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April 16, 2014 / 16 Nisan, 5774
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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach: Savaging the Bible Over Homosexuality


Dan Savage, prominent anti-bullying advocate, blasts the Bible in a lecture to high school students

Dan Savage, prominent anti-bullying advocate, blasts the Bible in a lecture to high school students
Photo Credit: screenshot

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I am saddened that Richard Grennell, Mitt Romney’s foreign policy spokesman, resigned over what the press is saying was pressure from the far right because he is openly gay. Who cares? He had a distinguished career as a spokesman for four United Nations Ambassadors and was widely respected. It is particularly disconcerting to learn that religious groups criticized Romney for appointing him due to his homosexuality.

As an orthodox Rabbi with a gay orthodox Jewish brother, I have endeavored mightily to reconcile the dictates of my faith with the most human, loving, and respectful approach to homosexuality. I have counseled hundreds of gay men and women of faith who seek to find their place in God’s love amid a gay lifestyle.

But such efforts at reconciliation are undone by the gratuitous hate-filled bigotry of people like Dan Savage whose response to prejudice against gays is to offer insulting and degrading prejudices against religion. Just what Savage felt he was accomplishing by irresponsibly using obscenities about the Bible at a journalism conference for High School students is beyond me. But what I do know is that the answers to homosexuality and faith do not lie either with religious haters like Fred Phelps who insult God by hating gays, nor with secular fanatics like Dan Savage who insult homosexuals by falsely portraying them as angry bigots.

Everywhere we look today we find fanatics. So often we blame religion for all the extremists. But there are plenty of secular fanatics as well. From Savage’s offensive attack against the Bible and religion in front of High School students, he appears to be one of them. I am prepared to accept that he has been misportrayed. But then let him retract and apologize for his remarks.

The Bible he assails is responsible for Western society’s most cherished values. It has given us the Ten Commandments, and thus morality. The belief that every human being is created in the image of God, and thus the infinite worth of the individual person. The crushing of Egyptian tyranny and thus the insistence that despots must be deposed. The Messianic idea of directional history and thus the ideal of human progress.

That does not mean that there aren’t aspects of the Bible that people will find unacceptable or objectionable. They have every right to disagree. But doing so while respecting people of faith is the way of the gentleman.

Once, I was sitting with my brother at a kosher restaurant in Manhattan when a religious man walked over and told me I was a dog. I asked him why the insult? He said because he read about how I defend homosexuals in the Jewish community. Ironically, he had no idea that my brother was sitting at the table with me. I thought to myself, “If I’m one step removed and I get attacked like this, how much hatred has my brother endured? How many times has he heard things like this?”

Do we gain anything by having the Dan Savages of this world demonstrate that they can give as good as they get? If Savage savages the Bible, has he struck a blow for his gay brethren, or has he just inflamed the discourse?

I receive a steady stream of sad and tragic emails from gay orthodox Jewish men and women who speak of their desire to be dead, or worse, to take their own lives. They have few to whom they can turn. They wonder how they can accept their natural sexual feelings amid their commitment to their faith. But they are committed to faith. They’re not looking to detach but rather to fit in. They do not identify with religion haters like Dan Savage because they love their religion. They are simply looking for their place within their faith and they are devastated to feel condemned by their own communities.

There is no question that we need a new religious approach to Biblical approach to homosexuality. I suggest this.

The Bible consists of 613 commandments, one of which is for a man to marry and have children, and the other is for a man to avoid gay sex with another man. That leaves 611 commandments for gay men to observe. That should keep them pretty busy. Homosexuality should be treated like lighting fire on the Sabbath or eating non-kosher foods, both Biblical prohibitions. Eating shellfish carries the same appellation of ‘abomination’ as homosexuality.’ Moreover, as I have written at length elsewhere the prohibition of homosexuality is not a moral sin but a religious sin, akin to, say, eating on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as there is no injured innocent party.

Why we have all chosen homosexuality as the worst sin in the Bible, going so far as to distance homosexuals from their own faith, is beyond me. Some say the reason is because of the word ‘abomination.’ Little do they realize the word appears 104 times in the Bible, as I wrote in a recent column analyzing the word and its usage in the Bible. So there are human approaches to homosexuality that seek to reconcile gay men and women of faith and the Bible. Savage’s attacks on the Bible are utterly unhelpful.

But such extreme positions seem to a hallmark of Savage’s thought. A few years ago the New York Times magazine did a cover story about Savage’s ideas of how infidelity just might save monogamy, the idea being that monogamy is tough and it’s about time we acknowledged it. Savage argued that couples should be far more understanding of infidelities and even discuss them before they happen so as to receive each other’s informed consent, should that prove appropriate to the relationship. Couples should trade in the straightjacket of strict monogamy, which essentially doesn’t work, and instead seek to be monogomish, that is, being essentially faithful but allowing for outside liaisons which just might prevent the dissolution of the primary relationship.

To be sure, the argument for open relationships goes back to the beginning of time, its most famous modern advocate being the celebrated British philosopher Bertrand Russell who wrote long letters to his wife about his consensual infidelities. But his open-mindedness could not surmount his jealousy when his own wife starting taking lovers. When Dora had a child by another man, he left her, later commenting, “My capacity for forgiveness, and what might be called Christian love, was not equal to the demands I was making on it . . . I was blinded by theory.” Their daughter Kathleen Tait pithily remarked about her parents’ strange marriage, “Calling jealousy deplorable had not freed them from it . . . both found it hard to admit that the ideal had been destroyed by the old-fashioned evils of jealousy and infidelity.”

The great British writer Iris Murdoch was the same. Her husband John Bayley wrote a memoir of their 40-year marriage called Elegy for Iris. He explains that his wife would not allow her marriage to curtail her freedom or her need for adventure. She insisted on being allowed to have lovers and pursued other men intermittently. Still, she wished to be married because she desired the comfort, companionship, and sense of safety that marriage offered. Bayley was not happy with the arrangement but felt he had no right to object. “In the early days, I always thought it would be vulgar – as well as not my place – to give any indications of jealousy…” So he buried the terrible pain it caused him all in the name of relationship enlightenment.

But convinced he has actually stumbled on something novel, Savage argued that we have crippled men by expecting them to be monogamous. “The mistake that straight people made was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitarian and fairsey.” The New York Times added Savage’s belief that “the feminist revolution,” rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”

Here is where we see how badly society needs the values of the Bible as opposed to the advice of Dan Savage. Has Savage discussed his theory with women? Does the average wife believe that her husband ought to have ‘a release valve’ (I love these plumbing metaphors) that is not her? I counsel thousands of people. I know the answer is an emphatic no.

Yes, monogamy may be challenging and does not come naturally. But neither does studying for an SAT, waking up at the crack of dawn to do a job, or even remaining hygienic, for that matter. I suppose that cave men probably did far more of what came naturally. No doubt bopping a woman over the head with a club and taking her by force came much more naturally than having to wine and dine her, slowly wooing the commitment from her. But the Bible’s introduction of the rules of relationships – like the need to marry and remain devoted, avoiding adultery – protected women from precisely this kind of abuse on the part of men. Today, because of the Bible’s insistence on the holiness of matrimony, we expect men to try and live honorably and live by their commitments. And the first commitment a man makes in marriage is to treat his wife like she is special, loved, and the one and only. And when a husband has sex with another woman, whatever Dan Savage thinks, it makes her feel discarded, secondary, and useless.

Dan Savage might say this is inevitable, that men are hard-wired to require lots of different women. I’ve heard these arguments ad nauseam from hard-core evolutionists who tell us that men are genetically wired to inseminate everything with a pulse.

I’m sorry. We men are human, not brutes. Our actions are under our control. And if  we screw up we cannot blame our nature but rather our bad choices. Period.

Men, like women, are intimacy seekers. The men whom I know who had affairs had them primarily to find someone who made them feel good about themselves, made them feel desirable. Men cheat out of a sense of brokenness. That’s why the most common refrain among married men to their mistresses is, “My wife doesn’t understand me.” And he thinks that some other woman would, when all along he could have made the effort to open up emotionally to his wife and find new erotic opportunities, and the feeling that he is a success, within the confines of marriage and monogamy.

But advice givers like Dan Savage do their readers an injustice when they allow men to devolve back into the bad behavior that has all too long characterized the male species. They likewise do a disservice when raging at the Bible in front of impressionable youth rather than promoting further harmony between religion and reason, faith and modernity.

Written in memory of Machla Dabakarov, the mother of a dear friend of Rabbi Shmuley, who passed away last year.

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About the Author: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, including The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.


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10 Responses to “Rabbi Shmuley Boteach: Savaging the Bible Over Homosexuality”

  1. While anyone can agree with the assertion that it is wrong to insult established religion, is it correct to give the impression that it is not the worst thing for a person to agree to do 611 of the 613 Mitzvos? If a person does want to eat shellfish, should they figure that they are at least observing the other 612? Should we view homosexuality as a condition that causes a stronger desire for breaking a commandment than the infidelity that Rabbi Boteach mentioned? Is an unfaithful spouse only transgressing one of the 613 or have they basically destroyed the family unit that the Torah so strongly values? Would most rabbonim agree that a person who commits homosexual acts is in a morally different category from one who lights a fire on Shabbos?

  2. Jason Menayan says:

    1. Gay people can marry and have children. Many do.
    2. The mitzvah against gay sex is halakha, a commonly-accepted rabbinical interpretation of an incredibly ambiguous couple of lines in Torah that probably had to do with temple prostitution, not homosexuality as we understand it today. Torah doesn't change, but halakha does. There are many reasons this specific mitzvah is on its way out.
    3. What "most rabbonim" agree on is entirely dependent on which sect of Judaism they're a part of.

  3. Jason Menayan says:

    What Boteach is missing is that, oddly (but typically), Christians are offended when Savage says their Bible is used as a cudgel to beat a historically oppressed minority. Besides, the "b.s." he points to are Torah prohibitions incumbent on Israel but that Christians believe they are exempt from; why are *Christians* offended by that? They believe the same thing!
    I know Boteach is running for Congress, and his voters aren't all Jewish. He also writes a lot about Jesus nowadays. But the feigned outrage by the right about Savage's remarks are much ado about nothing. (I suggest he and anyone else actually read/listen to what Savage said before they jump and react – Boteach admits he hasn't even done that!)

  4. To be gay is Gd's way of saying it's OK.

  5. Michael Rucks says:

    Irving, that is not what the Holy Bible says…clearly the converse is true. But of course, it is relevant ONLY if you read and trust and rely on the Bible as God's Holy Word…as I do.

  6. Rich Dweck says:

    Dear Rabbi Shmuley,

    I think it is very nice for you to think you are helping the Gay Jews by saying they should look at the prohibition of homosexuality as they see that of lighting a fire on the sabbath or eating shellfish. I get it, but I think you need to go back to the texts and find ways to work with the texts and how we can interpret the biblical prohibition in other ways. Yes the bible does use the same word toevah/abomination 104 times and you suggest that people should not single out the prohibition of homosexuality. I think you are using an easy way out, rather than to look at other ways of interpretation. Take a position that is challenging!

    When you speak against Dan Savage and state "Everywhere we look today we find fanatics. So often we blame religion for all the extremists. But there are plenty of secular fanatics as well. From Savage’s offensive attack against the Bible and religion in front of High School students, he appears to be one of them." I think you miss the point here. Religion has been used in many ways against homosexuals. The bible/religion has been used as a tool for hate. To blame people for having issues with religion is to not deal with the problem. It is no different than blaming a drug addiction on drugs. Look at the symptoms of the problem and deal with it. It is not Dan Savages opinion on open relationships, rather how religion has been used as a tool against way too many. It's time for the Jewish World to work hard to make up for the abuse done over the years.

    Lastly, thank you Rabbi Shmuley for at least trying to find ways of dealing with this. I may not agree with what you stated, but I do respect that you are at least talking about it and trying!
    Rich Dweck

    For more on this issue- JewishPinkElephant.com.

  7. Jason Menayan says:

    Michael Rucks Yes, but you seem to be Christian. Christians have a ton of beliefs that are different from Jews' beliefs.

  8. Vanessa Loy says:

    Waiting for Savage to attack the Muslim Koran over its view of homosexuality…

  9. Menachem Mendel says:

    Great point about the Mitsvot as a whole Rav Shmueli. Many people do not realize that a Mitsvah makes us holy. Just studying the Torah connects us to the Creator and Am Yisrael and makes us Holy. Talmud Torah Keneged Kulam (The study of Torah is equal to all Mitsvot) – same as giving Charity. Usually it is the same people who say that sex is evil, when in fact sex is holy, as is child birth – they are both part of the first Mitsvah to be fruitful and multiply. Also, when a person cannot fulfill a Mitsvah due to real life circumstances they are exempt and the Mitsvah is considered fulfilled. Only we know in ourselves our limitations when it comes to fulfilling each Mitsvah – including the Temple service without the Beit HaMikdash.

  10. Louise Fletcher says:

    YES!!!! Awesome article.

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