journeys in the wilderness of judaism

It all started when I took over my wife’s position teaching Hebrew school on Sundays. In order to teach the kids the parsha I began studying it daily again like I used to in the morning while waking over coffee. Slowly it worked on my mind. The daily study drew me back into the mytho-poetic world of Torah, prodding me with ethical questions and moral demands, opening strange vistas of history.

Then there were the kiruv Rabbis and Rebbetzins. The liberal minded Litvak with the constant Shabbat and Torah class invitations. The warm hearted Chabad shliach with the promise of tefillin to replace my lost pair if I promised to don them and say the Sh’ma every morning. This probably sounds familiar to some of you. The pull of the tribe, the sweetness of communal life, the intellectual euphoria of Torah study, the satisfying grounding of meaning, purpose and place.

Yet as I began to wear tzitzit again and strategized to kasher my kitchen, as I read Heschel and the phenomenal world came alight with the promise that it hid and yet revealed an ineffable mystery, conflict grew.

Externally, oppositions between my own understanding of Jewish moral and spiritual commitments and the understanding of others came into relief. The bifurcation between the different world of an observant Jew and the gentile populace began to take shape. The open field of one universe with many equal peoples and people began to separate more into boundaries and positions. Should I attend a henotheistic or transpolytheistic Yoga  chanting event when Jews are covenanted to represent radical monotheism? I did attend but was uncomfortable and uncertain about being there. I attended a Zen retreat wearing my kippah and held aloof from the Buddhist services (I was greeted warmly and allowances were made).

Internally conflict took the shape of doubt. As I took up the yoke of halacha again I began to spend hours attempting to learn Jewish law with intellectual honesty so I could follow a halacha with integrity, not one of blind custom. Questions about Rabbinic authority, legal logic, textual integrity, swirled in my head in addition to the demands of daily life both sacred and mundane. They filed in like loud and earnest dinner guests newly arrived on an already crowded family dinner whose voices come to drown out the conversation of those already there.

I had been down this road before. I tried to be moderate and relaxed. I tried to take my time and allow for uncertainty, imperfection, slow growth. Unburdened by fundamentalist beliefs about the Torah and Talmud I felt fairly comfortable in a somewhat blurry mental landscape, where theological and legal commitments and beliefs were not completely clear.

What motivated me? Two things: one the list of qualities I mentioned above: sweetness, familiarity, intellectual euphoria, discipline, meaning, groundedness. Two I had found again, or maybe for the first time, a sense of God. Aided by my medical studies over the past two years my own innate sense of wonder had come to be coupled with an amazement at the ingenious designs of biology and botany. I was entertaining the real possibility that there is an awesome Creator whose gift of life infinitely obligates us to ethical ascension and service of others. This was quite a sea-change. Despite having a sense of God and divinity as a child, and an aborted attempt at becoming a ba’al teshuva (convert to orthodox Judaism) in my late 20’s, I have spent most of adult life as an atheist and much of my spiritual practice as a Buddhist.

Then it began to unravel. As I became more observant I also felt more tension in my marriage and in my daily life. The details were surface problems over the deep troubles.

The deep troubles are manifold. I accept in principle the idea of the Jewish tribe unified by a body of sacred law. I do not believe that Rabbinic law carries the weight of divine law. I am horrified by lives ruined by Rabbinic enactments- man made misery masquerading as casualties to a divine plan.

Deeper, I do not believe the Torah can be trusted as anything like a verbatim account of a revelation at Sinai, if such a thing occurred. The evidence strongly suggests that the Torah was compiled by scribes over the course of centuries. The scribes must have redacted texts based on oral traditions, traditions that were themselves probably manifold, varying by region and elaborated and filtered by the elders and teachers who preserved it. The texts themselves, once written down, were further expanded, edited, and spliced together. Although the Torah as a whole records a grand spiritual and moral vision it cannot be trusted on the details: details that Orthodox Jews run their lives by. I cannot order my life and certainly cannot abrogate my conscience or reason in any way on the basis of legal details grounded in such nebulous claims to divine authority.

Deeper, who knows what really happened in the depths of Israelite history? The story of the Jewish people is awesome strange and the vision of the Torah singular and sublime in its context. But I cannot ground my life commitments in soil where I am, in the honest depths of my soul, agnostic. There are noble and transformative spiritual practices which do not require such existential and intellectual risks of delusion and dishonesty.

What was the spiritual core of my attraction to Judaism? It was my awe at the fact that anything exists at all. Add to that the order of nature and Jewish claims of “ethical monotheism” begin to seem compelling. But nature, as well as beautiful and ordered, is also brutal and heartless. Human suffering seems infinite and dreams of spiritual justification for earthly tragedy remain just that- dreams. Theists claim that God counts every strand of hair and numbers every  fallen sparrow. Does he also number the hours of a child locked in a dryer machine while its parents go to the bar? Does he count the African women raped and mutilated in the hundreds of thousands? Does he mark their screams while being vaginally penetrated by knives before having their throats cut? Does he record the heartbeats of the chronically depressed or the long hours of dark anxiety in schizophrenic brains?

To move beyond suffering mediated by human illness and evil, did the Creator really find it wise to have wasps hatch their larvae in the bodies of living caterpillars or predators eat their prey alive? For that matter, why design a universe where animals survive by eating each other? Who thought up that macabre idea?

I would not argue for a moment that these questions disprove God’s existence. They do, however, remove the ground for easy faith. Ultimately, with their menacing faces before me, I cannot ground my life’s rhythms and reasons on monotheism. Life is an amazing gift, even with its suffering. Wonder, obligation, and compassion seem real and true, maybe the most true things. Beyond that I cannot go.

What then is my current relationship to Judaism?

Well, I do love it despite its real flaws. Many of its intuitions move me. I feel a part of the community and I enjoy that belonging and celebrate what I think is wise and good in our heritage as I think all communities should. I respect our customs. I want to preserve our wisdom and be an informed critic of our mistakes.

In some ways the stance I’m articulating here is disappointingly boring. I am re-joining the hordes of agnostic, unaffiliated Jews again. I have never wanted to be boring, but my conscience does not permit me to make the bolder and more interesting choice of joining the ranks of ba’alei teshuvah. Perhaps time will reveal the truth. Perhaps it won’t. How do we live in such a universe? That is the question.

Parshat Kodshim: The Holiness of Heterosexuality?

“And YHWH spoke to Moshe, saying, “Speak to all the gathering of the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: You shall be holy, because I, YHWH, your God, am holy (Vayikra 19:1).”

So opens the the recently passed parsha Kodshim.  This sentence, with its stark and challenging grandeur, is a favorite amongst Jews of all denominations. What is it to be Holy, Kadosh? The parsha does not offer definitions. Instead it offers a long list of examples: the Ten Commandments, ritual offerings to God, justice, caring for the poor and the infirm, treatment of women, food, the illegality of sorcery, and loving both one’s neighbour and the stranger as oneself.

All of these examples have led many to see holiness as laying in following the mitzvot in general and more specifically the ethical mitzvot which predominate here. In fact the mitzvot listed in this parsha fall into both the categories of bein adam l’havero (between one another) and bein adam l’makom (between people and God) and so we can infer a definition of holiness from this: right relationship with other human beings and with God. The mitzvot listed suggest one’s relationship with others should be one of justice, honour and kindness. One’s relationship with God should be ritualized and disciplined and should involve binding oneself through ritual and custom to God alone. It should also involve not taking life without offering it back to its source in a sacred way, as in the Temple sacrifice ritual. Incidentally one could argue that this extends the mitzvot here to a third category: bein adam l’hayyot (between humans and animals).

All of this seems interesting and edifying until we get to Vayikra 20:13: “And a man who will lie with with a male like laying with a woman: the two of them have done an offensive thing. They shall be put to death.”

How is “laying with a man like laying with a woman” fatally unholy?

It comes here as part of a recap of some sexual laws from the previous parsha (Vayikra 18:22). Together these two parshas outline a number of forbidden sexual relationships, most of them easy to understand. All of them are physically (genetically) or emotionally dangerous. Anthropologists tell us that there are semitic tribes that to this day do not have incest taboos, so apparently these laws were indeed necessary. Also there was the Egyptian custom of sibling marriage and anthropologists claim that some tribes in Canaan practiced ritual homosexuality, and that in at least some cases this involved male on male anal rape.

One possibility thus presents itself: these laws were partially intended to differentiate the Israelites from their neighbours. Rabbi Gershon Winkler has argued that these laws were intended to outlaw homosexual rape specifically because it was widely practiced in Canaanite temples.

This is possible, but doesn’t seem that strong an explanation. It does seem reasonable that the phrase “laying with a man like a woman” does refer to anal sex. This is the interpretation that Conservative Jews have adopted and they have ruled that homosexual romance and marriage are permissible but not anal sex between men.

The difficulty is: since Israelites didn’t practice temple prostitution or sacred orgies, why did this one aspect of Canaanite Temple practice need to be discouraged?

Rabbi Steven Greenberg has suggested that the problem is not anal sex but the use of other men not for their own sake but as a mere replacement for a woman. In his reading one should lay with a man like one is laying with a man, not like one is laying with a woman. This is a good drash, but seems unlikely as pshat (the literal reading) to me.

Richard Elliott Friedman has suggested that homosexual anal sex is outlawed here not because it is offensive to God but because it is offensive to Israelites. The verse says, “Do not do X. It is an offensive thing.” Friedman suggests that the Torah is in effect saying “Do not have homosexual intercourse. It is something people generally find offensive and you are trying to be a refined, disciplined, holy people. Therefore abandon it.”

This reading is somewhat plausible. It seems to follow, intentionally or not, a Maimonidean reading of the text. In Moreh Nevuchim Maimonides says that many of the mitzvot were given simply to refine people: he includes in this list the laws of kashrut and the laws of purity. Maimonides also views a major part of Jewish law as a concession to human perceptions: the laws of Temple sacrifice. Maimonides writes that if Israelites hadn’t been conditioned to need to make sacrifices by the religions of their neighbours, God wouldn’t have instituted the sacrificial laws. Maimonides argues that the sacrificial laws were given not to encourage people to make sacrifices, but rather with an eye to weaning them from the practice altogether.

This is in harmony with Friedman’s view that since homosexual intercourse is no longer viewed as an “offensive thing” we can now abandon this law.

I find Friedman’s argument appealing but am ultimately unconvinced. Homosexual intercourse was punishable with death: this seems quite a severe punishment for the sake of promoting a sense of refinement of character based on Israelite biases. The severity of the law seems to reflect both an awareness that homosexual intercourse was appealing enough to some to warrant strong deterrence, and a passionate concern on the part of someone to prevent its occurrence.

One other possibility is that homosexual intercourse was outlawed because it was perceived as against the way of nature. The Tanakh is filled with praise for the divine wisdom inherent in nature. Some of the laws, like those limiting breeding hybrid crops or mixing certain types of fabric, seem to reflect this. Another key law with respect to this is found in the verse which outlaws men and women adopting each other’s dress. This seems a clear example of a law attempting to preserve what are perceivable as natural boundaries. Perhaps this desire to respect natural boundaries grew out of the Israelite perception, unique in the ancient middle east, of the whole world being an expression of the wisdom of one benevolent God.

This presents two problems for us today. The first problem is that we now know that homosexual desires are not a perverse inclination of the human heart but a natural inclination grounded in genetic predisposition. We also know that it is impossible for homosexual men to be “cured” of their desires. The evidence suggest that homosexual desire is in fact natural. This seems to conflict with the rationale we perceived above.

If we agree that homosexual behaviour is natural than we might be tempted to conclude, with the Conservative movement, that homosexual romance that excludes anal intercourse is kosher. I myself am empathetic to this view. I am neither a posek (obviously!) or a homosexual, and I feel that the combination of both attributes would be ideal in judging this matter. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, I think this seems a fairly equitable resolution of the conundrum for those committed to some form of traditional Jewish law. It preserves the halacha d’oraita (written law).

This still does not resolve our problems, however. Even if we do conclude that homosexual romance is permissible but not anal sex , how do we understand its being a capital offence? This capital offence is no more disturbing, however, then the death penalty for Shabbat violation.  However uncomfortable it makes us the Torah threatens death for many offences we would not even consider criminal today, there is no escaping that it does.

On a practical level we know that the Talmudic Rabbis legislated exhaustive restrictions on the application of the death penalty which made it impossible to actually implement. Still, the question of why the Torah mandates such harsh punishment for breaking laws that seem comparatively minor remains.

Another difficulty is that understanding the ban as only extending to anal sex is not an option open to Orthodox Jews. For Orthodox Jews the only options are to abstain from homosexual romance entirely or to engage in some degree of homo-erotic love, thus violating what they consider to be Torah law, while otherwise observing the rest of the mitzvot.

Thankfully no-one is able to enforce the Bibilical death penalty anymore. With regards to the option of engaging in homosexual intercourse whilst otherwise being observant I am reminded of the words of orthodox Rabbi Simon Rappaport. He pointed out that to fail to observe this mitzvah is no worse than failing to observe any other. To judge those born with desire for other men, or to (has v’shalom) publicly condemn or persecute them, is as unacceptable as publicly shaming and assaulting those who talk during prayer or drive on shabbat. Sadly some fundamentalist thugs might advocate doing that these days, but it is clearly against traditional Jewish law.