Homosexuality and Judaism

Judaism, Nature and Homosexuality

     A primary function and overall goal of the commandments is nothing less than the transformation of the individual. Judaism addresses the human being as it finds him — in his “natural” state — seething with animal passions, ridden with negative character traits. Through the agency of those Divine tools of refinement that are the commandments, the Torah beckons man to exchange his obsession with sensuality, his pettiness, self-centeredness and worse for a world of spiritual grandeur and ultimate meaning.

     The implacable foe with which Judaism’s battle is forever pitched, then, is not so much secularism or even non-belief as it is “nature,” that is, the human being’s intense desire to eschew growth and change, to remain static in the face of God’s summons to greatness. No one perceived — and furiously opposed — this overarching Judaic objective more than the modern-day manifestation of evil incarnate, Adolf Hitler. He wrote in “Mein Kampf,” “a man must…understand the fundamental necessity of Nature’s rule…. Then he will feel that in a universe where…force alone forever masters weakness ... there can be no special laws for man.”

     The nature of the challenge posed by the Torah will, of course, vary with the individual, based on proclivities both inborn and acquired. For some, that challenge will be the struggle to control anger and aggressiveness, while for others, it will be the attempt to rein in arrogance and reach out in acknowledgement of the other. Yet others’ particularly daunting charge will be combating powerful sensual drives, with their potential to reduce the unlimited human potential to nothing more than the pursuit of shallow, momentary fleshy pleasures. This is no less true for the individual who claims to have been “born gay” than for anyone else. …

     When the Torah decreed that all sexual activity should be channeled into marriage, writes Dennis Prager, it ensured that sex no longer dominated society, heightened male-female love and sexuality, and began the arduous task of elevating the status of women. The ban on homosexuality desexualized religion[1], gave boundaries and controls to the strongest of man’s sensual urges which until then had been expressed in every which way[2]When Judaism demanded that all sexual activity be channeled into marriage, it changed the world. The subsequent dominance of the Western world, says Dennis Prager, can largely be attributed to the sexual revolution initiated by Judaism, and later carried forward by Christianity.

     The revolutionary nature of Judaism’s prohibiting all forms of non-marital sex was nowhere more radical, more challenging to the prevailing assumptions of mankind, than with regard to homosexuality.

     Indeed, Judaism may be said to have invented the notion of homosexuality, for in the ancient world sexuality was not divided between heterosexuality and homosexuality. That division was the Bible’s doing. Before the Bible, the world divided sexuality between … active and passive roles[3].

     As Martha Nussbaum, professor of philosophy at Brown University, recently wrote, the ancients were no more concerned with people’s gender preference than people today are with others’ eating preferences:

     Boys and women were very often treated interchangeably as objects of (male) desire. What was socially important is to penetrate rather than to be penetrated. Sex is understood fundamentally not as interaction, but as a doing of something to someone. In this environment, homosexuality was rampant[4].   

     Judaism changed all this. It rendered the “gender of the object” very “morally problematic”; it declared that no one is “interchangeable” sexually. And as a result, it ensured that sex would in fact be “fundamentally interaction” and not simply “a doing of something to someone.”

     It is the Hebrew Bible that gave humanity such ideas as a universal, moral, loving God; ethical obligations to this God; the need for history to move forward to moral and spiritual redemption; the belief that history has meaning; and the notion that human freedom and social justice are the divinely desired states for all people. It gave the world the Ten Commandments, ethical monotheism, and the concept of holiness (the goal of raising human beings from the animal-like to the Godlike).

     Judaism cannot make peace with homosexuality because homosexuality denies many of Judaism’s most fundamental principles. It denies life, it denies God’s expressed desire that men and women cohabit, and it denies the root structure that Judaism wishes for all mankind, the family[5].

End Notes

[1] Thus, the first thing Judaism did was to de-sexualize God. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth by His will, not through any sexual behavior. This broke with all other religions, and it alone changed human history.

The gods of virtually all civilizations engaged in sexual relations.

Given the sexual activity of the gods, it is not surprising that the religions themselves were replete with all forms of sexual activity. In the ancient Near East and elsewhere, virgins were deflowered by priests prior to engaging in relations with their husbands, and sacred or ritual prostitution was almost universal.

[2] The revolution consisted of forcing the sexual genie into the marital bottle. It ensured that sex no longer dominated society, heightened male-female love and sexuality (and thereby almost alone created the possibility of love and eroticism within marriage), and began the arduous task of elevating the status of women.

By contrast, throughout the ancient world, and up to the recent past in many parts of the world, sexuality infused virtually all of society.

Human sexuality, especially male sexuality, is utterly wild. Men have had sex with women and with men; with little girls and young boys; with a single partner and in large groups; with total strangers and immediate family members; and with a variety of domesticated animals. There is little, animate or inanimate, that has not excited some men to orgasm.

[3] Between penetrator (active partner) and penetrated (passive partner).

[4] It is Judaism’s sexual morality, not homosexuality, that historically has been deviant. Greenberg, whose The Construction of Homosexuality is the most thorough historical study of homosexuality ever written, summarized the ubiquitous nature of homosexuality in   these words: “With only a few exceptions, male homosexuality was not stigmatized or repressed so long as it conformed to norms regarding gender and the relative ages and statuses of the partners . . . The major exceptions to this acceptance seem to have arisen in two circumstances.” Both of these circumstances were Jewish.

[5] Dennis Prager, Ultimate Issues. Adapted and significantly abbreviated from the original.

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