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May 2, 2012 11:25 am

Dan Savage Savages the Bible Over Homosexuality

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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Former spokesman for Mitt Romney, Richard Grennell. Photo: Salon.com.

I am saddened that Richard Grennell, Mitt Romney’s foreign policy spokesman, resigned over what the press is saying was pressure from the far right because he is openly gay. Who cares? He had a distinguished career as a spokesman for four United Nations Ambassadors and was widely respected. It is particularly disconcerting to learn that religious groups criticized Romney for appointing him due to his homosexuality.

As an orthodox Rabbi with a gay orthodox Jewish brother, I have endeavored mightily to reconcile the dictates of my faith with the most human, loving, and respectful approach to homosexuality. I have counseled hundreds of gay men and women of faith who seek to find their place in G-d’s love amid a gay lifestyle.

But such efforts at reconciliation are undone by the gratuitous hate-filled bigotry of people like Dan Savage whose response to prejudice against gays is to offer insulting and degrading prejudices against religion. Just what Savage felt he was accomplishing by irresponsibly using obscenities about the Bible at a journalism conference for High School students is beyond me. But what I do know is that the answers to homosexuality and faith do no lie either with religious haters like Fred Phelps who insult G-d by hating gays, nor with secular fanatics like Dan Savage who insult homosexuals by falsely portraying them as angry bigots.

Everywhere we look today we find fanatics. So often we blame religion for all the extremists. But there are plenty of secular fanatics as well. From Savage’s offensive attack against the Bible and religion in front of High School students, he appears to be one of them. I am prepared to accept that he has been misportrayed. But then let him retract and apologize for his remarks.

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The Bible he assails is responsible for Western society’s most cherished values. It has given us the Ten Commandments, and thus morality. The belief that every human being is created in the image of G-d, and thus the infinite worth of the individual person. The crushing of Egyptian tyranny and thus the insistence that despots must be deposed. The Messianic idea of directional history and thus the ideal of human progress.

That does not mean that there aren’t aspects of the Bible that people will find unacceptable or objectionable. They have every right to disagree. But doing so while respecting people of faith is the way of the gentleman.

Once, I was sitting with my brother at a kosher restaurant in Manhattan when a religious man walked over and told me I was a dog. I asked him why the insult? He said because he read about how I defend homosexuals in the Jewish community. Ironically, he had no idea that my brother was sitting at the table with me. I thought to myself, “If I’m one step removed and I get attacked like this, how much hatred has my brother endured? How many times has he heard things like this?”

Do we gain anything by having the Dan Savages of this world demonstrate that they can give as good as they get? If Savage savages the Bible, has he struck a blow for his gay brethren, or has he just inflamed the discourse?

I receive a steady stream of sad and tragic emails from gay orthodox Jewish men women who speak of their desire to be dead, or worse, to take their own lives. They have few to whom they can turn. They wonder how they can accept their natural sexual feelings amid their commitment to their faith. But they are committed to faith. They’re not looking to be detached but rather to fit in. They do not identify with religion haters like Dan Savage because they love their religion. They are simply looking for their place within their faith and they are devastated to feel condemned by their own communities.

There is no question that we need a new religious approach to Biblical approach to homosexuality. I suggest this.

The Bible consists of 613 commandments, one of which is for a man to marry and have children, and the other is for a man to avoid gay sex with another man. That leaves 611 commandments for gay men to observe. That should keep them pretty busy. Homosexuality should be treated like lighting fire on the Sabbath or eating non-kosher foods, both Biblical prohibitions. Eating shellfish carries the same appellation of ‘abomination’ as homosexuality.’ Moreover, as I have written at length elsewhere the prohibition of homosexuality is not a moral sin but a religious sin, akin to, say, eating on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as there is no injured innocent party.

Why we have all chosen homosexuality as the worst sin in the Bible, going so far as to distance homosexuals from their own faith, is beyond me. Some say the reason is because of the word ‘abomination.’ Little do they realize the word appears 104 times in the Bible, as I wrote in a recent column analyzing the word and its usage both in the Torah and the New Testament. So there are human approaches to homosexuality that seek to reconcile gay men and women of faith and the Bible. Savage’s attacks on the Bible are utterly unhelpful.

But such extreme positions seem to a hallmark of Savage’s thought. A few years ago the New York Times magazine did a cover story about Savage’s ideas of how infidelity just might save monogamy, the idea being that monogamy is tough and it’s about time we acknowledged it. Savage argued that couples should be far more understanding of infidelities and even discuss them before they happen so as to receive each other’s informed consent, should that prove appropriate to the relationship. Couples should trade in the straightjacket of strict monogamy, which essentially doesn’t work, and instead seek to be monogomish, that is, being essentially faithful but allowing for outside liaisons which just might prevent the dissolution of the primary relationship.

To be sure, the argument for open relationships goes back to the beginning of time, its most famous modern advocate being the celebrated British philosopher Bertrand Russell who wrote long letters to his wife about his consensual infidelities. But his open-mindedness could not surmount his jealousy when his own wife starting taking lovers. When Dora had a child by another man, he left her, later commenting, “My capacity for forgiveness, and what might be called Christian love, was not equal to the demands I was making on it . . . I was blinded by theory.” Their daughter Kathleen Tait pithily remarked about her parents’ strange marriage, “Calling jealousy deplorable had not freed them from it . . . both found it hard to admit that the ideal had been destroyed by the old-fashioned evils of jealousy and infidelity.”

The great British writer Iris Murdoch was the same. Her hhusband John Bayley wrote a memoir of their 40-year marriage called Elegy for Iris. He explains that his wife would not allow her marriage to curtail her freedom or her need for adventure. She insisted by being allowed to have lovers and pursued other men intermittently. Still, she wished to be married because she desired the comfort, companionship, and sense of safety that marriage offered. Bayley was not happy with the arrangement but felt he had no right to object. “In the early days, I always thought it would be vulgar – as well as not my place – to give any indications of jealousy…” So he buried the terrible pain it caused him all in the name of relationship enlightenment.

But convinced he has actually stumbled on something novel, Savage argued that we have crippled men by expecting them to be monogamous. “The mistake that straight people made was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitarian and fairsey.” The New York Times added Savage’s belief that “the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.

Here is where we see how badly society needs the values of the Bible as opposed to the advice of Dan Savage. Has Savage discussed his theory with women? Does the average wife believe that her husband ought to have ‘a release valve’ (I love these plumbing metaphors) that is not her? I counsel thousands of people. I know the answer is an emphatic no.

Yes, monogamy may be challenging and does not come naturally. But neither does studying for an SAT, waking up at the crack of dawn to do a job, or even remaining hygienic, for that matter. I suppose that cave men probably did far more of what came naturally. No doubt bopping a woman over the head with a club and taking her by force came much more naturally that having to wine and dine her, slowly wooing the commitment from her. But the Bible’s introduction of the rules of relationships, like the need to marry and remain devoted, avoiding adultery, protected women from precisely this kind of abuse on the part of men. Today, because of the Bible’s insistence on the holiness of matrimony, we expect men to try and live honorably and live by their commitments. And the first commitment a man makes in marriage is to treat his wife like she is special, loved, and the one and only. And when a husband has sex with another woman, whatever Dan Savage thinks, it makes her feel discarded, secondary, and useless.

Dan Savage might say this is inevitable, that men are hard-wired to require lots of different women. I’ve heard these arguments ad nauseam from hard-core evolutionists who tell us that men are genetically wired to inseminate everything with a pulse.

I’m sorry. We men are human, not brutes. Our my actions are under our control. And if  we screw up we cannot blame our nature but rather our bad choices. Period.

Men, like women, are intimacy seekers. The men whom I know who had affairs had them primarily to find someone who made them feel good about themselves, made them feel desirable. Men cheat out of a sense of brokenness. That’s why the most common refrain among married men to their mistresses is, “My wife doesn’t understand me.” And he thinks that some other woman would, when all along he could have made the effort to open up emotionally to his wife and find new erotic opportunities, and the feeling that he is a success, within the confines of marriage and monogamy.

But advice givers like Dan Savage do their readers an injustice when they allow men to devolve back into the bad behavior that has all too long characterized the male species. They likewise do a disservice when rage at the Bible in front of impressionable youth rather than promoting further harmony between religion and reason, faith and modernity.

Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi”, is the international best-selling author of 27 books and has just published Kosher Jesus. He is currently running for Congress from New Jersey’s Ninth District. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. His website is www.shmuleyforcongress.com.

Written in memory of Machla Dabakarov, the mother of a dear friend of Rabbi Shmuley, who passed away last year.

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  • seagul47

    there is a common misinterpretation of the word “to’evah” in Hebrew and perhaps the origin of the word “abomination” (although I’m not sure of the latter.

    a to’evah (if you read Onkelos) is something that puts a distance between you and G-d. We have a requirement to be close to G-d and certain actions put a distance.

    As “salvage” refers to certain foods referred to as a “to-evah” and Onkelos calls them things that put a distance between you and G-d.

    So, having had friends who were gay, give them patience, tolerance, but make it clear that as a Torah observant person I could not “approve” of his behavior. They are not deranged or other pejorative description, the are entirely normal people, they choose their lifestyle and behavior (I don’t believe that they are hard-wired, but that’s another debate that I don’t want to get into at this point)

    • salvage

      Well since there are no such things as gods not sure if it’s possible to be further or closer to them.

      >So, having had friends who were gay,

      Are some of your best friends Black too?

      >give them patience, tolerance,

      I have the same condescending attitude towards theists!

      >but make it clear that as a Torah observant person I could not “approve” of his behavior.

      Oh noes! You don’t “approve”! Well gay people, it’s time to pack it in!

      >They are not deranged or other pejorative description, the are entirely normal people,

      Uh huh… I sense something stupid comes this way…

      >they choose their lifestyle and behavior

      DING! DING! DING! There it is!

      >(I don’t believe that they are hard-wired, but that’s another debate that I don’t want to get into at this point)

      Yes! They wake up one day and decide to be gay to distance themselves from your god who doesn’t call them an abomination but rather a word that means abomination.

      And you don’t want to debate that point because I suspect you’ve been told several times how wrong it is.

      But hey, you know more than medical science cuz you’re close to your god!

      • seagul47

        oh, well

        1. you can be friends (even good friends) with someone even if you don’t approve of everything they do. Being friends (at least to my mind) does not require 100% approval of their behavior/actions/thinking.

        I am truly sorry if you do not like my choice of the word “tolerate.” You may substitute another word of your choice. I felt it meant accepting someone as a friend/pal without accepting or necessarily approving of certain actions–find me a better word and we can discuss.

        My close friend (who was gay) and I agreed to disagree on this matter. But, when he died, it was I who arranged for the funeral (he was estranged from his siblings) including ensuring payment. I was the one who said kaddish and keep his yahrzeit, dealt with estate, government, yada yada. So please do not be condescending (or worse) when I say I accept.

        And yes, I have friends and acquaintances of all races and colors–are you satisfied?

        2. I don not know the etymology of the word “abomination,” but that of the word “to-eva” I am sure–that it means creating a distance, in Hebrew “me’rachek” (based on Onkelos).

        Perhaps someone out in cyberspace can get the origin of the word “abomination” and how it came to be a translation of “to-eva” and why the meanings as we come to understand them are so different.

        3. In common English, (at least when Jewish people write) we refer to G-d with a capital “G.” Your use of of the small “g” displays a disdain which is uncalled for.

        4. It is my firm belief that people choose their actions–in all aspects. That is a tenet of “bechira/free choice” in Judaism. That is my basis for commenting about people’s lifestyle choices (your DING DING notwithstanding)

        • salvage

          > Being friends (at least to my mind) does not require 100% approval of their behavior/actions/thinking.

          Most certainly but you judge people you don’t know based SOLELY on who they have consensual legal sex with so I’m not sure why you’re talking about friends in this case.

          >II am truly sorry if you do not like my choice of the word “tolerate.”

          Tolerate means you put up with something that is intrinsically bad or irritating, like I tolerate the smell of garbage on garbage day, I tolerate a screaming baby on an airplane. See? Stuff that impacts me negatively but for one reason or another either practical or culturally I have to allow to continue.

          How does two people who are not you having consensual sex impact or affect or otherwise involve you in any way?

          >My close friend (who was gay) and I agreed to disagree on this matter.

          Huh? You care about your friend’s sex lives? Wow, what a lucky circle that is! How would you even bring up the subject? “Hey Bob, you know how you achieve orgasms? Well I just don’t like it but I guess we’ll just have to disagree.”.

          >And yes, I have friends and acquaintances of all races and colors-are you satisfied?

          … well okay, that went right over your head. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

          But I don’t think anyone should tell you anything about their satisfactions for fear of judgment you self-righteous silly person you.

          >it means creating a distance, in Hebrew “me’rachek” (based on Onkelos).

          And we create distances from things that disgust us but once again, your god demands the death penalty for being gay right?

          >In common English, (at least when Jewish people write) we refer to G-d with a capital “G.” Your use of of the small “g” displays a disdain which is uncalled for.

          Well your god is just a god and like all gods it’s not real and so I’m too much a fan of proper grammar to capitalize it. True my grammar can be atrocious but I do try.

          The actual reason why you do the nonsense with the capitalization and the dash is your religion tries to infuse itself with as much supernatural hokum as possible, even in the petty things. A constant background radiation of superstition to keep you in awe. As if a universe creating omnipotent being would give two fetid figs about how you spell the name you call it.

          And the Torah is just a bunch of scrolls stuffed with myths and assorted nonsense.

          I hope you have a fainting couch nearby to catch you.

          Second of all your god is a monster! Have you read all the horrible things it’s done? The flood? The terrorism against the Egyptian people? Job? Telling a father he needs to kill his child just as a test? Ordering the deaths of people for working on the Sabbath? The wars and genocide it demanded? Sending bears to kill children? It promises the Jews Israel than jerks them around for 6,000 years and then has the UN finally keep it only to watch it slowly crumble into an ironic and bloody joke that it is today?

          Disdain would be too small a word for the abomination that is your god.

          The question isn’t why don’t I believe in your god, it’s why do you? On any level?

          >It is my firm belief that people choose their actions-in all aspects.

          Oh! Your firm belief! Well, how can anyone argue with that?!!? So if someone has a “firm belief” that’s all that’s needed huh?

          Well I have a firm belief that your religion is based on Neolithic and Bronze Age superstitions.

          Of course I can back my firm belief up with facts, that’s why I have it, just like those who have the firm belief that sexual orientation is anything but a choice.

          And I can prove that right here, tell me, when did you decide to be straight?

          >That is a tenet of “bechira/free choice” in Judaism. That is my basis for commenting about people’s lifestyle choices (your DING DING notwithstanding)

          Ha! Ha! Yes! That trumps both biological and psychiatric science! Your superstitions! You are a very smart man.

  • salvage

    Curiously your god calls shellfish an “abomination” (guess it saw Red Lobster coming) and you take that to heart in your laws.

    Why do you get to pick and choose which bits of your holy book to follow?

    Small minded people like Boris below fear and loath homosexuality and like most bigots search out support for their hatred and the Bible / Torah provides an excellent source.

    Dan Savage was indelicate in his denouncement but still accurate.

    What delights me is that he was able to stand and speak, as the years go by the bigots loose more and more ground.

    The next generation is probably going to make their heads explodes in blind rage, that will be fun to watch.

    • Edward H

      So Salvage, you’re speaking out against a man who is speaking out against hate? In that case, why not just go and burn some pride flags while wearing your swastika?

      • salvage

        I’m not speaking out again his shunning of hate, I’m speaking out against his selective reading and interpretation of the source material of his religion.

        It’s a theme I often explore with theism.

        His god hate gays, Phelps maybe be a crazy bigot but the man can read.

  • Duane

    Dan Savage is a bully himself. Instead of reaching out to everyone and pointing out better methods he attacks one group. He does the samething of attacking Christians while he preaches that people should not be attacking homosexuals. He can preach the talk but cannot walk the talk.

  • olterigo

    Perhaps rabbi Boteach should reread Dan Savage’s comments. He was right to point out that the Bible did not condemn slavery – and yet the Christian majority does not want to acknowledge that. He was right to point out that the Bible also calls for stoning non-virtuous brides, yet the Christian majority (and the Jewish Orthodox) have given up that idea too. And neither group is calling for criminalization of these Biblical offenses.

    Yet, all Leviticus is singularly used by the Christian fundamentalists in the US with one specific goal – to deny equal rights to a part of the population, and to do so under the guise of religious belief.

    However, when you actually examine the religious belief and the authority of “unchangeable” word of G-d, it turns out to be pretty malleable. It’s just that the believers in the unchangeability are ignorant of their own history.

  • Boris

    The author would prefer a mentally unstable person as an advisor to a potential president? The liberals would like it, but look at all the current misfits and incompetence in the obama government. I do believe most people prefer that a person with deranged sexual practices not flaunt it in their face.

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