, on Facebook, and via email. One such email message led me to the B’nai HaKeshet website from which I quoted above. That quote was taken from a much longer missive which attempts to explain that the Bible never speaks against Homosexuality or Homosexual acts in general.

AshtorethI Googled the definition of the Hebrew word “toevah” which is commonly translated as “abomination,” such as we see in Leviticus 18:22 and the search results returned a lot of the same information, basically saying that this portion of scripture is not a blanket prohibition against male on male sexual acts, but specifically addresses such sexual activity within the context of idolatrous worship. The issue supposedly isn’t a man having sex with another man, but a man having sex with another man (male temple prostitute) in association with worshiping an idol.

It’s difficult to find a source (at least by a quick Google search) that is objective or neutral and simply defines the word and its usage, but the closest I found was a newspaper opinion piece written by Rabbi Bruce Warshal called Lots of abominations in the Bible (Sept. 19, 2012).

Rabbi Silvers discussed the meaning of the Hebrew word toevah, which most English bibles translate as “abomination,” as in Leviticus, chapter 18, verse 22: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination. He pointed out that the Hebrew word toevah is used extensively in the Bible regarding food prohibitions, idolatrous practices, magic and ethical violations. His prime example is that eating shrimp (shellfish) is toevah. Yet today he knows plenty of Jews who eat shellfish.

I also found a word study written by someone named Skip Moen on the word to’evah:

With this in mind, we can turn to the word to’evot (abominations). What is an abomination? Do you think that it is something so hideous, so immoral, that it ranks among axe murder, rape and incest? Remember the cultural background of the ancient Near East. Something is to’evah’ when it is loathsome and detestable. It may be physical, ritual or moral. It is something offensive to values of the culture. That means to’evah is determined within the culture and community, just like mishpat. And that means God defines what He finds offensive within the community of Israel. The world may not find some of these actions offensive. That doesn’t matter. They are not regulations for the world. They are offenses to the Hebraic biblical way of life. If we want to demonstrate with our behavior the values that God expresses with His words to His chosen community, then these to’evot will not be part of our actions.

We must understand this perspective in order to understand why homosexuality, slander and human sacrifice are in the same category as dishonest business practices and the eating of unclean animals. When it comes to offenses to God’s values, eating pork is the same as child sacrifice; ritual prostitution is the same as cheating a man with false weights and measures; and homosexual behavior is just as repugnant as lying. Forget the arguments about morality. Put aside the nurture/nature nonsense. None of these matter when it comes to embracing the culture of the Kingdom. If you want to be in God’s community, then you behave in ways that honor Him. End of story.

Topical Index: abomination, to’evah, rule, mishpat, Proverbs 6:16-19, Leviticus 18:26

forbiddenThe sense I’m getting from all of this is that the word “toevah” can be applied to many different acts which God forbade the Israelites from performing, considering all of them “idolatry” or alternately “adultery” (I’ll get to that). But does that mean all of the forbidden acts (including sex with close relatives, see the wider text in Leviticus 18) are only forbidden when engaged within the context of idol worship?

(Remember, context, context, context. Leviticus 18:22 is included in the larger context of the Leviticus 18 “forbidden relationships and acts” list for a reason).

Saying that these various sex acts are only an “abomination” if performed as part of idol worship doesn’t make sense. That would mean it would only be forbidden for an Israelite to have sex with his sister or step-mother if that sexual act was performed as part of worshiping a foreign god.

The crux of the argument presented at B’nai HaKeshet is that for something to be an “abomination” it must be related to idol worship and cannot be a “stand alone” prohibition that crosses all contexts. Just read Leviticus 18:6-18 and you’ll see prohibitions against sexual acts all involving either incest or sex with other close relatives (mother-in-law, step-sister, and so on).

As far as Rabbi Warshal’s reference to Rabbi Silvers, just because some or many Jews today eat shellfish in violation of the Torah commandment doesn’t make it right. Disobedience to God is still disobedience regardless of how many people are engaging in the behavior.

Although on the surface, it seems as if the anonymous writer at B’nai HaKeshet has done her homework (she does state that she’s a woman), the logic she employs to come to at least some of her conclusions has “gaps”.

Here’s what I mean.

When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.”

Hosea 1:2

Rebuke your mother, rebuke her, for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband.

Hosea 2:2

“Though you, Israel, commit adultery, do not let Judah become guilty.”

Hosea 4:15

God compared the intimate relationship He has with Israel as a husband to a wife, with God playing the role of husband. When Israel strayed and worshiped false gods instead of or in addition to Hashem, it was compared to committing adultery. But did Israel to the last man and woman cheat on their spouses? Is that what God is talking about? No. He’s employing a metaphor through the prophet Hosea (to the point where Hosea is commanded to marry Gomer, a promiscuous woman) in order to illustrate His point.

hosea and gomerAny act of disobedience committed by the Israelites is compared to idolatry and faithlessness. We can’t say that only an Israelite who cheats on his or her spouse is guilty of idolatry or that it is only forbidden for an Israelite to cheat on his/her spouse in performance of an idolatrous act is forbidden.

You have to look at the broader scope. It is my opinion that toevah can mean many different acts of disobedience to God, some directly related to idol worship but many others involving forbidden activities that are not or at least do not have to involve worshiping an idol. It was still forbidden of the Israelites to eat a ham sandwich, even if it had nothing to do with a pagan practice, just as eating ham (or shellfish) for observant Jews today is considered a forbidden act. That many secular Jews eat ham or shellfish doesn’t make it acceptable in God’s sight.

I’ll stop here rather than continue with my assessment of the B’nai HaKeshet author’s other assertions. I may address them at some other point, but I want to get this published quickly so any of my readers who goes offline for Shabbat can have a chance to respond before Saturday night/Sunday morning. Also, because I’m writing/editing very quickly, this missive isn’t as polished as I’d like it to be, so excuse the rough spots.

I’m not trying to be mean or insensitive and I hope I’m being objective, but it just seems as if a certain bias has entered how these texts are being read, especially in light of the larger context of the Bible and God’s relationship with Israel. I know this doesn’t specifically address Christianity and Homosexuality, but I have some ideas about how to consider that paradigm.

Last point. I wrote this as a way to get my head into the debate relative to Homosexuality and whether or not the Bible supports and endorses (or at least doesn’t outright condemn) homosexual acts in the community of faith. So far, I can’t say there’s overwhelming evidence that God is “cool” with such behavior. Your polite feedback, as always, is welcome.