In recent weeks on this continent, we have witnessed outbreaks of mob violence, intimidation and persecution which ought to remind Jews of the pogroms practiced not long ago against our own people. Yet our community, and many others like it, have remained largely silent.
This time round the victims are not Jews, but the gays and lesbians of Nigeria and Uganda, where officially condoned witch-hunts have the sanction of law. Our political leaders have had nothing to say. It is to the credit of Archbishop Desmond Tutu that he has spoken out strongly. Should the Jewish community not be taking a stand?
Religion itself is being used to justify the hostility against homosexuality. Religious language attempts to restore an imaginary lost innocence, a time before colonialism when homosexuality was unknown on this continent … although it was in fact colonialism to first suppress homosexuality, which was previously uncontroversial among traditional societies.
What is an appropriate Jewish response to homosexuality in the twenty-first century, when we can no longer pretend ignorance of the numerous studies around the world that have emphatically overturned the notion that homosexuality is a sin caused by weak will?
Traditional religious approaches are condemnatory of homosexuality as part of patriarchal legacy, as a threat on the previous notions of the family. Any religious approach which is committed to integrity must realize that along with the changes in the family’s structure, emerged our understanding that every human being is created in God’s image – and that this is far more binding than judging gays. Furthermore, those persecutions and the misery and suffering they carry with them, are themselves a violation of God’s image.
Free and open homosexuality poses a threat to those who are intimidated by the notion that human beings may experience different sexual identities and shape them by sincere exploring. But where else can God be revealed, if not in our relationships? Especially in the most intimate and long-lasting ones. Where else can God be revealed if not in an open society which protects the right of individuals and communities to express their inner truth and explore the many frontiers of living in the presence of the divine?
No theological claims can be used to justify villainy as obvious as these current persecutions.
Now comes the frequently asked question – how can we harmonise this religious humanistic notion with the strict prohibition of homosexuality, as expressed in Leviticus and onward?
This question is not only valid, but a real struggle and challenge for many religious gays who, let’s not forget, comprise approximately 10% of the population. The question has been addressed widely in the Jewish culture of the last decades. People may recall examples such as the documentary “Trembling before G-d” (2001) and the Israeli feature “Eyes wide open” (2009), which bravely deals with homosexuality in orthodox societies. That is to say that this issue cannot simply be ignored or suppressed. There are gay Jews and we are enriched by their existence. Not only are they dear to us, we also oppose notions such as “love the sinner, hate the sin”. This is a manipulative point of view, which holds the hidden hope that maybe one day a treatment will be able to cure those miserable gays. There is nothing further away from reality than this notion.
Having said all that, which Jewish theology can assist us to develop a more balanced approach toward homosexuality? I’ve mention already the solid foundation of God’s image as criteria for all our deeds, to make sure that human dignity will be cherished as a goal in itself and never as means to something else. This grounding assumes that the diversity which the beloved almighty granted in the human species is his will, as it is stated: “Ma Rabu Ma’aseicha Ya”, “How great are your deeds”, and also, as quoted from Rabbi Akiva: “Kol DeAvid HaRachman LeTav Avid”, “All the deeds of the merciful one are done in good intention”. Human beings can practice homosexuality and Judaism. What, then, shall we do with Leviticus? We can state that it is “Halacha Ve’Ein Morim Kein”, “It is the law but not the teaching” or to be honest and admit that theology is a body of knowledge and beliefs, passed on from generation to generation. We will not always be able to use it to address every issue. However, the basic condition of a human existence facing God is eternal. On no basis can anyone deny it from another.
- Rabbi Saár Shaked serves at Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue in Parktown,Johannesburg.