How I Reconciled God, Torah and Homosexuality

The Bible has been used and abused by Jews as well as Christians to justify positions that subsequently became morally objectionable. Both slavery and the subservient status of women were defended at one time as being divinely ordained conditions. Today, major portions of the Jewish and Christian communities are changing their attitudes towards homosexuality, but much opposition still remains. However, protests to the contrary, the root of the problem has been a social prejudice, homophobia, not something rooted in “the mitzvot” or “God’s word” even though, traditionally, authorities of both faiths have opposed homosexual behavior.

Some traditionalists I have known, in this case Muslims, suggested that, even if homosexuality is a sin, it ought to be considered in the balance of a person’s good and bad deeds. Thus, a heterosexual person who cheats in business may end up with a lower good deed to bad deed ratio than an honest homosexual. Certainly considering the whole person is a good way to become less judgmental about gay and lesbian people, but then again, perhaps God doesn’t operate like an accountant. At least it puts one particular “sin” in the context of one’s overall life.

My resolution of this conflict had to come from a different quarter. When I became executive director of Multifaith Works, an AIDS housing organization in Seattle, I knew very few gay men, and none of them well. Right from the start, confronted with the excesses of the so-called “gay lifestyle” — in reality, the excesses of individuals, not an entire group — I had to face my latent homophobia and a challenge to my concept of sexual morality, both of which remain based on traditional Jewish and contemporary values. Although their individual behavior was never a major issue for me, I must confess that I was nonetheless troubled by what I heard and it initially aroused in me the urge to condemn not just those who behaved so promiscuously, but everyone like them. In other words, homosexuals in general. The defining moment of change came when I let go of my dormant need to judge them and — believe it or not — decided to let God take responsibility for that, if it was needed at all.

Given what I had observed about most gay and lesbian individuals and couples — that the love they crave and share is no different than that between heterosexuals — I began to seriously doubt the scope of the Biblical injunction. I realized that, when it came right down to it, I was an agnostic about homosexuality. I didn’t — and still don’t — really understand physical same-sex attraction. I still don’t know for sure if homosexuality is something over which one exercises a degree of choice or not; if it is a genetic predisposition or not. I don’t know why the commandments in Leviticus are there, and I don’t know what to make of the rabbis’ amplification of these laws to include a condemnation of lesbian behavior. And I certainly can’t really know if “God” still considers — or ever really considered — homosexuality a sin or not. In short, I only really know enough to know that I have no basis on which to judge people who are homosexual, seeing that they are just like me.

But, on the other hand, I do know that, because God is traditionally conceived of as being understanding, merciful and compassionate, then even the traditionally-conceived God would certainly approve when, in my confusion, I tried to act “godly” by being loving, compassionate, and caring toward gay and lesbian people in general, and toward people with AIDS specifically; when I chose to welcome them and treat them with the same respect that is due to them as to anyone else, rather than being judgmental and rejecting of them. I realized that God would understand even if I had decided incorrectly and was wrong about being compassionate towards homosexual people. It is no sin to err on the side of compassion. Even God acts that way.

That was my breakthrough on this issue — I realized I could never reconcile the conflict between traditional and contemporary values on this subject, so I “gave it up to God” and figured that, in the end, God would be gracious to whom God would be gracious and that my job was to love my fellow human beings, not stand in God’s stead in judgment of them. Today, I consider a gay or lesbian person as “normal” as any heterosexual person and I trust that how they have been created is just as good in God’s eyes too. What matters to me is not one’s sexual orientation, because that, as it were, was in God’s hands when they were created, but rather how one lives one’s relationships, how one behaves towards others in this world.

About the Author
Rabbi Anson Laytner of Seattle is currently president of the Sino-Judaic Institute and longtime editor of its journal Points East. Before retiring, he taught at Seattle University and worked with the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
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