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Sexuality in Judaism

Posted on January 6, 2016 at 10:35 AM

Why Neither Homosexuality nor Heterosexuality Exist in Judaism

 

Rabbi Joel Beasley teaches Bible, Talmud, and Philosophy, and develops creative learning programs in a variety of educational institutions near his home in Alon Shvut, Israel. This article first appeared in the Jewish Spectator, Winter 1998.

 

"God does not play tricks on His creations". - Talmud, Avoda Zara 3a

"I'm not a bad girl; I'm just drawn that way." - Jessica Rabbit, Who Shot Roger Rabbit? (1988).

 

Canadian columnist Barbara Amiel recently identified a product of Western culture she called the "azza," a person who prefaces comments with the words, "as a." "Azza left-handed pro-life Scottish-nationalist Elvis-imitator," for example, "I might find your remarks offensive." The azza preface grants critical immunity. Honest intellectual discussion is hard to come by with this ultra-sensitive, utilitarian character.

 

Amiel's words resonate in an era in which Jewish tradition is derided as bigoted and homophobic. Is there any relevance in this environment for the Torah view that the homosexual act is an "abomination" (Leviticus 18:22)? How can Judaism with its unambiguous position speak to this generation? As far as the Jewish religion goes, there are no homosexuals in the world, nor have there ever been. There are no heterosexuals either. Both terms are pejorative. They imply that the essence of existence lies somehow within the crass and the carnal. Human beings are reduced to their most primal function, as if the point of life was to contemplate the smorgasbord of sexual possibilities in the world.

 

From the Jewish perspective, identifying existentially as a homosexual or a heterosexual is as irrelevant as identifying as a ptyalizer (a person whose saliva flows excessively).The words may describe predilections or behavior, but they hardly capture the essence of the person. The Torah labels people not by their primal urges, but by their obligations to God. The Cohen, Levi, and Yisrael each play a different role within the apparatus of Divine worship. The adult keeps mitzvot, while the youth is exempt. The indentured servant, the non-Jewish citizen, and the free person all enjoy different monetary obligations. In dividing these responsibilities, God apparently did not care about human preferences, sexual or otherwise. He did not ask the Jewish people whether or not they would like to follow His Torah. According to the Midrash, He held the mountain over the entire nation and said, "take it." No azza interest group declined because of special needs. It was an offer no one could refuse.

 

In the pre-azza world, Jews tended to appreciate their Creator more, not only for bringing them out of bondage, but for enabling them to breathe. The Torah gave them the opportunity to express their gratitude. Before JFK, God told His people not to ask what He can do for them, but what they can do for Him. If any one label applies accurately to the Jew, it is Eved Hashem, servant of God. This may represent the main point of conflict between the ideology of the azza world and the Torah. The azza is concerned with rights. The Torah rarely discusses rights. It is more focused on responsibilities. Within its structured framework, people can maximize their own distinct talents and interests. Their ultimate task is to become partners with God in the world's creation -- literally by creating their unique selves in His image.

 

As part of this act of self-creation, people must see their personal qualities as constantly evolving. Branding themselves with labels stymies their potential for growth and destroys their partnership with God. Labels rarely describe people as they are. They more frequently become self-fulfilling prophecies. A child who is labeled "slow" from an early age feels defeated. Trying to rise above the low expectations seems futile.

 

Teshuvah, the assumption that any human quality can be changed if necessary to serve the Creator, allows individuals to maximize their potential beyond their wildest expectations. A child once assumed to have been slow can develop into a top scholar with the appropriate determination. Every destructive impulse can be directed towards appropriate holy activity.

 

The current consensus amongst Behavioral Psychologists supports the Torah's optimism with regards to change. With the right positive and negative reinforcement, people can adjust to any number of previously unimaginable realities. Behavioral conditioning usually works more efficiently at earlier ages, but all people can adjust to new situations if they are motivated.

 

According to sexual behaviorists like Masters and Johnson, babies are born neither heterosexual nor homosexual in any categorical sense (Human Sexuality, 1995, fifth edition). They are sexually malleable, and can remain in flux throughout their lifetimes. Whether sexuality is determined by biology or by the environment -- or both -- is a question that defies clear empirical proof. Regardless of the nature-nurture conundrum, sexual attraction is almost always influenced to some degree by external stimuli. Human preferences are complex and quirky. If chocolate ice cream tastes sensational today, it may taste less so tomorrow. People are inclined naturally towards aesthetic variation. That does not mean they should be free to act on their impulses. The Torah understands that unrestrained pursuit of personal pleasure takes a terrible toll on society, and creates havoc for the stability of the family.

 

What if people feel genuinely attracted to their own gender? This does not make them homosexual, even if they experience homosexual feelings. These feelings may or may not go away in time, but the Torah still expects that people adapt themselves as best they can to male-female marriage. There have always been people in the world who at least at one point in their lives are attracted to their own gender, to little children, to family members, to ever-changing sexual whims. God does not permit people to act out their fantasy lives if these conflict with His vision of holiness.

 

The Torah does not accept the concept of monogamous homosexual relationships because self-fulfillment is not part of its agenda. If human sexuality is influenced by environment, someone with homosexual ideation can potentially lead a fulfilled marital life. But even if their innermost desires remained unfulfilled, it does not matter. It may never become clear why some people do not feel predisposed to marrying someone of the opposite sex. The obligation remains.

 

Marriage is meant to teach people how to rise above their own selfish needs in order to give to a partner who is both psychologically and physiologically different. Same-gender marriages might have been too easy. As one essayist put it, male couples would have been able to sit around and watch ballgames all day; female couples would have been able to sit down and really talk about one another's feelings. But marriage is meant to challenge each of the partners. John Grey's bestsellers on the subject (Menare from Mars, Women are from Venus, et al.) have touched a raw nerve precisely because members of both sexes are aware of the difficulty in bridging the chasm between them.

 

Jews have always appreciated the gap between the sexes. The Torah sanctified it. The Jews were the first people in world history to make divorce difficult by forcing the man to pay a hefty sum before separating permanently from his wife. When the inevitable conflicts arose, neither spouse could run away so quickly. They had to stay together and work things out the hard way, often becoming finer individuals in the process. Divorce was a possibility, but only as a last resort after all other options had been explored. The constructive tension in marriage helped them grow.

 

Male-female marriage is a much more stable societal norm than monogamous same-sex relationships. Dennis Prager argues that men in particular need women as a civilizing force in order to tame their potentially unruly libidos ("Judaism, Homosexuality, and Civilization," Ultimate Issues ,April-June 1990). Societies that tolerated homosexual behavior in history were characterized almost without exception by the oppression and subjugation of women, by the elevation of male sexual gratification as a mainstream pastime, and by a lack of any persevering family life. Men by their nature are not as willing to commit to long-term relationships. Prager argues that "while it is possible for male homosexuals to live lives of fidelity comparable to those of heterosexual males, it is usually not the case." According to one study, the typical lesbian has fewer than ten lovers in the course of her active sexual life, the typical male homosexual has over five hundred (Bell and Weinberg, Homosexualities, Alfred Kinsey Institute for Sex Research, 1978).

 

God's idea of holiness is not always discernible to the human mind. These explanations may not fully account for the Torah's overall prohibition. They do refute the popular claim that the Torah would have sanctioned monogamous homosexual relationships if it had known about them. The prohibition was meant to be unambiguous and eternal. This is one reason the Torah is so spare with its words, "And do not lie with the male in the way you lie with a woman -- it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22). Try as they may, modern voices fail to twist these words beyond their unavoidably clear meaning.

 

God is not cruel. He does not ask people to do anything beyond their capacity. He does at times ask them to harness their desires. To some degree, all mitzvot go against the natural human grain. Without the social or ethical restraints that usually bind them, most people would steal, live promiscuously, lie, cheat, and occasionally murder, sometimes out of sheer convenience. The greatest struggle in life, according to the Torah, is to discipline base instincts in pursuit of moral excellence. People are bursting with inchoate spirituality. The truly righteous learn how to control their physical drives while striving to realize their loftiest convictions.

 

Many people diminish their potential by embracing labels. The self-proclaimed homosexual who engages in homosexual acts is not necessarily considered evil from a Torah perspective. The act is evil. The prohibition may be absolute, but Jews still have a priority of showing one another compassion, especially when doing the right thing becomes a struggle. There is no contradiction when those who condemn homosexual behavior reach out lovingly to self-identified "homosexuals." It means that they are able to see the Divine image in all people.

 

In a world that hypocritically accepts homosexuality in public and abhors it in private, the compassionate Jewish approach is unique. But for Judaism to be on the cutting edge is nothing new. The Midrash explains why our founder was called Avraham ha'ivri. While the rest of the world stood on one side(iver) of the river, Avraham bravely stood on the other. Jews are defined from the beginning of their history by their ability to stand firm in their beliefs despite the prevailing trends in the world. The Jewish views of monotheism, a limited monarchy, and freedom have rarely been endorsed by the historical powers of the world. Most of these powers themselves have died out, while the Jews and their Torah are as vibrant as ever. When homosexuality was exalted in Greek, Mayan, Chinese, Scandinavian cultures -- in fact almost every society in world history (see David E. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality, 1988) -- the Jews stood resolutely by their ideal of male-female marriage.

 

People diminish themselves by insisting on azza-like labels. Strangely enough, in the modern world, identity often becomes enmeshed with career: "I am a secretary," "a lawyer," "a clerk," "an artist." These self-definitions are sadly accurate for those who accomplish little beyond their all-consuming careers. Others identify with their astrological signs, their lives assuming a kooky arbitrary dimension that seems beyond the individual's control. And some identify with their carnal preferences, as homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or otherwise sexually challenged. Sex indeed often dominates their lives. If their days and nights are not filled with pursuits of physical pleasure, their minute-to-minute fantasy life tends to be all-engrossing.

 

The Torah offers a finer alternative. Within God's scheme, career, cosmos, and sexuality are all part of life's intricate fabric. Judaism is not ascetic. The individual is supposed to appreciate the richness of God's physical creation. The key is to accept the Torah's parameters. Through discipline and a pursuit of holiness, the Torah teaches how to appreciate the spiritual gifts in the universe and thereby live the fullest kind of existence.

Categories: Judaism


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