Defining Judaism down

Homosexual acts are, in no uncertain terms, forbidden - associated with Canaanite behavior that defiled Holy Land.

Gay jew symbol 88 (photo credit: )
Gay jew symbol 88
(photo credit: )
Among those opposing the - shelved for now but sure to return - US constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman is an interfaith umbrella organization. "Clergy for Fairness" includes an assortment of groups, some affiliated with various Christian denominations, others with the Sikh religion and others still with the Jewish world's Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanistic movements. It asserts that the proposed "Marriage Protection Amendment" would "infringe on religious liberty." Unexplained is how religious liberty managed to persevere for the first 230 years of the Republic, or, for that matter, how people thought themselves free since the dawn of creation, when the right to same-sex marriage went unrecognized, indeed unimagined. More mystifying still, though, were the words of one member of the group, Rabbi Craig Axler of the Reform movement. He told The New York Times that, with the proposed amendment in the sphere of public discussion, "to remain silent as a Jew is unconscionable." Indeed it is. Although not the way he imagines. Which is probably that Jews, as a people perennially persecuted, should empathize with others who are marginalized, even marginally, by society. But, whether or not such empathy is appropriate, the inability to claim marital status for a relationship that has been rejected by civilized cultures throughout history, is hardly akin to being confined to a ghetto or condemned to a concentration camp. And, in any event and more to the point, the defining aspect of the Jew is not victimhood, but Judaism. Thus, what the rabbi should instead find unconscionable "as a Jew" is misrepresentation of the Jewish religious tradition. What should impel him to break his silence are Jewish truths. He might start with the book of Leviticus, where sexual relations between men is referred to as to'eiva, not inaccurately translated as "an abomination." THE JEWISH oral tradition is replete with similar sentiment. Homosexual acts are associated by the Midrash with the Canaanite peoples whose behavior defiled the Holy Land; and the rabbis of the Talmudic era taught that the formal sanctioning of homosexual unions was one of the causes of the biblical flood. Trenchantly, a statement in the Talmud asserts that one of human society's redeeming qualities has been its refusal to "write marriage documents for males" - its maintenance, in other words, of marriage's definition as the union of a man and a woman. The Torah does not command hatred of homosexuals. It does not label people who engage in homosexual activity, and certainly not those with homosexual tendencies, as inherently evil. Such people do not forfeit either their humanity or, if Jewish, their membership in the Jewish people; nor are they unworthy of others' care and compassion. But Judaism, in no uncertain terms, forbids homosexual acts; and, in equally certain terms, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. Anyone seeking to address the issue "as a Jew" should be proclaiming those facts, not fudging them. Rabbi Axler, as it happens, was taking his cue from his movement. The president of the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi David Ellenson, contended in The New York Jewish Week that not only does homosexual activity not violate the letter and spirit of the Torah, but embracing its propriety is a Jewish religious imperative. "A tradition that demands 'You shall do that which is upright and good'," he explained, "can surely be construed in such a way that the ethos of Jewish tradition can be said to trump a single statement in Leviticus…" But - as a Jew - Rabbi Ellenson needs to face the fact that the Torah indeed contains both verses, and should realize that the latter contradicts the former no more than does any of the Torah's laws that prohibit certain other sexual relationships. The definition of "upright and good" is not whatever a particular society or era embraces but rather, and precisely, to heed what God commands us to do, and to not do. That, in fact, is the very essence of the Jewish faith: to follow the divine, not our own lights. When contemporary Jewish movements define Judaism down for their followers, that is objectionable enough. But when they seek to swathe political correctness in Jewish garb, it does violence to the integrity of all Jews' religious heritage. Whether the issue is "reproductive freedom" or assisted suicide or the redefinition of marriage, responding "as a Jew" must mean something more than just responding. Abraham, Jewish tradition explains, was called the Ivri - the "other sider" - because "the entire world was on one side" of a conceptual river, and he "on the other." Nothing is more fundamentally Jewish than to willfully stand apart from an unbridled world and affirm timeless truths. That is what one does, as a Jew. The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.