Judaism and Homosexuality: A Thoughtful and Nuanced Discussion

Introduction

Before I began doing research on the issue of Judaism and Homosexuality, I knew very little about the Jewish faith. I knew there were three main denominations, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed. I knew they they studied the Torah and each denomination followed its laws to different degrees. But the complexity and the nuance of the faith escaped me. I think one of the greatest things to come out of this research is just that I gained a greater understanding of a religious and cultural group that I didn’t know a lot about before.

This journey into the intersection of Judaism and homosexuality began the first time we visited the AIDS Quilt gallery. I was immediately drawn to a brand new panel, rather than any the curators showed us. This panel was created by members of the Ahavath Achim Synagogue, a community with a rich history of activism and social justice and the panel they created to honor the memory of Alan Landis also functioned as a touchstone for all of the progressive Jewish values this Conservative community holds.

These values that the quilt panel extolled led to the central question of my research: how do the three main Jewish denominations, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed view non-heteronormative orientations, in particular homosexuality?

From this question, comes a morass of spiritual, ethical, Biblical, and philosophical questions, questions that strike at the complexity of this intersection and at the heart of our shared humanity, Jew and Gentile alike. I delved deep into a wide swath of Jewish scholars and spiritual leaders writing about sexuality from a Jewish context to attempt to answer some of these questions. The thing that led me to explore this intersection of homosexuality and Judaism was the first AIDS Quilt panel I encountered. The panel featured a grid-like design with eighteen distinct, smaller squares, each made by a different member of the Ahavath Achim Synagogue, a Conservative Jewish community memorializing Alan Landis.
Alan Landis was a committed member of the Ahavath Achim Synagogue and was a frequent guest speaker at the AIDS Quilt gallery.

Each individual square on the panel honoring his life features each member’s perspective of the AIDS crisis, their memory of Alan, their Jewish faith, and the expression of important moral values such as inclusivity, justice, and love. It was this last feature of the panel, these progressive moral values, that hooked me. Several of the squares express the importance of religious equality, tolerance, inclusivity, diversity, and love of one’s neighbor.

I found it fascinating that ancient Jewish traditions could be used in such a modern progressive way, especially when dealing with issues of sexuality. For example, one of the squares conveys the value of diversity in community, using the Jewish phrase “B’tzelem Elohim”: in God’s image. Another square presents the ‘Seven Jewish Values’, which are ‘Respect’, ‘Peace in the Home’, ‘In God’s Image’, ‘Communal Responsibility’, ‘Guarding One’s Use of Language’, ‘Love Your Neighbor As Yourself’, and ‘Solidarity’.

These values are all tied to the promotion of human flourishing and are dedicated to the elevation of our shared humanity. Rather than being mired in petty religious squabbles, or focusing on what divides us, the Ahavath Achim Synagogue created a work of art that is both steeped in rich Jewish tradition, but also affirms and accepts progressive modern change. It uses religious language and connection with God to advance what the Synagogue sees as in line with God’s natural progression of humankind. This natural progression includes issues of homosexuality. The Ahavath Achim quilt panel makes it clear that being gay or leading what some other Jewish communities may consider a sinful lifestyle, is not a barrier to a relationship with God. This led me to consider what other Jewish communities believe about the issue of homosexuality.

There are three different denominations of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed. These three main denominations operate on a spectrum, with Reformed Jews being the most progressive, Orthodox Jews being the most traditional, and Conservative Jews falling somewhere in the middle between the other two. All three have varying views of homosexuality, not just between these three denominations, but inside them as well. That is one of the central themes of this research, that homosexuality is not a black and white issue for many religious communities. Hopefully, as a result of this research, we can begin to get a sense of the perspectives and views surrounding these three Jewish denominations that show the central tensions that the issue of homosexuality brings out; tensions between compassion and law, love and communal expectations, and grace and tradition.

i. Orthodox

In Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View, Rabbi Chaim Rapoport presents the most conservative position towards homosexuality in any of the denominations of Judaism. In his chapter on ‘The Nature of Homosexuality’, Rapoport writes, “the Torah has forbidden all plausible sexual activity…’, and, “…the purport of the commandments of the Torah is: God has created us with sexual desires; these must be completely suppressed and never expressed…” (Rapoport, 21). Rapoport believes in controversial gay conversion therapy and that if a Jew identifies as homosexual, then he or she should still attempt to pursue a heterosexual marriage relationship. If this is too much for them, then Rapoport agrees with the total suppression of all human sexuality. (Rapoport, 27)

Rapoport’s rhetoric exudes a growing sense of disease, even disgust, towards homosexuals and groups that support the acceptance of homosexuality, whether they are Jewish or not. This seems to be consistent throughout the entire work and his own view of homosexuality and secular life, which is useful when considering some other more progressive Jewish attitudes. Rabbi Rapoport’s interpretation of Jewish law and homosexuality is upheld by the majority of Orthodox Jews, but most Jews are not Orthodox. As a caveat, this book was written in 2004 and these views, while still relevant to the Orthodox community, may have changed slightly with the changing perceptions of homosexuality.

A different Orthodox view comes from Steven Greenberg, who is both an active Orthodox Rabbi and gay. He wrote Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition about his personal journey grappling with both his sexuality and his faith, and how the people in his life influenced this spiritual journey and self-discovery. His ultimate conclusions lead him to believe that homosexuality is not merely just ‘okay’ within the Jewish tradition, but homosexual relationships are just as capable of producing holy, God-glorifying relationships as hetero-normative relationships. He uses persuasive examples from the Bible and the Talmud that argues for an affirming stance towards homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism, like the relationship between Daniel and Jonathan, a long-suspected homosexual relationship in 1 Samuel.

An artistic depiction of David and Jonathan, one of the examples Stephen Greenberg uses to push for full acceptance of homosexual relationships in Orthodox communities.

Interestingly enough, Greenberg and Rapoport both wrote their works in the same year, demonstrating the extreme difference of opinion surrounding this issue, even within one of the three central denominations of Judaism.

One final Orthodox source comes from Eyes Wide Open, a small indie film that released at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. It follows Aaron, an Orthodox father of four who inherits his family’s butcher shop in one of the most Orthodox communities in Israel. Aaron is, “…a kind, responsible and somewhat melancholy man, who makes his way each day, without complaint, from his shop to the synagogue to the apartment he shares with his wife, Rivka, and their four children.” (Scott). The life he leads is deemed respectable by the Temble Rabbis, until he takes on a 22-year old apprentice, Ezri, who complicates things.

Aaron begins to develop intimate feelings for his apprentice, and the movie revolves around the internal struggle between Aaron and his faith, the external struggle of Aaron and his religious community, and Aaron’s relationships with his family and with Ezri.  As Aaron and Ezri fall deeper and deeper into love and subsequently face the public outrage of their relationship, Eyes Wide Open is careful not to portray this Orthodox community as ignorant or malicious, but, “[Eyes Wide Open] does represent an honest attempt, by and for outsiders, to understand the logic of a worldview defined by absolute obedience to God’s law.” (Scott).

I thought that this film was a wonderful example of someone, like Greenberg, grappling with these issues of homosexuality and Judaism, portraying the Reformed idea of holy non-heterosexual relationships within an Orthodox community. It truly encapsulates all of the central questions that Jews of all traditions are having to wrestle with and ask themselves.

ii. Conservative

Conservative Judaism is perhaps the denomination of Judaism that is most muddled on acceptance of non-heteronormative relationships. In 2006, the Rabbinical Assembly, which is the international governing body of Conservative Judaism, passed a measure, which was then published in HOMOSEXUALITY, HUMAN DIGNITY & HALAKHAH, and asserts that, “Human beings cannot choose their sexual orientation.”, and “The experience of sexual attraction and falling in love is one that individuals experience as outside their conscious control.” (Rabbinical Assembly, 3). This measure, passed on a 13-12 margin, shows the tension between tradition and the plight of homosexual Jews. Conservative Judaism is directly in the center between the other two Jewish denominations and it shows in this document. There are 36 pages of summaries of arguments and painstaking adherence to every potential translation of Torah law. Ultimately, the Rabbinic Assembly makes a difficult decision to place the human dignity of homosexual Jews over, what the Assembly considers, clear-cut laws forbidding homosexual activity.

The result of this somewhat confused treatise on homosexuality continues to breed disorientation within the Conservative denomination. In 2007, Jack Wertheimer writes in COMMENTARY Magazine about the reactions in the Conservative Jewish community to the treatise on homosexuality put forth by the Rabbinical Assembly in 2006, describing the implications of the ruling, the confusion felt by Conservative Jews, and the overall lack of clarity to the Conservative denomination’s diagnosis of the issue of homosexuality. His research states, “Far from welcoming the exercise as a success, two-thirds of the clergy claimed to have been ‘somewhat embarrassed’ by the contradictory rulings and over half of the lay leaders pronounced themselves ‘confused.’” (Wertheimer, 38)

Wertheimer moves on to present two dueling views of the origin of the Conservative movement in the late 18th Century, one that reflected poorly on the Orthodox tradition and one that reflected poorly on the Reformed tradition. He argues that whichever origin story you agree with, indicates where on the Conservative spectrum you land.

Conservative Jews strike a delicate balance between the other two denominations of Judaism and, on the issue of homosexuality, are divided. It is the smallest denomination of Judaism, but it is also the denomination that has the widest breadth of opinion on social issues. Much like the vote on the Rabbinic Assembly treatise showed, Conservative Jews enter into an arena of debate and contradiction much more often than Reformed and Orthodox circles do. Because of this, Conservative Jews are simultaneously more open-minded than the other two denominations and more divided than the other two denominations. Thus, Conservative stances on homosexuality, at least from 10 years ago, appear a bit convoluted because of this fact.

iii. Reformed

The perspectives of Reformed Judaism tend to be wholly accepting of all manner of gender and sexuality issues. Shirly Bahar’s work, Coming Out As Queen: Jewish Identity, Queer Theory, and the Book of Esther, uses queer theory pioneer Eve Sedgewick’s seminal work, Epistemology of the Closet. Her book deals with the evolution of homosexuality, its role in societal identity, and the evolution of queerness through historical and literary contexts.

Bahar takes this and builds upon it by connecting Jewish identity and queer identity. The vehicle for this direct comparison is the Book of Esther, found in the Old Testament. Esther is a Jew who becomes Queen through a long and sexist ancient beauty contest thrown by King Xerxes. Esther is encouraged by her Jewish uncle to hide her Jewish identity. After becoming Queen, one of the King’s advisors threatens to wage genocide against all the Jews in the country. Esther revealed her true identity to the King in a successful effort to prevent the elimination of her people for, to quote Esther, “such a time as this.”.

Xerxes and Esther

Melanie Wright, a professor at Westminster College and a Jewish scholar, surmises ten main points, beliefs, and debates in her book Studying Judaism: The Critical Issues. The issues she assesses are deep, varied, and fundamental, and include issues like gender, culture, politics, and central beliefs. She discusses the Reformed perspective on homosexuality, saying,  “…heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderedness are identities that deserve to be treated with respect, since all humans are made b’tzelem elohim, in the divine image.” (Wright, 169). In Wright’s analysis, homosexuality is just another facet of one’s personality and God-created character. Reformed circles view homosexuality and other alternatives to heterosexuality as having no difference. In a way, because Reformed Judaism has moved so far beyond the mere acceptance of homosexuality and alternate sexualities, they have deemphasized any difference between heterosexuality and homosexuality. This deemphasis normalizes homosexuality in a way that the other two denominations don’t. Even affirming Orthodox and Conservative circles still tend to stigmatize homosexuality, regardless if they believe alternate sexualities are created by God.

Additionally, Wright cites Steven Greenberg, the Rabbi who wrote Wrestling with God and Men, who “…links the quest for homosexual rights to the feminist debate, arguing that the Levitical codes regard same-sex relations between men as abhorrent because such acts are seen as feminizing the male…” (Wright, 174) The idea is that if you take away the sexist hierarchy of ancient Jewish culture, you also rid yourself of the stigma of homosexuality. Greenberg, and Wright by extension, argue that adherence to traditional gender roles created the laws in Leviticus that outlaw homosexual behavior, rather than homosexuality being anathema to God itself.

Already many Conservative circles and almost all Reformed communities of Judaism have embraced non-traditional gender roles. In fact, Wright points out in her chapter on gender that many Conservative congregations now are beginning to be open to female Rabbis, and Reformed communities have coined the term ‘Rabba’ to describe a female Rabbi. This argument that prohibitions against homosexual behavior centers around male hierarchy and traditional gender roles is one of the clearest explanations and refutations of Torah law I’ve come across.

This is Alona Lisitsa, who made history by being the first female Rabbi to join the religious council. She was an Orthodox Jew, but later converted to the Reformed denomination.

Reformed denominations don’t share the same literal interpretations of the law books in the Torah that many Conservative and Orthodox Jews have, but rather incorporate historical context and evolving modern perspectives in study of the Torah. This often leads to more tolerant and progressive interpretations and discards some of the more anachronistic and archaic Jewish laws.

Conclusion

In this research, I wanted to present all sides of this debate within the Jewish tradition without value judgments or bias. Even though some of my personal views don’t match up with some of the writers, I wanted to understand how a faith which draws from one central text can end up with such differing views on homosexuality. The conclusion that my research makes apparent is that Jewish views on a wide variety of issues, not just limited to sexuality, are complex, nuanced, and definitely not black and white. Each of these three different denominations seeks to promote the lifestyle that most honors God and promotes human flourishing. Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed circles all handle this differently, but the motive remains the same.

Works Cited

Orthodox:

Greenberg, Steven. Wrestling with God and Men : Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. Madison, Wisc. : University of Wisconsin Press, ©2004., 2004. EBSCOhost,

ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat05756a&AN=gsu.9913383513402952&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Rapoport, Chaim. Judaism and Homosexuality : An Authentic Orthodox View. London ; Portland, OR : Vallentine Mitchell, 2004., 2004. EBSCOhost,

ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat05756a&AN=gsu.9913471843402952&site=eds-live&scope=site

 

Scott, A. O. “A Love Story That Tests an Ultra-Orthodox Jew.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Feb. 2010,

www.nytimes.com/2010/02/05/movies/05eyes.html

COnservative

Dorff, Rabbi Elliot N., et al. “HOMOSEXUALITY, HUMAN DIGNITY & HALAKHAH: A COMBINED RESPONSUM FOR THE COMMITTEE ON JEWISH LAW AND STANDARDS.” Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbinical Assembly, 6 Dec. 2006,

www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/20052010/dorff_nevins_reisner_dignity.pdf

Wertheimer, Jack. “The Perplexities of Conservative Judaism.” Commentary, vol. 124, no. 2, Sept. 2007, pp. 38-44. EBSCOhost,

ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=26396118&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Reformed

Bahar, Shirly. “Coming out as Queen: Jewish Identity, Queer Theory, and the Book of Esther.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality, vol. 13, no. 3, July 2012, pp. 167-178. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/15240657.2012.709134.

http://www-tandfonlinecom.ezproxy.gsu.edu/doi/pdf/10.1080/15240657.2012.709134?needAccess=true

Wright, Melanie Jane. Studying Judaism : The Critical Issues. Continuum, 2012. Studying World Religions. EBSCOhost,

ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=633578&site=eds-live&scope=site.

 

Author: admin

Hi!! I'm Alexander. Here are some things about me: I love the NBA, am passionate about a good burrito, avidly watch Game of Thrones, and actively fight for social justice and equality. I'm into yoga, I have a tattoo (and want more), and fantasize about living in the U.K. I am a freshman at Georgia State University, where I plan to graduate with a degree in Economics and Philosophy. I'm always down to explore new neighborhoods and coffee shops in Atlanta!

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