With God & Men (“Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition”)

[[Helène Aylon, The Digital Liberation of G-D (2004)]]

Steven Greenberg was well aware writing Wrestling with God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition that many gay readers and their straight fellow travelers would be impatient by his commitment to halakhah and orthodox Judaism. I’m going to stay sympathetic.

At the heart of the conundrum is the prohibition against sex between men, in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (henceforth “Leviticus”). As a gay orthodox rabbi, Greenberg is supposed to care about this.

The argument begins is based on the following assumption (colleagues and friends more in the know re: Queer Studies and Ancient History will please correct me). Greenberg assumes that in ancient Greece and Rome men who had sex with men generally did so with social inferiors such as boys, students, slaves, whereas Greenberg claims that in ancient Judea all men were equal, meaning that a man can’t “f#ck them like women.” (This is my even more crude rendering of the misogyny that Greenberg identifies as woof and warp with the biblical prohibition against same-sex sex).

The following first set of claims is consequent: The Torah “only” forbids anal intercourse between men. Other forms of sexual pleasure remain open between men, and lesbians are off the hook, at least as far as Leviticus is concerned. More to the point, Greenberg claims that most (?) traditional, pre-modern sources are simply not obsessed or particularly disgusted by gay sex. This allows him to argue that men having intercourse with men, halakhically, is no more objectionable than straight couples having sex during and for a week after a woman’s menstrual cycle, which Jewish law also forbids. And since (middle class?) couples don’t normally talk about their own particular sexual practices with other people, then it’s really nobody’s business, is it?  Greenberg realizes that there’s a problem here. You can’t really tell people not to engage in intercourse. So he then turns to the halakhic category of compulsion (oneis) that permits, as it were, a “sin,” as it were, committed under some form of mental or physical duress.  Greenberg also knows that this is offensive, and tries to give it a more neutral, less demeaning spin.

If there was no more than this to Greenberg’s book, well, then, that would be that. (A more elegant and brutal solution to the Leviticus-problem would have been to say with the rabbis in the midrash, “It is preferable that a letter be plucked out of the Torah rather than that the Name of Heaven be openly profaned” (Numbers Rabbah 8:4). Once you pluck out this particular law, the Name of Heaven is no longer “profaned,” not openly and not in secret)

It’s a pity, because the halakhic rigmarole to which Greenberg is committed as an orthodox Jew obscures the best parts of God & Men.

What I really like about Greenberg is the brazen confidence and self-regard with which he stares straight in the face of the biblical prohibition and declares, simply and in no uncertain terms, “No, this law does not refer to me and to people like me.” That is, the type of sex condemned by Scripture, an act that he thinks codifies the domination of one group of men vis-à-vis their social inferiors, represents a historical relic with no binding authority on him today as a free person. It’s a pity that Greenberg takes too long to get to this basic point (pp.259, 262).

What I really like about Greenberg is the way he “gravitates toward, rather than away from, the centers of conflict” (243-4). He promotes here a peculiar form of civil disobedience. Gay men should simply show up at synagogue together with their partners, and with their children, pushed along in strollers alongside and with everyone else. This would make orthodox rabbis come up with a solution or force an ugly public confrontation. The very act of showing up in person, the very act of posing a question, Greenberg argues, is already to start undermining the prohibition it challenges by removing the sense of “obscenity” upon which the prohibition depends.

At issue here is the important distinction made by Haym Soloveitchik in “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy” between the more relaxed forms of mimetic based community and tradition with which he was familiar growing up versus the more rigidly codified forms of text based community and tradition that emerge on the scene after World War II.

In a mimetic community, people learn by watching and mimicking others, who interpret law in accordance to what they perceive to be the spirit of the law, i.e. according to a more loose set of social and moral and political patterns. In text based communities, on the other hand, what matters is the text and doing what you think the text tells you to do, to bend your will and to bend life more and more to the text.

In Wrestling with God and Men the concepts “community” and “law” are configured vis-à-vis each other according to a more mimetic model. The book’s first and last word is community (hospitality and open community, the affections of social filiation, the company of men, welcoming synagogues). “Community” provides the frame, the first word and the last word, into which are wedged “law” and “text.” Law and text, the image of law and text, one’s sense of law and text are thereby shaped and re-shaped by the community and its overarching patterns of action and thought into which they are embedded. In contrast, a more conservative and less giving approaches force “community” (including the community of gay men) into the narrower and narrowing static confines of law and text.

Is this worth the trouble? Only if you are gay and orthodox, or if you care about gay people and halakhah, of if you want to be sympathetic to another person and open to alternative points of view. As for me, I really don’t think it is for me as a liberal to impugn the complex desire and judgment of people who are gay and orthodox. I think there are gravitational attractions here that are at bottom stubborn and unyielding, unreasoning desires that operate in tandem and about which one can reason only after the fact of their first re-cognition.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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3 Responses to With God & Men (“Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition”)

  1. qolyehudi says:

    Hi Zachary

    R. Greenberg certainly is an interesting – and provoking – rabbi. I’ve followed the discussion about orthodoxy and homosexuality a little, but not enough to claim that I know a lot about it. One thing that might be interesting though is a discussion I had once, on how to define “sex” according to Halachah. I can’t help to wonder exactly what makes a certain action “sex” and what is “just” inappropriate behavior. From the story about Onan we might get an understanding that the element changing the action, is the ejaculation, which also could be strengthened by the lack of condemnations against two women being together. But the latter of course could also be ignored because it wasn’t that common or “out in the open,” that no one felt the need to react to it.

    That said, I would say that there are worse sins – as far as we keep the sexual relation between two men as a sin – which are much worse and should be dealt more seriously, such as publicly shaming your fellow being and other moral aspects, which often seem to be ignored. But that’s just me.

    All the best and Shabbat Shalom


  2. esque says:

    The last paragraph disappoints me; religious identity is not something that is completely foreign to the discourse of giving and asking for reasons. When someone says that I hold two materially incompatible commitments in my belief, that person justly challenges my self-understanding, regardless of whether that person is liberal or Orthodox or whatevs.

    BTW, the comma after “children” in the eighth paragraph suggests that gay men are being pushed around in strollers. Hot!

  3. zjb says:

    i’m not sure i said “completely” foreign. i’m pretty sure i didn’t and if i did, i retract. all i meant to say is that commitments, especiall antagonistic ones, are prior to the reason and reasoning by which we seek to make sense of them. but let’s try it this way. perhaps these commitments are prior to the recognition of the reason always already inherent in them [like the commitment to getting pushed around in a stroller (!!)].

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