December 7, 2006
Sex and God
Of the three major monotheistic traditions, Judaism has arguably done the most admirable job of micromanaging our lust. Our tradition teaches us that while the sex drive can wreck us, it can also, if channeled correctly, lead to loving relationships, pleasure and procreation.
In the inevitable struggle between the rabbinical ascetics, who wanted no more sex than absolutely necessary, and the sages like Nachmanides, who held the body in higher esteem than even the soul, the Nachmanidean view prevailed. There are entire talmudic passages (Nedarim 20a; Pesachim 112b) that give a whole new meaning to the phrase Oral Law.
That's why Judaism has been more agile than other religions at handling modernity's revolution in sexual mores.
And that's why I hope and pray the authorities of the Conservative movement choose wisely when they decide this week whether to ordain openly gay rabbis and allow commitment ceremonies for homosexuals. Their decision, which was expected earlier this week, before The Journal's press time, presented an opportunity to display the kind of deftness and sensitivity that marks much of Jewish thinking and law on human sexuality.
A wise decision on their part will stand in stark contrast to some very public examples of sexual dysfunction hitting the headlines these days.
Last Friday the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $60 million to settle accusations by 45 people that priests had sexually abused them. The scandal speaks to a culture of institutional insensitivity that hid abusers even as it enabled them to victimize more children. But it also reflects a tradition that celebrated celibacy and sexual repression while repressing natural human urges and disguising deep pathologies.
And then there's Islam.
Pierre Rehov's just-released, must-see documentary "Suicide Killers," which takes us into the lives of actual Palestinian suicide bombers, reveals young men who are so sexually repressed that the alluring fairy tale of 72 virgins awaiting them in heaven becomes compelling, if not overwhelming.
Indeed, writing in the HuffingtonPost.com, Iranian-born author Hooman Majd said the putative "war of civilizations" between the West and Islam is more about sex than we could ever imagine.
Majd cites a fatwa, or edict based on religious law, issued by a senior Shiite cleric, Kadhem al-Husseini al-Haeri on the day before Baghdad fell.
"What was most noted by the media was its rejection of an American presence in Iraq," Majd writes. "Less noticed were the reasons given why: namely that if the U.S. stays in Iraq, 'it will try to spread moral decay, incite lust by allowing easy access to stimulating satellite channels and spread debauchery to weaken people's faith.'"
The Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has been facing a fatwa of its own.
It must decide based on Jewish law, or halacha, whether to ordain openly homosexual rabbis and to marry gays and lesbians in a Jewish ceremony.
The Reform movement permits these measures; Orthodoxy clearly rejects them.
The Conservative movement, which follows a 1992 decision barring openly gay individuals from its rabbinical schools and forbidding its rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies, has struggled to find a halachic basis to fully include homosexuals in Conservative religious life.
One faction hews to the traditional interpretation of Leviticus 18:22, which on the face of it abhors same-sex unions: "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination."
Another proposal would obviate the biblical verse altogether, based on the view that it's unjust.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism, proposed a third option: ending the ban but adhering to a prohibition against anal sex between men. That's right: everything but. This compromise, floated a decade ago by Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, is, at first glance, ripe for ridicule.
To traditional Jews the idea is repugnant. They tacitly condone the ordination of gay rabbis -- let's face it, all denominations have been ordaining closeted gay rabbis for years -- just not openly gay ones.
To secular and Reform Jews, the idea of telling couples how they can have sex is cruel at worst, a joke at best. And make no mistake, if his proposal wins, expect Rabbi Dorff, one of the country's leading bioethicists, to become a late-night television punchline.
I appreciate the fine line the rabbi is trying to walk -- opening the doors to a radical new acceptance of human sexuality within halacha, without risking burning down the whole house.
What seems hypocritical on its face -- telling men they can be gay but not that gay -- is actually quite honest: Rabbi Dorff is not pretending, as many traditionalists do, that homosexuality is not already a fact of Jewish life; and he is not presuming, as many more secular Jews do, that Jewish tradition can exist divorced from halachic dogma.
But in the end, I am hoping the Conservative movement, my movement, takes the more liberal tack, and welcomes gays and lesbians fully into the fold.
Greenberg himself, in his 2004 book, "Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition," provides a way to bring gays into Orthodox life with "no humiliation; no advocacy; no lying," that is a major step forward for halachic Judaism. It's a powerful lesson to all other Jews, and most all other religions.