Tag Archives: homosexuality

Moral vs. Legal Imperatives and Marriage Equality

same-sex-marriage2Supreme Court justices seemed skeptical of creating a new federal right to same-sex marriage as they grilled lawyers this morning in a potentially landmark case over California’s ban on gay marriages.

As the politics change by the day, the court heard a case — Proposition 8 — that could drastically change how states and the federal government approach one of the touchiest social issues of the past decade.

The justices today challenged lawyers on both sides on common points of contention that arise whenever gay marriage is debated.

-Chris Good, Terry Moran, Ariane DeVogue, and Sarah Parnass
“Supreme Court Justices Struggle with Federal Right to Gay Marriage”
ABC News

I shouldn’t do this. I shouldn’t write one single word about this subject. I’m going to get in trouble with just about everyone when they read this. My Pastor reads my blog. My Mother reads my blog. Boy, am I in for it.

Then why I’m I writing this? I’m tempted to write it because the news media is just plain shoving it down everyone’s throat today. I can’t get away from it. Even other religious blogs are demanding Christians support same-sex marriage. But then, this is really is big news, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on. It will affect not only the state of “marriage equality” in California as related to Prop. 8, but potentially the “rights” of same-sex couples to become married in all fifty states (I put “rights” in quotes because of the question, can something be a “right” that hasn’t been established as such yet? But I digress).

But that’s not the reason I’m writing this. I’m a Christian. I’m kind of unconventional, but my general stance on homosexuality is that the Bible doesn’t support it. However, like most Christians, I can’t always immediately point to my source data in the Bible. So I guess I’d better go looking for it.

Thanks to Google, the search is brief, if not particularly focused. I land on a site called ChristianBibleReference.org and an article called, “What Does the Bible say about Homosexuality?”

I won’t quote everything, but they provide a handy bullet point list for reference:

  • 2 refer to rape (Genesis 19:5, Judges 19:22)
  • 5 refer to cult prostitution (Deuteronomy 23:17-18, 1 Kings 14:23-24, 15:12-13, 22:46, 2 Kings 23:6-8)
  • 1 refers to prostitution and pederasty (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
  • 4 are nonspecific (Leviticus 18:21-22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Timothy 1:8-10)

OK, let’s consider a few things. Any references in the Torah or the entire Tanakh (Old Testament) that specifically prohibit homosexual behavior are within the context of the laws and statutes that apply to the Children of Israel. While God may or may not disdain homosexual behavior for all human beings in general, the Tanakh prohibitions don’t apply to all human beings in general. They apply (there may be exceptions, but for the most part) to the Jewish people; the inheritors of the Sinai covenant.

So if you’re not part of that covenant by birth or conversion, then those laws don’t apply to you.

Stay with me. I’m just getting started.

What about the New Testament?

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Romans 1:24-27

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,

1 Timothy 1:8-10

Christian-Campus-GayThere are other scriptures that address sexual immorality (which in some cases may or may not be specific to homosexuality) in the New Testament, but these are two of the most “damning.”

But in my brief Google search, I did find a blogger who wrote an article called Why The Bible DOES NOT Forbid Homosexuality. He provided a defense based on Romans 1 and basically ignored 1 Timothy 1 or many other NT scriptures, relying on statements citing other sources such as the following:

Homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is a sexual orientation. Sexual orientation deals with a person’s sexual attraction to another person’s sexual organs.

In first century, Roman imperial culture, homosexual sex was a fairly common practice but only as a specific, social function.

The blog author tried to link the latter quote with the “neither male nor female” portion of Galatians 3:28 but bottom line, I wasn’t convinced. He was heavy on history and social commentary but light on providing a clear illustration of how the Bible was either neutral on the topic or even “pro-gay.” The blog post is almost a year old and has 67 responding comments, all of which I have not read. I’m not interested in joining that particular debate (which ended last November with the last comment) and it’s certainly not the point of what I’m writing today.

The general moral and ethical structure of Christianity is taken largely from Judaism. How can it not, since Christianity has grown and evolved from the first century Jewish sect known as “the Way?” Therefore, I wouldn’t expect Jesus, Paul, or the rest of the apostles to teach moral and ethical principles that differed significantly from their “source material,” the Torah. Therefore, it’s unlikely that Jesus and his followers would have taught a social/sexual practice that was different and specifically not one that reversed something that appears quite plain in the Torah. Why would they?

Of course, many people are quick to point out that Christianity doesn’t follow the kosher laws either and that Jacob had twelve wives, and Solomon had more wives and concubines than you could shake a proverbial stick at, so can Christianity reasonably reach back into the Torah for its binding principles?

It gets complicated in the explanation, but Jesus was specific in saying the following:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Matthew 19:3-6

So Jesus is defining marriage specifically between a man and woman and not allowing any “wiggle room” for two men or two women. Yes, he was talking to a Jewish audience, but this is one principle that has been extended to the non-Jewish disciples of the Master (i.e. Christians). I know there are Christians and Jews who hold religious beliefs that accept homosexual behavior and include support of “marriage equality,” but we need to be careful not to mix and match principles of faith with political correctness or even secular law.

Which brings me to a couple of points, one of which I mentioned above. If the Torah forbids homosexual behavior, it does so within the context of the covenants that apply to the Jewish people, specifically the Sinai covenant. If you are not Jewish, then the Torah doesn’t apply to you since you’re not a covenant member. End of story.

abraham-covenant-starsChristianity has a covenant relationship with God based on a portion of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1-3) which was extended by the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36) and then applied by the Messiah in the Gospels (see Luke 22:17-20 for instance). Unlike Jews, Christians are not born into a covenant relationship with God. We must choose to become Christians. Once we do, then we are bound by the covenant and all that it contains, which traditionally includes a prohibition against homosexual behavior.

But if you aren’t Jewish and you aren’t a Christian, you aren’t a covenant member and therefore, the “rules” don’t apply to you. It’s arguable that the Noahide Laws, which at least Orthodox Judaism considers binding on literally everyone, prohibits homosexuality as one of the forbidden relationships, but that definition is set by religious Judaism and if you don’t buy into that, you aren’t going to feel too “bound” just because you’re a human being.

(In the end, God has the right to judge everyone, covenant member or not, but that’s not the point of today’s missive.)

What I’m getting at is that if a person isn’t a recognized member of a covenant relationship with God, can you as a religious Jew or a Christian actually make them responsible for upholding moral and ethical behaviors defined by your beliefs? If you consider homosexual behavior a sin and there are secular gay people in the world, how are they any better or worse than say, a secular bank robber or (heterosexual) adulterer?

I suppose gay readers or readers who support gay rights might be chafing at this point in my narrative, but I’m speaking to a religious audience from within that context. I understand you do not equate a man loving another man with a man robbing a bank or a man cheating on his wife.

Now to my other point.

Whatever the Supreme Court does or doesn’t do has nothing to do with your faith.

A number of important laws in our country, and in most countries, more or less mirror what we read in the Bible. The Bible has a commandment against murder. Generally, murder is illegal in this country. The Bible is against stealing. We have laws against stealing. But we also have a lot of laws that range from morally ambiguous to just plain crazy from a Biblical point of view. What do you do about laws permitting marijuana use in some states but not others? What do you do about the legality of heterosexual marriage in general when the first man and woman in Genesis presumably weren’t married? How the U.S. Supreme Court interprets the Constitution today would probably have driven the Founding Fathers insane, so how can we reconcile the Bible to laws in the United States of America in the 21st century?

Religious Jews and Christians historically have lived in nations where the penal and civil laws did not completely (or sometimes in any sense) match up with the religious “laws” of Jews and Christians. Where do we get the idea that the Supreme Court has to interpret the Constitution in a way that makes us feel comfortable and is consistent with our definition of marriage?

My personal opinion is that it is only a matter of time until our nation permits homosexual marriage in all fifty states (whether individual states want to permit it or not). As an American citizen, I have feelings about that, but as a Christian, can I impose my morality on the law of the land? Yes, the law of the land imposes itself on me because I’m an American citizen, but if the law permits a man and a woman to live together and have a sexual relationship, and that is also against my religious beliefs, why am I not protesting or complaining about that?

I know someone is going to mention abortion which is A) legal, and B) generally against Christian moral principles, but if you believe life is sacred and you believe life begins at conception or at some point before 10 or 20 weeks gestation, then you also believe that aborting an unborn child is killing a baby.

Another “unpopular” subject to be sure but it is a subject for another time.

same-sex-marriage4If the Supreme Court rules that it is unconstitutional for the State of California (and this decision will affect all other states ultimately) to pass a law forbidding same-sex couples from marrying, what am I as a Christian supposed to do about it? Can I hold the world around me to the same moral standards to which I hold myself?

I know I’ve probably upset everyone who has managed to make it through this lengthy article. It was not my intent and I didn’t write this just to be a pest. I’m trying to process this information within myself (which is why I write most of my blogs) and I’m trying to present an alternate point of view, one that doesn’t say “all gays are good” or “all gays are bad” either because that’s how I may feel on a visceral level or because I believe that’s what the Bible is saying to me.

I have a responsibility to God to live my life in a manner consistent with my faith and my beliefs. If my brother or sister in faith appears to be stumbling, I believe I have a responsibility to gently point out that they may have a problem and to offer to help them.

But if someone outside the faith appears to be having a moral problem, what is my responsibility (however, if I see, for instance, a secular man beating his child, the state of his faith is irrelevant and I do have a responsibility to protect the innocent)? If my nation is passing laws that appear to have a moral problem but otherwise aren’t the equivalent of making it legal for adults to beat children, what is my responsibility?

I’m not an attorney, but I have racked my brain trying to look at the marriage equality issue from a strictly legal perspective, temporarily putting aside both my faith and my visceral response.

I can’t find a legal reason to forbid such unions, regardless of my moral stance. So now what do I do?

Let the “hate mail” begin.

Balak: The Good, The Bad, and The Gay

In some years, Parshas Balak is read together with Parshas Chukas. For it is the selfless commitment implied by the name Chukas which makes possible the transformation of evil into good. When a person fans the spark of G-dliness in his soul and expresses it through unbounded devotion to the Torah, he influences his environment, negating undesirable influences and transforming them into good.

And as this pattern spreads throughout the world, we draw closer to the fulfillment of the prophecies mentioned in this week’s Torah reading: (Numbers 24:17, cited by Rashi, Rambam, and others as a reference to Mashiach.) “A star shall emerge from Yaakov, and a staff shall arise in Israel, crushing all of Moab’s princes, and dominating all of Seth’s descendants.”

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Remembering What Should Be Forgotten”
In the Garden of the Torah series
Commentary on Torah Portion Balak

Just to let you know, I’m probably going to break every rule that was ever made about writing a commentary on a Torah Portion. In fact, it will probably seem like I’m stretching credibility beyond all reasonable limits. So if you want to take exception for the content of today’s “morning meditation,” you’ll have to look elsewhere. Oh, and today’s “meditation” is really long. Sorry. Just worked out like that. Remember, you have been warned.

In reading Rabbi Touger’s statements which I quoted above, I was captured by phrase, “negating undesirable influences and transforming them into good.” On the surface, they sound a lot like something many Christians would be familiar with.

What Satan intended for evil, God intended for good.

This isn’t in the Bible exactly, and it’s actually adapted from something Joseph said to his brothers (the ones who tried to kill him) after Joseph revealed his true identity to them (along with the fact that he was still alive).

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. –Genesis 50:20 (ESV)

You can probably point to events in your life when something happened that looked like it was going to be trouble or something actually caused trouble, but it eventually worked out to be some sort of advantage or had a good outcome.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. I just wanted to get that particularly viewpoint out of the way.

The evil “wizard” Balaam was hired by Balak, a King, to use his abilities to curse the Children of Israel. If you have even a tenuous familiarity with this week’s Torah Portion, you know about this. You should also know that God told Balaam that he was forbidden to perform the curses and, as it turns out, every time Balaam tried to curse the Israelites at Balak’s behest, he uttered blessings instead.

What was intended to be evil actually turned out to be a good thing.

However, we could spin this idea in another direction. We could say that something that was once considered evil (or undesirable, or unacceptable, or intolerable) has turned out to be good.

Such as being gay and even gay sex.

I separate the two because being gay isn’t really an issue in the Bible since God doesn’t forbid a person from being attracted to the same-sex. He simply forbids the Israelite men from having sex with other men.

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. –Leviticus 18:22 (ESV)

In virtually the same breath, God also forbids an Israelite man from having sex with a woman during her menstrual period, having sex with his neighbor’s wife, and having sex with an animal. Most of these “thou shalt nots” make sense to Christians and they are all part of the list of unlawful sexual relations we find in Leviticus 18 (which a friend of mine calls, “the icky chapter” of Leviticus).

Progressive liberal thought has, for decades, supported the right of people to behave freely in accordance with their sexual orientation, be that straight, gay, bi, or transsexual, but in recent months, it’s almost become “popular” to be gay or to be straight and to support gay causes. We see this in everything from President Obama’s public statements supporting gay marriage to how gay relationships are being depicted in comic books.

Politics and children’s entertainment make strange bedfellows.

But it brings up the question that if mainstream politics, entertainment, social discourse, and even comic books are progressing beyond mere tolerance of the LGBT community into active support and promotion of what is being called “marriage equality,” then what impact will this have on the world of religion?

Greenberg-weddingAfter all, atheists and progressives have traditionally portrayed religious people in general and Christians in particular as being backward, superstitious, intolerant, and even bigoted. With the continued dynamic shift in attitudes toward supporting LGBT in the larger culture, what increased social pressure will be applied to people of faith who have long been considered (and in most cases, rightly so) anti-gay? Has acceptance or rejection of LGBT and specifically marriage equality become the litmus test of the progressive left as applied to religion?

It would seem so. But contrary to how Christianity has been painted with the same, broad brush by the media, how the church (I use that term in the most generic sense) responds to homosexuality including homosexual acts, is split along political lines (and Jesus is once again being dragged into the political arena, whether he wants to be or not).

It’s in these contentious times that I do what culturally-concerned Christians should do — turn to Will Ferrell for insight. And insight he brings us…

Yes, it’s the legendary “dear Lord Baby Jesus” scene (from the 2006 film Talladega Nights), where Ricky Bobby prays to the Jesus he likes best, which of course triggers an intensely thought-provoking discussion:

Kyle Naughton, Jr: “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says, like, I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party too. I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.”

Walker (or is it Texas Ranger?): “I like to picture Jesus as a ninja, fighting off evil samurai.”

The whole scene is basically a three minute summary of much of what passes for contemporary Christian theology. We invent the Jesus we like best, name that version the God we serve (or partner with), and then find the church (or friend group) that aligns with our vision and — voila! — we’ve got our faith. To be clear, our version of Jesus typically corresponds with some of his attributes, but the picture is always so woefully incomplete.

Gay Rights Jesus is about sex, love, acceptance, and — above all — no judgment (except of course, you can judge someone else’s alleged intolerance). Gay Rights Jesus isn’t bound by your antiquated notions of sexual morality anymore than he’s bound by antiquated dietary rules that maybe involve shellfish . . . or something.

-from “Homosexuality, Morality, and Talladega Nights Theology”

Irreverent though the quote may be, it tells a certain amount of truth about how we treat religion, adapting it (and Jesus) to fit the moral, ethical, and popular agendas of our society and ourselves.

But it prompts the nasty question of whether or not “commandments” can be adapted, or were intended to be adapted based on the needs of each generation? A blatant example from Judaism are things like cars and microwave ovens that didn’t exist when the Torah was given at Sinai, and they still didn’t exist during the time of Jesus or the later Talmudic period. Once they were invented, someone asked a Rabbi if they could be used on Shabbat, and Rabbinic authority had to consider the Torah and the relevant halakah and render a decision. The commandments regarding Shabbat had to be adapted to fit the needs of the current generation.

But homosexuality wasn’t “invented” recently since the Bible records the prohibition of an Israelite man having sex with another man back in the Torah.

If I were to stop with Judaism, I suppose I could say that the prohibition should remain intact unless some significant evidence is brought forth stating that the Leviticus 18 portion of the Torah was only intended for the ancient Israelites but not modern generations of Jews (but then you have to start asking questions about all of the other forbidden sexual relationships listed in Leviticus 18).

But how many of the Torah prohibitions regarding sex trickle down to Christianity?

In response, it is not enough to point out that Jesus never said anything explicitly about homosexuality or homosexuals. Since he was Jewish, silence cannot easily be filled with a viewpoint that was not common in Judaism in the first century – however much one might go on to insist that Jesus’ views did not always mirror what most people thought.

Jesus taught us to allow love for neighbor and concern for human beings to trump other concerns – even if it leads to healing on the Sabbath or eating sacred bread. Even if it means to breaking other laws, laws which according to the Bible were laid down by God himself.

Dr. James F. McGrath, June 29, 2012
“The Well-Thought-Out Christian Rationale Behind Christian Acceptance of Gays and Lesbians”

ShabbatDr. McGrath makes the classic Christian assumption that Jesus broke (and therefore invalidated) the commandments regarding the Sabbath (which is highly debatable) and thus, Jesus could have and probably did break other commandments in Judaism including, in this case, those prohibiting homosexual behavior among the Jews.

If we follow Dr. McGrath’s line of thinking and assume it is all correct (and since he’s the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, he’s got a lot of “cred” behind him), then we might make a “quick and dirty” conclusion that Jesus not only didn’t have a thing against homosexual behavior among the Jews (and by extension, the later Christians), but he was all for it (Keep in mind that Rabbi David Hartman says, “The Sabbath, therefore, does not force us to choose between a theocentric focus on the world and the dignity and significance of human existence,” so healing on the Shabbat does not particularly constitute breaking the Shabbat).

Actually, I’m not sure I can take Dr. McGrath’s commentary that far (since he doesn’t), but he does say this:

Ancient Israel’s marriage laws reflected those of the time, and the workings of the marriage institution as an element of patriarchal society allowing men to treat women as property so as to ensure that their other property passed to their legitimate heirs. Times have changed, marriage has changed, and none of the conservative Christians I know who are married are involved in anything that mirrors “Biblical marriage” in all its features.

And so of course our thinking about marriage reflects the wider perspective of our time and place. Thinking about marriage among the people of God always has. And as with so many issues, such as women’s equality and slavery, we sometimes advocating the setting aside of practices that can be justified by careful exegesis of certain Biblical passages, on the basis of more fundamental Biblical principles. We pick and choose from both the Bible and our culture based on overarching principles and convictions about the centrality of love, the importance of justice, concern for the poor, and so on.

I’m fully willing to admit that there are a lot of things in Paul’s letters that I can accept as situational and that were intended to apply only to the specific group Paul was addressing in a certain place at a certain time. But how far can we “relativize” the Bible and the teachings of Jesus before we become guilty of the following?

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight! –Isaiah 5:20-21 (ESV)

How about this one?

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. –2 Timothy 4:3-4 (ESV)

Even if I were to take a conservative Christian approach regarding homosexuality and homosexual acts, I’d have to admit that the commandments can only apply to religious Jews and to Christians. You have to be a member of the covenant before you come under the commandments (OK, Christians believe in a final judgment of all humanity by God, but that’s up to Him, not us). A conservative Christian is able to apply the Bible commandment prohibiting homosexual acts to someone performing such acts as a practicing Christian. However, he couldn’t do so regarding two men who are atheists, gay, and having sex anymore than he could against a man and woman who are atheists, living together as an unmarried couple and having sex (you don’t see a lot of Christian groups protesting against the latter these days).

As far as I can tell, the church has every right to police itself (and given the abuses in the church that occasionally come to light in the public media, perhaps they should) but they cannot apply their (our) own commandments and prohibitions onto the larger culture and attempt (and this is an extreme example) to legislate the Bible into local, state, or national law (even though significant portions of our laws are based on the Bible).

I know that’s what some Christians don’t want to hear.

Getting back to earlier portions of this blog post, are liberal Christians guilty of choosing “baby Jesus” or “Ninja Jesus” or “Gay Rights Jesus” over the closest approximation of “real Jesus” we can gather from the actual New Testament texts to satisfy modern cultural imperatives, or are, as Dr. McGrath suggests, we allowed to adapt the teachings of Jesus to be more appropriate with the needs of the current generations and even to override certain commandments for the sake of loving our neighbor unconditionally and without reservation under all circumstances, no matter what?

There’s no denying that there is an enormously complex set of variables in operation here. For many Christians, just policing their own backyard relative to homosexuality isn’t enough and they want to make the larger culture more “comfortable” for them/us. However, for the past 2,000 years, Jews have constantly lived as a subset of a larger culture that absolutely wasn’t comfortable to them and that existed in complete opposition to all of the commandments held more dear in religious Judaism.

And they managed to get by.

Why does Christianity expect anything different to happen to them?

Last November, I blogged on similar issues in a missive called At the Intersection of Intolerance and Humanity. I don’t believe that the church as the right to commit wholesale condemnation of all LGBT people everywhere as people because of the moral and religious commitments we’ve made as Christians. Perhaps we have the right to do so in our own churches, but this becomes problematic if your church accepts heterosexual couples living together as “OK” but not gay couples living together.

Whether you approve or disapprove of homosexual behavior based on your personal feelings and/or your understanding of the Bible doesn’t mean you have the right to disregard someone as a human being. Jesus expected us to, among other things, visit people in prison, meaning he wanted us to extend compassion to people who are convicted of crimes (and probably guilty of sins) and to treat them with respect. Why is being gay so much worse than being a bank robber, or someone who beat his wife, or even a murderer?

I’m not a big fan of having the larger, popular culture shove their values and ideals down my throat just because there are more of them than there are of me and they have the support of MSNBC and CNN. On the other hand, they do force the body of faith to confront moral issues that we’d just as soon avoid or even condemn, without actually examining what the Bible seems to be telling us, and especially without examining our own thoughts and feelings.

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak offered Balaam a small fortune if Balaam would consent to curse the Children of Israel, and given the fact that the evil Balaam could even speak with God, we have every reason to believe such a curse would have worked to the detriment of the Israelites. But what Balak intended for evil, God chose to make good. Are we to go so far as to say that what God considered evil in Leviticus, He chose to make good in the 21st century?

I don’t know if I can go that far. The popular media outlets are choosing to depict the LGBT community as “especially good” these days. We believers aren’t supposed to decide which people we love and which we hate. (Matthew 5:46). Although we are held to a higher moral standard (atheists and progressives would debate this) than the world around us, that isn’t a mandate to circle our wagons and to restrict love only to our own groups. If God so loved the world, the entire world, and everyone in it (John 3:16) while we were all still enemies of Christ (Romans 5:10), who are we to do any less?

Don’t turn good into evil and evil into good, but do good in order to overcome evil (Romans 12:21). I think rewriting the Bible to fit a modern moral agenda is going too far. But instead of overcoming what we believe is evil by force, we can do what Paul suggested in Romans 12:20 whilst quoting Proverbs 25:21-22

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Doing good doesn’t mean surrendering to evil. It means surrendering to God.

Good Shabbos.

Addendum: For more on loving your enemies, you might want to consider New Testament Scholar Larry Hurtado’s recent (and short) essay, Hermeneutics of ‘Agape’. Also, Dr. Stuart Dauermann presents a somewhat related blog post (not incredibly related but when you read it, you’ll see why I’m including it here) called Re-masculinizing the Church and Synagogue – Toward Addressing the Problem. Food for thought.

Why I Can Eat a Cheeseburger and Not Feel Guilty

A friend of mine mentioned to me via Facebook, that the so-called Dr. Laura letter is making the rounds on the Internet by way of email again. For those of you lucky enough to have escaped this collection of errors up until now, this letter was supposedly sent to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, probably sometimes around the year 2000, in response to “anti-gay” comments she made on her radio show. According to snopes.com, which uses their report on the letter to take various shots ar “Dr. Laura” but not to correct the letter’s obvious fallacies, the letter refuted the general argument of “homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so” by illustrating how “ridiculous” other so-called “eternal truths” of the Bible cannot possibly apply in this day and age. The idea here is that, if many of the commandments given to the Israelites at Sinai are unobservable today, why shouldn’t that include any prohibitions regarding homosexual behavior?

Since Snopes created their web page in such a way to not allow copy and paste, I’m taking the letter from another source:

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Law and how to follow them.

1. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. Lev.25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2. The passage clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev.11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

7. Lev.21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev.11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? – Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev.20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

How do I know that the writer of this letter believes they are more clever than they actually are? First some general info.

And God spoke all these words:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. –Exodus 20:1-2 (NIV)

Who is God talking to? Moses? No, He’s talking to the Children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who were enslaved in the land of Egypt for centuries and who Moses, at the direction of God, freed from servitude with the intent on fulfilling God’s promises to the Israelites.

He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” –Genesis 15:7

That’s the core scripture but for the full context, including that it is all of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob who will inherit, you probably want to read all of chapter 15. You’ll also want to see Genesis 26:1-6 for God’s confirmation that Isaac’s descendants will inherit the Land, and Genesis 35:11-13 for God’s confirmation that it is Jacob’s descendants who will inherit Israel. This leaves out inheritance by Ishmael’s descendants (Isaac’s brother) and Esau’s descendants (Jacob’s brother).

Now you might be asking “what land” did God promise Abraham and his descendants?

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the LORD showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the LORD said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” –Deuteronomy 34:1-4

This is only one of the places in Torah where the borders of ancient Israel are defined (they aren’t always defined in exactly the same way, however).

So we’ve established that God promised Israel specifically to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that at Mount Sinai, God, through Moses the Prophet, gave the specifications of the Torah to those very descendants, the Children of Israel. But what does all this have to do with the Dr. Laura letter? Plenty. I have to “set the stage” so to speak, in order to explain why the points brought up in this letter are utter foolishness, written by someone who has absolutely no idea about how to study the Bible (actually, the letter writer may be deceptively clever, but I’ll get to that).

All of the points in the Bible are specifically drawn from the Torah which in this case means, the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Bible. They’re also called the Books of Moses because supposedly God “dictated” their contents to Moses for him to record in a series of scrolls. The validity of this being literally true is hotly contested in religious and scholarly circles, but regardless of how you weigh in on this issue, the Torah is considered the foundation for Jewish (and arguably Christian) religion and theology.

I want to say at this point, that no modern religious Jew would rely on just the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings (otherwise known in Judaism as the “Tanakh”, which Christians call “the Old Testament”) as the sole arbiter of their religion. For an observant Jew, it would be impossible to understand what the Bible is saying without close and careful study of the Mishnah, Gemara, and the Talmud. These learned rulings and opinions are the interpreters of the meaning of the various portions of Torah and define how a religious Jew is to respond to its commandments in what has become known as the 613 mitzvot. I’m not scholar enough to present my counter argument from this perspective, but I can tell you that in Judaism, the full response to the fallacy of the Dr. Laura letter could not be given apart from a Talmudic understanding. That said, I believe I can effectively refute the points of the letter without resorting to Talmud.

(For those of you who are clueless about the Talmud but want to understand a little more about it, an excellent and easily read beginner’s guide is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Talmud by Rabbi Aaron Parry.)

To cut to the chase, so to speak, I propose that the reason the Dr. Laura letter is a waste of everyone’s time as far as a serious criticism against God’s commands in the Torah is that the writer of the letter completely failed to take it in its context (I realize that the writer’s main purpose was not to defame the Bible in general, but that’s the letter’s secondary effect). The vast majority of Torah commandments are meant to only be enacted in the ancient Nation of Israel! Is that enough emphasis for you? In other words, the Torah comprised the full body of civil and criminal laws as well as ethical and moral guides for all of the Israelite citizens in the Land. It’s like the U.S. Constitution, except that covers not only the legal basis of national sovereignty, rights, and freedoms, but all aspects of religious and social living. For Israel, there was no “separation of church and state” and originally, until Saul was anointed as King by the Prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 10), God was King of Israel in the world’s first and only functioning Theocracy.

Where do we find this? I don’t want this blog to be a thousand pages long. Here are a few examples:

“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. –Exodus 20:12

Worship the LORD your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span. –Exodus 23:25-26

I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land. –Exodus 23:28-30

“I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you. Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.” Exodus 23:31-33

In these few examples, we see obedience to God’s Torah being applied to the Children of Israel taking possession of and living in the area then known as Canaan and subsequently as Israel and Judea centuries hence. A full inventory of each of the connections between Torah obedience and the context of Israel are beyond the scope of his blog post, but I think you get the idea. The Torah commandments, including those referenced in the Dr. Laura letter, were only meant to be enacted within the national borders of ancient Israel and not outside of those borders nor even in the modern age (HINT: This is the letter writer’s real point).

Now let’s take each point one at a time.

1. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

The Stone Edition Chumash commentary for Leviticus 1 outlines the specific conditions for the various offerings that were first enacted in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert, and later in both Solomon’s Temple and Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem. In general, these offerings could only be made where “God had placed His Name”.

You must not worship the LORD your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the LORD your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. There, in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the LORD your God has blessed you. –Deuteronomy 12:4-7

Here we see that burnt offerings, and any of the other offerings, could not be sacrificed just any old place, not even within the borders of Israel. They had to be offered in either the Tabernacle (prior to the Israelites taking the Land) or in the Temple in Jerusalem. The fellow who wants to have a barbecue in his backyard might cook up a mean steak, but it has no relationship to Leviticus 1:9. Dr. Laura letter fail. Next.

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

According to the Chumash commentary for Exodus 21, this set of laws deals primarily with civil and tort law within the nation of Israel. Right here, we see that our fellow in point 2 who wants to sell his daughter is out-of-bounds, because he doesn’t live 3500 years ago in ancient Israel. Also, slavery in ancient Israel is not the entity we understand it to be in a larger context. Israel had no welfare system or other means to take care of the poor, so people could sell themselves into indentured servitude as a means of satisfying their debts or to avoid starvation. The Chumash specifically states regarding Exodus 21:7-11:

Until a girl reaches puberty, the Torah gives her father the right to “sell” her as a bondswoman, but, as the passage itself and the teachings of the Sages makes clear, this right is given him for her benefit. He is permitted to “sell” her because the sale is expected to result in her marriage to either her master or his son. In fact, if neither of the two marries her, the Torah regards it as a betrayal of the girl.

If the marriage contract is not fulfilled, then the girl goes free upon reaching puberty, at the end of six years, or upon the advent of the Jubilee year. This is a commandment that cannot be understood by the plain text alone and that must be interpreted through additional sources (in this case, the relevant sections of Talmud are Kiddushin 18b and Kiddushin 41a). When the writer of the Dr. Laura letter asks, in “this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?” he immediately disqualifies himself from being able to sell his daughter, for such a thing isn’t possible in this day and age outside the confines of ancient Israel and without a proper court system established by God (Numbers 11:16-30).

It should be noted that the Chumash commentary says a father should not enact this particular right but sometimes may to ensure a proper “match” for his daughter. This form of “slavery” amounts to an arranged marriage, and such arrangements are known across history and in many cultures up until modern times (hasn’t anyone ever seen Fiddler on the Roof?). They may not be politically correct in our day and age, but they’re not effectively slavery and in any event, this particular form of slavery cannot be enacted and enforced in even modern Israel, let alone anywhere else in the world.

Sorry. Dr Laura Letter fail #2.

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

Oh brother. This one seems amazingly ridiculous to me, but let’s have a look at the source text. In fact, let’s see what happened when a man in ancient Israel did come in contact with a woman’s “impurity”.

“‘When she is cleansed from her discharge, she must count off seven days, and after that she will be ceremonially clean. On the eighth day she must take two doves or two young pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting. The priest is to sacrifice one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. In this way he will make atonement for her before the LORD for the uncleanness of her discharge. –Leviticus 15:28-30

This sort of contact was only a problem if the man intended to offer a sacrifice or otherwise enter into the Temple. He was considered ritualistically unclean and unable to perform various religious rites. As far as his day-to-day life, it had no impact. Obviously, if the writer of the Dr. Laura letter is living in modern times and thus (even if he’s a Jew, and if he is, he should know better than to engage in such a foolish letter) sitting on the same sofa where a menstruant woman recently sat has absolutely no effect on his life. In modern times, the only issue a Jewish man would have with a menstruating woman would have to do with the niddah or law of separation. This forbids a husband from having sexual relations with his wife during her period. This is observed primarily within the Orthodox Jewish community and may not even be observed by Reform or non-religious Jews. This restriction is not binding on Christians or anyone else in any way, so Dr. Laura letter fail for point #3.

4. Lev.25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

The Chumash commentary for Leviticus 25:44-46 states:

Having said that an owner’s rights over his Jewish slaves are severely limited, the Torah states that one may purchase slaves from among the surrounding nations. Such slaves become the property of their owners.

Again, context, context, context. We are talking about ancient Israel and the surrounding nations. In the ancient near-east, slavery was common and legal. We’ve already seen an example of how “slavery” was more a matter of indentured servitude when one Jew owned another, but when an Israelite bought a slave from a neighboring country, they indeed were a slave. They had certain rights, but not nearly the rights of a born Jew. Having said all that, nothing in the context of this passage gives our (supposedly American) writer the legal leverage to buy a Canadian. In this case, the various laws of the U.S. and Canada apply and if said-writer ever seeks to buy another human being, he’ll end up doing a long stretch in prison. Letter fail for point #4.

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2. The passage clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

According to the Chumash commentary for this verse, violation of the Shabbat was the equivalent of idol worship, which also carried the death sentence. However, it’s not a matter of a mob grabbing the offender and doing away with him as many people seem to imagine. The offender had to be observed violating the Shabbat by at least two reliable witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). The case was adjudicated in front of a court system and once the witnesses testified, the court considered the matter and issued a verdict. If the verdict was guilty, then the primary witnesses were obligated to “cast the first stones” (Deuteronomy 17:7).

Barbaric? Sure sounds that way. Stoning was a horrible way to die. Notice though that (again) this particular law only applied to Jews (non-Jews were and are not obligated to observe the Shabbat) in ancient Israel. Even modern Israel as a nation, does not have a unified law obligating all of its citizens to observe the Shabbat, though some sects within religious Judaism are lobbying for this. Our supposedly American letter writer has no legal right to enforce an ancient penalty out of its context, even if his “Shabbat breaking neighbor” happens to be Jewish. Dr. Laura letter Fail #5.

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev.11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

This is the real reason the Dr. Laura letter writer submitted his wee missive; to illustrate that homosexuality cannot be considered an “abomination” by God according to the Bible unless all of the other Torah commandments remained equally valid. So who shouldn’t eat shellfish? The Leviticus 11 kosher laws are specific to the Children of Israel. This set of laws is a tad different, because it applies to Jews regardless of where they live and regardless of when in history they live. Modern observant Jews keep kosher within both the confines of Leviticus 11 and the specific rulings of the Talmudic sages. This additionally specifies how meat animals are to be slaughtered in a kosher manner. Observant Jews can’t just buy a pound of ground round from Albertsons to satisfy their dietary requirements. There are also rulings that require that the kitchen used to prepare food must be kosher (kashering a kitchen is a rather involved process), and meat and dairy products cannot be served and eaten together.

These restrictions are observed mainly in the Orthodox Jewish community and varying degrees of kosher are kept by Conservative and Reform Jews. Most secular Jews do not keep any form of kosher, just as Christians do not and certainly no other people group (actually, Muslims have their own kosher laws which closely mirror the Jewish dietary restrictions). For the rest of us, it’s OK to eat a cheeseburger and not feel guilty. Bon appetit.

I don’t know how to compare the “degree of abomination” of eating a pork chop to performing a homosexual act relative to the Torah, so I have no response for this. Orthodox Jews still declare homosexual acts as immoral but Reform Jews are fully accepting of gays including the ordination of gay Rabbis and having gay members of the synagogue board and their various committees.

Greenberg_steve_rabbiThe attitude of Orthodox Judaism toward homosexuality may be changing, although rather slowly. About six weeks ago, I wrote a blog post called At the Intersection of Intolerance and humanity in response to what I understand is the first ever wedding of two gay Orthodox Jewish men by a gay Orthodox Rabbi. The story and the blog comments in response are very illuminating and I encourage you to have a look. As far as the letter writer’s query, it isn’t stated in such a way that a response is possible. I’m sure a Talmud scholar could render an answer as a matter of degree of offense, since both the kosher laws and restrictions against homosexual behavior remain observed in Orthodox Judaism, but I lack the qualifications to render an opinion. As far as my analysis is concerned, we’ll call it a draw on point #6.

7. Lev.21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

The Chumash commentary for this section of Torah states in part, “This verse forbids the blemished Kohen to perform the service…”. OK, the blemished Kohen. Kohenim (plural for Kohen) are a subset of the tribe of Levi and direct descendants of Aaron (the brother of Moses). By definition, they’re Jewish, so unless our letter writer is Jewish, a Levite, and a Kohen, he doesn’t have anything to worry about. Also, no Temple exists, thus no altar exists. This question is a red herring (they all are). No sale. Dr Laura letter fail on point #7.

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should they die?

I’m getting a little tired of writing long responses to silly questions. Remember the part in my response to #5 about the death sentence, court, judges, Israel, context, context, context? Apply that. Only the ultra-Orthodox and Chabad communities observe these restrictions in the modern age. If they violate them and try to remain within their communities, it’s up to the local Beit Din or rabbinic court to adjudicate the matter and their authority is only over their communities. The rest of us are free to have whatever haircut we choose. Dr. Laura letter fail on point #8.

9. I know from Lev.11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

“You shall not touch their carcass.” Here’s the Chumash commentary on this verse.

This prohibition applies only during the festival visits to the Temple, when everyone must be pure. At such times, no one may touch a contaminated carcass, because everyone is commanded to remain uncontaminated during the festival visits to the Temple.

While Jews around the world continue to celebrate festivals such as Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, because there is no Temple or priesthood, it’s impossible to celebrate in accordance to the descriptions we find in the Torah. Even if our letter writing friend were Jewish, unless he was planning on using his time machine to celebrate Sukkot in the days of Herod, he has no problem. Certainly as an American non-Jew, he can play football anytime he wants. Dr. Laura letter fail on point #9.

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? – Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev.20:14)

Is his uncle Jewish? If so, does his uncle live in the land of Israel around 1000 B.C. or so? No? Then this, like the other points in this letter, is a “non-event”. Fail #10.

That’s 9 for 10 fails with a draw for point #6 and that’s only because of the way the question is worded and the failure of a consensus in even the Orthodox community.

Now here’s the real point. I realize that the letter writer is not really being so foolish as to think you can take bits and pieces of the Bible out of context and try to apply them to a modern, non-Jewish world. His (or her) real point was to attempt to illustrate that the Bible cannot be viewed as an absolute and timeless source of truth, since some any of its conditions have indeed changed across time, if for no other reason than the Temple in Jerusalem no longer exists (but reading the book of Ezekiel, we can expect a third Temple to be built at some future time). Thus the Torah prohibitions against homosexual behavior should not apply outside of the Torah context as well. I get that. Of course, since particularly Orthodox Jews do keep the kosher laws (and most religious Jews of the different sects do so to varying degrees), it’s up to each Jewish community to determine their tolerance level for homosexuals in their midst. I also realize that the letter (supposedly) was aimed at Dr. Laura in response to her comments against gays based on the Bible. If we keep the letter in that context, then the ten points I’ve just belabored have nothing to do with the rest of us.

However, if we were to believe that the letter writer were also attempting to discredit the Bible (and the Christians and Jews who consider it holy) because it commands behaviors that don’t apply in the modern world, then he (or she) has failed miserably. As I previously said, I can’t say the letter is a 100% failure only because of the ambiguity of how point #6 is worded, though there is probably an answer out there somewhere. Still, the letter is a 90% failure and even if I give it 10% credit for point #6, that’s still an “F” in any teacher’s gradebook.

I know this is a very long write-up and it could have been much, much longer if I had gone into exquisite detail, but frankly, I think I’ve proved my point. All that stuff in the Bible doesn’t apply to you if you don’t want it to apply to you. Any part of the New Testament only starts applying once you decide you want to be a Christian (God will sort it all out at the final judgment, so if you’re not worried, neither is God). If you’re not Jewish and don’t live in ancient Israel, you don’t have to give the Dr. Laura letter a second thought. If you’re Jewish and religious, any questions you may have about the proper level of your observance need to be directed to your Rabbi.

As a parting note, I apologize for all of the typos you’ve found in my rather long “meditation”. I haven’t had the time to properly edit it but will do so in the hours and days ahead (so if the wording changes here and there, no worries). If you have a comment or rebuttal (please be nice), feel free to chime in. To my friend Leo, I hope this fits the bill.