Judaism Islam and Gays

A New York Times article of June 16 describes the Orlando killer, ‘The gunman, Omar Mateen, was a first-generation American. His parents, who got married in New York in the early 1980s and briefly lived in Flushing, Queens, before moving to Florida. His first wife, Sitora Yusufiy, was from Uzbekistan. His second wife,Noor Zahi Salman, was born in California to Palestinian parents from the West Bank.’ By the time that he had finished shooting, 49 people had been killed in a gay bar in Orlando.

Mateen claimed to be acting for ISIL, avenging the US bombings of ISIL positions in Syria and Lebanon. There are also (as yet unsubstantiated) claims that he was gay. He has been characterized as a radical Islamic terrorist. Is this an appropriate characterization? The attitude toward gays expressed by Mateern is not radical Islam — it is normative Islam. A Washington Post article of June 13 points out that there are ten countries in which homosexual acts are punishable by death. All of them are governed by Islamic law. Among those countries are Saudi-Arabia, the heartland of Sunni Islam, and Iran, the heartland of Shiite Islam.

The website thereligion ofpeace.com discusses the Koranic roots of Islamic homophobia. Quran (7:80-84) — “..For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds…. And we rained down on them a shower (of brimstone)” – An account that is borrowed from the Biblical story of Sodom.

Quran (7:81) – “Will ye commit abomination such as no creature ever did before you?” This verse is part of the previous text and it establishes that homosexuality as different from (and much worse than) adultery or other sexual sin. According to the Arabic grammar, homosexuality is called the worst sin, while references elsewhere describe other forms of non-marital sex as being “among great sins.”

Note the use of the word ‘abomination’ applied to gays, that comes from the Torah. Leviticus (18:32) states, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Yet there is no death penalty for homosexual acts in Israel. There is an annual gay pride parade. In fact there have been openly gay members of the Knesset. (Perhaps serving in the Knesset is a punishment worse than death.)

How do our religious movements deal with the dissonance between Leviticus 18:32 and a toleration of homosexuality? The reform and conservative movements simply reject the authority of the Torah and have ordained openly gay individuals. Modern orthodoxy is grappling with the issue.

One of the most distinguished thinkers of twentieth century modern orthodoxy was Rav Aharon Lichenstein, z”l. Rav Lichtenstein homes in on the meaning of the word to’eivah (abomination) that the Torah applies to some homosexual acts. What exactly is a to’eivah? To this Rav Lichtenstein responds, ‘The question you raise is not just a question with regard to a particular ban, but the label of to’eivah, does that add a more serious dimension. To make that judgment you need to do two related things: 1) check a computer or a concordance for wherever the word to’eivah appears – and see, to what does it apply. So you discover that to’eivah,in the pasuk in Yechezkel, refers to people who don’t feed עניים [poor] properly (Ezekiel 16:4850), or, you open up a chumash in Ki Tetzei – if you are dealing with weights and measures, and you cheat a little bit on the weights and the measures, that’s to’eivah also (Deuteronomy 25:1316).

Having done that, find for me a community which responds and relates to homosexuality as if you are doing something terrible – just like it responds to those who are cheating a little bit on weights and measures. But that’s not the case, and that is because of the revulsion which, apart from its being called to’eivah – the revulsion which is felt by the Western world toward homosexuality probably would have existed in large measure nonetheless.’

If you ask me: should the term to’eivah be meaningful to us? Of course it should. We are מאמינים בני מאמינים[believers]. We think that if the Torah refers to something as to’eivah, the Ribbono shel Olam regards it as to’eivah. But to be fairer and more honest with ourselves and with our communities, let us understand that if you deal only with the use of the term to’eivah, you can only push that particular envelope as far as you push the cheating on the weights and the measures – so all the revulsion, the moral energy, that you bring against that, you should bring against this, too. That’s not what happens today. I have an argument with some people about this. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not in favor of homosexuality, חס ושלום . But we do need to agree to abide by a greater measure of honesty in dealing with that community than I think at present applies.

Rav Lichtenstein goes on to note, ‘If you ask me for my own response: obviously, I don’t approve in any way, but emotionally, the fire that burns in many hearts today, and the fears which go beyond the revulsion, are beyond what I think is proper, and particularly, as the phenomenon becomes more prevalent, which is unfortunate in itself, but at the personal plane it has become a more common aveirah (transgression), it is less of an aveirah on the part of the particular individual. My own feeling is: it’s a very unfortunate development and one that will hopefully pass, though that’s hard to say. But, for people involved: I have a combination of– I wouldn’t say revulsion, that may be too strong a term – I certainly have criticism, disapproval, but tempered with an element of sympathy. These are people who are very unfortunate.’

Is one who cheats in business (crook) a useful paradigm for the homosexual? We might apply the Kantian concept of the categorical imperative to our analysis of the crook and the homosexual. The ‘categorical imperative’ means that if everyone did ‘it’ ,whatever ‘it’ may be, ‘it’ would be unsustainable. For example if everyone were a murderer, there would soon be no people left to kill. If everyone were a crook, there would soon be no framework of commerce left to enable theft. Until recently, we could have argued that if everyone were a homosexual there would soon be no people left to be homosexuals. With 20-th century medical advances in artificial insemination, that argument is no longer valid.

What do Rav Lichtenstein’s words mean in practice? Should we treat the homosexual the same way that we treat a crook? We don’t kill crooks, but we do fine them and send them to jail. I shun crooks, should I shun homosexuals? The crook harms others while the homosexual does not. So the crook is not an appropriate paradigm for relating to homosexuals.

Perhaps we can get get some guidance in relating to homosexuals by looking at comments made by Rav Lichtenstein on the flaunting of homosexuality. He considers a situation that arose a number of years ago concerning the Israel Day parade. A group of gays and lesbians wanted to march explicitly as gays. When the religious day schools announced that they would pull out of the parade, the gays backed down.

Rav Lichensteins analysis of this set of events is quite enlightening. He writes, ‘You ask yourself, wait a minute: we don’t like homosexuality, but we don’t like chillul Shabbat [Shabbat violation] either – all the mechallelei Shabbat [Shabbat violators] of America could have marched in that parade and no one would say boo, because we are very liberal Jews, and we like to not be judgmental, and be friendly to people to the right and the left of us. So, mechallelei Shabbat – we wish they would be shomrei Shabbat [Shabbat observers], but if that’s what they are, that’s what they are, we accept them as they are and we don’t pass judgment.

If I open a gemara in Sanhedrin, or if I open a chumash, for that matter – leaving aside the term to’eivah – what is a more serious aveirah, chillul Shabbat [Shabbat violation] or homosexuality. Or, for that matter, there are people who worship avodah zarah [idolatry] who march in the parade, too. Is it proper, is it fair, and I say this without relenting in our position to homosexuality – to decide that all the sins which the whole entire Jewish community has – all of that we can swallow and march with them, with pride and with their flags and everything that they want, but this is the שעיר לעזאזל[scapegoat] – dispatched to ארץ גזירה, that’s what happens to the שעיר לעזאזל (Leviticus 16:22). I discussed this point with people for whom I have the highest regard and I asked them this question.

I’m not so simple-minded not to know the answer. Much of the answer is: the mechallelei Shabbat of America don’t want to march in the parade under the banner of mechallelei Shabbat of America – they are going to march as the Kiwanis club or the Rotary club, the junior high school of Great Neck, or whatever you have, and that will pass muster – they will not flaunt. The homosexual community today has created such a ferment because it is very aggressive. The response to that has been – on our part – many people have also been aggressive. That’s something which I think should be avoided.’

Those comments on the parade possibly provide guidance for the relation of the modern orthodox community to homosexuality. Rav Lichenstein seems to be saying that the modern orthodox community should accept the homosexual as a person with open arms but not legitimize homosexuality. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ seems to be a compromise that the modern orthodox community can live with. Hopefully it is acceptable to those members of the gay community who wish to be part of the modern orthodox community.

About the Author
Richard Chasman, 1934-2018, was a member of the Modern Orthodox community in Chicago. Professionally, he was a theoretical nuclear physicist. Richard, who described his perspective as "centrist," wrote a newsletter for more than 20 years called "Chovevai Tsion of Chicago," on subjects of interest to the Modern Orthodox community.