Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Carried to Orthodoxy

On Monday, Rod Dreher neatly summarized the argument for Orthodox Judaism. Although it was supposed to wither and die in freedom’s-just-another-word-for-nothing-left-to-lose America, Orthodox Judaism has undergone a resurgence in the past half century. In 1952, just twenty-three percent of young Jews born into Orthodoxy planned to stay, but by the turn of the century, more than a third of all American Jews under the age of thirty-five identified themselves as Orthodox.

The Orthodox are still a minority. For the majority of American Jews, according to the sociologist Steven M. Cohen, Judaism does not supply the “final answer,” and consequently it does not prompt “irrevocable commitments” from them. Instead, most American Jews make their religious decisions “week by week, year by year,” choosing for themselves “which rituals they will observe and how they will observe them.” Thus their only authority is the “sovereign self.”

Perhaps a better term would be the three-year-old self. Jews who pick and choose for themselves among the commandments, who refuse to handle money or watch TV on the sabbath, although they will drive themselves to synagogue and return home to cook a hot meal, remind me of my three-year-old son. When I tell him to do something, he often says, “I don’t wanna.” For him, that is a knockdown argument against obedience. The American smorgasbord Jew is pretty much the same. Asked to keep kosher or observe the laws of marital separation, he replies, “I don’t wanna.” He has no stronger reason.

Jewishness is not a personal choice, no matter how many parttime Jewish wannabes are offended by my saying so. Jewishness has an objective quality. It is a set of obligations or halakhot (ways, laws) that are determined, not by me, but by others. I may choose whether to keep kosher or to observe the laws of marital separation, but I cannot choose what is kosher or when marital separation occurs. Indeed, it is precisely this orientation away from the self and toward other people—toward the other of others, who is God—that gives Judaism its power to alter the course of real lives.

Something of the sort happened to me—and in just these terms. For years, I led a carefree life of mix-and-match Judaism. No pork, thank you, but I’ll have some of the crab salad. Shul on Saturday mornings; the nationally televised game of the week on Saturday afternoons. A personal calamity turned me back toward God, but I continued to design my own Judaism. Whatever suited me, I followed; whatever clashed with my temperament or taste, I didn’t.

Several years earlier I had become, without warning, what no single Jewish male must ever become, not, at least, if he wants any chance with Jewish girls. I had become pro-life. I can remember the exact moment at which my metamorphosis took place. Long persuaded of the pro-choice argument that a woman has a right to her own body—that a women is free to abort her fetus on the same logic by which she is free to cut her nails—I nevertheless recoiled when a Catholic friend asked why then I objected to infanticide.

At some point, I earnestly believed, a woman’s tissue becomes an autonomous human being. The former may be discarded, like a fingernail; the latter must be preserved from harm, because it is a child. But when exactly is the point at which a fingernail becomes a child? If the transformation occurs at birth, then what of the fetus in the womb just minutes before birth? Well, obviously, a “viable” fetus is a child, even before the moment of birth.

The point had to be pushed back—say, to the end of the second trimester. At the end of six months, then, a fingernail becomes a child. And on the twenty-ninth day of the fifth month? Did I really wish to hold that the miracle of humanity occurs overnight? If only to see what would follow, I answered yes. However, if the fetus is a fingernail five months and twenty-nine days after conception, but a child the next day, what about five months, twenty-nine days, and twenty-three hours after conception? Does the miracle occur in a single hour? What about five months, twenty-nine days, twenty-three hours, and fifty-nine minutes? It is acceptable to abort the fetus right then, but not in another minute?

In The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, Matthew Arnold praises what he calls

living by ideas: when one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when you hear all round you no language but one, when your party talks this language like a steam-engine and can imagine no other—still to be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so it be, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question, and, like Balaam, to be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put in your mouth (Num 22.38).My failure to draw a line between the fingernail and the child drove me against my will from the pro-choice to the pro-life side.

And several years later, when I could no longer explain to myself why I was prepared to obey God on this, but not on that, I was irresistibly carried to Orthodoxy. God is either obeyed in all things, or he is not obeyed at all. The imperious demands of a three-year-old are indulged instead.


Anonymous said...

"God is either obeyed in all things, or he is not obeyed at all. The imperious demands of a three-year-old are indulged instead."

But what does it mean to obey God? How do you know what God wants? Don't one's desires often masquerade as the will of God?

Consider further the following hypothetical. Aren't you obeying God by being what you are fully? Why is it that you have to alter yourself to be loved by God? Isn't God's will in this instance nothing more than the needs of society?

Why is it wrong to steal, for example, if being a thief, in this argument, is expressing who and what you are fully? Does not God take pleasure in a thief that loves stealing? If he loves stealing then he loves the nature that God endowed him with, and in this way he loves God fully and completely, deriving all his pleasure from being and doing what God made him. And is it not so that God had made one man into a thief? For can any man truly deny what is in his heart? And is God made some man into a thief, then does he not love his creation?

Is it not the case that we hate the thief only because we love a thing he steals more than all else? Is it not true, then, that the thief is doing God's will so that we may learn to stop loving things and love God instead?

You think you know God, but can you really? What if God loves a thief as much as he loves you? Are you prepared to love that kind of God? Or do you use strict religion to create a kind of God whom you can obey because that God condemns all those you condemn?

Steven said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

This is magnificent and beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.


Space Station Mir said...

Perhaps you would characterize this as a permutation of "I don't wanna," but as a "pick and choose" Jew myself, I don't observe all the rules of Kashrut just as I do not believe, for example, it is an abomination for a man to lie with another man.

I am not offended by your opinion and I agree that I do not set the rules of Judaism, they exist separately from me whether I observe them or not.

I believe that the Torah is a good starting point for the basis of civilization, how to treat people and such, but it is also based on an ancient society that is far different from the society I belong to. This is how I can justify the picking and choosing, for what aspects I feel are appropriate today. Of course, since Judaism is a group and not an individual, I shouldn't be the one doing the choosing, but that's what the Reform and Conservative, and for that matter, Modern Orthodoxy movements are for, I suppose.

Sorry for writing a novel, your topic just really interested me!

D. G. Myers said...

But what does it mean to obey God? How do you know what God wants?

For an Orthodox Jew, there is an ultimate source of knowledge (the written and oral Torah), and proximate sources, which abridge the Torah into convenient tables (the Shulhan Arukh, the Mishneh Torah).

Aren’t you obeying God by being what you are fully?


D. G. Myers said...

[T]he Torah is . . . based on an ancient society that is far different from the society I belong to. This is how I can justify the picking and choosing. . . .

But if you base your morality on the society you belong to, how can you be sure that you are not merely acting in accord with the dictates of moral fashion?

Anonymous said...

Hard not to agree with a statement like 'God is either obeyed in all things, or he is not obeyed at all'.But this 'ultimate source of knowledge' - how do you know it is ultimate or knowledge.Why does God want Jews to lead that orthodox life, and the rest of humanity not to? You may say I'm lost to mere moral fashion - but Orthodoxy is just another fashion; it happens to have lived longer than other fashions, that's all.

Anonymous said...

"Aren’t you obeying God by being what you are fully?


I am afraid I disagree. Your theology is one of a capricious God who creates creatures that are destined to suffer because of what He makes them to be. Do you really believe this? How can you possibly believe it?

D. G. Myers said...

I am not sure what it means to describe a 3,000-year-old religion as a “fashion.”

How do I know that the Torah is the ultimate source of knowledge? I don’t. I believe that it is. Hence the phrase “religious belief.”

Of course, I don’t know that my wife is the best woman in the world, either. But I believe that she is.

D. G. Myers said...

Your theology is one of a capricious God who creates creatures that are destined to suffer because of what He makes them to be.

Not a single word of this follows from my theology. The God whom I obey demands certain things of his chosen people, but of everyone on earth not all these things are demanded.

Nor do I believe in destiny. Nor that the human condition is one of suffering.

Sorry that life has been so hard on you.

Anonymous said...

"Not a single word of this follows from my theology. The God whom I obey demands certain things of his chosen people, but of everyone on earth not all these things are demanded.

Nor do I believe in destiny. Nor that the human condition is one of suffering.

Sorry that life has been so hard on you."

what is your theology? The notion that God has a "chosen" people is one that is essentially deeply violent: those who are not chosen can be...I think we all know what can happen to these lesser people. Is that what you think, that some people are subhuman or somehow lesser than others?

I cannot imagine why you don't think that the human condition is one of suffering. Perhaps you should read about the Holocaust or the many thousands of tragic events that happen every day before you write such things. Many people suffer all over the world. Or doesn't their suffering matter because they aren't God's chosen?

D. G. Myers said...

The notion that God has a "chosen" people is one that is essentially deeply violent. . . .

You can exchange these limp and badly worn clichés for crisp new ones, you know.

Seriously, only a complete ignoramus goes about retailing the nonsense that the chosen people are similar to a Herrenvolk somehow.

I chose my wife. It follows, naturally, that I secretly wish to commit violence against all other women.

Oh, please.

If you ever get tired of living with clichés, you might want to read Michael Wyschogrod’s Body of Faith (1983), David Novak’s Election of Israel (1995), or the 1995 collection of essays by diverse hands edited by Daniel H. Frank under the title A People Apart.

D. G. Myers said...

By the way, my theology is set forth, in part, here and here and here.

Guy Pursey said...

Thank you for this post. It was very interesting and not just because I found your anecdote about a personal wrestle with a moral question comforting somehow. I'm an atheist but I find no flaw in your argument that the issue is not which laws to choose but whether to follow a particular doctrine or set of laws. It seems, however, that religious belief is not a matter of choice — and if you truly believe, it follows that you follow. Or is this too simplistic?

Since one can't ever know, is belief ... something innate? Would I be right in thinking that one can't choose to believe just as one can't choose to fall in love? How does one know when one has found the "right doctrine"? As someone without a religious belief, I struggle with these concepts.

Of course, I also struggle with the overall concept of an "atheist morality". Of course, I believe that I try to be a good person (who doesn't?) but I have no "objective criteria" upon which to base this "good". I suppose the nearest thing would be something like Kant's Categorical Imperative - it's a pretty piece of logic but I'm not sure it's much of a way to live! With no foundation, it's very difficult to find one's footing. Or even one's feet.

Anonymous said...

The act of choosing is fundamentally unjust, if those who are not chosen are denied the full measure of the goodness of God. Since God is perfectly just, he cannot deny his goodness to anyone. Therefore there can be no chosen people.

And we're not talking about your choice but about God's. There is simply no comparison.

If you created all women, let us say for the sake of argument, wouldn't you accept any who came to you? Wouldn't you love them all in essentially the same way? And since they were sentient and felt pain of rejection that your choice would cause them, would you still do it? And why would you need one special woman anyway?

D. G. Myers said...

The act of choosing is fundamentally unjust, if those who are not chosen are denied the full measure of the goodness of God.

Yeah, but they’re not. And your blithe assumption that they are is further evidence of your depthless ignorance.

I am sorry that Orthodox Judaism does not abide by the same dogmas as political leftists. Some evenings I cannot eat; I am so guilt-ridden! If only Herbert Marcuse or Fredric Jameson had written the Torah! Ah, the glory!

Then I get over it.

D. G. Myers said...

Since one can't ever know, is belief . . . something innate?

Some evolutionary biologists think so.

But it is something experiential, I think.

Anonymous said...

"Do you really believe this? How can you possibly believe it?"

About 10 years ago, in the Christian college i attended (as a then agnostic) an atheist asked my fundamentalist Christian friend the Viking: "You're a Christian? How can you possibly be a Christian?" in a tone of amused & amiable bewilderment.

The Viking replied, deadpan: "By the grace of God."

i thought that was a pretty good answer.

Joshua Mostafa said...

"God is either obeyed in all things, or he is not obeyed at all. The imperious demands of a three-year-old are indulged instead."

To posit a parental figure as part of our relationship with the universe stunts one's spiritual maturity. An adult determines what is best, and does it, not out of fear of a god, or seeking divine approval, but for its own sake. There is no other morality. Everything else is hypocrisy.

This has been better expressed than I can by thoughtful people with a background in all three Abrahamic traditions; for me, I saw no point in staying within it, but left. Jehovah was originally just one of many gods; his Zoroastrian-inspired elevation to totalitarian One True God is historically interesting, but not of cosmic significance. Casual deployment of the word God in this day and age seems a sign of bad faith, of (pace the OP) choosing what to believe.

D. G. Myers said...

To all of the commentators who do not like Judaism:

Do not practice it, then.

My post was autobiographical. It was not a fishing for converts.

You will not convince me that leftist politics nor Islam is preferable.

Viking’s answer is the best, and the only one, albeit with variations, that I have ever advanced.

And by the way, God was never historically called Jehovah. Another example of the ignorance that goes by the name of anti-Judaism.

Joshua Mostafa said...

It is silly to impugn ignorance on the basis that I used the common English term. I don't use the term "God" because it cedes too much ground to monotheists. "Anti-Judaism" is a bit rich, considering I was criticising all three - which also makes your reference to Islam a bit of a non sequiter, unless you are making assumptions as to what I believe on the basis of my surname and ignoring what I actually say?

It's it worth engaging with what people say, regardless of whether one agrees with them, or disagrees with them, or whether there is a shared background, or not?

Steven said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

And the discussion spawned from this even more wonderful than the post itself. I delight in the vibrant faith demonstrated and long for, pray for, and work for a similar enlightenment in my present night. But it will all be according to God's will and so long as I can walk in that, I will be fine.

Posts like this one help me in that walk--they remind me of the essential truth of faith and of the fact that what I face day to day--variously called but my favorite--the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, are all distractions from the One that matters.

Thank you so much for your kind sharing. It was a great way for me to begin Lent--with a reminder of Grace and goodness.



D. G. Myers said...

And where exactly did you engage with anything I have said, Mr Mostafa?

Jehovah is not a “common English term,” but rather a vulgar error.

But what is most telling is your reluctance to “cede[] too much ground to monotheists,” as if I were arguing on behalf of monotheism. I’m not. In fact, I am not putting forward an argument at all, but detailing the intellectual experience that carried a Jewish believer over to Orthodox Judaism.

My experience, in short, is far more epistemically advanced than a silly quarrel over an abstract and bloodless monotheism.

You remind me of a guy who tries to browbeat me out of my deep love for baseball when what I want to do is compare Lance Berkman to Stan Musial.

Anonymous said...

"Yeah, but they’re not. And your blithe assumption that they are is further evidence of your depthless ignorance. "

Think about it, if you chose someone over all the others, you cannot love them in the same way as you love your chosen one. To do so would imply an act of infidelity toward your chosen one. So your thesis that God loves goim the same way he loves Jews is absurd. Your blithe response reveals the depth of your ignorance about your own religion.

"Do you really believe this? How can you possibly believe it?"....

The Viking replied, deadpan: "By the grace of God."

i thought that was a pretty good answer.

Yup, the most inane response so far.

R/T said...

I would like to make a comment (to others who have commented) in the form of a question (followed by a closing comment): Why must a person's sincere and decent profession of faith become the catalyst for ridicule and scorn from the faithless (and the ignorant)?

Professor Myers: I may not understand (or even always agree with) Judaism, which has much to do with my own ignorance (i.e., inadequate knowledge) and my prior indoctrination (as a child who could not yet think for himself) into Christianity, but I would--with every fiber of my being--stand with you against those who would seek to disparage you, faith, Judaism, and Israel.

D. G. Myers said...

Think about it. . . .

Singlehandedly you are persuading me to accept no more anonymous comments.

(1.) Again you choose ignorance over knowledge, which (by your own lights) means that you must not love knowledge as much as you love ignorance. Nowhere has the abstract and open-ended philosophical question of choice been posed. If it had perhaps then the response Think about it might be appropriate.

(a.) Before you can “think” about it, though, you must first determine whether the adjective chosen in the phrase chosen people belongs to the same class or category as choice in your abstract sense of the word.

(b.) What, for example, is the original Hebrew word? What is its root? What other words are derived from that root? Connotations of the word? Synonyms to it?

(c.) What are the classical Jewish discussions and defenses of the idea? The classical Christian and atheist denunciations of it, and how the Jews have replied to these? Unless you know—repeat: know—what the concept has historically meant to the Jews, how it has contributed to their self-definition, you are scrimmaging against a straw man.

(2.) As Tim Davis asks above, why does an autobiographical reflection upon a man’s journey to Jewish Orthodoxy—a reflection that does not raise the question of God’s existence, but treats it as a given, because the question raised is how to obey him—provoke intellectually insecure atheists like you to start waving the same preprinted banners?

(a.) Spiritually you have much in common with anti-Zionists. The smallest mention of Israel sends them into paroxysms of hatred. Their lips flecked with foam, they sputter the same tired charges with no basis in fact.

(b.) You can’t bear to hear any mention of God. You immediately dress for battle, even when the person talking about God does not—as nearly every Christian and Jew who talks about God does not—harbor any desire to attack atheists or browbeat them into admitting the errors of their ways.

(c.) See my comment above to Mr Mostafa. Atheists like you, and anti-Zionists like the commentators to my little essay on the disruption of Ambassador Oren’s speech at UCI, are aroused only by affirmative references to God or Israel. To get some sense of just how disordered and pathetic you come across, imagine someone who, instead, jumped up angrily at every mention of baseball or maybe scrapbooking.

Guy Pursey said...

I don't think I'm one of the commenters R. T. is referring to but just in case it wasn't clear: I meant no offence by my questioning, if any was caused.

D. G. Myers said...

No offense taken, Guy. You should know that.

For the record, I myself think that the notion of an “atheistic morality” causes no problems. Was it Waugh who said, “I am not religious in order to be good, I am good in order to be religious”?

Whether there is a “religion gene” or whether every religious man experiences something like what happened to Franz Rosenzweig during Rosh Hashanah services in 1913 (he had promised his friend Eugen Rosenstock that he would be baptized into Christianity, but only as a Jew, and so he went to shul for the first time in years, and turned back to Judaism instead), you are fundamentally right, I think, to suggest that, “religious belief is not a matter of choice. . . .”

R/T said...

No, Guy, as far as I was concerned, you are not among the culpable. Other comments by others, however, to my mind, were beyond the pale.

Yes, Professor Myers can manage his own battles against the jackals of the world; I merely wanted to let him know that I was on his side--the side of civility and reasonable discussion.

Denver Bibliophile said...

Let us focus on nicer things: I have just posted my review of Roth's masterpiece, American Pastoral. Please stop by, David, and tell me what yout think.

Unknown said...

While I certainly respect the strength and sincerity of your Jewish faith and belief, I don't think it is an accurate reflection of Judaism either historically or theologically. I can't help but wonder where the Jewish people would be today if we had chosen to follow the Sadducees instead of the Pharisees, or if Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had stayed in Jerusalem to fight to the death with the Jewish Zealots who were killing any Jews who did not stay and fight, instead of having himself smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin so he could continue to live a Jewish life under Roman governance.

If you had lived in Hillel's time, would you have endorsed his view of Judaism -- that the Torah could be summed up in the commandment to refrain from doing to others what was hateful to oneself, and go study the rest, which is all commentary; or Shammai's view that the Torah must be followed literally and to the letter, and could not be taught in a moment's time?

I also wonder at your statement that the Torah includes both the written law and the oral law -- not because that is not true, but because the oral law is so vast and diverse and so full of disagreement and differing opinions through the 2,000 years of Talmud commentary. It's not going that far amiss to say that there is validation for almost any interpretation or view of Jewish law somewhere in the vastness of the Jewish tradition.

Then there's your view of God. You are certaintly entitled to conceive of God in any way that makes sense to you, but that view of God -- as an anthropomorphic Superhuman Being who issues commandments and demands unquestioning and absolute obedience -- is certainly not monolithic in Jewish tradition. It's certainly the polar opposite of the understanding of God conveyed in the Jewish mystical tradition.

Again, I respect your beliefs about Jewish observance and the proper way to lead a Jewish life. I just don't quite understand how you can make a reasonable case for the proposition that yours is the "orthodox" (small o) way to practice Judaism, or that there is only one way -- yours -- to lead a legitimately Jewish life.

D. G. Myers said...

[T]here is only one way—yours—to lead a legitimately Jewish life.

Um, I pretty clearly say that the whole point of leading a shomer mitsvot life is to orient oneself away from oneself.

The way is not mine. It is Orthodoxy’s. Capital O.

The rest of your comment is little more than an affirmative of the self, not God nor Jewish tradition, as the sovereign authority in Jewish life.

Take your abuse of my theology, for example, which you characterize as postulating an “anthropomorphic Superhuman Being who issues commandments and demands unquestioning and absolute obedience.”

Although I do happen to challenge Maimonides’ doctrine of eyno guf when I teach Hebrew bible in a secular setting to college students, and though I believe that Maimonides’ influence has not been an unalloyed good (see Wyschogrod’s Body of Israel on this point), I neither advanced an anthropomorphic theology in my little essay nor (more to the point) is it necessary for the halakhic viewpoint that I do in fact endorse there.

Remove the word anthropomorphic from your abuse, however, and what you have done is to characterize the traditional and Orthodox response to Hashem.

You are perfectly free to reject the traditional response, but you need to acknowledge that you are substituting your own understanding for the tradition’s.

So too for your reaction to my “statement that the Torah includes both the written law and the oral law.” This statement is really little more than a platitude among the Orthodox; we rarely give it any further thought. Within Talmud study, as you know, one key distinction is between halakhot from the Torah and halakhot from the rabbis. No one assumes, however, that the rabbis are making it up as they go along. Rabbinical law is the human attempt to understand the mind of God, and in that sense it borrows the authority of Sinai.

Standard stuff, as I say. Not for a Jew whose self is autonomous, though—who is suspicious of both Sinaitic and rabbinical authority.

Finally, on the whole Pharisee/Sadducee conflict. Did you see the excellent piece at Jewish Ideas Daily on Rachel Elior’s Dead Seas Scroll scholarship?

Elior argues that the sect which preserved the scrolls, long identified as Essenes, were actually Sadducees who fled Hasmonean hegemony. In this fight, my dog would have run with the Hasmoneans. They stayed and fought and won. We celebrate their victory every December, although most American Jews celebrate the holiday’s proximity to Christmas instead.

Jonathan said...

Thank-you Kathy!

Now THAT is how to disagree. No slanderous attacks and no insults. Rather a differing position with a question or two thrown in.

It genuinely puzzles me that one's beliefs can so enrage another. When did non/un-belief become synonymous with aggression and disdain? So much for intelligent and civilized conversation.


Unknown said...

Thank you, Jonathan. Although it seems D.G. Myers doesn't agree with your kind words about the tone of my comment, since he tells me I'm being abusive.

D. G. Myers said...


I did not say that you were abusive, as if an adjective could act like an intransitive verb.

I said that you abused my theology—a very different thing.

You did not merely seek to refute it, I mean: you tried, not at all illegitimately, to reduce it to ridicule if not absurdity by means of caricature (“anthropomorphic Superhuman Being”).

As Jonathan can tell you, I don’t put much stock in tone.

Unknown said...

Dr Myers,

I ask this question with the full degree of respect and an admission of my own ignorance. I am by ethnicity Jewish but was brought up in an (at best) agnostic household and, despite the best attempts of my Christian schooling, never got the taste for faith.

Anyway, one of my most serious disagreements with 'orthodox' Christianity (evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox and so on) is its pick-and-choose approach to the OT, particularly the laws laid down in Leviticus. They are very happy to condemn homosexuality (Lev 18:22) on that basis but disregard most of the rest of it.

So, my question is: to what extent to you as an Orthodox Jew obey the laws of Leviticus? I'm particularly interested in the slightly odd ones, like 19.19 about mixed cloths. (I do apologise for using verse refs from the bible, but those are the ones I have memorised).

I apologise if this question causes offence. I promise it is solely meant as an academic inquiry on a topic on which I am miserably ill-informed; a deficit I hope to rectify as soon as possible.


D. G. Myers said...


This is exactly what distinguishes Orthodox Judaism: all of the commandments are binding. That includes the law of shatnez, or the prohibition on what you call “mixed cloths.”

By the way, the Torah does not “condemn homosexuality,” but only a sexual act. And it is entirely silent on the subject of lesbianism. The Jewish prohibition on lesbian relations is rabbinical, not Toraitic.

Unknown said...

Thank you very much. That is very informative. I'm fascinated by the logistics of obeying the laws, for instance, on a woman's uncleanness.

Though I would potentially disagree with an argument which claims not to condemn homosexuality while condemning homosexual sex acts but that is not an argument that I have, particularly, with Orthodox Judaism. The lack of Toraitic prohibition on lesbian acts seems to me to be symptomatic of an elision of female behaviour rather than a positive attribute. Again, this is true of most human society until the 20th century and therefore not a criticism I would consider worth levelling at a single religion.


D. G. Myers said...


You suggest that “The lack of Toraitic prohibition on lesbian acts seems to me to be symptomatic of an elision of female behaviour rather than a positive attribute.”

While I agree that it is not quite right to describe the Torah’s silence about lesbianism as a “positive attribute,” it is equally untrue, I think, to call the silence “symptomatic of an elision of female behaviour. . . .”

Reread my analysis of the prohibitions on homosexual acts. All manner of sex acts involving females are described in Leviticus.

Who knows what the silence betokens? Jewish tradition, at all events, did not construe the silence as consent, as is usually the dictum in law.

As for the distinction homosexuality/homosexual acts. This is very much of the moment, I believe. Our moment, I mean.

Whether homosexuality is innate or voluntary I cannot say—I have no opinion on the question—but pretty clearly, many homosexuals hold that their sexual preference is not a matter of choice.

This question is also of little interest to the Torah, however. What does matter is the possibility of sexual restraint.

Take the commandments on what you call “a woman’s uncleanness.” (The Hebrew is tamei, which usually—but not always—connotes the ritually off limits.) When a married woman experiences her menses, she and her husband must separate for a period of seven days. One week out of four, in other words, a man must exercise sexual restraint, because his wife is off limits to him.

Restraint, in fact, is the heart and soul of Jewish law on sexuality.

To suggest, then, that Orthodox Judaism requires not that a homosexual deny his nature but only that he exercise sexual restraint—that it proscribes homosexual acts, but not homosexuality—is neither far fetched nor onerous.