Within this subset of a subset, there is still a wide range of textual strategies available. On the far "right," the Torah is the explicit word of God, and is interpreted strictly according to tradition. If the text appears to be unclear, we turn first to the Talmud, then to later authorities, and defer to their interpretations, because they represent an unbroken chain of interpretation dating back to Sinai itself.
Somewhat more liberally, many halachic Jews recognize certain authorities as empowered to interpret Scripture, and defer to precedent except in rare circumstances. We respect the tradition so highly that we are loathe to ever depart from precedent. Clear statements in the Talmud are never (Orthodox) or hardly ever (Conservative) overturned. Opinions of prominent later authorities are set aside either never (Orthodox) or only after careful, written discussion and analysis (Conservative).
However, even for Orthodox Jews, the apparent literal meaning of Torah verses is often not the true meaning. Few, for example, adhere to Deuteronomy 22:13-21, which states that a marriage is only valid if the bride is a virgin. All Jews who know their Talmud know that Talmudic rabbis if not contemporary ones read entire laws right out of the Bible, such as the provisions regarding the 'rebellious son' and 'leprous house.' Guiding these interpretations, in proportions which vary by community, are hermeneutic principles, precedents, conscience, and the needs of the community.
Applying these principles to the verse in Leviticus 18 is difficult. The precedents vary, the words are unclear, the conscience is often confused, and the expressed needs of the contemporary community conflict with one another. Turning to precedent, the Talmud is surprisingly vague on what acts the verse's prohibition includes within its ambit. (See Steve Greenberg, On Wrestling with God and Men [and my interview with him in an earlier issue of Zeek], and my own Response to the Roth Tshuvah for discussion of these points.) Questions that are left open include: Does the verse only apply to anal sex, or to a wider range of behavior? Is it, like the laws of Shabbat, to be understood according to its context (it, and other sexual purity laws, are contained in the context of discussions of idolatry)? What does toevah, the category of offense, mean?
In contrast to the Talmud, later authorities have been very unambiguous in their condemnation of all homosexual acts. Critically, though, these authorities generally base their decisions on adequate factual grounds. They are rarely acquainted with gay or lesbian people, and lack data that is absolutely necessary in order to properly understand the verse: the voices of those who know that their sexuality is either genetic or so deeply environmentally conditioned that it is unchangeable. In other words, the knowledge that God makes some people gay and lesbian. For these reasons, our deference to such opinions ought to be very limited, premised as they are upon ignorance, rather than upon knowledge. With the Talmud unclear and later authorities undermined by their lack of complete knowledge, a responsible halachic Jew must turn to the text itself and - in a way previous authorities were unable -- to all the realities which bear upon the question at issue.
There are three points which are the fulcrum of our whole understanding of the question:
1. God makes some people gay and lesbian.
2. God is a loving God. (This premise is based on fundamental principles of Jewish theology, as well as the experiential knowledge of Jewish contemplatives.) and thus, the question:
3. If God makes some people gay, and God is a loving God, can Leviticus 18 possibly mean to proscribe all gay activity?
This conundrum is an inexorable one. Although some continue to deny the first premise, neither science nor the lived experience of gay and lesbian people is on their side. Since God loves truth, we cannot be satisfied with convenient untruths which happen to support a particular ideological position. This is not responsible halacha. And notice that the more we believe that God wrote the Torah i.e., the more "traditional" our theology the more compelled we are to make sense of this difficult verse. If we have the liberal view that the Torah is merely human, then no theological position is implicated: The verse can include all male-male sexual activity, and God is "off the hook." But if the Torah is, in some sense, Divine, then the verse must be read in a way as to comport with our foundational, fundamental beliefs about God.
Singing God's Praises:
Psalms and Authenticity
Two Prayers for the Days of Awe
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
How can you be gay and Jewish?
Hiding your Sins
Retrato de Familia
Jews and Bush
An Online Resource Guide
Our 550 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Spring/Summer 2004 issue now on sale!
From previous issues:
Enraged in the Enron Age
The Hamas Class of 1992
The Spiritual Foundations of Bushism