There seems to be more confusion than ever in the Jewish world over the word “Jewish.” The lack of clarity is exemplified nowhere more obviously than in the debate over homosexuality — not that there is much debate going on among our Jewish communal leaders. Leading Jewish groups overwhelmingly favor erasing the marks of disapproval that American society has traditionally applied to gay sex.
One can’t help but be slightly bewildered when an organization like the Anti-Defamation League, probably the most prominent Jewish group in America, comes out for gay marriage. The Massachusetts Supreme Court is now leading the judicial charge to compel state governments to grant marital rights to same-sex couples. In November the ADL issued a statement “applauding” the court’s ruling in favor of gay marriage: “The Supreme Judicial Court has moved Massachusetts, indeed all America, closer to a society where government sanctioned discrimination against any group, including gays and lesbians, is no longer enshrined in the law.”
The American Jewish Committee and Hadassah respectively “hailed” and “applauded” the U.S. Supreme Court this past summer for striking down an anti-sodomy law. (In public statements, these groups do a lot of hailing and applauding.)
The Religious Action Center, representing the Reform movement, pounced on President Bush for his “brusque treatment” of gay marriage in last month’s State of the Union address and offered as a model for Bush’s consideration the “congregational honoring” of homosexual couples in Reform temples.
And so on. Thus the liberal position on the issue has emerged as the official “Jewish” one.
You’d think that tying our definition of “Jewish” to the religion called “Judaism” would be uncontroversial. To think of an organization as “Jewish” presumes that the group is guided by the values of Judaism, of Torah, right? But while there are other societal issues on which you could arguably construe Jewish tradition as leading either to a liberal or conservative position, homosexuality isn’t one of them.
Undeterred by this, the Religious Action Center justifies its view of same-sex marriage by quoting Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). Yes, Leviticus. Not mentioned is that Leviticus is also the source of the actual Jewish view on the matter, “You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman, it is an abomination” (18:22). Ancient Jewish midrashic tradition reads a verse (18:3) in the same chapter of that book to mean that condoning same-sex marriages was among “the practices of the land” of the Canaanites that so disgusted God as to expel them from their land.
Why Judaism feels this way about gay sex, and about official recognition of homosexual pairing all the more so, has to do with God’s design of the human being. Evidently, personal growth requires the male-female dynamic in an intimate relationship, for it entails accommodating yourself to someone radically different from you in a way that a member of your sex cannot be.
So nobody can seriously argue that the Torah envisions sanctioning same-sex unions. What about loving your neighbor? Does loving gays mean we have to give them marriage licenses?
Of course not. What is a religion, after all? It orders your values, tells you what’s important. If it tells you that men having sex with other men is no good, that’s important. You can’t use another verse, in the same biblical book, and separated by only one chapter for goodness sake, to show that sodomy is actually terrific.
Nor are Torah principles like this exclusively for Jews. The Canaanites were non-Jews and their nation was sunk by outlandish sexual attitudes just as America could be. At least that’s what Judaism says.
If Judaism isn’t the ADL’s religion, what is? Here’s a hint: comfort. The reigning value of the Jewish organizations you most often hear about is the presumed right of every person not to suffer any hint of disapproval that might make him feel “uncomfortable.” Not having an official, sanctioned, applauded and hailed “right” to their sexual union makes gays feel down in the dumps.
This, incidentally, explains the other great mission of certain Jewish groups at the moment: harassing Mel Gibson for making “The Passion of the Christ.” The unlikely scenario whereby evangelical Christians, having seen the film, will suddenly drop all their earnest pro-Israel lobbying activities and start looking for Jews to beat up isn’t the real worry. What is likely is that the movie will make us, as Jews, uncomfortable. That is Gibson’s true crime.
Hey, I don’t like feeling uncomfortable either. But comfort is not a fruitful value on which to build the whole structure of a society’s laws. I don’t know exactly what to call the religion of comfort, but it’s not Judaism. This is for sure: No organization devoted primarily to this alternative faith can claim to be Jewish.
David Klinghoffer is the author of the forthcoming “Why the Jews Rejected Christ: In Search of the Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).