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July 10, 2017 1:50 pm

A Rational Jewish Approach to Homosexuality

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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A Tel Aviv gay pride parade. Photo: US Embassy in Tel Aviv.

Rabbi Joseph Dweck of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London got into hot water recently when he praised homosexuality as a coming of age, and an expansion of cultural blessing. His Orthodox credentials were called into question and he was forced to resign from a rabbinical body.

The episode has deeply divided Anglo-Jewry, a division that the community can scarcely afford in an age of rising European antisemitism and incessant terror attacks in the UK. It may seem odd that rabbis would fight each other so vehemently over a statement by a rabbi about homosexuality. But it makes sense in light of the fact that many believe that gay rights are the foremost threat to traditional marriage and the nuclear family. These critics also believe that homosexuality is an “abomination,” and must be opposed.

It is in light of both of these considerations that I pen this response, so that hopefully rabbis can get back to working together to fight against the serious threats confronting our people.

I am an Orthodox rabbi. The Bible is not vague with regard to homosexuality: it is clearly labeled a sin. The Torah is immutable and none of us can change its laws.

But I am proud of the State of Israel, in contrast to all other Middle East countries — especially the barbaric government of Iran — for the dignity and equality that it accords its gay citizens.

So why have we, the religious, focused so exclusively on homosexuality as the foremost challenge to the future of our civilization?

Some justify this obsession by citing the Bible’s use of the word “abomination” to describe homosexuality. But the truth is that the Hebrew Bible uses the word “abomination” more than 100 times. Eating non-kosher food is an abomination (Deuteronomy 14:3). A woman returning to her first husband after being married in the interim is an abomination (Deut. 24:4). And bringing a blemished sacrifice on God’s altar is an abomination (Deut. 17:1). Proverbs goes so far as to label envy, lying and gossip as that which “the Lord hates and are an abomination to Him” (3:32, 16:22).

In fact, if you judge Torah prohibitions strictly by their punishment, then desecration of Shabbat would have to be at the very top of the list of the most serious infractions — it’s a prohibition repeated far more times than the sin of homosexuality, and a sin for which a man is stoned to death in the Torah.

Then, there is the issue of morality. Yes, God gave the Ten Commandments — but notice that they were split into two blocks of stone. One was for religious law and connotes laws that govern the relationship between God and man. In this first group are laws like the commandment to believe in God, and the prohibition of worshiping idols or blaspheming.

The second group of laws captures moral law — laws that govern the relationship between man and his fellow man (do not steal, murder, or commit adultery, etc.). These are laws that safeguard the rights of human beings and adjure individuals to respect one another and refrain from infringing on each other’s rights or acting deceptively — as in adultery. Moral law involves injury to an innocent party, while religious law is an expression of divine will.

Nothing will change my view on the immutability of the Torah and its laws. But I can understand the dignity and equal rights that gay men and woman seek. Homosexuality is firmly a religious — rather than a moral — prohibition. It is akin to the laws of not desecrating the Sabbath, or eating non-kosher food.

Someone who eats a cheeseburger at McDonald’s — mixing milk and meat — is not immoral. Rather, they are contravening a Biblical commandment.

What I sense in my friends who are firmly opposed to all gay rights is a misunderstanding of this distinction between moral law and religious law. The prohibition against homosexuality is a religious law, much in the same way that eating bread on Passover is a violation of the divine will.

For those who might call themselves “culture warriors” and want to fight for traditional marriage, I call on you to look inward and begin your fight on a new front: combating the ridiculously high fifty percent divorce rate. Fight to keep families whole. Fight to prevent the dislocation of children and the pain of seeing parents destroy each other in court. Fight to end the shameful epidemic of heterosexual marital decline that impacts half of new marriages today. That is where the battle ahead lies, and it is one that impacts us all.

Divorce and the easy culture of recreational sex, which makes a mockery of intimacy and commitment, poses a far greater threat to the future of the family than gay rights.

Let’s get real about the hypocrisy of those who say that gay rights are undermining heterosexual marriage. We straight people have done an admirable job of destroying marriage quite on our own, thank you very much. It’s not gay rights — but heterosexual divorce — that threatens a real end-of-days scenario for the American family.

Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 30 books, including “Kosher Sex” and “Kosher Lust.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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  • Netanel1a

    Rabbi Boteach really missed the boat here (as I explain in detail elsewhere in this blog).

    A rational Jewish approach to homosexuality would focus on acts and not people. I cannot condone an act that the Torah says is a sin. “Those who love Hashem hate sin.” This is not to say that I don’t have exactly the same desires that could lead to sin. It is to say that my love of Hashem (and desire to do His will) and my fear of Hashem (and dread of separating myself from Him) are usually not going to allow me to act on those base desires. I am not positing myself as somehow a “better” person who has no base desires. To the contrary, I readily admit that I have them. I just have worked on myself enough to keep it firmly in mind when desire calls that my relationship to G-d is more important to me.

    As a religious Jew, I thus cannot be happy that my fellow Jew is sinning carnally, nor am I doing him a service by pretending his behavior is okay. I am disgusted by the act itself because Hashem does not want it and because the act shows how distant this Jew perceives of himself as being from Hashem. But, at the same time, I can relate to my fellow Jew struggling with inclinations and succumbing to them. On some level, I too do that. So I can try to help my fellow to keep Hashem in mind and not succumb the next time to his base instincts. (The teshuva part he has to work out with the Obershter, though I can probably furnish him some sources as a guide.)

    Along these lines we might find a rational approach of Judaism to homosexuality.

  • Netanel1a

    It is ironic that this article is being posted in the week of Parshas Pinchos, because the Rebbe, in a sicha on the Pinchos episode, provides a very strong clue indeed as to what makes sexual sins different from (and in one sense more serious than) any other sins. In no other realm is man made such a clear partner in Creation and given the opportunity to fashion life itself than by transmitting his own very essence in the act of procreation. Sexual sins, more than other sins, show a flagrant and insensitive disregard for the miraculous G-d-given gift of conception. This is what makes them different.

    True, with homosexuality, the Jewish man’s sin does not become embodied in a non-Jewish child, as is the subject of the aforementioned sicha. But we are still dealing with the clear “spirit of folly” that makes any sin possible. And as the Rebbe does explicitly say elsewhere regarding homosexuality, the particularly foolish aspect of sodomy is that the very (re)productive tools G-d has given us to procreate and fulfill our mission on earth by sowing generations are misused for the literally vacuous purpose of feeding carnal desires. The G-dly force granted man is completely wasted because there is no outcome in the act whatsoever.

    So you are very wrong, Rabbi Boteach, that homosexuality is no different than any other sin. And you are wrong to think that religious Jews aren’t rightfully pained to see their fellow Jews so utterly alienated from their purpose.

    Whatever the state of Jewish marriage and divorce today, even bad marriages and nasty divorces are still in the realm of the religiously permissible. As a rabbi(!), you have no business making excuses for sinful behavior by falsely equating that level of foolishness with (bad) marriages and (nasty) divorces.

    You have really strayed far afield with this article.

  • SAWolf

    “Let your voice be heard” LOL ,you bloody liars.

  • SAWolf

    OK, quote Leviticus. But how many of Us would be stoned to death for not keeping the Sabbath, Holy? I don’t care what anyone else does in their bedroom, none of my business. Just don’t put it in front of me and don’t spread disease.

  • If I may say so this is a very, very superficial and intellectually immature article which I never expected from an orthodox Rabbi.

  • Surak

    A lot of words with no content. The author is implying, but not saying explicitly, that mere “religious” law does not have to be taken as seriously as moral law.

    And who is he to decide that this is a mere “religious” law? This refers to an act between two people, so it is arguably moral in character.

    It’s a shame that the author is trying to undermine Torah observance. He claims to be Orthodox, but undermining observance of the commandments is heretical.

  • Joseph Feld

    Leviticus 18 puts sodomy with adultey, incest and bestiality as desecating the Holy Land and causing the Canaanites to be vomited out of the Holy Land.18: 20-30.

    • SAWolf

      Joe, have you kept the Sabbath, Holy? If not should you be stoned to death?

      • Joseph Feld

        The Sages abolished the death penalty about 2,000 years ago because they felt they no longer had the ru’ach ha-kodesh resting upon them. The penalty today for not being Shomer Shabbos is not being counted for a minyan on Shabbos or not having voting rights in some shuls.

        • SAWolf

          Thanks, good to know.

  • Alana Ronald

    I find this a kind of avoidance of the issues of the day. Homosexuality isn’t a choice. There will always be a certain percentage of people (1.6% – 3.8 % depending on which stats you use) who are gay, & who want to live with the rights & dignity of others. Judaism has always been a religion that evolves: why not in this sphere?

    • Surak

      “Judaism has always been a religion that evolves…” Not according to the Torah. In Deuteronomy, it says that whoever comes to change a commandment, even if this person should perform miracles, is a false prophet, and should be executed.

      Just curious, would you like to “evolve” away from the prohibition against murder? Who put you in charge to decide which of God’s commandments we’ll keep and which are inconvenient? You are practicing Alanaism. I’ll keep Judaism.

    • Jake and Elmo

      There most certainly is an element of it that is choice. What, you think you would ever get a man who lives a hetereosexual lifestyle to admit he has had such urges? Don’t be so sure that you are an expert and have all the answers here. Sure, Judaism could “evolve”. Today, we have the Reformed and Conservative Movements. The Reconstructionists perform gay weddings. Doesn’t make it halacacly correct or now. The rules in the Torah may not seem fair, but very often there is hidden meaning that we just don’t understand.

    • Netanel1a

      This is not an “issue of the day.” There have always been people with homosexual desires. But like each and every other non-permitted desire (and we all have our own), you have to discipline yourself and not act in ways contrary to the Torah. There is no dignity at all in sinning. There is dignity in not succumbing to our base instincts and instead maintaining discipline and using that otherwise wasted energy for positive purposes like increasing one’s level of Torah knowledge or helping others.