Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor of New York, sparked controversy last week by declaring in a speech at an Orthodox synagogue that children shouldn’t be “brainwashed” into considering homosexuality acceptable. He later apologized, saying that he supports gay rights but opposes gay marriage. The Rabbi who hosted Mr. Paladino’s speech then retracted his endorsement of the candidate. Likewise, the Jewish Standard in New Jersey recently sparked a community-wide uproar by publishing a gay wedding announcement.
People of faith insist that homosexuality is the most serious of sins because the Bible calls it an abomination. But the word appears approximately 122 times in the Bible. Eating non-kosher food is an abomination (Deut.14:3). A woman returning to her first husband after being married in the interim is an abomination (Deut. 24:4). And bringing a blemished sacrifice on G-d’s altar is an abomination (Deut. 17:1.). Proverbs goes so far as to label envy, lying, and gossip as that which ‘the Lord hates and are an abomination to Him’ (3:32, 16:22).
As an orthodox Rabbi who reveres the Bible I do not deny the Biblical prohibition on male same-sex relationships. Rather, I simply place it in context. There are 613 commandments in the Torah. One is to refrain from gay sex. Another is for men and women to marry and have children. So when Jewish gay couples come to me for counselling and tell me they have never been attracted to the opposite sex in their entire lives and are desperately alone, I tell them, “You have 611 commandments left. That should keep you busy. Now, go create a kosher home with a mezuzah on the door. Turn off the TV on the Sabbath and share your festive meal with many guests. Put on tefillin and pray to G-d three times day for you are His beloved children. He desires you and seeks you out.”
Once, I said to my friend Pat Robertson, whom I have always found engaging and open in our conversations, “Why can’t you simply announce to all gay men and women, ‘Come to Church. Whatever relationship you’re in, G-d wants you to pray. He wants you to give charity. He wants you to lead a G-dly life.” He answered to the effect that homosexuality is too important to overlook, seeing as it poses the most grave risk to the institution of marriage. Other evangelical leaders have told me the same. Homosexuality is the single greatest threat to the family.
But with one of out two heterosexual marriages failing, with seventy percent of the internet dedicated to the degradation of women through pornography, and with a culture that is materially insatiable even as it remains all-too spiritually content, can we straight people say with a straight face that gays are ruining our families? We’ve done a mighty fine job of it ourselves, thank you very much.
The extreme homophobia that is unfortunately to be found among many of my religious brothers and sisters – in many Arab countries being gay is basically a death sentence – stems from an even more fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sin. The Ten Commandments were given on two tablets to connote two different kinds of transgression, religious and moral. The first tablet discusses religious transgressions between G-d and man such as the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, and desecrating the Sabbath. The second tablets contains the moral sins between man and his fellow man, like adultery, theft, and murder.
The mistake of so many well-meaning people of faith is to believe that homosexuality is a moral rather than a religious sin. A moral sin involves injury to an innocent party. But who is being harmed when two, unattached, consenting adults are in a relationship? Rather, homosexuality is akin to the prohibition of lighting fire on the Sabbath or eating bread during Passover. There is nothing immoral about it, but it violates the divine will.
For the record, I am in favor of gay civil unions rather than marriage because I am against redefining marriage. But I hardly believe that gay marriage is the end of Western civilization. For me the real killer is the tsunami of divorce and the untold disruption to children as they become yo-yos going from house to house on weekends. The American religious and electoral obsession with all-gay-marriage-all-the-time has lead to a values-vacuum in America where it is near impossible to discuss real solutions to the erosion of family life. For instance, making marital counselling tax-deductible would, I believe, do infinitely more to bolster the crumbling institution of marriage than any opposition to gay relationships. Likewise, promoting a code of gentlemanly conduct for men on American College campuses and negating the prevailing hook-up culture where sex even precedes dating could spark a return to romantic and long-term commitments. Finally, getting more families to sign up for our international ‘Turn Friday Night Into Family Night’ would give children in general, and girls in particular, greater self-esteem as they are focused on by their parents for at least two hours each week without any electronic interference. And children with self-confidence later create stronger adult relationships.
I have countless gay friends whose greatest fear, like so many straight people, is to end up alone. Should we merely throw the book at these people? Does not the same book, the Bible, also say, “It is not good for man to be alone?” And all I’m asking from my religious brethren is this: even as you oppose gay relationships because of your beliefs, please be tortured by your opposition. Understand that when our most deeply held beliefs conflict with our basic humanity, we should feel the tragedy of the conflict, rather than simply find convenient scapegoats upon whom to blame all of America’s ills.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author, most recently, of ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life, and is founder of This World: The Values Network, a national organization that promotes universal Jewish values to heal America. Follow him on Twitter @Rabbishmuley and at his website: www.shmuley.com