Leviticus traps

It's time for some dialogue on gay issues, but beliefs shouldn't be misrepresented or mocked.

west wing 88 (photo credit: )
west wing 88
(photo credit: )
When Orthodox Jews like me discuss man-woman marriage and other public-policy issues relating to homosexuality, we often run into what I call "Leviticus traps." Such quasi-arguments suggest that people who follow the Bible are singling out homosexuality for condemnation out of prejudice or narrow-mindedness, because if we really valued Scripture we'd follow all the other "silly rules" in the Torah. Perhaps the most famous Leviticus trap was set several years ago by president Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen on the former NBC series The West Wing. A character (Dr. Jenna Jacobs) modeled after radio advice-giver Dr. Laura Schlessinger (an Orthodox Jew at the time) visited the White House and the president confronted her: Bartlet: I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination. Jacobs: I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President, the Bible does. Bartlet: Yes, it does. Leviticus. Jacobs: 18:22. Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police?... Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? THIS CONFRONTATION, which is based on a Leviticus trap in an open letter to Dr. Laura that circulated on the Internet eight years ago, sent gay and lesbian opponents of traditional religion into a tizzy of righteousness and self-congratulation. The problem is, the scene shows zero awareness of the beliefs and practices of Orthodox Jews like me, Dr. Laura at the time and presumably Dr. Jacobs (a Jewish name). Orthodox Jews believe not only that the written Torah is divine, but that God gave an oral Torah as well, which has come to be written down in the Talmud. Orthodox Jews believe male-male intercourse is forbidden to everyone not because we open the Torah, read a verse from Leviticus and reason out its meaning. Rather, we listen to rabbis who are experts in the entire Jewish legal corpus, which explains how we should understand the written Torah. All serious Orthodox rabbis agree that male-male intercourse - and same-sex marriage - are universally prohibited. Bartlet's diatribe dramatizes a made-up death penalty (it's mentioned nowhere in the Torah) for mixing two threads together. Of course, Orthodox Jews indeed do not wear garments with both linen and wool - I had to get my new suit approved by a rabbi before I could buy it - but doing so has never been a capital crime. The biblical prohibitions that do carry the death penalty demanded such a high burden of proof that executions were extremely rare. I know of no specific case in which a Jewish court executed someone for gay sex, for example. Punishments, in Jewish thought, even the death penalty, are meant as atonement, not vengeance. Today's traditional Jews look at each violation's corresponding punishment as a measurement of the severity of the sin, not a practical plan for disciplining offenders. In addition, many of the examples Bartlet gave - such as mixing fabrics and observing the Sabbath - are laws that apply only to Jews. In fact, we believe non-Jews are forbidden to fully observe the Sabbath. So Jacobs' special condemnation of gay sex actually does make sense, because the prohibition of intercourse between males (and, incidentally, of same-sex marriage) are "Noahide" laws - laws that apply to all human beings. In other words, one answer to "Why don't you lecture your radio listeners about violating the Sabbath and wearing mixed fabrics rather than just homosexuality?" is "Judaism believes only the prohibition of the latter applies to everyone - and most of my listeners aren't Jewish." The people who set Leviticus traps for Orthodox Jews display a basic ignorance of Orthodoxy. It's time to have some honest dialogue on marriage and other gay issues, but nobody's beliefs should be misrepresented or mocked. The writer is a Ph.D. student in American Jewish history at New York University. [email protected]