A Rabbi Interprets the Bible on Homosexuality

A Torah scroll and pointer used to read scripture.

UPDATE Nov. 10, 2022: A new documentary contends that the 1946 translation of the Revised Standard Version of The Holy Bible was a mistake that has shaped Christian history ever since. Read the article, "The Word ‘Homosexual’ Is in the Bible by Mistake: The Explosive Documentary That Is Under Attack" by Kevin Fallon of The Daily Beast.

By Rabbi Marc Aaron Kline, J.D.

Special to United Methodist Insight

I can make all the arguments from text supporting the sacred understanding that the Torah (Bible) does not prohibit homosexuality, but I have to begin with a statement of faith. I believe that God created each of us in God’s image. There is no other source of creation, and I refuse to believe that God makes mistakes in creation. If God does, as a human with my own frailties and limitations, I am in no position to judge God or each other.

I also believe that love is a family value and hate/discrimination cannot be welcome at my table or God’s. My interfaith work teaches me that these tenets play a central role in Christianity as well. While denominational religion has created segregation amongst people, these institutions are human-made and not God-made. When two people love and commit themselves to each other, there is no stronger bond, and there can be no diminution of their love. The Bible has a lot to say about love. I want to address a few places where people raise concerns.

Created for conversation

First and foremost, The TaNaCH (Torah, Prophetic texts, and Sacred Writings), which Christians call the Old Testament, is not a history. Over the course of the first six chapters of Genesis, we find four different and irreconcilable creation stories. From the beginning of the text, we understand that the authors/editors/redactors want us to see this text as an allegory. Torah’s purpose is not to give dogma; rather it is to create conversation. What is sacred about the scripture comes not from its words, but from what we do with it. In Hebrew, Torah has no vowels and no sentence structure. One can never really say, “the Bible says …” because it can say a lot of things, based on how one fills in the vowels, punctuates sentences, and vocalizes the readings.

What is sacred about the scripture comes not from its words, but from what we do with it.

The “Letter of Aristeas,” which authenticates the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Bible), muddies the water. According to tradition, Ptolemy ordered six scholars from each of the 12 tribes to come to Alexandria, Egypt, to translate the Bible from Hebrew into Greek. Problem number one is that the translation takes a lot of liberties with the text. Going from a text that is incurably flexible, they concretized the text into Greek with vowels and sentence structure. Tradition argues that this translation was divine inspiration. I am okay with that, except for problem number two. Hundreds of years earlier, the northern kingdom of Israel fell to Syria. Ten of the 12 tribes scattered across the face of the earth. Thus, Ptolemy could not have called the 12 tribes together. So, the source of a concrete, or even, static text (stemming from the Septuagint) is impossible to prove. Torah was meant to be flexible and malleable.

My tradition further teaches that we read Torah at four differing levels from literal to mystical. The attempt to be literal (P’shat in Hebrew) is the least valuable and even possibly a destructive use of scripture because it presumes vowels, punctuation, and intonation which do not exist. We have thousands of volumes full of commentary on the many allegorical truths that stem from interpreting scripture. Certainly, this dynamic plays into our conversation.

I also need to call attention to a long-held rabbinical precept demanding that our scriptural text continues to evolve to maintain relevance in the real world. There is a famous story from Talmud (4th-century document speaking of a first century “event”): the oven of aknai. The text ultimately says that even God understands that scriptural interpretation roots in how we see life happen, and not in hard and fast rules (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 59a-b).

The Bible Doesn’t Say So

So, it is possible for the church to argue that they decided homosexuality is not in keeping with the Bible, but not because the Bible says so, only because in that moment and in that conversation, they decided to interpret the Bible that way. A different conversation and different world circumstance would necessitate a different decision. Were it not enough to interpret the command to love as enough of a reason to change one’s thoughts on this matter, now that we know that one’s sexual identity/orientation is biological (and having established that God does not make mistakes), discrimination against homosexuality actually violates scripture. Psychologists uniformly agree that one’s sexuality is established by the time one is five years old. Faith and religion are matters of choice, but the homosexual cannot convert his/her sexual orientation.

Scriptural sexual orientation discrimination roots in two verses of the Bible found in Leviticus 18, which purport to speak against men sleeping together. Note: that it only applies to men, and in no place does scripture address female homosexuality.

Remember that scripture says many things. Two of many perspectives on the deeper meaning behind Chapter 18 of Leviticus would render:

Leviticus 18 is only about sexual violence and humiliation. To be sexually penetrated was potentially a form of degradation. Leviticus 18 demands that we must never visit this degradation upon another. We understand this idea from the use of the Hebrew word et and the term mishkevei ishah. “Lying with a man as one would with a woman” refers to doing something humiliating to a man. If the prohibition meant something other than degradation, it would have said im adam – "with" a man, rather than et adam, which means, roughly, "to" or "at" a man. Only male-male sex acts characterized as being done et adam, "at a man," are forbidden. Where “penetration” happens through a loving relationship and not from violence or humiliation, the prohibition does not apply.

Davar Acher (another thought): Leviticus 18 speaks of sex in the context of idolatry and separation from idolators.

o First, we find the prohibition in the larger “textual context” of prohibitions against idolatry. The textual juxtaposition is how the rabbis derived the prohibitions of the Sabbath and is a central hermeneutical principle in formulating commentary.

o Second, the Torah goes out of its way to specify that male-male sexual activity is toevah, a label it does not apply in this way to other sexual prohibitions. Toevah basically means taboo – a practice not intrinsically wrong, but wrong because it is what other nations do, and we need to separate ourselves from them: they are idolators. This explanation of a toevah categorization applied to same-sex acts, but not to other proscribed sex acts, and the location of the verse in the context of prohibitions against idolatry. Where sex has nothing to do with idolatry, i.e., when it is not a toevah, the prohibition does not apply. (One might even translate the concept of idolatry homiletically, perhaps to mean "making an idol out of sexuality," although such a reading is not required by this interpretation.) The purpose of the act matters more than the form. Put simply, if gay sex is prohibited by Leviticus 18, then the “Ten Commandments” prohibit artists depicting God, as would Exodus 34 prohibit eating pork, or mixing meat and milk. One cannot “cherry pick” through Torah. If eating pork and violating the Sabbath are abominations; if we are unwilling to stone the disobedient child in the village square or unwilling to accept that an adulteress’ belly should swell and her thigh fall off; if we are not going to take all the text literally, then it is arrogance and folly to decide which rules God really meant and which ones God did not.

For the sake of our conversation, I need to refer to the obvious, that Jesus said that he had come to fulfill the commandments of Torah, not change them. Jesus was from the school of Hillel and was a Pharisee. He abhorred the corruption of the Temple cult of the Sadducees, and as a Pharisee, he would have read Torah in the Rabbinic tradition and not in the tradition of absolutism. As it is, he never spoke about homosexuality.

Evolving Relevantly

In addition to concerns over the text, and the tradition of reading text; Torah demands that I am supposed to be an impartial judge. I must take what has been and evolve it relevantly into our conversation today. The Talmud says: "You have to judge according to that which you see with your own eyes" (Babylonian Talmud Baba Bathra 43a). As the Talmud (Yoma 83) cites the verse (Book of Proverbs 14:10), "The heart knows its own bitterness and a stranger cannot share in its joy." The sages speak about this in terms of the “requirement” for a sick person to fast on Yom Kippur. The text reads, "If a sick person says he must eat and a hundred physicians say he does not need to eat, we must listen to him. For the heart knows its own bitterness." If our faithful commitment is to spread love, we have a responsibility to honor the heart that speaks for itself this way.

Until the 19th century, Jewish tradition ruled that a deaf-mute could not serve as a kosher witness, be counted in a prayer gathering, or create marriage or divorce. The presumption rooted in the belief that because the deaf-mute person could not communicate, he/she must also be stupid. Commentaries and memoirs began paying witness to the ways in which deaf mutes could learn to communicate, evidence that their disability was not the total of their capabilities. Modern Rabbis now maintain that the “rules” prohibiting the deaf-mute from ritual and commercial acts are now void, allowing them fully to participate in religious life.

Another argument some put forth against homosexuality involves marriage and procreation. They say that tradition mandates that we multiply and fill the earth? Isaac refused to divorce Rebecca when she was barren for more than ten years. The rabbis teach us that there is more to marriage than procreation. The greater purpose of a union is the blessedness and security of committed companionship and love. If marriage was only about having children, would we deny it to a couple who could not conceive because of infertility or mental or physical disability? Moreover, in an age in which artificial insemination and adoptions exist as choices, a homosexual union is not a barrier for the raising of a family and having children.

Ultimately, acceptance that God creates great diversity is a moral, not textual, matter. As people of faith, we cannot base our acceptance of each other on one or two verses picked out of the Bible, out of the greater context of both text and tradition.

Grow Empathy

The purpose of scripture is to grow our empathy for each other, reminding us to love the stranger and know his heart. Each of us has been the stranger at some point in our lives. We know better. We have the power to turn one’s life into heaven or hell as we embrace in or cast off others from our society. There are things over which we have no control: the forces of nature or the behaviors others impose upon us. But there are catastrophes over which we have control because we have created them. The curse upon the gay person is one that we have pronounced ourselves. This tragedy we have imposed on our children is not the will of God. The blessing and curse, life and death given us is our choice. The Talmud teaches us, "Better a man cast himself in a fiery furnace than that he put his fellow to shame in public" (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 43b).

The curse upon the gay person is one that we have pronounced ourselves. This tragedy we have imposed on our children is not the will of God.

Despite its intended purpose, the Bible has been misused to justify colonialism, slavery, misogyny, and a host of nightmarish behaviors. After church “picnic and lynchings” were regular Sunday occurrences outside white churches through the Jim Crow days.

It was only within the past few decades that The United Methodist Church saw its way to confront its own racial bias. The 18th and 19th century split of the African Methodist Episcopal and AME Zion churches created a crisis for the Methodist Church, yet there were African American ministers who maintained faith and stayed with the predominantly white branch. I struggle thinking how a religious body that professes the perfection of God can demean God’s creation. If one professes to love God but does not love what God created, he is dishonest. I do not understand how one can be faithful if one holds back love, especially in a tradition that teaches God is love.

We must free the Bible from the narrowness imposed on it. Religion should be the force that spreads love and goodness through the world. We owe it to our children and to their children: faith needs to build relationships, bring hearts into concert, open souls to each other’s love and fulfill the prophets’ visions of a world redeemed. Whether we are looking for the first coming of a Messianic Age, a return of a Messianic figure, or simply peace in the world, if religion does not find a way to lead in this work of peace, it cannot get done. Yet, so long as we discriminate against those amongst us, overrules we decide to mandate upon God, we will all suffer. Agape love is not partial as to how it applies; it demands that each of us love and embrace each other as a child of the very same Source of Creation.

Rabbi Marc Aaron Kline, J.D., serves as Rabbi at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. There he is the co-founder of the New Jersey Interfaith Alliance, the Chair of Interfaith Activities for the Heart of New Jersey Jewish Federation, and led two interfaith clergy trips to Israel on behalf of the Federation. While serving a congregation in Lexington, Kentucky, he was an adjunct instructor of pastoral care and multi-faith worship at Lexington Theological Seminary; served as the lead consultant with Crestwood Christian Church as it re-envisioned its “Christian Mission;” as co-creator of the Lay Chaplaincy team for the Lexington Police Department, and chaired the Chaplaincy Advisory Board of St. Joseph / Kentucky One Health Hospital in Lexington. Over the course of his career, he has focused his ministry on matters of social justice and interfaith bridge building.

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