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Morality, Judaism, and Queerness

The aim of this page is to provide ways for communities to learn about Judaism and queerness, while providing Jews in the queer community resources to navigate a queer and religious identity. I believe there are many misconceptions about text and the standpoint of religions in relation to queerness. Here, I aim to offer multiple opinions and interpretations, and fill some of these gaps.

Where does morality come from? Is it always tied with religion? Why be moral?

George Mavrodes argues that morality is dependent on religion. He believes that people are moral “because it is in your long term interest to act this way.” To him, morality without religion is absurd, and religion gives morality some grounds. Emile Durkheim, on the other hand, sees morality as the structure that ties us together. To him, morality is what creates community, and morals are what create solidarity. In Judaism, morality is shaped through ethics, which are rooted in the fundamental laws and concepts of Judaism, which is often derived from the Hebrew Bible. No matter where morality comes from, sometimes it is hard to be okay with a simultaneous queer and religious identity.

How do queerness and morality relate to each other, and are they compatible? Does it have to be a dichotomy, with people choosing G-d OR queer? Is there space for AND in the Jewish community?

Here’s a video on the topic from the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center:

A portion of the Jewish community is queer and that community is slowly being integrated into the Jewish community at large. In Judaism, the official statement on the acceptance of queerness differs from denomination, community, and person. The religion as a whole is slowly shifting toward an official religious opinion, with queer clergy accepted in Reconstructionist and Reform congregations across the board, with Conservative congregations accepting queer clergy on a case by case basis. In December 2012, Orthodox Judaism accepted that “reparative therapy” is counterproductive, with the Rabbinical Council of America completely withdrawing their support from JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing), the largest Jewish reparative therapy center.

Misconceptions

Part of the problem with discussing queerness and morality is that there are common misconceptions about the morality of Abrahamic religions (religions with a tie to Abraham – such as Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), especially in connection with queerness.

First, there are only 6 passages used against queer people in Judeo-Christian communities in all of Biblical text. Compare this to the rest of Bible, which talks about love, compassion, justice, and other pro-inclusion values. Here are some examples of pro-inclusion text:

“It is not good for a person to be alone” – Genesis 2:18

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” – Leviticus 19:9

One of these misconceptions is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and its relevance in the discussion of queerness and Judaism.  This is the root of the term “sodomy” and usually cited as a reason God hates those who perform sodomy, and by extension all of the queer community. In the well-known story, Lot hosts angels in hope that G-d will spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but the men of the city insist to “bring them out to us and we will know them”—understood as sexually “know” them. Lot and the angels escape, and Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by fire and brimstone.

However, the prohibition here is actually most likely not really against the people of Sodom performing sodomy, but rather that the act in this context is rape. Also, hospitality is highly looked upon within the Torah, and Lot is extremely hospitable to the angels, while the people and the city are not.

Here’s an interpretation from Jay Michaleson – Jewish queer activist and author of God vs. Gay:

Not really an abomination

Leviticus 18:22 is usually translated into English as, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman. It is an abomination.” Leviticus 20:13, is usually translated to, “And if a man lies with mankind both of these have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.” The problem with this is the translation of the Hebrew word toevah which does not mean abomination. The actual translation is probably closer to the the word taboo in English.

The Torah makes clear that male-male sexual practice is a toevah. A toevah is any practice that is not inherently wrong, but only not done to distinguish from other nations. This is loosely translated to English as a taboo, not an abomination.

An interesting interpretation from OrthoDykes of these prohibitions is that they are only prohibiting queer sexuality that attempts to mimic heterosexual sexual acts.

Misconceptions surrounding other forms of queerness

There is no text forbidding queerness, other than those passages with discuss sodomy, within the Bible itself. All of those laws come from Rabbinic literature and commentary, such as the Mishna and the Talmud.

You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelled, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. And you shall not go according to their established practices.

On this verse, the Sifra (9:3) explains:

Could it be that you aren’t to build buildings like them or plant crops as they do? Rather, the Torah says, “established practices” (chukim). This means only those things that they and their ancestors have decreed. And what are those? A man would take a man, a woman would take a woman, a man would take a woman and her daughter, and a woman would be taken by two men.

These passages are part of the attempt for the Jewish religion and its people to distinguish themselves from those around them, in this case the Egyptians. Other passages prohibit certain sexual acts, for the Persians do them. Perhaps the need to differentiate ourselves sexually from other groups has passed.

Conclusion

Before you go, consider one more thing. Within the Talmud Baba Bartha and Nedarim, there is a rabbinic ruling that states, “The Holy One exempts those who act under duress.” This is true in many cases, with the laws specifically forbidding some holy acts if it will cause the participant harm. For example, sick people are forbidden from fasting, though it is a mitzvah, on Yom Kippur, for it may harm them.

Also, consider the out of date nature of many Jewish laws, knowing what we know now about the world. A deaf person who could not speak was previously considered mentally incompetent, and, therefore, could not participate in a minyan. However, since we no longer know this to be true, this ruling has since changed. Also, we no longer follow “an eye for an eye” as a means of punishment. We change Jewish law and personal belief all the time. The Torah says “do not kill”, though many believe it is acceptable to kill in self-defense. Other aspects of Judaism have evolved with the changing world around us, why not how we view queerness?

Looking for more resources? Interested in connecting with other queer Jews or learning more about Judaism and queerness?

For more discussion of queerness and Judaism, particularly examining gender and Judaism, see our page Queering Judaism.

  • Nehirim. They are a national organization, in the United States, that has queer Jewish retreats. As a non-profit, they offer financial aid, but also accept donations.
  • Hod They are a group of orthodox gay men trying to educate the community of Israel.
  • OrthoDykes They also have a blog. This is a group of orthodox lesbians who are connecting to support each other. They have chapters in both NYC and Jerusalem, though you can contact them from anywhere around the world.
  • Keshet This is a grassroots organization working for the inclusion of the LGBT community in all aspects of Jewish life. They have offices in Boston, Denver, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • The Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation The goal of IJSO is to integrate queer communities into Jewish communities and educate Jewish community leaders and clergy about the queer communities.
  • Check out this great playlist if you want to know more about Judaism and Queerness.

Sources (Feel free to check these out!)

Durkheim, Emile

1893 The Division of Labor in Society. Paris: Alcan. http://books.google.com/books?id=ocyDAAAAQBAJ&lr=

Jastrow, Morris

1901-1906 Ethics. In The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk and Wagnalls. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5888-ethics.

Mavrodes, George I

1986 Religion and the Queerness of Morality. In Rationality, religious belief, and moral commitment: new essays in the philosophy of religion. Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright, eds. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Michaelson, Jay

2012 ‘Abomination’ is Hate Speech. Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas 42(4). http://shma.com/2012/04/abomination-is-hate-speech/

Michaelson, Jay

2012 Orthodox Rabbis Say That Gay ‘Cure’ Theory Doesn’t Work. The Daily Beast. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/12/01/orthodox-rabbis-say-gay-cure-therapy-doesn-t-work.html.

Michaelson, Jay

2011 Dispelling the Myth of God versus Gay. USA Today (Nov 1). http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Dispelling+the+myth+of+God+versus+Gay.-a0273901039

Nestel, Sydney

2007 Aharei-Mot/Kedoshim, a D’var Torah: Comparing Conservative and Reconstructionist Approaches in Dealing with Leviticus’ Prohibition on Male-Male Sex. Drash presented, April 28. http://archive.jewishrecon.org/resources/files/Syd%20Nestel%20Parashat%20Acharei-Kedoshim.pdf

OrthoDykes

OrthoDykes FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About Lesbianism and Halakhah (Jewish Law). http://www.orthodykes.org/faq.html

Schulweis, Harold M

1992 Morality, Legality, and Homosexuality. Drash presented at Valley Beth Shalom,  Encino, CA, Rosh Hashana. http://www.vbs.org/page.cfm?p=870&newsid=239

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