Monday, 17 March 2014

Wrestling with God and Men, Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, by Rabbi Stephen Greenberg

A review of Wrestling with God and Men, Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, by Rabbi Steven Greenberg.

I haven't posted much recently - working on the carnival - big carnival. But here is something I wrote over 8 years ago - c 2005. While there are many elaborations I could now add, I have not changed a word of what I wrote then except to fix the link (above) since the old one now points somewhere odd. I re-publish this today in response to what I think is a misunderstanding of the direction of the interpretation of Scripture here.

Reasoning the Commandments
I begin with reason but end with faith working through love. Again I find in Jewish writing a willingness to wrestle with the best questions and thereby to discover that the "understanding of a scriptural law is a spiritual path for grasping the mind of the Law Giver, for knowing and ultimately loving God." Steven Greenberg is an Orthodox Rabbi. He collaborated with Sandi DuBowski in the documentary Trembling before G-d.

As I read through this book - I find I must pause to collect my bookmarks and report on this excellent writing. The book meets high standards of publication and scholarship. I miss the index of ancient texts. But his words are clear. In the first half of the book, every page I stop and marvel at the historical acumen, the accuracy of inference, and the honesty of Steven's approach. He gives due to the tradition that stands against his acceptance of his own orientation.

Can one trust the making of the character of a man? How does one discern deceit? Here is an Israelite in whom there is no guile. What I observe is trust in action through the love of Torah. If I need to write my own book on sexuality in Scripture, it will need to respond to writing like Steven's. I cannot imagine a better model.

He begins with a review of the Birth of Gender and Desire (chapter 1) as part of his larger review of the Sacred Texts. He turns next to Evidence from 1000 BCE to the Legal Literature of the Middle Ages. He finishes with Rationales for the prohibitions of homosexuality (Reproduction - 20 pages, Social Disruption - 10 pages, Category Confusion - 7 pages, and Humiliation and Violence - 25 pages) and a section on Conversations (Admitting Difference, Welcoming Synagogues) to complete the book.

Not in Heaven
"Not in Heaven" is a short subsection in the Legal Literature. In this delightful story of the beginnings of Mishnah after the destruction of Jerusalem and the movement of the sages to Javneh, Steven illustrates the responsibility of humans to interpret Torah. God laughs that his children have defeated him and we laugh with God when we realize that the children are independent of the one who gave the Law. This story has so much in common with Paul and the writer of the Hebrews that we must rejoice indeed at the God who has put all things under our feet and whose Word (Torah, Logos) is not in heaven - i.e. not far from us.

Whether homosexual or not, Gentiles in Christ will be surprised by joy if they have ears to hear the depth of the hermeneutic uncovered by Steven's reading of the Mind of the Lawgiver. They will be as surprised as when they saw the sharpness of the covenant the same Lawgiver has cut with them as Gentiles - if indeed they have come by faith into the Presence they so quickly speak about.

Wrestling is a 'must read' for all, as good as the insight into Covenant in Hoffman; as good as the historical Irony of Nanos, as good as the Elizabethan saga of God's Secretaries, as carefully reasoned and footnoted as any scholarly work I have read - but most importantly, Steven writes as one who needs to prove no point. He writes with the gentleness and openness of a man who can live with unanswered questions with confidence in his Maker. He writes for those who have not known the meanings of the texts or who have failed to see their own rapaciousness - yet without a moral judgment. For God is the judge. I have stopped and laughed, sharing God's joy, every few pages.

Koshering a Reptile 
Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav: "We appoint to the Sanhedrin only someone who knows how to purify a reptile according to Torah." Rabbi Yohanan said: Anyone who does not know to prove a reptile pure and then to prove it impure a hundred times cannot open the defense of the accused. So Steven writes "Rabbis will need to be as fearless as were their forebears to imagine the opposite of their suppositions." This section invites us into a suspension of our immediate reactions so that we can hear the voices from the past but not ignore the minority in the present. Rabbi Steven opens up the flexibility of Torah to his readers.

Steven's review of the sages' interpretation of the cursing of Ham illustrates the violence implied in the phrase 'uncovering the nakedness of another.' If Ham sinned, why were his children cursed? What was the nature of his sin? This is not merely an issue of clothes but of forceful violation and preparation to usurp authority.

I found  the opening chapter in Rationales less cheerful and more like work to read. It ends though with an inclusio, a nice reference back to the two great lights and the one that is lesser with Rashi's comment on the female Leviathan - that she was salted away for the righteous in the world to come, for were they two to reproduce, the world could not endure them. Steven's use of Genesis underpins the reasoning in the book. It is an effective use, avoiding completely the distracting confusion of natural history or poetry. Like Steven's mentor, Jacob Milgrom, in his commentary on Leviticus, he supports the view that filling the earth does not include overfilling. 

In the Category Confusion chapter, I read with less effort again as he explains some teaching so similar to what we have heard recently from certain other sources: Rav Aha puts the following words into God's mouth "You shake your organs in a place not fit for you, so I will shake the world." And Rabbi Steven continues: While hyperbole was common among the rabbis, especially when there was little biblical material to support their moral sensibilities, Rav Aha's message is made overwhelmingly clear. Misplacing one's penis displaces the crust of the earth. The map of the body and the map of the globe are one when it comes to sex. Disorder begets disorder.

What then, I ask, begets order? In answer, as if on cue while reading, Steven points out the moral obligation for us to overcome our revulsions. Revulsion is not of moral significance. He uses as reference To Kill a Mockingbird to illustrate at least one revulsion that must be so overcome - interracial marriage. He completes the working out the movement from revulsion to discomfort to sadness to potential acceptance as resulting in "less abominable abominations". He follows this with a lovely section on good and bad mixtures touching on the holy (wool and linen in the priest's clothing), science (pollution but also consider the pig's heart valve and GM crops), ending with the recognition of inter-sexed people as sacred mediators in some cultures. Here, as usual, more questions are raised than answered, and the moral begs for redefinition again. "Struggling to map the world, the rabbis again debate whether double-sexed beings are a deformity deviating from nature or a natural wonder expanding nature's repertoire."

The final chapter on rationale, Humiliation and Violence, describes the dismal state of affairs with respect to power usage in sexual behaviour in both Israel and the surrounding nations. With brilliant insight, Steven finds a rereading of Leviticus in the context of violence and incompleteness in the text. His arguments revolve around additional letters that were waiting to be interpreted when women are freed from violence and subservience and men can be tender hearted to each other. This is really an astonishing rereading.

The essential argument is between violence and tenderness. The misogynist view of sex and the dominance of the penetrating male has prevented 3000 years of history from seeing what has been there in an additional normally untranslated word. Steven gives several examples of how these words have been used for legal arguments in the past. There is such a word in the text of that famous pair of spokes in the Leviticus ring (#'s18 and 20). In our day of equality with women, we need to reread the verse as meaning: you shall not humiliate a woman or a man by dominance in a sexual relationship. (See below.)

It is quite the opposite of the received 'obvious' meaning. So the lizard is purified but there are 100 ways to prove it impure.

The last two chapters are a very revealing dialogue between a man seeking true acceptance and an unnamed rabbi showing the extreme difficulty of Halakhic agreement but coming at least to a position of bearing with each others burdens. The argument is nearly 50 pages of closely reasoned give and take in many steps. Ways in which Jewish Law has managed usury laws and sexual relations during a woman's period are among the steps showing a possible way to begin to move past the impasse.

A book like this shows as Steven says in the additional material on the Trembling DVD: Judaism has the capacity to respond - he implies this will be with acceptance to those who had been invisible. We who are in other traditions, whether religious or secular, need to recognize our equal responsibility to debate, challenge, argue, and prove that we care since we too are invited into this human and divine experiment to transform the world. Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.
Leviticus 18:22 literal: and with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman: it is a toevah.
Steven deals with his early personal response in the first part of the book - I am sure many have heard and wondered how to avoid the apparent 'plain' meaning.
Here's the rabbi's rereading.
1. given the traditional dominance of male over female he then translates the verse as
And a male
you shall not sexually penetrate
to humiliate
it is abhorrent
2. Then at the end he asks what to do with the 'et in the verse - a word normally not translated.
ve'et zakhar
lo tishkav
mishkeve ishah
toevah hi
Two other places where the 'et is interpreted by rabbinic tradition are
  • in Deuteronomy 10:20 - you shall revere (et) the Lord your God (fill in the blank) (Nehemia Haimsoni says it should be the students of the sages)
  • and the fifth of the 10 commandments (kaved et avikha v'et imekha) where the (et) is interpreted as including step mother/step father or (I add) adoptive mother/father
3. Our author then suggests the 'et in Leviticus should be translated as including the woman:
And (either a female or) a male
you shall not sexually penetrate
to humiliate
it is abhorrent


  1. well, I will comment fully within the weekend, but where is the FB like button as opposed to the share button?

  2. O dear, I don't have a like button! Will try and find one -