Wrestling with God & Men Homosexuality% in the Jewish Tradition (Book Review)

David Walsh

Leviticus 18:22, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence” – This one sentence from the Torah has caused debate, heartache, and controversy for thousands of years, but it is only in the last few decades after much activism, argument and reinterpretation that some movements in Judaism, notably the progressive ones, have found an accommodation which allows gay Jews to be able to live a Jewish life, as recognised by a community without foregoing their homosexuality as either a ‘lifestyle’ or an ‘identity’. The same, however, cannot be said for Orthodox movements.

Jews of non-Orthodox persuasions, be they Reform, Liberal, Masorti (Conservative) or Reconstructionalist may have pointed differences between them, and yet they all have one basic belief in common. It is generally accepted that the Torah was not neatly transmitted in a packaged form from the heavens as the infallible ‘Word of God’ but was rather the beautiful result of divine inspiration, debate and the experiences of the Jewish people at the time. The key issue here being that the Torah is very much of its time, steeped in the culture and society within which it was created. It is within this context that many progressive Jews have explained away seemingly prohibitive verses with allegedly relate to homosexual behaviour, in much the same way as other practices have been abandoned over the past few thousand years.

No such luck for the Orthodox Jews among us. With the various synagogue movements appearing to digress from millennia of tradition, the Orthodox have become increasingly traditional, reinforcing their belief in the divine transmission of the Torah and also placing a great emphasis on the importance of Jewish law, the Halacha. Orthodox movements themselves span a range of beliefs and practice, from the strictly Orthodox Haredi communities through to moderate ‘Modern Orthodoxy’ and rather more secular communities who may already show much tolerance for homosexuals but where this tolerance is placed to one side in the synagogue in the name of tradition. So why don’t gay Orthodox Jews simply seek refuge in one of the progressive movements? This question is addressed directly in Greenburg’s work: Some gay Jews do believe in the tenants of their faith rather deeply, and besides that, Orthodox communities tend to be closely knit, and it’s not always desirable to cut themselves off completely.

Greenberg would perhaps paint himself as something of a “Daniel the Tailor”, the champion of the oppressed, who challenged his Rabbis for failing to balance their jurisprudence and values with the biblical concern for justice and fairness (pg 212). A comparison that will either please or offend, depending on your views. Greenberg goes into great depth, starting with the issue of gender in the story of creation before exploring alternative interpretations which many of us know, many of these have of course been influenced by Reform and Liberal debates on the issue. Greenberg also looks at some interesting interpretations of the stories of Jonathan and David, Ruth and Naomi from the Middle Ages, which show a notable lack of disgust or contempt with respect to same sex relations. Greenberg’s essential emphasis after much debate about the language used in the verses in question is on how Orthodox communities may be able to integrate ‘practising homosexuals’ within their communities on a basis that neither humiliates the adherent nor forces the congregation to alter its traditional practices. It is a fine balancing act, but perhaps one from which the Catholic Church could learn from. Indeed, the verses in question and the issue of mutual respect are very much applicable to Orthodox Jewish synagogue movements and conservative Christian denominations.

Perhaps the most searching question asked in the book is: Why? It is rather unusual for Orthodox Jews, despite being adept to asking numerous questions and cross-generational debate, to ask the question; Why? Greenberg explores rationales behind prohibition, if we accept that such a prohibition exists. Issues such as violence and humiliation, reproduction and category confusion are explored with grace by Greenburg who invites the reader the search for a truth acceptable to them and tradition. The ultimate triumph of Goldberg’s book is that it has clearly been written with much thought and love for the subject, as opposed to a clinical analysis of semantics. He takes a holistic approach which involves looking not only at the Torah but also the Talmud and various other writings throughout history. Greenburg’s approach to Orthodoxy should also be applauded, an Orthodoxy which seeks solutions as opposed to problems would be much welcome and could be seen as an inspiration for Christians in a similar situation.

This text has originally been pablished in the Quest Bulletin no. 60 (Spring 2011)