Tuesday, February 27, 2007

For the Love of God and Man

Recently an article by Yaffa Ganz entitled Love Borders and Civilization appeared in the Jerusalem post in which she derided a ten day Gay Conference to be held in Israel. The tone of the homophobic article was harsh and in some measure cruel, bringing to mind anti-Semitic comments made about Jews by intolerant gentiles throughout the ages. Of course, her irrational fear of the homosexual community is based on erroneous information as well as a less than compassionate heart.

The issue of the homosexual community in general and the Jewish one in particular is more, I believe an issue of Jewish Ethics and less halachic in nature. Although there is a growing Art Scroll community which views Jewish Law and practice through the very narrow spectrum of Asur and Mutar, in reality the law is based more so on a corpus of sacred texts, Midrashic and Rabbinic literature that together form the spiritual, moral and ethical principles which guide us. We are not fundamentalists as the corpus of Talmud, Midrash, Rabbinic and Responsa will attest to. To make a monumental and categorical judgement about the homosexual community based upon a few scriptural verses is erroneous. It is these same scriptures, the same Torah that tries to cultivate within us the love of humankind.

We live in a harsh, cold and cruel universe and it is precisely because of the chaos we found ourselves in that Torah and Halacha was given to us - to help us make sense and give meaning to an otherwise loveless and unforgiving world. The Torah was given to us to teach us and help us love humanity in an otherwise loveless world because “the ways of the Torah are pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”

“Believing Jews” Yaffa Ganz says “are adamantly opposed to the blatant display of sexuality, but a display of aberrant behavior clearly prohibited by the Bible is doubly appalling.” 21st century Jews, as in previous generations are not nor have ever been monolithic in their belief system. There are many Rabbis, Theologians and spiritual leaders even within the orthodox community who would vehemently disagree with the intolerance of this approach.

Her fear that “promoting public, social and legal recognition of homosexuality as an alternate life style means admitting that there is no value in perpetuating life. It is destructive, nihilistic, and absolutely anti-life ethos.” There is a Talmudic ruling (Yevamot 64a) that says when after ten years of marriage there are no children, the husband may no longer abstain from the commandment of propagation. The man can divorce his wife, yet the Rabbis, in their wisdom and compassion found this difficult and ruled that they may live together since the purpose of marriage isn’t only for propagation. “Lo Tov Hayot Hadam Levado”, marriage is also for friendship, love and companionship. Furthermore, Rabbis are not proscribed from performing a marriage ceremony if the couple cannot conceive children. Clearly, the expression of Jewish law isn’t a compendium of cold, calculated and harsh do’s and don’ts, but is an intricately woven system which has blended into it compassion, understanding, empathy and love, underscoring motive and intent.

Society has the power to protect, welcome and honor its minorities, or turn their existence into a living hell. Unfortunately, we bear this stain of intolerance with regard to the homosexual community. I can excuse our sages and Rabbis that came before us, because they knew no better. Our sages didn’t understand the etiology of homosexuality and ruled, based upon the best information they had at the time as they did with regard to the Cheresh who was rendered a Shoteh. Until the end of the nineteenth century a cherish was barred from full participation in the religios/ritual life of the community. Today, thanks to Rabbi I.H.Herzog a Cheresh fully participates in the religious/ritual life of the community. Should the homosexual be treated differently knowing today its etiology which is genetic in nature? Homosexuals are who they are, not by choice, but by an act of creation, and they too are created in the image of God. We are ethically and morally obligated to give honor and respect to them as to any other heterosexual, if for no other reason than they were created in the image of God.

They have been denied their fundamental civil and religious rights and because of this they demonstrate, as they should. Their demonstrations are no different than those of the 1960’s and 1970’s to save Soviet Jewry when their basic civil and religious rights were denied. The homosexual community isn’t interested in being different or separate from the broader Jewish community, only to be accorded the same rights, freedom and dignity as every other human being. By what right do we have to treat them as pariahs? Are we not commanded to extend our love to the Ger, how much more so to our own people who happen to be genetically different from the heterosexual, but similar in that sense to the cheresh who wish only to be fully participatory in the Jewish community.

Israel is not a theocracy, but an enlightened democracy. Laws are decided by a majority and those laws must be obeyed. However, it is a democratic principle that matters of individual conscience, faith and private morality aren’t subject to majority opinions. There are times when in matters of ethics the majority is wrong.. The trailblazers in history have oftentimes been individuals. The government of a democracy must concern itself only with the business of running an orderly society. As soon as it begins to rule over the conscience of its citizens, dictating values, it risks becoming immoral. To impose halachic values is counterproductive and creates resentment and the opposite of the desired effect. For halacha to work it has to evolve once again into the “wisdom of the feasible”, underscoring the ethics of life.

Those who prefer the authoritarian approach aren’t motivated to search our sources creatively for the meaning and the value in ethical living. They ought to take a lesson from Rabbi Abraham, the son of the Rambam who wrote:
…the rule of the matter is…say I…that a Dayan who in his decision follows only what is written and clearly stated, is weak and wanting. Such an attitude invalidates what the sages said “A Dayan has to be guided by his own understanding….” With him it is not so. What is written are the roots. Every Dayan and everyone who gives decisions must weigh them according to each case that comes before him. Every decision that he is considering he should compare to something that is similar to it. He should develop branches from the roots. The numerous case histories in the Talmud, which incorporate only part of the laws were not reported for nothing; but neither were they recorded so that in those matters the law should always be as it is written there. They were preserved only that the wise man, by hearing them often, should acquire efficiency in weighing up matters rationally, as well as a good method in giving decisions.

The author of the Kzot Hahoshen, in his introduction to the Hoshen Hamishpat articulated the same idea when he wrote:
One trembles at the thought that one might say about the Torah things that are not true, i.e. that the human mind is too weak to grasp the truth….The Torah was not given to ministering angels. It was given to the man with a human mind. He gave us the Torah in conformity to the ability of the human mind to decide, even though it may not be the truth….

In this spirit many Teshuvot have been written, minority opinions, which seek to find a way by which to include this community so that they may be full participants. Halachic approaches such as Patur Aval Asur and Ones Rahman Patrei are but a few of these creative approaches which by applying them push the frontiers a little further back and in so doing give meaning to the words “The Torah ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”