A Talmudic Exposition: Men in Black

Homosexuality most likely existed even in the ancient rabbinic communities. The rabbis were undoubtedly familiar with Greek  and Roman culture, where homosexuality was considered a perfectly acceptable lifestyle. [1]

Although the Sages worried about their students sexually acting out,  they pragmatically suggested that if one could not control one’s sexual “appetite,” he should wear dark clothes and go to a place where nobody knows him and do whatever his heart desires, “rather than profane the name of Heaven openly.”[2]

Traditional commentaries tend to think the rabbis are referring to heterosexual sex, but this assumption is unwarranted. How do we know that the rabbis were not also alluding to homosexual lay people, or perhaps more specifically–scholars?! A person’s sexual appetite surely is not limited to just those looking for heterosexual sex, and this point ought to be fairly obvious. In Talmudic times, the Sages knew they could not realistically micromanage their followers or especially their colleagues; they feared that the greater the scholar, the greater likelihood would be his disgrace.

It seems to me that the rabbis feared that a homosexual scholar might prove to be a source of embarrassment and scandal if he acted out his urges within the local community. Regardless of the specific context,  one thing seems fairly clear: there are people who cannot or will not control their libido–regardless of their sexual preferences.[3] For such people, the rabbis offered a practical way out so as to preserve their community’s dignity. Continue reading “A Talmudic Exposition: Men in Black”

Why is homosexuality described as an “abomination”?

I think within the Halachic world there has been a remarkable redefinition of many of the more traditional attitudes concerning the congenital homosexual. Traditionally, most biblical translations render  tôʿēbâ as “abomination.”

According to Etymology Online, the noun “abomination”  is a 14th term term that means: “feeling of disgust, hatred, loathing,” from O.Fr. abomination,which in turn derives from the  Latin word abominationem (nom. abominatio) “abomination,” from abominatus, pp. of abominari “shun as an ill omen,” from ab “off, away from” + omin-, stem of omen. Its meaning was intensified by the folk etymology derivation from L. ab homine “away from man,” hence rendering it as, “beastly.”

Thus, abomination is synonymous with  hatred, corruption, and depravity. The Latin root corresponds to the Hebrew term  tôʿēbâ derives from the Hebrew verb  tʿb “to hate” or “abhor,” but the original biblical text of Lev. 18:22  does not explain why homosexuality is so abhorrent.

Aside from its obvious association with homosexuality, tôʿēbâ also has a distinctly religious and idolatrous connotation as in Isa. 44:19, or even for a specific pagan deity, as in 2 Kgs. 23:13 where Milcom is called “the abomination of the Ammonites.” Until recently, it was supposed that homosexual behavior was associated with cultic prostitution. [1]

The distinguished British biblical scholar Gordon Wenham explains:

“Since male prostitutes were sometimes castrated and often took part in ceremonies flaunting their effeminacy, it may well be that aversion to homosexuality partially explains the ban on castrated men participating in the public assembly, or on wearing women’s clothes. The latter is described as ‘an abomination to the LORD’ (Deut. 23:1; 22:5). It could well be that the law is banning anything suggestive of homosexual practice  . . .” [2]

However, most modern biblical scholars doubt whether there cultic male prostitutes existed in ancient Israel. Despite the reticence of the modern scholars, given the carnivalesque quality of the ancient fertility rites, homosexual prostitutes most likely played a role alongside with the female prostitutes of antiquity. It seems doubtful their male counterparts would have been excluded.

If the Mesopotamian legal codes are of any relevance to the passage in Lev. 18:22, we may be able to decipher the Torah’s real meaning that the ban against homosexuality may well be referring to (a) father and son incest (as mentioned in the Hittite codes) (b) homosexual rape (as spelled out in the Middle Assyrian Codes), (c) male pedophilia, (d) castrating a male for sexual exploitation.

Bear in mind that ancient Israel was the only civilization to have formulated such a proscription against homosexuality. Indeed, the Talmud in BT Sanhedrin 54b interprets the word “zachor” to also include male child. The word “zachor” in the Bible frequently means “male child.” [3] Continue reading “Why is homosexuality described as an “abomination”?”

Better Dead than Alive? A Tale from the Haredi Zone

The ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel never cease to take the Jewish imagination to places   where no rabbi has ever gone before. A case in point: One Israeli Haredi rabbi, Dovid Kornreich, thinks that homosexuals are better off dead than alive. In one of his popular blogs (his blogspot is called “A Voice from the Wilderness”), the rabbi offers a third possibility for Orthodox Jews who are struggling with their homosexuality—how about trying suicide?

To make his idea more appealing, Kornreich says that such behavior would be permitted provided that person commits suicide “al kiddush HaShem” as a means of sanctifying God’s Holy Name

Sounds pretty weird, no?

Well, the 18th century American philosopher Jonathan Edwards once wrote, “Even the Devil can cite Scripture for his purposes …” Actually, the Devil can even cite Talmud, Maimonides, and Jewish law as well!

Rabbi Kornreich doesn’t seem to realize the every human life is precious and of inestimable value. God created every person to be a unique expression that serves to glorify His Presence in the world. In Judaism, our Sages teach us that the true sanctification of God’s Name does not come with death, but with life. Suicide—even for religious purposes—only applies when the person is confronted by a disease or circumstance that threatens to debilitate the human spirit through a life of intense suffering.

In the case of Samson’s suicide (Judges 16: 30), Samson preferred to destroy himself in order to sanctify his God before the pagan Philistines. Given the choices Samson had, he did not wish to be tortured any further by the enemies of his people.

Thus, when King Saul saw the Philistines approach him, he asked his armor-bearer to kill him, so that he would not be tortured by the enemy in their pagan shrines. However, his armor-bearer refused. In the end, the narrator relates: “So he took his sword and fell on it” (1 Sam. 31:4).

According to the Talmud, After the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, the Roman soldiers gathered four hundred youths  in Israel and sent to Rome on ships. The children realized  that they would become victims of immorality and abuse at the hands of their Roman captors. They decided it would be better to take their own lives than be  sexually degraded by their new masters.  And so it was, they jumped into the sea and died (T.B. Gittin 53b). Continue reading “Better Dead than Alive? A Tale from the Haredi Zone”