Parshat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 1

“You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman, it is an abomination.” (VaYikra 18:22)

This week’s parasha outlines the Torah’s prohibition against homosexuality. It is clear from articles that have appeared recently in the local Jewish press that there is a need for clarification of the Torah’s perspective on this weighty issue.

Some introductory comments are required. It is not the purpose of this analysis to suggest the any stance regarding gay marriage in the secular society of the United States. In other words, it is possible for a person to oppose homosexuality in the strongest terms – based on Torah doctrine – and yet not translate these sentiments into support for legislation banning gay marriage. One’s position regarding the issue of gay marriage in the U.S. must be based not only on one’s views regarding homosexuality but also on one’s perspective regarding the role of government in regulating such issues. One may oppose homosexual behavior based on essentially religious grounds yet, posit that it is not the role of the government to legislate against such unions.

Let us consider a similar issue. I am a committed Jew. I believe that a person who participates in paganism commits a serious sin. This does not mean that I would support government legislations banning such practices. Judaism and the Jewish people have prospered in the United States specifically because of the absence of any state religion and the well established legal protections of freedom of religion. So, despite my opposition to paganism, I would oppose any serious erosion of these protections. Similarly, one’s opposition may or may not translate into support for legislation banning gay marriage. However, I am not suggesting that it is inappropriate for a person opposed to gay marriage to support legislative initiatives in this area. I am merely pointing out that one’s religious perspective may or may not dictate one’s political stance. This is an independent issue that deserves and requires a separate discussion.

This discussion will deal with two issues. First, to what extent does the Torah oppose homosexuality? How serious a sin is this behavior? Many will feel that the answer to this question is obvious. However, a recent article demonstrated some confusion regarding this issue. Second, is the Torah’s opposition reasonable and just?

The argument was made in a recent article that the Torah’s does not express an intense opposition to homosexuality. The author argued that there are few references in the Torah to any prohibition against homosexual practices. Therefore, apparently, the Torah does not feel that the behavior represents a serious sin.

The premise of the author’s argument is that we can gage the degree to which the Torah opposes a behavior or encourages a behavior or attitude based on the extensiveness of the Torah treatment of the material. This is clearly a flawed premise and a few examples will illustrate this point. Everyone would agree that Judaism is strongly associated with monotheism and the monotheism is one of the most important tenets of the Torah. In the Torah, monotheism does not merely mean conviction in one G-d. It also includes conviction in the unity of the G-d. The Torah teaches us the Hashem is a unity – He is one. He does not have parts, qualities or attributes – in the typical sense. The principle of Hashem’s unity is fundamental to Judaism. Maimonides includes as second in his list of the thirteen most fundamental elements of the Torah.[1] Yet, there is little explicit reference to Hashem’s unity in the Torah. If one were, to judge the significance of the principle of Hashem’s unity based upon the number of verses in the Torah that explicitly instruct us in this conviction, one would erroneously conclude that Hashem’s unity is an insignificant issue.

“And it shall be for you as a permanent law. In the seventh month on he tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves. And you shall not perform any work – not the native or the convert who dwells among you.” (VaYikra 17:29)

This week’s parasha discusses the service in the Bait HaMikdash on Yom Kippur. The service is described in detail. However, the requirements to fast on Yom Kippur and observe the other laws of the day are only mentioned briefly. Again, if we assess the significance of Yom Kippur based upon the number of passages that describe the manner in which it is observed, we would conclude that the fasting on this day and the other elements of its observance are insignificant. Yet, this is clearly not the case and Yom Kippur is one of the most sacred days of the calendar.

In short, although it is true that the various mitzvot and expectations are discussed by the Torah to varying degrees, it does not follow that this phenomenon can be used to gage degree of significance. In fact, if one were to consistently apply this thesis – that the degree to which an issue is discussed indicates the Torah’s attitude – the religion that would emerge would be very different from anyone’s understanding of Judaism.

“A man who lies with a man as one lies with a woman, they have both done an abomination. They shall be put to death; their blood is upon themselves.” (VaYikra 20:13)

This does not mean that there is no method for determining the relative significance of a commandment. Maimonides suggests a simple, common sense method for evaluating the relative severity of various transgressions. He suggests that the severity of transgressing a negative command is indicated by the consequence. In other words, the more severe the consequence, the more severe the violation. The most serious transgressions are punished by one of the forms of execution. Less severe violations are punished with less severe consequences – for example, lashes.[2] The logic of Maimonides’ thesis is so compelling and self-evident, it is virtually unassailable.

What does Maimonides’ thesis tell us regarding the severity of the Torah’s prohibition against homosexuality? Homosexual relations are punished with death. This clearly indicates that the Torah is unequivocal in its attitude regarding homosexuality and regards it as a severe transgression.

Furthermore, in this week’s parasha the Torah refers to homosexual behavior as toevah. There is some difference of opinion regarding the exact meaning of this term. It is commonly translated as abomination. Regardless of the exact translation, the term certainly is an expression of uncompromising condemnation. The term is generally reserved for severe transgressions.

Another indication of the Torah’s attitude towards homosexuality is found in the context in which the prohibition is discussed. The Torah deals with homosexual behavior along side its discussion of incest. Apparently, the Torah is equating the practices. Now, no one would contend that the Torah is not seriously opposed to incest! So, in view of the Torah’s association of the two sins, it follows that the same conclusion must be applied in assessing the Torah’s attitude towards homosexuality.

“Speak to all the congregation of Bnai Yisrael and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I Hashem you G-d is holy.” (VaYikra 19:2)

Finally, it is important to note the overall context of the discussion in the parasha of sexual behavior. This discussion takes place in the context of the Torah discussion of personal sanctity. The Torah maintains that personal sanctity and spiritual perfection is predicated upon – to a great extent – one’s sexual conduct.[3] A concept of personal sanctity is obviously central in any religious system. The Torah’s contention that homosexual behavior is inconsistent with personal sanctity is an indication of the fundamental basis of the Torah’s opposition to homosexual behavior.

Now, it must be recognized that anyone who does not accept that the Torah is a revealed truth, need not attribute any significance to the Torah’s attitudes. In fact, a person who believes that the Torah is the product of human wisdom – or folly – may contend that the attitudes is the Torah express outmoded prejudices and should not be taken seriously. But if one does professes to follow the values of the Torah, one must be honest in defining these values. One cannot claim to view the Torah as an authoritative source of moral guidance and at the same time fail to objectively distill the Torah’s message. The Torah is clear and unequivocal in its condemnation of homosexual behavior.

But is the Torah’s attitude reasonable and just? There is a growing body of research that supports the contention that in many individuals homosexual orientation is an innate disposition. In other words, these homosexuals do not choose their orientation; they are born with it. If this is true, then the Torah is denying these homosexual the opportunity to engage in a loving relationship with a partner. The need for love and intimacy is basic to the human being. Is it fair to deny a homosexual’s this relationship?

There is a basic flaw in this question. The flaw relates to a misunderstanding of the Torah’s attitude regarding the rights of the individual. In fact, the Torah’s attitude is superficially confusing. On the one hand, the Torah is very protective of the rights of the individual. For example, the Torah strictly restricts the court’s authority to punish a person for transgressing the law. The laws of evidence make it all but impossible for the court to punish an innocent individual. The Torah includes an elaborate system of laws governing property rights. The Torah’s emphasis of this area of law expresses a deep concern with the rights of the individual. Perhaps, one of the most impressive expressions of the Torah’s attitude regarding the sanctity of the rights of the individual is Shmuel the Prophet’s response to the nation’s request that he appoint the first king. Shmuel points out that a king will have the authority to abrogate personal rights. He can confiscate property; he has the authority to enlist members of the community into his service. Shmuel encourages the people to preserve their individual rights and forego appointing a king.[4]

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not complete your reaping to the corner of your field. And the gleanings of your field you shall not take … for the poor and the convert you shall leave them. I am Hashem your G-d.” (VaYikra 19:9-10)

However, the Torah’s goal is not merely to protect the rights of the individual. Instead, the Torah has a broader purpose. Its goal is to foster the development of the individual. This is an important distinction. In a society in which the sole objective is to protect the rights of the individual, there can be no compromise of these rights for the betterment of society as a whole. In contrast, when the goal is more broadly defined – where the goal is the development of the individual – the laws are designed to create a society that fosters the individual’s personal growth. Achieving this goal results in a paradox. Sometimes it will be necessary to compromise the interests of some individuals in order to foster an environment in which the majority of individuals can best achieve their potential. Therefore, the Torah will restrict individual rights in order to create and preserve a society in which the majority of individuals can grow and develop.

Let us consider some examples. In a society in which the rights of the individual are supreme, there can be no mandatory requirement to contribute to charity. In such a society, the decision to participate in charitable giving is strictly voluntary and personal. In contrast, the Torah includes many mitzvot that mandate providing financial support to the poor. Similarly, if the sole objective of a society is to protect individual rights, there can be no mandatory requirement to provide military service. However, in the interests of preserving and protecting society, the Torah does mandate military service, under certain specific circumstances. So, it is clear that the Torah’s objective is the more broadly defined goal of fostering individual growth – even though this will sometimes result in a compromise of some individuals’ interests.

Now, let us consider the implications of this social philosophy. Even if we accept that for many individuals’ homosexual orientation is innate, it does not follow that these individuals are entitled to engage in homosexual practices. The Torah’s position is that heterosexuality is consistent with personal sanctity and that homosexual behavior is inconsistent with this sanctity. Therefore, the Torah legislates against homosexual behavior. This does not reflect insensitivity or a disregard for the individual. Instead, this legislation reflects the goal of advancing the development of the majority of individual’s within a society.

There is a related issue that must be addressed. Implicit in the criticism outlined above of the Torah’s restriction against homosexual behavior is the assumption that it is the Torah’s responsibility to assure the happiness of all members of its society. This is implied by the assertion that the Torah unfairly denies the homosexual the opportunity to fulfill the fundamental need to be involved in a loving and intimate relationship. However, this assumption needs to be considered carefully.

We all recognize that there tragedies in the world. A child is born with a crippling birth defect; a young person dies from a terrible disease; a child looses his parents in a tragic accident. We recognize that these tragedies demand a sympathetic response. But as terrible as the tragedies are we do not have a right to demand that Hashem protect us from all sorrow. We accept that somehow, in the Almighty’s plan, these tragedies are inevitable. In other words, we accept that although Hashem created a wonderful system of physical laws designed to provide for our needs, there is room in this system for misfortune to occur. We accept that a system of physical laws cannot assure that every person’s material needs will be fully fulfilled. We must approach the issue of homosexuality with same recognition. We are not entitled to demand of Hashem that he guarantee our happiness. Like the laws that govern nature, the Torah is a system of laws for the optimal governance of society. Just as a system of physical laws cannot assure the health and welfare of every person, so too a system of social laws cannot guarantee that every member of the society will achieve happiness. It is a tragedy for a person to be denied the benefit of a loving and intimate relationship. We must appreciate the hurt that this person experiences. We cannot trivialize this issue. But at the same time, it does not follow that this person has been treated unjustly by Hashem. In His wisdom, Hashem created a system of laws designed to foster the growth and full development of the individual. But no system of laws can serve the self-interests of every individual at every moment.

In summary, it is clear that the Torah is unequivocal in its condemnation of homosexuality. The Torah’s position is that homosexuality is inconstant with personal sanctity. It is true that the Torah places a premium on the rights of the individual. But the Torah’s objective is not merely to protect these rights. Instead, its goal is to foster individual growth. This sometimes requires sacrificing the interests of some individuals in order to foster the development of the majority of individuals. The Torah is not insensitive to the plight of the homosexual. But its goal is to create a society in which heterosexuality is the standard behavior. Finally, although we must recognize that the Torah’s restriction against homosexual behavior is a terrible hardship for some individuals, it does not follow that the Torah is unjust.

In closing it is important to recognize that we accomplish nothing positive through humiliating a gay person. If we express ourselves in a manner that humiliates others, we only misrepresent the Torah. We will certainly not succeed in educating others in regard to the Torah’s attitudes. We must also recognize that a Torah observant Jew has the benefit of being guided by a revealed truth. Our attitudes regarding homosexual behavior are based on this revelation. Others, who do not understand the concept of revelation or are unaware of revelation, may come to very different conclusions than our own. We cannot simply condemn these conclusions. We must express ourselves in reasonable terms and educate others not humiliate them.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Avot 2:1.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 19:2.

[4] Sefer Shmuel Alef 8:10-18.