The Sin of Homosexuality in Context

At the dawn of the secular New Year, one of the leading Modern Orthodox rabbis was quoted as offering a striking new way to think about the issue of homosexuality from a Jewish perspective.  Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein argued that homosexuality must be treated, by those who oppose it and those who do not, as one of the many issues facing the Jewish community, and not let it dwarf all other issues, since it did not do so traditionally.

Rav Lichtenstein is not arguing that (Modern) Orthodox Judaism accept homosexual marriage or consider it anything less than a toeivah (usually translated ‘abomination’), as it is called in Vayikra/Leviticus.  However, in arguing for a radical shift in focus, we see how halacha (Jewish Law) can adapt to the times while remaining acutely true to the tradition.  Rav Lichtenstein, speaking in an intimate context with his students, though having subsequently given permission to publish his remarks, stated:

Fundamentally, the issur [prohibition] of homosexuality is a personal aveirah [sin]; I don’t know…of places in Tanakh or in Chazal which single out, as a communal sin, homosexuality.  I know where failure to give enough tzedakah [charity] is singled out – even with regard to gentiles…that’s part of Yechezkel’s diatribe against them.  There is chillul Shabbat [desecration of the Sabbath] – all kinds of things which are singled out in nevi’im [Prophets]…

If you ask me for my own response: obviously, I don’t approve in any way [of homosexuality], but emotionally, the fire that burns in many hearts today, and the fears which go beyond the revulsion, are beyond what I think is proper.

While for most of the world, and even most of the Jewish world, these comments will be seen as homophobic and insulting, signalling no shift in religiously conservative positions of homosexuality, I see a bold religious leader being publicly honest in his thought.  It is crucial to remember that, concerning this issue, the two main parties have a fundamental moral disagreement.  The community that Rav Lichtenstein heads believes in the Torah as the revealed word of God, and must — to be intellectually honest — comport themselves according to what is stated in that text.

Admittedly, there is a range of (admissible) interpretation, which allows for a range of ways to live in accordance with the Torah.  However, to argue: ‘the Biblical ban on homosexuality is a relic of a bygone era’ is to close to conversation before it has begun.  Rav Lichtenstein is doing the opposite: pushing the conversation forwards by arguing that, in order to live by the Torah, the ban on homosexuality (mentioned in a single verse of Torah) must be taken in its context, and ought to take a proportional amount of the Jewish community’s attention.

This, in fact, is an argument that I have seen put forward by many learned, liberal Jews, though not in the context of homosexuality.  It cannot be an accident, they argue, that loving and caring for the stranger is the most common commandment in the Torah, so why does it receive such little attention in the Jewish community?

As the article notes, the Kamocha Association of Gay Orthodox Jews saw Rav Lichtenstein’s statements in a positive light:

We are pleased to hear that through the comparison to Shabbat desecrators, the rabbi placed a mirror in front of the public, demonstrating that many times the fear of homosexuality does not stem from halakhic considerations but from pure homophobia.

I think that Rav Lichtenstein should be praised for trying to refocus Jews of all stripes on the strong moral imperatives in our tradition that are emphasized most often, and leave those that are marginalized in the texts in a marginal place in our communal discussions.

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