Homosexuality was one of several red-flag issues raised during the recent confirmation hearings for Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Having glimpsed a Pentacostal Christian perspective on this subject, I couldn't help wondering how many Jews out there -- regardless of political affiliation -- must be curious about Judaism's stance on homosexuality. With that as a backdrop, I offer a tradition-oriented Jewish primer that I hope will help.
First, let's consult the "Constitution" of the Jews, the Torah. Even a cursory reading of the relevant sections shows that the Torah is unequivocally opposed to the homosexual act, which it twice labels an abomination: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. It's worth noting that this prohibition is grouped with several other unacceptable sexual practices, including bestiality. Scholars have reviewed various attempts to justify homosexual behavior through the "reinterpretation" of these Torah passages, and have found them to be unconvincing.
So significant is the ban on homosexual activity that it is part of the afternoon Torah reading for Yom Kippur.
Moreover, Judaism has taken this admonition to heart over the centuries. "Even in antiquity, when countless cultures and religions incorporated homosexuality in some form, Judaism absolutely rejected homosexual practices," writes New York attorney Eytan Kobre in a recent edition of the Forward.
End of discussion? Not really. Being a guidebook for living, Judaism should be expected to deal forthrightly, compassionately -- and above all, realistically -- with questions that flow from such a stern prohibition. The most critical one is this: If the act is forbidden, how are we to relate to the actors themselves?
The answer: As human beings and fellow Jews, individuals created b'tzelem elokeem, in the image of God. Judaism may disapprove of homosexual activity, but not of the homosexual himself. "He is as beloved in God's eyes as any other Jew, and is as responsible as any Jew is in all the mitzvahs," according to Rabbi Shraga Simmons of Aish HaTorah.
Nobody's perfect; we all sin -- and when we do, we are expected to do teshuvah, or repentance. The same holds true for this particular variety of sinner. "He need not feel irreparably and irretrievably stigmatized," wrote Rabbi Barry Freundel of Congregation Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C. "Above all, he need not feel excluded from the community."
The dynamic might change, however, if the individual insists on taking a public, activist approach that seeks to legitimize inherently unacceptable behavior. In that case, he would run the risk of distancing himself from the community -- as would, for example, any Jew who publicly and explicitly promotes, say, the desecration of Shabbos or the wanton violation of other Jewish laws.
Whether homosexual activity is the product of nature or nurture is not critical. Judaism holds that the behavior of all functioning adults can and must be controlled, whether or not genes play a role in determining that behavior. As Eytan Kobre pointed out, "a primary function and overall goal of the commandments is nothing less than the transformation of the individual." A key aspect of that transformation is the harnessing of personal passions and desires, a test we all face.
The fact is, predilections exist for all sorts of unacceptable and unlawful behavior, including that which causes bloodshed. The Talmud (Shabbos 156a) recognizes this, advising those thusly affected to channel their predisposition into useful endeavors by becoming surgeons or mohels, for example. Remember: Judaism does not govern orientations; only acts. "A desire for lobster dinner is not a violation of kashrus laws," notes Rabbi Simmons. "Only the dinner is. The same is true with homosexuality."
Regarding homosexuality, Jews are placed in the position of trying to be both steadfast and humane, and it isn't always easy to pull that off. There are, however, honorable people who have tried their best to walk that tightrope, and have succeeded. They have found a way to be compassionate and understanding while not embracing the unembracable.
Questions on this and related Jewish topics can be directed to Rabbi Sholom Kamenetsky at Skam4@Juno.com
Richard Greenberg, a freelance writer and editor in the Washington, D.C., area is the author of the book "Pathways: Jews Who Return," published by Jason Aronson Inc. "Pathways" is a compendium of stories told by once-assimilated Jews who came to embrace their spiritual roots. Mr. Greenberg can be contacted at RickG613@aol.com.