Thursday, May 17, 2012

Some Thoughts on Gay Marriage

I recently heard an amusing anecdote about a young Orthodox man who, leaving his apartment building one morning, was approached to sign a petition in support of legalizing gay marriage. He politely declined. As he walked away, the petitioner shouted after him, "'re Jewish!"

There is no question that American Jews overwhelmingly support liberal causes, including the movement to legalize homosexual marriage. While Jews can justify their commitments to expanding government-sponsored social services, providing assistance to the underprivileged, reforming health care, and protecting the environment as consistent with the teachings of Judaism, it is much more difficult for them to reconcile support for gay marriage with our tradition. 

After all, our holiest text, the Torah, prohibits homosexual behavior and labels it a "toevah", often translated as "an abomination". This statement does not appear to allow much room for persuasive reinterpretation. Ironically, though, a sizable number of Jews, many of them observant, are outspoken in favor of what has come to be termed "marriage equality".

Speaking personally, I am inclined to believe that the United States government should refrain from any involvement in the definition of marriage, dealing only with civil unions and leaving the protection of the sanctity of the family to religious organizations. As one who opposes gay marriage for religious reasons, however, I often find myself on the defensive in a culture that now embraces homosexuality as mainstream.

Since my convictions are based upon the Torah, this means that I am frequently called upon to justify what is seen as the Torah's antiquated and biased attitude toward homosexuals. And being that the subject matter is especially timely right now, I would like to take this opportunity to offer a philosophical explanation of why the Torah forbids homosexual conduct. I hope that this will convince the reader that, contrary to popular belief, one can oppose homosexual marriage without being bigoted, ignorant, discriminatory or homophobic. 

Let us go what I think is the root of the controversy: the term “abomination”. In Hebrew, the word is “toevah”, and this term is applied not only to homosexuality but to an array of forbidden activities, including incest, the consumption of non-kosher food, adultery and idolatry. The Talmud was troubled by the meaning of “toevah” and translated it as a composite of two Hebrew words “toeh bah” – literally, “one who does this errs therein”.

In the eyes of the Talmud, then, contrary to the pronouncements of many a Bible-thumping evangelist, the term “toevah” does not imply a passionate distaste for the act described. The word is lacking any emotive content. No feelings of visceral disgust or homophobic fears are being evoked. “Toevah” simply means that one who performs the act in question is making a serious philosophical mistake. 

Now, we can see why this would be the case for an idolater who replaces the Almighty with a pathetic graven image. But why is the loving relationship between two men classified as “toevah”? What error can be seen or imputed here?
 The answer to this question is a critically important one. The purpose of the Torah is to ennoble human beings by teaching them to transcend their base instincts and strive for spiritual growth. Indulgence in food is limited by the laws of kashrut, which remind us that eating is not an end in itself; it is a means to keeping our bodies healthy so that we can involve ourselves in learning, the pursuit of justice and acts of kindness.

Similarly, sexual activity is not an end in itself; it is a means to the creation of family and the perpetuation of the Jewish people and the human race. One who attributes intrinsic significance to sexual behavior puts it on a pedestal it does not deserve and commits a grave error about the place it should occupy in our minds, hearts and lives.
By limiting the context within which sexual needs are satisfied – namely, the context of heterosexual marriage, which is the bedrock of the family - the Torah reminds us of the fact that the satisfaction of these needs is not an end unto itself. 

(The objection may be raised that some heterosexual couples have fertility problems and cannot have children. Moreover, it is clear that not all acts of intercourse eventuate in reproduction. The answer to these objections is as follows: As Maimonides explains, the Torah addresses the universal, general and typical with its legislation. The laws of the Torah, like the laws of nature, are categorical and abstract and are not specially crafted to fit each and every particular circumstance. In this case, in order to make its overarching point, the Torah limits sexual activity to a certain type of relationship - the relationship instrumental to procreation - notwithstanding the fact that there are some specific and/or exceptional cases in which the reason behind the general law might not seem to apply.)

The Torah teaches that the belief that sexual relations have some worth beyond that of perpetuating the species is a toevah, a fundamental mistake. And the Torah classifies homosexuality as one of many ways in which people make more out of sexuality than it is meant to be - severing it from its procreative function and celebrating it as a source of erotic pleasure or as an expression of romantic love in its own right. 

Put simply, one who raises the means of human sexuality to the level of an end is committing an error of Biblical proportions.

 In summary, I remain opposed to the homosexual lifestyle on philosophical but not personal grounds. I do not feel the slightest distaste, disgust or disdain for homosexuals or for the desires they have. I see them as created in the image of God and entitled to the same rights and respect as their fellow men and women. I also recognize and appreciate the fact that, for the most part, their inclinations and preferences are biologically determined and not a matter of free choice. 

Nevertheless, I still maintain that by transcending these desires, by insisting that the significance of the sexual drive in our lives be understood properly and that its value not be overestimated or exaggerated, they achieve and represent the highest level of holiness to which human beings can aspire.


Y said...

Thanks -- this is interesting, and I'm sympathetic to your explanation. What I'm unsure about, though, is what the strategy of the Orthodox community should be vis-a-vis gay marriage. Here's one way to think about it.

1. 80% of American Jews are non-Orthodox progressive liberals. If they don't return to Orthodoxy, this will be to their great spiritual detriment, and to the detriment of all the Jewish people, and their descendants within a few generations will be non-Jews. In short, it is a great ongoing tragedy.

2. Opposing gay marriage vigorously and publicly, as some Orthodox Jews do, will not help convince the 80% of non-Orthodox progressive Jews to join Orthodoxy. In fact, given the strong feelings people now have on this issue, it will simply reinforce their anti-Orthodox prejudices.

3. Homosexuality is like eating pork -- forbidden, but we don't really know the reason.

4. We don't think pork should be illegal. So why shouldn't the government allow those who, using their own powers of reason and observation and common-sense morality, have understandably decided to live gay lifestyles, to benefit from the dignity and social benefits of legal marriage?

5. If at least some Orthodox Jews support gay marriage, this may help to show progressive Jews that they need not give up their progressive beliefs if they become Orthodox. 6. Just as Aristotelianism was the main intellectual challenge to Judaism in Rambam's time, modern Western liberalism is the main challenge to Judaism in the present. As with Moreh Nechuvim, an accommodating approach, that shows one can be politically progressive in virtually every way while adopting Orthodox Judaism, is probably the most effective way today to inspire Jews to return to halachic Judaism. Of course, this is a big endeavor that involves more than what I've set forth here, but I believe it's worth doing.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

2. I agree

3 and 4. It's more serious of a prohibition and we do have some understanding of the reason. But I get your point. I am not suggesting we refuse them any specific rights. The purpose of the post is to explain why homosexuality is prohibited by the Torah.

5 and 6. Nevertheless, the Torah forbids it and an honest seeker will want to know why.

Y said...

"5 and 6. Nevertheless, the Torah forbids it and an honest seeker will want to know why."

Yes, I agree, and this is why your post is useful. My point, I guess, was to say this should be done not in a public and confrontational way -- as some would advocate -- but in a gentle and respectful manner (as does your post), "loving all creatures and bringing them closer to the Torah."

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Maroof, תועה does not mean the same thing as טועה. Whereas טועה indeed means "err", תועה means "stray". תועה בה means "strays through it". This is rather different than "errs through it". I am sure your post will be corrected.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


You are not arguing with me but with the Talmud. Perhaps you should suggest an emendation of the Talmud rather than my post. The source is Talmud Bavli Masekhet Nedarim 51A.

In reality, the Talmud's derivation is correct. In Biblical Hebrew the word טועה is spelled with a tav, as in תועה בשדה Yosef was lost in the field.

WFB said...

"In the eyes of the Talmud, then, contrary to the pronouncements of many a Bible-thumping evangelist, the term “toevah” does not imply a passionate distaste for the act described. The word is lacking any emotive content. No feelings of visceral disgust or homophobic fears are being evoked"
אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו, וידוע מש"כ המהרש"ל בעניין זיוף התורה, וד"ל. ובעיקר הדבר עי' מש"כ המהר"ל בחדושי אגדות חולין צב, וז"ל: ודע עוד כי מה שאמר שאין כותבין כתובה לזכרים וכן מה שאמר שאין מוכרין בשר המת במקולין כי אלו שני העבירות הם העבירות הקשות יותר מכל העבירות, ועיי"ש שהאריך. ואלו שטוענים "לרחם" על אלו שהם רוצים זכויות כמותינו, ואינם מכירים שעל זה העולם מתקיים, ובכגון זה אחז"ל כל שנעשה רחמן על האכזרים, לסוף נעשה אכזר על רחמנים

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


I don't see why you assume that is not פשוטו של מקרא. I believe it is.

The question is not whether gay marriage is acceptable or good for America. The question is whether the US Government should be passing laws against gay marriage. Even though I fully agree with your objections, I still think the US Government might be trampling on its own principles by trying to handle this legislatively.

WFB said...

On the question of פשוטו של מקרא:
כי לא יוכלון המצרים לאכול את העברים לחם כי תועבה היא למצרים
ולא תביא תועבה אל ביתך והיית חרם כמוהו שקץ תשקצנו ותעב תתעבנו כי חרם הוא
לא תאכל כל תועבה
זבח רשעים תועבה
These פסוקים sufficiently demonstrate the meaning of the word (a synonym of שקץ), which no one has previously doubted. וע"ע ראב"ע ויקרא יח:כב וז"ל
והזכיר תועבה היא . כי הוא דבר נתעב לנפש קדושה אפילו בתולדה
As to the question of public policy, I am not sure how arguing against a radical change of law since the founding of this country violates the principles of government. On the general issue, see this article or the more recent article by R. Carmy in First Things:
"At the same time, the social agenda of liberalism has become ever more strident, uncompromising, and moralistic. One instance: A strong argument could be made, on religiously and morally uncontroversial grounds, against impeding individuals from granting special legal standing to others with whom they are not related by blood or marriage. Should a dying person, or one preoccupied with the care of a dying person, have to worry about the fate of joint assets, like a shared home, or fear being denied the courtesies and powers of agency usually reserved for close family? Such civil arrangements can be facilitated with no questions asked about the nature of the personal relationship. Instead, the crusade to accord official status to homosexual relationships insists on nothing less than legally enforced application of the word "marriage" to behavior at variance with traditional morality. Once enacted, such rights cannot be doubted. Any compromise is thus a preliminary concession, valid only until the next advance of liberal virtue against traditionalist falsehood.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


I don't understand. Are you suggesting that the Gemara was unaware of the obvious meaning of these words? Or are you implying that they intended their reading to be homiletical rather than literal.

Apparently, you believe that the Torah prohibits certain behaviors because they are icky and yucky. That strikes me as rather subjective and maybe a tad primitive, evoking associations to ancient pagan taboo systems rather than our Torah.

It seems to me much more consistent with the philosophy of Torah to interpret words like sheqetz and toevah as egregious violations of FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES of Judaism. Such violations are labeled toevah or sheqetz or both as an expression of the Torah's strong condemnation of them. But they are not condemned out of distaste or disgust; they are rejected because they contradict our values and principles in egregious ways.

Otherwise, ask yourself a question: Are you viscerally repulsed by the sight of an idol? How about the gold and silver that adorns an idol? How about a cheeseburger? Does it disgust you? Because all of these things are called "toevah", and, unlike homosexuality, don't seem to inspire the same passionate opposition as gay marriage. This strongly suggests that your interpretation of Toevah is mistaken.

As to the public policy issue, I am open to different ideas here and I am merely presenting my tentative conclusion. I am not an expert in American law. I am perfectly willing to concede that there may be other legitimate answers to the question of what the US Government should do in this regard.

WFB said...

Q. 1: the latter (homiletic). It seems that we now agree on the meaning of the word, that was my only point--whether one should be repulsed is separate issue (we all know the Rambam's discussion in שמונה פרקים--following his reasoning, עריות and עבודה זרה should repel us).
As far as public policy: what is the limit to how much we must concede of our values to liberalism's crusade of the day? When is enough enough?

Janet said...

Two asides:

1. On the word toevah, there are other instances that I was surprised you didn't mention. I don't have time to look them up, but my recollections are possessing false weights and measures and I think the Egyptians regarded the Jews (Hebrews) as a toevah.

People often use the weights and measures as an example of how emotion-free the word is, but personally I find cheating repulsive, especially if it was cheating the weak like the modern schemes to make money from the poor, such as payday loans and non-bank check cashing operations.

The Egyptian scase is an interesting use of the word because certainly that's not a case where we feel that way, and in fact the Torah commands us not to be xenophobic.

2. You note that there's support for Jewish sources to favor liberal economic policies, which seems awfully tentative to me. Ironically you made the natural law argument about homosexuality that is also used by the Catholics, but not their argument for liberal economic policies that help the poor. Jewish sources may have even greater support than Catholic for helping the poor because of the many mentions of midat Sdom (speaking of sodomy!), particularly because the midrash about Sodom was about that city's immoral public policy towards the poor. There are of course many non-governmental ways of helping the poor, but as the Catholics recognize the modern reality is that government is the major source of support for the poor and if it weren't for government, many poor simply wouldn't have food to eat, as was true before the modern welfare state.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


Admittedly, I didn't cover every instance of toevah. I didn't intend to be comprehensive.

I don't think what I am arguing is the same as what is argued by Catholic theologians. I am not suggesting that natural law should define the moral law. My argument is that the imperative of qedusha means transcending and sanctifying aspects of our material existence, whether they are natural or "unnatural", as the case may be.

I didn't think I was so tentative on the economic issue. However, it bears mentioning that the Torah doesn't create a welfare state. It expects individuals to give charity directly.

Justin White said...

Hi Rav..Justin in J-m
I really liked your comments here-well said. One thing-I was told in yeshiva (I think) was that a woman who is post-menopause is still obligated to go to the mikva before having relations. Is this true? Does this not contradict your statement below?

...beyond that of perpetuating the species is a toevah, a fundamental mistake.

Also, my understanding is that lesbianism is not in the "same league" as male homosexuality in the eyes of the Torah/Rabbanim. Please clarify.

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