All A Horrible Mistake? The Bible’s Supposed Condemnation of Homosexuality

Human history, especially recently, has shown that we can be very wrong about some things, even ones we've believed for a long time. The sun doesn't revolve around the earth. Solid objects are actually mostly filled with space. And the Bible doesn't condemn homosexuality.

 

What? But don't most Jews and Christians, the people of the Book themselves, say it does? Don't they say the Bible condemns homosexuals even when they disagree with that condemnation? Doesn't the Bible say homosexuality is an “abomination”?

 

The answer to the first question is “Yes, that is what they say.” But the answer to the second question turns out to be “No, it was a misunderstanding.”

 

I myself was unhappily convinced, until recently, that the Hebrew Bible did condemn homosexuality. I thought this was disturbing because I myself don't agree. Homosexuality seems to me mostly a result of genetic predisposition and in itself ethically neutral.

 

I am aware of attempts, notably by Jay Michaelson as well as others, to interpret the texts in Leviticus apparently condemning homosexuality so that they do not. These attempts are usually either midrashic or speculative, by which I mean that they either find new meanings in the old words by playing with their etymology or speculate as to possible alternative intentions for the verses based on reasoning and imagination. Neither of these approaches satisfied me.

 

Then I read an amazing book, which I recommend to all fearless and intellectually honest Christians and Jews and anyone who has grown up in the Biblically based cultures of Europe and the modern Americas. The book is the “The Bible Now”, written by one of the world's great secular Bible scholars, Richard Elliot Friedman and his esteemed colleague Shawna Dolansky and published by Oxford University Press. This book bases itself solidly in the historical-critical approach, ie. in arguments based in textual criticism, archaeology, anthropology, and cross-cultural studies.

 

The book purports to use the immense riches of 20th century discoveries to take a look at what the literal text of the Bible has to say about several pressing moral issues in its original historical context. The authors address several hot button topics: abortion, women, ecology, capital punishment, and homosexuality. All of these topics represent areas where passionate, and often passionately biased people, use and abuse the Bible with very little knowledge of what scholars have to say about its original meaning and intentions.

 

The whole book was enlightening, but nowhere more than in its discussion of homosexuality.

 

The verses in question are: “You shall not lay with a male as you would with a woman, it is a repulsive thing.” (Lev 18:22) and “The two of them have done a repulsive thing. They shall be put to death.” (Lev 20:13). Friedman and Dolansky's translation of these verses will be discussed below.

 

When we say “homosexual” today we generally mean people who are primarily sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. By “homosexuality” we mean people of homosexual orientation who engage, homosexually, in all the same sexual and romantic behaviours that heterosexuals do: casual sex, affairs, committed monogamy, and now marriage.

 

First off, say Friedman and Dolansky, no one in the cultural sphere of the Bible thought of certain people as “homosexuals” or had a concept of “homosexuality” like the one I describe above. There is no word for homosexual or homosexuality in Hebrew. In fact, they argue, scholars assert that the category “homosexuality” did not occur in western culture until the 17th century. Before then, sex with another man was just seen as a “perverse desire”, a temptation that some people were more prone to than others.

 

What is at issue here in Leviticus is a certain act not a category of person. We need to understand exactly what “laying with a man as you would with a woman” means, and why that was considered “a repulsive thing”.

 

Friedman and Dolansky do assume that the verses refer to sexual intimacy between men, which is supported by the language used. How exactly does one man lay with another like the second man was a woman, though? Friedman and Dolansky note that the phrase used for the forbidden activity means literally “you shall not lay with a man the layings of a woman.” They argue that the plural “layings” suggests that the meaning is “any of the ways that one would have sexual intimacy with a woman”. In other words, it refers to any form of sexual intimacy between a man and a man. On this point I disagree. I think that if you wish to represent the plural in the translation the phrase is most coherently translated as “you shall not lay with a man in the way you would lie with a woman”. It is more natural to represent “that way you would lie with a woman” with a plural, since we are referring to a habitual, repetitive way of doing something.This point is important because Friedman and Dolansky will ground their understanding of why homosexual sex is forbidden in an Israelite aversion to one man being penetrated by another (the reason for the aversion will be explained below). They think that all “sex acts” are banned, seemingly in order to prevent the “repulsive act” of male anal sex.

I think that Israelites understood “sex (laying)” to refer to “sexual intercourse” specifically, and that the law only refers to sexual intercourse between men. Even more specifically, the law is addressed to the active partner- “you shall not lay with a man”. In other words, the intention of the law is to forbid a man having sexual intercourse with another man by penetrating him anally.

Now, you might think this is a law forbidding homosexual romance. But, Friedman and Dolansky explain, it appears you'd be wrong.

 

First off, they argue, homosexuality per se can't be the problem. Why not? Because female homosexuality is not against the law. Think that the misogynists just didn't bother to mention women? Au contraire: when bestiality is discussed, the authors specifically mention both men and women being forbidden to have sex with animals.

 

Further they argue ancient Israel was polygamous and men were not only familiar with female homosexual acts but had relatively easy opportunities to observe them and even to enjoy them, as they had multiple wives. The proof? There is a Biblical law in Leviticus making it illegal for a man who has married two sisters to have sex with both of them at the same time. Sisters just, not wives generally. If threesomes were not known and common enough, why would this law be neccesary? Yet there is no law in the Hebrew Bible forbidding sex between females. This supports their claim that it is only sex between men that is being condemned, and even more specifically, anal sex.

 

As an aside, a Christian pastor named Justin Cannon makes an additional argument that is relevant here in his book The Bible, Christiianity, and Homosexuality. It is in fact a very Jewish argument! He points out that in the Torah “to lie with” refers to sex. The verses in question could have just said ” it is forbidden for a man to lie with a man”. Why do they add “like a woman”? This seems to qualify and make more precise what is being discussed: not intimacy or love between men of just any kind, but specifically anal penetration, which supports my argument.

 

To understand why male homosexual acts would be repulsive to Israelites, Friedman and Dolansky look at mentions of anal sex in the surrounding cultures of Greece, Babylon, Assyria, and Mesopatamia. As I mentioned above, I feel that their argument is stronger when percieved as making sense of why anally penetrating another man is fobidden, as opposed to why male homosexual intimacy is forbidden. As I argued above, I don't think the law forbids any form of male homosexual intimacy as such, but is aimed at preventing anal sexual intercourse specifically.

 

To develop their argument Friedmana and Dolansky look at a series of texts. A Babylonian Divination text, the Summa Alu, discusses the auspiciousness or inauspiciousness of different types of anal sex (not their morality or immorality). As Friedman and Dolansky write, it seems being the active part in homosexual intercourse with someone of high status (an equal, a cult prostitute, or a courtier) brought good luck, while penetrating someone of lower status (like a slave) or being the passive recipient of anal sex (outside of cretain religious rituals) brought bad luck. What we see here is that anal sex per se is not bad, but who penetrates and who is pentrated are of symbolic meaning and even bring good or bad luck. The key point is that to actively penetrate another equal is auspicious, to be penetrated by another man is inauspicious.

 

Two Assyrian laws also discuss anal penetration. The first states that someone who falsely accuses another man of often being a passive recipient of anal sex will be whipped, do forced labour, pay a fine, and be castrated. The next law states: if a man anally rapes a social equal than he will in turn be anally raped and then castrated.

 

There are two striking things here aside from the brutality of these laws: to be penetrated by another man is shameful, and to be anally raped by an equal is shameful. To be anally raped by a superior is acceptable in law- the concern here is not human rights but protecting the status of elite men. This law reinforces the values existing in the Babylonian law: to be the passive recipient of anal sex is shameful, and implies a lower status than that of the active partner.

 

Egypt provides similar evidence. Egyptian literature generally portrays the passive partner as “weak, cowardly and effeminate”. In the bizarre myth of Seth and Horus there is a competition between Seth and Horus, two gods, for higher divine status. Seth tries various stratagems to anally penetrate Horus, but is unsuccessful. Horus manages to catch Seth's semen in his hand and brings it to his mother Isis, who is enraged and cuts off Horus's hand, throwing it in the marshes. She then magically sprinkles some of Horus' semen on lettuce which Seth eats. When Seth claims before the divine assembly to have bested Horus, she asks them to call forth their semen as proof. Seth's semen comes forth from the marshes where it was thrown, not from within Horus. Horus's semen, however, is shown to be inside Seth and emerges as a disc surrounding his head, humiliating him. The cultural meaning of actively penetrating another man is pretty clear here, to say the least.

 

But what about Greece? It turns out the picture is more complicated then you might have heard. Greek literature does not know of a general category of men called “homosexuals”, but it does know of homosexual love and sex. And even in Greece, it turns out, to be the passive recipient of anal sex was considered shameful, effeminizing, and humiliating.

 

The most common and idealized form of homosexual relationship in Greece was called “paederastia” or “boy-love”. The relationship had a very specific, socially prescribed form. An older man from an aristocratic family was to select a younger man, not yet an adult, from another aristocratic family. The older man would penetrate the younger and enjoy him sexually while also acting as a mentor and sponsor. The young boy was not supposed to enjoy the act, but to “look on stone sober at the other drunk with lust”. When the boy reached adulthood it was required that the relationsip end so as to avoid the shame of one adult male being penetrated by a social equal. Great was the disdain shown to the passive male recipient of anal sex. Plato comments (with a strong note of misogyny):” Will not all men censure as a woman a man who acts womanly?”

Here we have, of course, a very clear parallel to the probable thinking of the Biblical law: the passive partner is considered “as a woman”.

 

Plutarch, a Roman inheritor of the Greek tradition wrotes, “We class those belonging to the passive part as being of the lowest vice and accord them neither confidence nor respect or friendship.”

 

What Friedman and Dolansky are arguing here is that it is more reaonable to assume that the Israelites thought like their neighbours in Assyria, Babylon, and the Mediterranean than that they think like us.

 

What Leviticus forbids is not homosexuality per se, but the degradation of another man's dignity and social status through an act which was widely regarded as humiliating and socially degrading. This is in keeping with the basic egalitarian intent of the laws of the Hebrew Bible, as also argued by Joshua Berman in his masterful book “Created Equal”.

 

Bearing this in mind we come to a shocking realization about the law against anally penetrating another man. Far from being a law about forbidding homosexuality, it turns out to be a law supporting male dignity and a classless state. The law existed to prevent one man from socially humiliating and degrading another man. Why, then, in Leviticus are both men stoned? The issue here is consensual sex not rape and the Bible holds both men responsible for entering into the degradation. This parallels the Bible's punishment of a freed slave who rejects their freedom and opts to stay with his master (Exodus 21:6 as understood by Rashi).

 

Now this doesn't mean that the laws in the Hebrew Bible are perfect in promoting equality. They still enshrine certain inequalities, most noteably between men and women. That does not change the fact that they were, in context, an attempt at building a new kind of Utopia, a rebellion against the stratified slave states of Egypt and Babylon. And it doesn't change our fundamental point, which is that the law is not about what we think it is about.

 

The New Testament

 

This interpretation of the laws of the Torah is actually supported by a proper reading of the oft-cited and apparently oft-misused comments of Paul in 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Here Paul condemns a number of types of human immorality and includes the set “pornoi, arsenokoitai, and andrapodistai”. These are often translated “fornicators, homosexuals, and kidnappers”. Cannon argues, in The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality that in context these Greek terms are best understood as “male prostitutes, those who use them, and their procurors (literally “slave-traders/kidnappers”). All of these characters were present in the Rome of Paul's time. This moral condemnation follows on the Hebrew scriptural idea of anal sex as fundamentally a degrading act for one of the partners.

 

A second text, Romans 1:24-7, condemns people who are oversome with lust breaking through all boundaries and having “unnatural” sexual relations. Cannon convincingly argues that in this text the referent is in fact Roman religious orgies and again cannot be taken refer to homosexual romances of the kind we know today.

 

The Consequences

 

We simply cannot take the Torah's condemnation of anal sex between men out of its original cultural context. The act was condemned because of its social meaning then. This is only reinforced by the word the Torah chooses to characterize one man anally penetrating another: “repulsive”. This word is first used in the Torah by Moses to describe the way Egyptians feel about certain Israelite practices- they are “repulsive” (toevah) to the Egyptians (Exodus 8:2). Later the word is used to refer to certain practices which are, or should be, repulsive to Israel. Famously this includes eating non-kosher food (Deuteronomy 14:3). Now eating bacon is surely not a universal moral scandal. My point is that anally penetrating another man is repulsive in terms of the culture that Israel is trying to build in the promised land, but that doesn't suggest a moral judgement true irrespective of time, place or people.

 

As an illustration, consider this: in Thailand it is considered incredibly insulting to touch another adults head. Now imagine certain men were in the habit of touching the heads of other men in a way which marked them as social inferiors and exerted power and status. If one wanted to create a society of equals one would need to outlaw one man touching the head of another man.

 

In our culture, however, touching another man's head simply does not have that meaning. To insist that all “head-touchers” are immoral and worthy of censure in our context would make no sense.

 

Similarly to insist that male homosexual love relationships are immoral in all cultural settings on the basis of the Levitical texts in incoherent. In our culture sexual love between men is simply seen as another type of morally neutral romantic love. You might object that not everyone sees it that way. The irony is, of course, that those who see it otherwise are usually inspired by their fidelity to the Bible's supposed condemnation of homosexual love! Their opinion, therefore, is not in need of respect but simply of correction.

 

In summary, the consequence of all of this is that centuries of religious interpretation aside, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. In fact it does not even discuss it. We are left to make up our own minds about what the Bible might have said about homosexuality today given its underlying mission to promote a political state where all people were free and equal before God.

 

Mista’peo: Inherent Conscience and The Inner Man

“In his lifelong solitude, the Naskapi hunter has to rely on his own inner voices and unconscious revelations; he has no religious teachers to tell him what he should believe, no rituals, festivals or customs to help him along. In his basic view of life, the soul of man is simply an “inner companion” who he calls “my friend”, or Mista'peo, meaning “Great Man”. Mista'peo dwells in the heart and is immortal……(CG Jung, MHS, p.161)

 

Mista'peo, the inner “great man”, seemingly corresponds to the neshama, the highest level of individual soul in Jewish thought. Rebbe Nachman zt”l says : “Neshama is an aspect of sechel (intelligence), which is an aspect of hochmah (wisdom), which gives life to all things, as it is said, 'You made all things with wisdom (Tehillim/Psalms 104).'Alll these are an aspect of Torah.”

 

The inner neshama, which is sechel, is spiritually inseperable from the wisdom which underlies and is the basis for all- the wisdom with which God created the world. Rebbe Nachman says elsewhere, “All things recieve their life from Torah. Avraham Avinu was able to recieve from this Torah before Israel recieved the Torah at Sinai, because of the high level of his soul (LM 2,78).” The Torah that all things recieve their life from is of course no other than Hashem's wisdom, with which he sported before creation (Mishlei/Proverbs 8).

 

All of this indicates that there is a inner wisdom accesible to all of us, and that this inner wisdom, as in the case of the Mistapeo, exists aside from revelation.

 

Some argue that this is not so, that without Biblical revelation we are lost- without wisdom or morality. But this cannot be the case. Yoram Hazony points out that the Tanakh in fact presents God as expecting righteous behaviour and wisdom from humans before the Torah was given. If human beings do not have an innate sense of these things than how could God's expectations be just? other examples abound. When the Torah itself is given to Israel God says that it will be “your wisdom before the nations”. If the Nations, being bereft of Torah, have no moral wisdom then how could they be expected to recognize the wisdom of the Torah's laws? (Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture).

 

Does this mean then that all we have to do is heed our inner voice? Far from it. First off, the ability to listen well to the voice fo the neshama depends on personal purity and the wisdom of experience. Both take time to aquire and are not always available. In the age of cultural confusion and barbarism it has become even harder to hear the “small, still voice.” We need to study the Torah and the words of our sages and connect with purer waters than those often available in our own cisterns and those of the public.

 

To indulge in a little iconoclasm and quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ” …'God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.' Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God's revelation. Man has this capacity because 'He is created in the image of God.'….'yet there are many obstacles….the human mind is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also bydisordered appetites…'..This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God's revelation.” (CCC 36-38).

 

That does not mean, however, that we cannot rely at all on our own intelligence and sense of morality. That would represent the opposite extreme. Wisdom and conscience (yirat Hashem) are inherent, God-given potentials which need to be attended to and nurtured, not abandoned or repressed.

 

We stand in need of the middle way. To follow our intuition and intelligence alone is folly and waste- what a sea of human and revealed wisdom is available to us! Likewise to surrender our own wisdom and conscience is mistaken, as we will not grow through this misguided self-abnegation but rather become blunter and blunter instruments until we may very well find ourselves more vulnerable to delusion and “disordered appetites” then we were before. After all, as they say, even the Devil quotes scripture.

 

Some Fine Books

In the last six months or so I have read several books on Jewish topics which have been excellent- some of the best I've ever read. I want to briefly describe them here to encourage others who haven't read them to take a look.

1) The Philosophy of The Hebrew Scriptures by Yoram Hazony

Amazing. This book transformed my ideas of the essential vision of the Chumash. Among Hazony's fascinating excursions are a look at the “shepherd ethics” of Ancient Israel; a study of the phenomenology of the word “davar” (thing, word, idea); and an exploration of what God really wants from Israel- and its not unthinking obedience. Also interesting is Hazony's contribution to the theology of “vulnerability”- the growing number of Jewish and Christian theologians arguing for a vulnerable, personal, and evolving God (Schroeder, Levenson, Heschel, Brueggeman all develop this idea to come extent).

 

2) Created Equal by Joshua Berman

Masterful exploration of the laws of the Chumash in their context. This book brought my admiration for Tanakh to a new level. Clearly and compellingly sets out the revolutionary nature of early Israeli law.

 

3) The Bible Now by Richard Elliot Friedman

Fabulous discussion of the “pshat” (literal) level of the Chumash and what it does or doesn't say about homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, women and ecology. Truly excellent, and should be read by all lovers of Torah and, I would add, all the descendants of Abraham.

 

4) The Jewish Gospels by Daniel Boyarin

Think Judaism and Christianity are as far apart as the moon and the sun? Think again, they are as interconnected as the moon and the sun. Did you know some pre-Christian Jews were awaiting a semi-divine Messiah whose career would include suffering for their sins? Did you know Jesus kept kosher, wore Tzitzit, and told his Jewish followers to listen to the Rabbis? Or that Christians attended synagogue services for centuries after Jesus's death, and many Jews were followers of Jesus without leaving Judaism? This book tells the story of what it was like before the “great divorce” of the 4th-5th century CE when the Church Fathers and the Rabbis drew firm lines demanding you be either Christian or Jewish.

 

5) An Unsettling God by Walter Brueggeman

A good book on the character of God as revealed in the Tanakh, and the relationship between God, Israel, Nature and Humanity. Thought provoking work from a Christian theologian.

 

6) Not In Heaven by Eliezer Berkovitz.

 

This is a masterpiece. It explains the character of traditional Jewish law (not the modernist fundamentalist version). Beautiful, provocative, and inspiring.

 

7) God According To God by Gerald Schroeder

 

Thought provoking and engagingly written exploration of what the Tanakh says about the character of God. Along the way some other interesting cosmological and theological excursions, and some great science writing about Creation.

The Purpose of Humanity: Parshat Bereishit

The story of the creation of humanity, as presented in the opening verses of Genesis, is luminous and profound. Its profundity is sometimes overshadowed by cryptic elements, by the Torah's concise and understated manner of expression (by our standards), and by inherited cliches about its meaning. Studying the comments of the meforshim (traditional exegetes) goes along away to cure us of our assumptions, mistaken familiarity and inattention to subtle detail. For me another great curative has been the study of other near eastern creation narratives, as anthologized and/or discussed in such books as “Old Testament Parallels” (Matthews and Benjamin), “Created Equal” (Joshua Berman) and “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament” (Walton). Below I'll take a look at one aspect of the narrative of the creation of The human being from this perspective.

 

Why Was Humanity Created?

 

We are fortunate to possess records of the creation of humanity as conceived in the Egyptian Hymn to Atum (2500-2100 BCE in origin though our version dates from 400 BCE); the Enuma Elish cycle (compiled in Mesopatamia 1100 BCE from Sumerian and Amorite sources in order to glorify the rulers of Babylon, the Mesopotamian capital); and the Atrahasis Cycle (18th century BCE; Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian). The Genesis stories date from as old as 2300 BCE-1400 BCE and were likely written down in their current form around 400 BCE (these dates are hotly contested, of course).

My contention is that the narrative of anthrogenesis in Bereishit is a remarkably humanistic one (it is also remarkably earth-positive, or nature affirming, but that's a subject for another time). According to Genesis 1:26: “And Elokim said, “Let us make the human in our image, as our likeness. They shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, over the animals, the whole earth, and every thing that creeps upon it. And Elokim created the human in his image; in the image of Elokim he created them; male and female he created them. Elokim blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and rule…And Elokim saw all that he had made, and behold! It was very good.”

Later on we read (Genesis 2:7; 15): “Hashem Elokim formed the human of soil from the earth, and blew into his nostrils a living soul, and the man became a living soul. Hashem Elokim planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and place there the human he had formed….Hashem Elokim took the human and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to serve it/work it (l'avodah) and to look after it (l'shomrah).”

The vision here is of the human as a being independent from God, created to “rule the earth” and to tend and take care of God's garden. The strong implication here is that the human is created for its own sake. God does not say, “I will make me a servant”, or “one to glorify me”, or even “one to know me” (later Jewish and non-Jewish theistic traditions often envision God's purpose as one of these). The later Jewish idea that God created “because he needed to have someone to give to” comes closest to the vision of Edenic life. The Human is created for no other purpose then to enjoy the nourishment and beauty of God's creation, to grow in numbers (be fruitful and multiply) and exercise a benevolent sovereignty (“serve and look after”). In a sense the human is created as an ideal benevolent King below, ruling by the decree, grace, and beneficience of the true Ruler above.

The vision of Genesis, and its radical implications, are highlighted by comparison with other Near Eastern creation myths. Whereas Genesis pictures the human being as formed of earth and divine breath, the Hymn to Atum takes a much more existentialist position. Says Atum (after masturbating into his own mouth and spitting and sneezing out gods):

“I wept, and human beings arose from my tears….”

Surely we can hear the hardships and arbitrariness of poor Agrarian life in this Egyptian hymn (especially in a totalitarian state where most of the populace were worker-slaves). The hymn to Atum doesn't state a purpose for human life. It appears as a result of Atum's fervent desire to create, a desire which is presented as sexual, almost riotous, and without particular purpose.

The Enuma Elish, by contrast, does state a purpose for the creation of humanity: After a protracted battle for rulership of the Divine Assembly, Marduk, god of Babylon, wins. He dismembers his rival, Tiamat, and uses her corpse to create heaven and earth. Having won the fealty of the Divine Assemby by defeating her, he then creates human beings as slaves to work for the gods and “set the divine assembly free.” Marduk forms humans from the blood of another Divine rival, Kingu, after killing him. In contrast to the riotous creativity of the Hymn of Atum, the Enuma Elish conceives of the world as created out of death and conquest- military prowess- expressions of the power of Marduk.

The Atrahasis cycle posits a purpose for the creation of human beings similar to that of the Enuma Elish. When the Divine servant class refuses to work for the Divine Elders, the gods create human beings to work for the Gods as irrigators and farmers of the earth instead. Eventually they multiply too greatly for the gods comfort, and their noise disturbs the sleep of the great god Enlil, who thus conspires to have the Divine Assembly control their numbers with plagues and famines. When this doesn't reduce the numbers of their human slaves effectively enough the gods unleash the flood and eliminate them save for a Noah-like survivor, who is saved by a god who is partial to him for unstated reasons (because of his good service?). As is perhaps needless to point out, this flood narrative is also in meaningful contrast to the Genesis narrative, which has Hashem bringing the flood because human culture is filled with aggressive thievery and violence (“chamas”).

In both the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis Cycle, then, humans exist to serve their divine masters. As Joshua Berman has masterfully argued (“Created Equal”), this narrative seems to echo the political structure of Mesopatamia, Egypt, and Assyria, structures the narratives and laws of the Torah were in rebellion against (also see Yoram Hazony, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture”).

In Genesis the human being is not created to serve the Divine, and is not made of tears, semen, or a dismembered enemy. The human being is made of the good earth and the breath of God, and our proliferation is not a threat- it is an expression of divine blessing. Last but far from least, the human is made ” b'tselem Elokim”. The word “tselem”, when it occurs elsewhere in the Tanakh, is used most often to refer to idols used in the worship of false gods (Amos 5:26, 2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chronicles 23:17; Ezekiel 7:20, 16:17, Numbers 33:52 ). This common usage should not be overlooked: as shocking as it may seem, the Genesis narrative goes so far as to imagine human beings as representations of God, formed in God's likeness and serving as the only legitimate clay idol. The leap in sensibility required to go from imagining human beings as slaves of the gods or random expressions of divine fecundity to imagining them as sacred images of God created to enjoy the divine garden of earth and to rule over it benevolently is surely an awe inspiring moment in the literature of humanity.

 

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

I'm currently reading Yoram Hazony's recent book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. I am not done yet, but at the half-way point I think this is one of a handful of the most important Jewish books of the modern era. Even if the second half is tripe I'd say so. Anyone interested in in the true structure and message of the foundational text of Judaism, the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) should read this book without delay. Whether you love the Tanakh or struggle with it, or even hate it, read this book.

El Chai: The Living God v. Religion and the State

In The Undiscovered Self Jung argues at length for the importance of individuation as a protection from totalitarianism and fundamentalism. Rather then merely being an argument for an ethic of the individual, Jung’s analysis is a passionate and intriguing discussion of the psychodynamics of state, community, religion, and the individual psyche with interesting lessons about the dangers both of religion and of irreligion.

For Jung individuation consists on the one hand of the attainment of a conscious, vital and honest individual consciousness which is not dominated by collective norms or instincts.  On the other it consists  of freedom from domination by elements of the personal unconscious as well.

A person should be grounded both in individual instinct and in collective norms, but a true individual has a conscious, free and discerning relationship to this soil in which their consciousness grows.

Jung felt that the best defense against domination by collective societal norms was a personal experience of God. Only a transpersonal, unworldy ground could give the individual strength to resist the belief that they could be fulfilled by externals. Only being grounded in God could straighten the spine to resist being dominated by the pressure of collective norms.

Jung argued that in the absence of religious experience society would tend towards the deification of abstract concepts like “the state” or “the people”. If not grounded in a healthy and direct experience of the transcendent this would result in a dangerous deification of the State like he saw in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. A world without God will serve abstractions, and since abstractions like the “State” or “the Fatherland” do not exist they will in fact end up serving ruthless individualists who manipulate their allegiance for their own benefit.

This type of government is reminiscent of the ancient states of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Rome at times in their history. Here the ruler was a divine being- son of a god or a god himself. The state was itself  holy and the will of the government the will of the god/gods. The individual had no rights before the divine government.

By contrast, Pharoah’s mythic opponent, Moshe (Moses), was not divine. His mission was to free people from slavery, not to enslave. In this sense he can be seen as an opponent of political idolatry.

Moshe did not establish a government in Eretz Yisael: Israel existed as a tribal collective. The collective only had leaders in times of great neccesity, as exemplified by Yehoshua, who led the conquest of Canaan, and the charismatic prophet- warriors of the Book of Judges. Israel was not spiritually strong enough for this arrangement and things degenerated into political and moral anarchy, at which point Israel chose a King. Hashem (G-d) was not portrayed as happy with this request, pointedly saying to the charismatic prophet leader of the time, Shaul, “It is not you they are rejecting but Me.” The ideal was not a divinely appointed monarchy, and certainly not a divinized monarchy, but what Jose Faur has described as a “horizontal society”, the people led by God.

Thus Israel’s  government was not Holy. Though righteous Kings such as David and Shlomo (Solomon) were divinely chosen they did not speak with the voice of God and were not themselves gods, has v’shalom, nor divine children. This is contrasted with the nearby governments of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Assyria and Rome.

This may help to explain a mysterious moment in the story of Purim, a Jewish holiday which just passed. Mordechai, one of the heroes of the story, is a Jewish man living in Shushan (ancient Persia). One day he meets with Haman, the newly appointed minister to the King. Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman, and this “insolence” results in Haman convincing the King to issue a genocidal decree against the Jews , who he portrays as subversive elements in the Kingdom.

What is hard to understand about this story is why Mordecai refuses to bow. It is not against Jewish law as we have it now to bow down to another human being in general or to a government minister in particular, if that’s the custom. The Midrash famously explains that Haman was wearing an idol on a necklace and that’s why Mordechai refused to bow. This explanation always seemed evasive to me, but it may be pointing in fact to a deeper truth.

The Midrash also says that Mordechai thought in the past Jews had bowed down to a statue of Nebechadnezzar, the god-king of Babylon, and if he bowed down to Haman and his necklace-idol he might encourage things to move in that direction again. It seems to me that this midrash may be pointing to what the pshat (simple text) of the story suggests to me anyway. This is that Mordechai still carried within him a deep Jewish tradition that was averse to deified government, and that was why he did not bow to Haman, a minister of a deified King of Persia. It was not that Mordechai refused to bow down to a government official: Mordechai refused to bow down to deified government.

Returning to Jung;s thoughts, we must be clear that by the protection offered by a relationship with “God” Jung did not mean “religion”. Jung thought that religions did a great service to the individual in providing meaning and guidance as well as a source of enriching and psychically balancing and protective narratives and rituals. Jung saw myth and ritual as essential for psychic well being. He also saw religion as having great negative potential to disrupt healthy individuation and to enable unhealthy structures of power similar to the power of the deified State.

Jung warned that when individuals in a religious community yeild all personal autonomy to abstract religious concepts like the Church (or in the Jewish case, we might say Halacha, Minhag Kehilla or the Gedolim) they make their own individuation- their birth as truly intelligent, morally whole individuals- incomplete. This weakness makes them vulnerable to possession by irrational forces in the “collective religious unconscious” or by unscrupulous, ignorant or arrogant leaders. In the least it may blind them to what is really happening in their community. The complete abdication of moral and intellectual responsibility, Jung said, re-creates the infantile paradise of total reliance on the parent- but at a cost.

The direct experience of G-d, according to Jung, also serves as a protection from the deification of the will of the religious community or its leaders.

There seems to me to be a parallel here to what is happening in some segments of the Orthodox Jewish community today, where abstract concepts rule and the community and the law are exalted considerably above individual consciousness and reasonable amounts of diversity of opinion in matters of law and philosophy, as existed more in the past. The argument is popular that individual reason and conscience are not up to the task of learning how to live according to Jewish thought and law. If Jung’s analysis is right this poses a considerable danger. It endangers the psychic health and discernment of observant Jews, and makes both individuals and community members vulnerable to possession by irrational forces and unrecognized manipulation by authority figures for their own ends.

Certainly one needs to take seriously, and to study deeply tradition, halacha, and collective norms, and to be humble before those more knowledgeable. I think this must be balanced, however, by respect for individual reason and conscience. One can only hope that voices of reason, diversity, and respect for the dignity of  the individual’s yirat shamayim (awe of God, or conscience), take firmer root and spread broader leaves under which to shelter those children of Israel who follow the ancient ways of the Sages.