Friday, July 07, 2006

Homorein (with thanks to E)

Do I really care about a Gay-Pride parade in Jerusalem? Do I really feel compelled to comment that in a city where thousands of Jews dress as if they were living in medieval Poland there are Jews who want to make sure that thousands more don’t dress up as the Village People and march down Ben Yehudah Street? Yes I do.

And not because I am gay. I am not even happy most of the time. Nor am I eager to watch Jews with more piercings than Jesus walk along the Via Delarosa. No, I care because I can’t stand it when other unknown rabbis suddenly make the news, while I am condemned to blog about it

The rabbi is question is Rabbi Yehudah Levin of the New York-based Jews for Morality. He is supporting a petition to cancel a Gay-Pride parade in Jerusalem. I’ll tell you about the petition in a moment, but first, I have to say that I never heard of Jews for Morality, though most of the Jews I know are for morality. Why is it when you capitalize a regular noun other than at the beginning of a sentence you suddenly own it? If I am not a member of Jews for Morality, does that make me immoral? And if so, how much does it cost to become a member of Jews for Morality and hence become moral?

I checked out their website to see. First of all these Jews are the circumcised equivalent of the Rapture Right. The only difference, beside the missing foreskin, is that when the Rapture comes, these people will all be left behind. You can be as right as you want, but if you aren’t right with Jesus you are wrong. So there. Second of all, I couldn’t find out how to join. I am hoping that merely clicking on their website is sufficient because that is all I could do.

OK, back to the petition. The petition says, “[s]uch a parade in Jerusalem, of all places, is a great blow at the ages-old Jewish character of the city and its holy values, for the Jewish and non-Jewish public in Israel and around the world. To hold it in Jerusalem is a provocation and a declared mockery of all that is precious and sacred in the Holy city of Jerusalem in the eyes of the entire world."

I know what you are thinking: Why not simply move the parade to Tel Aviv? Rabbi Levin has that covered. Speaking on Israel National Radio he said, "If they think that we will be silent if the parade is moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, they do not understand our entire struggle. The Holy Land in its entirety must not be defiled; the basis for our continued presence in this land is that it remain pure."

Pure means “free of homosexuals.” It probably also means free of women in pants. Does this sound like Nazism? It does to me. Yes, I know it is vile to link anything Jewish to the Nazis, and I am not saying that Rabbi Levin is calling for the extermination of homosexuals, but echoes of Judenrein are still dancing in my head.

Rabbi Levin also said that the newly appointed mufti of Jerusalem, as well as other leading Moslem clerics, have shown great support for his cause. Good for him. These are the kind of moral giants we all wish to follow.

The real problem is not Rabbi Levin or Jews for Morality. The real problem is not that they are misrepresenting Judaism, the way we desperately hope that Muslim extremists are misrepresenting Islam. The real problem is that the Torah hates homosexual acts between men. Read Leviticus 18:22: male homosexuality is an abomination. Torah is very clear about this— clear and wrong. It is wrong on many things, and until we are willing to stand up and say so publicly and reject it when it is wrong without having to play games to pretend it doesn’t mean what it says, or says what it clearly does not say, we will continue to be plagued by the madness that passes for religion.


AaronHerschel said...

That's a good question, but I think you know the answer already.

We know Torah is clear when it says something like "thou shalt not kill". That's a nice, straightforward, declarative statement. It doesn't get clearer.

As for the issue of translation, you're right: unless you have a solid understanding of Hebrew, and biblical Hebrew at that, you may not be able to parse some of the deeper contextual meanings of the original, and you may not even see certain inconsistencies between the original text and the translation. But then, I speak neither German nor French, and I still read (and love) Rilke and Rimbaud. I've read a few different translations, and all have merits and errors alike, but I come away with a polyglot understanding that I imagine is not so far from that of a native speaker. After all, it's not as if Rilke wrote "I like ice cream" in the German version of Duino Elegies and it was translated to "who if I cried would hear me among the angelic orders?" in English.

The second part of your question--how do we know when Torah is wrong--is more important and more difficult. Torah is a code of law, as well as a book of stories, and its authority rests on the idea that it is the revealed word of God. If we begin to reject and accept bits of that law piecemeal, it argues that we can accept or reject God however we see fit. And if we can do that, than what kind of God do we have?

I would argue, a Jewish one. Torah is filled with stories of patriarchs and heroes who argue with God. Abraham haggles with God over Sodom and Gomorrah, Jacob wrestles with the angel, Job and Noah both demand explanations for suffering, calling God to account. While Christianity and Islam stress submission to the Will of the almighty, the Jews are "stiff necked" and proud of it.

There's a midrash I love that speaks to this quite directly.

One day a group of rabbis gathered in the garden of a small synagogue in Jerusalem to discuss a point of law. They argued and argued. First this way, then that, but they could not find a solution that would satisfy all of them. Finally, after hours of debate, all the rabbis were agreed except one; but he was staunch. Nothing could sway him from his interpretation.

“I know I am right, my friends,” he said, “and I will prove it to you. If my reading is correct, then this stone will rise up into the air.” And indeed, the stone lifted, hovering at the level of the rabbi’s noses. “Bah!” the rabbis replied. “This is not proof. Any street corner magician might do as much.”

“Alright,” said the first rabbi. “Then, if I am right, this stream will reverse its course.” And yes, the garden stream slowed, grew still, and began to flow backwards, up towards its source in the hills. “There is no miracle here,” the other rabbis scoffed, “merely a fancy parlor trick.”

Frustrated, the rabbi said, “Then, if you will not believe me, God himself will appear and defend my case.” There was a silence, and then a commanding voice spoke from the clouds. “Children of Israel,” it said, “your friend’s reading is correct. Believe him, and cease your debate.”

The rabbi’s were stunned, but only for a moment. Looking at each other, they cried out with one voice: “O Lord, Master of the Universe… stay out of this!”

At that, God fell back laughing in his throne, saying: “My children have surpassed me! My children have surpassed me!”

The last line here is key. God does not want humanity as slaves to his will, but as partners in his creation. Like Abraham, we argue for God’s mercy and compassion; like Jacob, we demand his blessings. When Torah violates it’s own dictates—love thy neighbor, for example—we are authorized to reject or revise it, based on our own best moral sense. That’s what the rabbis have been doing for a thousand years: adding to Torah with commentary and story telling, tweaking it to fit a human (and humane) world. And if the rabbis in the midrash have, in their way, surpassed God, perhaps it’s time we ourselves surpassed the rabbis.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Thomas quotes Jesus as saying: “anyone who can interpret these lines can achieve the kingdom of heaven.” Notice that “anyone.” The right and responsibility of interpreting Torah is everyone’s. There are no legitimate higher authorities, no one whose orders we are bound to follow. Free will was never a capricious gift. It is the necessity of wrestling with ultimate reality on our own subjective terms.

AaronHerschel said...

Which is all just to say: decide yourself.

AaronHerschel said...

A few corrections:

1. For Noah, read Jonah. I always get them confused. Ark, whale...whatever.

2. The rabbis have been tweaking Torah for 2000 years. But y'know, what's a millenium between friends.

Peter Schogol said...

This raises an interesting question. If the United States were to become aggressively anti-Semitic and homophobic, where would I emigrate? Would I feel my Jewishness as paramount and therefore make aliyah to Israel? Or would I identify first and foremost as gay and head to Canada?

If Israel cannot offer an unconditional welcome to all Jews, regardless of sexual orientation, Zionism will have failed utterly.