The Book of Esther As A Manual of The Resistance


In the Book of Esther, the Persian empire is ruled by a foolish, narcissistic King with neither principle nor empathy. While drunk at a party he summons his Queen, Vashti, to dance naked before the guests, and when she refuses he has her banished and makes plans to replace her (“You’re fired”, he might have said). Ahasuerus searches among all the young girls of the empire like pastries in a display case and chooses a Jewish virgin, Hadassah- Esther (Ishtar) in Persian, the story explains, the adopted daughter of Mordecai. Ahasuerus has an advisor named Haman who becomes enraged one day when Mordecai refuses to bow down to him, or, one might say, refuses to put obeisance to the state above his own conscience and his own minority identity within the Empire. Mordecai is a loyal Persian citizen, something he has proven by reporting traitorous activity and possibly saving Ahasuerus’ life. Nevertheless, Haman convinces Ahasuerus to eliminate Persia’s Jews, presenting them as a dangerous fifth column within the glorious nation.

The parallels should be all too obvious. Trump fits the model of Ahasuerus all too closely, consistently showing a marked lack of empathy for others and concern for no principles outside of his own self-aggrandizement. Like Ahasuerus, his commitments are fickle and turn with the wind. Yesterday Trump announced who his chief strategist and senior counsellor would be: Stephen Bannon,  the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement, previously the senior editor of Breitbart, the alt-right mouthpiece that under his tutelage became the nest for the iron birds of nationalism, white supremacism, misogyny and anti-Semitism. What will Bannon-Haman be whispering in the ears of King Trump?

What policy Trump will take towards Jews is unclear, and so far he seems far more dangerous as an enabler of anti-Semites. I am not suggesting that the Trump-Bannon team is chiefly a concern for Jews, however, not by a longshot. They are clearly a threat to every vulnerable group in the US- Muslims, LGBQT, women, African-Americans, refugees, immigrants, and more. What can we learn from the book of Esther about how to resist the insane malice and ignorance of Trump’s white house?

    1. Don’t bow. Mordecai does not sacrifice his conscience before the demands of the Persian government. At this time we must not budge and inch in demanding decency, rational discourse, ethical probity, and protection for the vulnerable whether we are American or, like me, we are a close neighbour concerned about the global spread of the “emotional plague” of Trumpism.
    2. Mourn Publically. When Mordecai heard of the Kings decree, he put on sack cloth and ashes and walked the streets of the city wailing loudly. Jews all throughout the provinces joined him (Esther 4:1-3). So far in the week since Trump’s election, Jews have joined protests, sat shiva in synagogues, and penned group letters expressing solidarity with vulnerable minorities. Major Jewish publications like Tablet and The Forward have been aggressively watchful and critical of Trump. This is all good, and it must continue relentlessly, especially when the Trump government begins making actual law and policy.But what of the Jewish Republicans? We turn to that next.
    3. The Lessons of Esther. I’m sure the association of Esther with Jewish Republicans will make some people very unhappy, and understandingly so. A more natural choice might be Ivanka. Whether she will play a role in standing up to Trump behind the scenes remains to be seen, and one can always hope. Ivanka aside, the Jewish Republicans are the Jews in Esther’s seat, sitting in the house of power. The Book of Esther has prophetic words for them: “Mordecai has this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis (Esther 4:13-14).”
    4. The Lesson of The Happy/Unhappy Ending of Esther Ultimately Esther and Mordecai together turn the tables on Haman, and he is humiliated and defeated. Fickle Ahasuerus is turned again to favour the Jews, and he allows them to arm themselves and fight the hordes who descend on them on their appointed Kristallnacht. The Jews route their attackers and kill thousands of them. This is in one sense a happy ending- the Jews live, and after all the ones they kill are genocidal maniacs bent on the murder of innocent men, women and children.  On the other hand, the fact that the crisis wrought by Ahasuerus and Haman is solved by a bloody civil war between different people groups is hardly something for unalloyed joy. This is exactly the danger America, and countries throughout the world, are in danger of. If White America rises up to vent its frustrations on Muslims, Jews, African-Americans, etc., then the “minor” violence of the anti-Trump protests and the post-election hate crimes may escalate into more serious, and more bloody conflict. Now is the time for us to forge inter-communal ties, and advocate for fierce non-violence. May the Compassionate One have mercy on us all and inspire us with endurance, discernment, and love.

Memories of The Flood


“Forty days and forty nights I held my head and cried….”

-Muddy Waters ( American blues musician, 1913-1983)

We know the story, but here’s a quick review. God brings a flood on the earth, warning and saving only Noah and his family. The world is destroyed, in Hebrew, because of  hamas:  violence,  thievery, injustice.  Noah, his family, and seed pairs of all the creatures of the earth are saved to repopulate the earth. Noah and the other survivors are aboard the ark for for forty days and forty nights. The Talmud points out that this echoes the time it takes to grow a human child in the womb (40 weeks) and the time Moses was on Mt Sinai receiving the Torah; it is a time of death, transformation and rebirth. God makes a covenant with Noah that He will not again destroy the earth- a fortunate thing for us since the earth has been filled with hamas for much of the time between Noah and now.

Yoram Hazony, in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, argues that the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) has to be understood as a form of reasoning through narrative. The Tanakh is not less philosophical than The Republic or The Nicomachean Ethics. Unlike those seminal texts of the Graeco-roman world, however, the Tanakh presents its arguments and reasonings by way of narratives.  We can extend Yoram Hazony’s argument to the mythologies of the ancient world. By examining different constructions of the primordial flood, for instance, we can perceive arguments about what is important in life, about the structure of the cosmos, and about what we should value and how we should act. Arguably Flood narratives have a particular relevance for us today as we face the threat of ecological chaos.

What is truly incredible is the ubiquitous nature of flood myths in the ancient world- a search online finds  stories from ancient Europe, Asia, Africa, the Near East, the Americas, the Pacific Islands, and Australia, ie, everywhere. Aside from the suggestion that human mythology remembers a primordial flood, reading these stories as history seems to miss the point. The narratives are educational tales. Here I will look at those of India and of Indigenous Western Canada (where I live), as these flood narratives form interesting and enlightening contrasts to the Biblical one.


Flood myths from India are manifold and intriguing. The hero of the flood myths is Manu, who in some versions is simply an ancient man, and in some versions is more of a demi-god, a quasi-divine being born of the gods or the primordial sages. Manu is asked by a small fish to protect him against the bigger fishes and he does. He moves the fish to bigger and bigger bodies of water until the fish is very large. The fish then tells Manu that a flood is coming to destroy the earth. In what are apparently the oldest versions no reason is given for the flood- it is a natural occurrence or it is connected to the end of the yuga, the cosmic age. In later versions, possibly dating from after exposure to Islam and its Koranic version of the Genesis story, it is said that the earth has become corrupted because a demon has stolen the holy books which guide humankind or simply because humans are behaving badly. Manu either builds a boat or ties himself to the fish and survives the flood with its protection until he can be deposited on a mountain. Later stories identify the fish as an incarnation of Brahma or Vishnu. Manu offers a sacrifice (as does the surviving hero in Genesis and the MIddle Eastern narratives of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis). In one version a woman rises magically from the fire and her and Manu repopulate the Earth. In another Manu had taken a woman and all the animals onto a boat (this is probably post-Islamic) and in another Manu and his sister were on the boat and God (here Rama) allows them to marry and repopulate the Earth. Interestingly, here a surprising addition has Rama/God angry at the fish for having told Manu of the flood and cuts out its tongue, thus explaining why fishes have been tongueless since then.

The narrative contains interesting and unique details. In all versions Manu is saved by his compassion for the fish, by his wish to save it from the violent cycle of nature in which the strong prey on the weak. This element reflects the preoccupation in Indian spiritual culture with the virtue of ahimsa, or nonviolence. In older versions the flood is a natural occurrence, not brought on by God or a god- this is a detail shared with many other flood narratives all over the world. In most versions Manu is saved by divine intervention, although in some versions it seems to be a natural result of his compassionate piety alone (ie., his good karma). It is also interesting to note that in at least one version the flood is brought by God/Rama who resents Manu’s survival. The idea here seems to be that it is the divinely ordered way of things that humans perish at the end of the yuga, ie. that they be subject to nature including death. Manu’s survival overcomes the natural, as does his saving of the fish: neither is here envisioned as the will of Rama/God. In the Indian version the evil that threatens is the violent structure of the cosmos itself, an idea consonant with Jain, Buddhist and Yogic worldviews. The lesson is that compassionate nonviolence overcomes the natural order, and even God Himself.

British Columbia, Canada

In the haunting version of the Haida, a strange woman in an unusual fur cape one day comes to their Island. The children notice that along her spine she has strange protuberances like growing plants and jeer at her, despite the censure of their Elders. She sits by the water and it comes up to her feet, and she gradually moves back further and further. Each time the water follows her until the Island is inundated. The people build canoes and the survivors are scattered all over, which gives rise different tribes. In this story the sin of the people seems to be to jeer at a stranger, or perhaps to disrespect a spirit woman. The people survive purely by their own efforts.

The Tsimshian story says the flood was born by a god who was annoyed by the noise of boys at play. The people again survive by their own efforts, and again are scattered into various tribes. An echo here of the Haida story is that again the flood is caused by children. This may suggest a theme: that of the importance of disciplining children and teaching them virtues whose absence brings chaos (the flood) to the world.

The Kwakiutl myth simply states that a flood came and submerged all but three mountains. A man, woman and dog were the only survivors, and the Bella-bella (presumably another tribe they didn’t like much?) are descended from the woman and the dog. The Kootenay version is notably different. In this myth a woman is seized and raped by a monster. The woman’s husband shoots the monster with an arrow and either the monster’s blood causes the flood or the woman pulls out the arrow and unleashes a flood. Here it seems like crimes of passion bring on the flood- it is the disrespect of the woman’s sexuality, the husband, and the marital bond which causes the eruption of chaos.

In a Squamish tale the elders of the tribe discern that a flood is coming and decide to build a giant canoe, which they do. They then put in all of the babies and their mothers, along with the bravest young men of the tribe. The survivors are stoic and “do not cry as everyone else drowns”. Eventually they come aground on Mt Baker in Washington State. This tale seems remarkable for its celebration of self-sufficiency and stoic detachment.

A Bella Coola myth is interesting for its unique positing of a god as playing a purely salvific role. In their story a god who is the creator of human beings sees the flood coming and ties the earth to the sun so it will not drown, thus saving some human beings (those able to survive the ensuing storm in boats). The survivors are scattered and this scattering gives rise to the diversity of languages. The flood here is again a result of natural causes, but God acts as a compassionate saviour figure.

The Indian and Canadian narratives shows the protean nature of the flood story. Is there a hero or just a general struggle for survival? Is the hero a human or a demi-god? Are the survivors warned by God, by a god, or by a magical or semi-divine creature? Do they survive by climbing to a high place or by building a boat? Is there one survivor, one family who survives, or scattered members of a community? If the flood is brought by God or a god, does the Divine agent both bring the flood and cause it to cease, or just act as a saviour? Does the flood come because of natural causes or divine caprice? Does it come because of divine hostility? Or because of humanity’s sin? If it is sin, is the sin violence and injustice, lack of discipline, sexual passion, or disrespect for the spirit world?

The Canadian Indigenous tales often see the flood as a result of a breach in social or spiritual mores which unleashes chaos. This breach might be dishonouring a spirit, sexuality without boundaries, or failing to discipline children. In most of the tales human beings survive the flood through their own ingenuity, clearly teaching the great importance of cultivating ingenuity and skill.  The Bella Coola story stands out here for teaching a reliance on grace, on the divine being, as key. The Indian version argues that suffering and death are a natural part of the violent cycles of nature. Human beings can be saved from this by acts of compassion, and according to a majority view this receives God’s blessing.

In the Biblical story God destroys the earth through a flood due to human beings betraying the purpose of their creation, which was to embody the image of God on earth. The assumption of the story is that this entails acting with nonviolence and justice towards each other. When humans stray into mass ethical corruption God regrets their existence and wipes them out except for Noah who is saved not through ingenuity and skill but because of his righteousness, a position closest to the Indian tales who see Manu as saved because of his compassion. A new human race descends from Noah, carrying God’s hopes for a more righteous humanity with them. The lesson here is that social injustice and violence are extreme dangers, as they offend God. If human beings are not righteous, they betray their very being, and risk corrupting nature and courting destruction. Only a commitment to personal righteousness saves, and that righteousness will provoke a grace which will save and give one the honour of carrying forward the true mission and future of humanity.

All of these stories teach important human values, and chart a path away from chaos towards human survival, whether the means is righteousness, compassion, ingenuity, or cunning.  Today it doesn’t take prophecy to see the flood coming. Pope Francis spoke well to the ethical tradition of the Bible in his Encyclical on Climate Change (Laudato Sii), where he argues that climate change is inherently both a matter of our being truant to our purpose as stewards of the Earth and a matter of social injustice and violence. Means of production which are truly ecologically responsible also tend to be more economically just and to promote long term, healthy, empowered communities. The behaviour of the resource industry over the last few centuries has been brutal to both the earth and to people, especially the poor, and it continues to be so.

The Indian flood narratives teach us that we need to be more than mere consumers or passive spectators- we need to actively care for the earth and be compassionate actors. The Indigenous narratives speak to us about the need for human ingenuity. Innovators all over the earth, many of whom increasingly take their inspiration from studying the wisdom of nature herself, are coming up with creative solutions to the crisis we are in. These are the modern day canoe builders who will ferry us above the waters. The Indigenous tales also speak of the importance of discipline and boundaries, as well as a respect for the mysterious and strange. When we lumber into the natural world without a sense of caution and reverence we are much like the Haida children who jeered at the strange woman. The Indigenous tales also echo the Genesis narrative in seeing the need for grace, for a humble calling out to Creator for help and guidance.

One could argue that today we are experiencing a flood in slow motion. Species are going extinct by the dozens every day. The water is slowly rising. I’m sure many more ancient myths could counsel us on what we will need to get through. This small sample has pointed towards social justice, compassion towards all creatures, ingenuity, discipline and respect for the mysterious and the stranger as virtues our various ancestors would recommend.


Hazony, Yoram. The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Isaak, Mark. Flood Narratives From Around The World. 2002. ( Accessed Dec 1 2015)


From The School of Pshish’kha/Kotzk, zt”l

I am currently reading, very slowly reading, Kol Simchah and Ohel Torah, a collection of Hasidic teachings from the school of Pshish'kha/Kotzk. There are small collections of sayings included at the end of each book, and I hope to translate a few one or two once a week.


These two are from the Kotzker, zt”l. Enjoy.


כל זמן שאדם הולך בחושך אינה רואה מה שהוא באור

“Any time a person walks in darkness they cannot see anything that appears in the light.”


מפני שאין לאדם בושה במעשיו אין לו יראה ג״כ

“When a person has no embarassment, no shame, over their actions, know they have no conscience.”

(note conscience is literally “fear”, ie. fear of God).


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.