Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Torah

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Torah

In 1993 a young President Clinton was struggling to define himself in terms of the serious issues facing the country, especially the economy. His opponents gleefully seized on issues left over from the 1992 presidential campaign, like gays in the military, to try to define him first.

Clinton managed to lay that particular issue to rest with a compromise that came to be known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” If gay or lesbian members of the armed services did not announce their sexual orientation they would not be involuntarily discharged. Clinton himself said that at least on paper, the military had moved a long way toward “live and let live” but it held on to the idea that it couldn’t acknowledge gays without approving of homosexuality and compromising morale and unit cohesion.

One unexpected but powerful source of support for Clinton was none other than that crusty senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, who said that it “doesn’t matter if a soldier is straight as long he can shoot straight.”

Seventeen years later, as another dashing young President struggles to take command of the national agenda, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly by repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is up for debate. Closer to home, Pride Fest St. Louis will be held this Saturday and Sunday. I will be there. I hope some of you will be there, too.

We will read publicly from this week’s Torah portion, Balak, tomorrow as we proudly call Matt Szymkowicz to the Torah for the first time. Tonight let’s consider Pride and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Let’s think about what Judaism and the Torah have to say about sexual morality, a more complicated question than one might think.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis supports repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell for several reasons: belief that every human being is created in the image of God, opposition to discrimination, concern about weakening the military by arbitrarily excluding talented people, and acute awareness of the need for more Jewish chaplains in the military.

Now all of these are valid reasons. But as usual when liberal religious people take a stand for full equality for the LGBT community, for the most part we fall back on secular values. We hear politically conservative Christians and Jews cite scriptures condemning homosexuality, and we assume that the Bible is on their side. We think we have to look elsewhere, to modernity and to liberal political values for our authority. But is that really true?

Make no mistake: religious language is explosive. Dynamite is useful in construction or destruction. It depends only on whose hands the dynamite is in! Well, the Torah is not in heaven, it’s in your hands. All the Torah you need to answer religiously based arguments in favor of discrimination is literally in your hands right now, in a handy format that you can take with you. I say to you tonight that the Torah is in favor of human dignity, period. Those verses that seem to condemn homosexuality can be understood in different, sometimes even better ways.

Most religious objections to homosexuality and to equal treatment of gays and lesbians are based on one of three arguments. Let’s call these, first, the “abomination” argument: that same-sex acts are forbidden by God’s law; second, the “Sodomites” argument: that the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah were horrendously punished with fire and brimstone for their outrageous homosexual sins. And third, well, I’m not even sure how to dignify this with a title. It usually goes something like this: <whiny, taunting> “God made Adam & Eve, not Edam & Steve!” What should we call that? [B., a Temple member, calls out: “stupid!”]

You know, I don’t usually use that word from the pulpit, but with your permission…I was going to call it “the asleep in Sunday school argument” but we’ll just call it the “Stupid” argument. [laughter].

The first argument is that homosexuality is an “abomination,” banned by divine law. Support for this idea comes from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which you have before you. These verses seem clear on their own. But they are not on their own!

Ask anyone in our weekly Torah study group – every single detail in the Bible matters – carefully chosen, lovingly crafted, pregnant with meaning. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are part of the holiness code, a section of Leviticus forbidding sexual activity between close relatives by blood or marriage in great detail. The relationships that are set forth explicitly are heterosexual. But the original intent of these verses at the end of the holiness code was to extend each heterosexual relationship to its analogous homosexual relationship. Thus: Thou shalt not have sex with thy mother (or thy father); with thine aunt (or thine uncle), with thy sister (or thy brother), nor with thy father’s wife, and so on.

But how could that be? Take a closer look at the phrase “as one lies with a woman.” In the original Hebrew, that phrase is just two words “mish’k’vei ishah.” Mish’k’vei is related to a more familiar word, uv’shokh’b’kha, as in “speak of them when you lie down and when you rise up.” Mish’k’vei only appears three times in the entire Bible. The other appearance in Genesis 49:4 refers to Jacob’s son Reuben and his liaison with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah. So all three times the Bible condemns mish’k’vei, it has to do with sexual congress with a blood relative or spouse of one. That’s irrelevant to today’s political debates. No one is advocating for sex with relatives or with a parent’s husband or wife.

The second religious objection to homosexuality and equal treatment of gays and lesbians under law is the “Sodomites” argument: the Sodomites ordered Lot to turn over his male guests so that they could “know” them in the Biblical sense, carnal knowledge, and God punished those depraved homosexuals with fire & brimstone.

Now, as I believe in intellectual honesty, I have to admit that it would be a valid reading of the text to say the Sodomites wanted to rape Lot’s guests. That’s how Rashi, (Rabbi Solomon ben-Yitzchak, of 11th century France) read it. But there is an even greater religious authority than Rashi, or any other Jewish Rabbi or Christian preacher: none other than the Prophet Ezekiel says the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with sex. See Ezekiel 16:48-50 – the sin was arrogance and failure to use their wealth to help the poor and the needy. (I can hear the Sodomites now: “Bring them out! Let’s see their balance sheets and their tax returns so we’ll know if they’re rich enough to live here in our fancy gated community!”) [laughter]

Trust me; Ezekiel is more than willing to engage in the most lurid depictions of sexual depravity. If Sodom’s sin had anything to do with sex, he would say so. Medieval Jewish commentator Nachmanides wrote in Gerona, Spain, in the 13th century that while there were none in the entire world quite like the Sodomites for their cruelty, what sealed their fate was that the Sodomites oppressed the poor, and did not extend a helping hand to the needy.

As for the Stupid argument, or the “Adam & Steve” objection to equal justice under law for gays and lesbians I will mention two Biblical, loving, same-sex relationships: (1) David & Jonathan, and (2) Ruth & Naomi. Were these relationships sexual? Not explicitly. Were they platonic? Well, Jonathan says to David, “as for the promise we made to one another, may the LORD be witness between you and me forever.” David, who slew Goliath and who will be King David, laments Jonathan’s death saying, “Your love was wonderful to me, more than the love of women.” And as Ruth says to Naomi, “where you go, I will go, where you stay, I will stay, your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the LORD do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”

The three principal religious objections to homosexuality and legal protection for people of different sexual orientation are (1) Abomination, or that it is forbidden by divine law, (2) Sodomites, or that it was punished in the Bible, and (3) Stupid, or …<eeew!> [laugh]. (In case you missed the subtle logic, that was <eeew!>) But as we’ve seen – (1) the Torah prohibits sexual acts with relatives by blood or marriage, (2) that Ezekiel says the sin of Sodom is oppression of the poor, not sexuality, and (3) David & Jonathan and Ruth & Naomi are proof that ancient peoples did understand same-sex love and commitment. Were these acts sexual? Read the books of First and Second Samuel and of Ruth, and judge for yourselves.

So please do not think that the Torah weighs in on only one side of this or any other debate. Our need for justice is just too pressing for us to drop the dynamite we have in our possession: our Torah. What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. What promotes love and unity is righteous, what sows discord and enmity is wicked; full stop. Go and learn. Keyn y’hi ratzon. So may it be God’s will.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Does the Torah consider homosexual activity an “abomination”? is a sermon given by Rabbi Justin Kerber on Friday, June 25, 2010; 14th of Tammuz, 5770 at Temple Emanuel, St. Louis, MO.

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