Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Ki Teitsei - Yahrzeit Shiur (2003)

Homosexuality and the Zeitgeist

This week’s Torah portion contains a large number of laws concerned with family and sexuality. One such verse, “There shall be no harlot [or: female cultic prostitute; qedesha] from the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite [or: male cultic prostitute; qadesh] from the sons of Israel“ (Deut 23:18), refers to two distinct subjects. I will not enter here into the complexities of its hermeneutics: Rashi, Ramban, and Targum Onkelos offer three completely divergent interpretations, not to mention modern historically oriented scholarship. In any event, Rashi, and much of the halakhic tradition, see these phrases as referring, respectively, to either prostitution or to any heterosexual activity outside of marriage, and to homosexuality. These are both controversial issues in contemporary culture, about which there has been great change during the past half century; I have much to say about both these issues, much of which may be politically incorrect and go against the stream of current opinion. For reasons of space, and of the time available to me, the discussion of premarital sex, which is in some ways a far more complex and nuanced issue, shall be postponed for another time.

This past summer, there was a flurry of controversy in the Christian world, specifically in America, over the confirmation by the General Convention of the Episcopalian Church of Rev. Canon Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, the first openly homosexual cleric to be appointed to such a high office. This appointment was seen as a symbolically significant expression of attitude towards homosexuality of this small church, which is identified with America’s traditional social elite. Coming as it did in the wake of a Supreme Court decision decriminalizing homosexual acts, as well as lively discussion of renewed prospects for the legalization of homosexual marriage in one or another of the fifty states (following its legalization in one of the Canadian provinces), it was an occasion for renewed and lively debate on this issue.

Although we as Jews of course have no direct interest in internal Christian affairs, and certainly not in matters of church personnel, the discussion was illuminating, throwing light on the general mood in the US and beyond, and I found that some of the arguments raised struck a sympathetic chord in me. I happened at the time to be visiting the United States, in Minneapolis, where the convention took place, and took the opportunity to read some of the arguments pro and con in the op-ed section of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (August 10, 2003). An article by theologian Katherine Kersten argued that the decision rejected the ”three historic bulwarks of Episcopal Church doctrine—Scripture, tradition, and reason” in favor of the new doctrine of “inclusion and affirmation”—in simple terms, accepting everyone and helping them to feel good about themselves. These words caught my attention. Conservatives on sexual and family matters are generally thought of as fundamentalist, whose arguments are based upon a literal reading and acceptance of the Bible. It was not surprising to see an invocation of Scripture and tradition (in much the same spirit as an Orthodox Jew would turn, first of all, to Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, to our above-mentioned verse, and the various Mishnaic and Talmudic statements that flesh out these verses into practical halakha), but I was curious to see in what way she saw this decision as flying in the face of reason. Kersten goes on to argue that:

The new gospel subordinates thinking to “feelings.”… approval of homosexual acts renders the church’s multifaceted doctrine on marriage and sexuality largely incoherent. ([One thinker] has described same-sex unions as “relationships in search of a theology”)… Instead [of doctrinal consistency], [inclusion’s disciples] are content to proclaim vaguely that “God is doing something new.”… The gospel of inclusion preaches a reconstructed, therapeutic Jesus, who accepts us exactly as we are… [It] has little place for repentance or transformation…. Adherents… offer arguments like this: “The Church should bless same-sex partnerships so everyone feels included.”… “God is love. He doesn’t care about the gender of the people we love.”

In brief, she presents here an incisive diagnosis of the new zeitgeist, which she characterizes as a kind of mushy, all accepting approach that seems reluctant if not downright afraid to draw any negative judgments. If “I’m OK, you’re OK,” no matter what we do, what need is there for introspection, rendering of self-account, personal change—all those themes that are so central to us as Jews davka in this season?

Beyond saying a hearty “Amen” to Ms. Kersten’s account, I would like to add a few brief comments.

1) First, some theological comments. Regarding the Jewish interpretation of the “’one flesh’ union of man and woman“ mentioned by Kersten: Rashi on that verse (Gen 2:24) understands the phrase “they shall be as one flesh” to refer, not to physical union in the act of coition, but to the flesh of the child that will ultimately be born to that union. I consider this a very important comment of Rashi, one emblematic of an entire world-view.

To elaborate: a corollary of our believe in the Creation is a teleological, purposeful conception of the universe, and of those phenomena within it—including sex. God created sexuality, making it such a powerful drive, bringing such intense pleasure, and one which also has the power to confuse even the most intelligent people and lead them to do all sorts of unreasonable and foolish things, because of the ultimate telos of “lo tohu beraha”—“He did not create [the universe] to be desolate; to be inhabited He shaped it“ (Isa 45:18). That is, the ultimate purpose of sexuality is to assure the habitation of the earth by human beings, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and whoever or whatever else reproduces sexually. The pleasure involved, fascinating and attractive as it may be to us, is no more than a by-product or a means to that end, and not the end itself.

Hence, to reject homosexuality as a “normal” choice, and to refuse to be swept up in the view that “freedom of sexual orientation” is a part of the universal rights of man, is part of an affirmation of Ma’aseh Bereshit, of our faith in the Creation of the Universe by God which, as innumerable rishonim have noted, is one of the central pillars of our faith, the reason for many mitzvot, etc.

An interesting tannaitic midrash that refers to homosexuality is found in the Talmudic discussion of the seven Noachide commandments. As is known, the Noachide codex is a kind of natural law, a kind of rudimentary code of norms and morality for all human beings, one of whose clauses is “sexual licentiousness.” At Sanhedrin 58a, the Talmud elaborates the specific laws forbidden sexual relations: namely, a truncated table of incest (i.e., barring matrilineal relations alone), homosexuality, adultery, and bestiality. This is in turn based upon a word-by-word exegesis of Gen 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother, and he shall attach to his wife and they shall be one flesh.” The Gemara interprets the phrase “’and he shall attach [vedavak]’—and not to another man.” Rashi explains this derash as follows: that the mutual giving and receiving of pleasure in heterosexual intercourse (albeit not always realized in practice - JC) is a powerful bond binding man and woman together. In homosexual relations, by contrast, the giving of pleasure is sequential—first one, then the other. The implication, as I read this, is that there is something artificial and contrived in homosexual love-making.

If the opponents of total “liberalism” on this matter were to articulate some of the theological ideas underling their position, perhaps they would sound less like yahoos and would be less subject to the charges of bigotry and know-nothingness with which the opposing camp charges them.

2) Having said that, I want to make clear that I do not in any way advocate discrimination against homosexuals in any civil realm. The above is to be understood strictly in terms of religious teaching.

A few years ago (see HY I: Kedoshim) we addressed the far-reaching change in Western culture over the past two or three decades regarding the issue of homosexuality. At that time, we summarized what we consider to be the proper approach as one which balances human love, acceptance and empathy for the homosexual, with insistence upon the ongoing validity and force of the Torah prohibition against homosexual acts. It is in this light that I would advocate some mechanism for civil recognition of the joint fiscal and property rights and partnership rights of homosexuals, similar to that granted in some places to common-law unions—so long as it’s not called marriage. I believe that such a position can even be justified halakhically, using what might be called a narrow construction, on the grounds that, as the civic, financial and legal aspects of such partnership are not dependent upon the sexual aspect of the relationship, one is not strictly speaking condoning or advocating any forbidden act (albeit some might admittedly find this argument somewhat disingenuous).

Given the reality in which Jews live at present, in both Israel and the Western democracies, it is important to draw a distinction between the functions of civil law and those of religion. It is the task of civil law to regulate relations among people in the polis, in a manner enforceable by sanctions; religion provides a teaching of the meaning of human life, of morality, of the path leading towards a holy life, but its power should ultimately come from inner faith, from inner suasion and voluntary acceptance of its teaching, rather than from any concrete power of enforcement.

3) In public discourse around this issue, I find the so-called liberal, pro-gay-agenda camp, guilty of two serious sins. The one is against its own declared commitment to openness, pluralism, tolerance of different viewpoints, etc.; the other, against intellectual honesty. It is by now a commonplace that, as soon as the discussion turns to some tenet of PC orthodoxy, these groups can be as vituperative and nasty as the worst bigot on the other side of the road, imputing the darkest motivations to their opponents, rather than engaging in reasonable, substantive discussion of the issues. I find it very strange that so-called liberals, whom one would expect to be staunch advocates of democracy and free discussion, are the strongest backers of a kind of McCarthyism, of intellectual bullying, creating an atmosphere in which open discussion of an entire host of issues has become taboo.

This is also the case of those voices implying that there is somehow something wrong in religion teaching that homosexuality is wrong, improper, etc., and that this somehow violates the civic rights of individuals. This is a kind of intellectual bullying that fails to accept understand the concept of the free market place of ideas, as well as the distinction I drew above as to the proper separation of realms, in modern open society, between civil law and religious teaching.

4) The second “sin,” that of intellectual dishonesty, concerns the widespread belief that science “proves” that homosexuality is inborn and genetically predetermined. As an ex-yeshiva bakhur, I decided to examine this claim in the traditional way: “Let us take the book and see.” In this case, the relevant text is a study of D. F. Swaab, L. J. G. Gooren, and M. A. Hofman, “The human hypothalamus in relation to gender and sexual orientation,” published in Proceedings of the 17th International Summer School of Brain Research (Progress in Brain Research, 13 [The Human Hypothalamus in Health and Disease]; Amsterdam, etc: Elsevier, 1992), pp. 205-219; especially, the section entitled “the human hypothalamus, sexual orientation and gender identity,” pp. 210-215.

This portion of the paper describes a study of the structure of the anterior hypothalamus of 34 subjects: 18 of unknown sexual orientation, 10 homosexuals who had died of AIDS, and 6 heterosexual AIDS victims. (Since brain research, by its nature, must be performed on cadavers, the availability of subjects whose bodies are in a non-demented condition, is largely a matter of hit and miss, dependent upon what cadavers happen to be available.) One of the major findings of the study (again, based on a total of 10 homosexual males) is “that the SCN [suprachiasmatic nucleus] in homosexuals contain 2.1 twice as many cells as those of the reference group.” (p. 211) The possibility that this is a result, and not a cause, of homosexual behavior is deemed “very unlikely,” because “nerve cells of the SCN are post-mititic [i.e., don’t change in a flexible way] from a few years of age onwards.” The alternative, more likely explanation for this phenomenon is the possibility that it relates to a difference in interaction with sex hormones during development, or that both it and hormonal variants are caused by some unknown third factor. The possibility that the enlarged SCN may be related to the level of sexual activity generally rather than to homosexuality is also considered, but is seen as not supported by the data here.

But this is a far cry from establishing causality:

The relationship between a large SCN and homosexuality is unexpected and, for the time being, difficult to interpret. The relationship need not be causal in the sense that it is a necessary and sufficient condition for developing a homosexual orientation. It is imperative to study more material before definite conclusions can be drawn. (p. 213)

The size and cell number of the human SDN in adulthood is influenced by sex hormones in development … In conclusion; differences in size and cell number have been reported in a number of hypothalamic nuclei in relation to sexual orientation and gender. However, the functional implications of the findings are far from clear as yet. (p. 215)

In brief: the widely held claim that homosexuality—all homosexuality—is predetermined by genetic factors, and that by implication is both impossible to change and outside of the individual’s volitional control, is far from proven. The authors of this paper repeatedly stress the inconclusive nature of the findings, and that the causality is still far from being understood. No definitive claim is made for the statistical significance of the findings, either, the sample being rather small—ten homosexual cadavers, in all. They also stress that this is preliminary data, and that “more data have to be collected to confirm this observation.”

In brief, the entire case for the inevitability and unalterable nature of homosexuality for those who are “born that way,” which would insist upon changing the attitudes and views toward homosexuality of an entire civilization—implying that those who fail to do so are unscientific and primitive—is based upon a total of ten bodies, about which we know, beyond the minimum fact of their sexual orientation and the abnormality of their SCN, virtually nothing.


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