On Halakha AND LGBT: A Response To Professor Koller
Recently, the American people commemorated the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001. The attack on the World Trade Center was not only a physical attack on the American people, but an assault on our system of values. It was an attempt to weaken our spirit and surrender to the tyranny of Islamic terrorism.
Of course, one of our most dear values is freedom of speech: the idea that every citizen of this country has the right to freely express his or her ideas, thoughts and opinions without the fear of being penalized. We as well, being American Jews, hold on dearly to this value.
However, we are not simply Americans — we are also Orthodox Jews. While there are many different takes on the idea of Torah U’Madda, at the most basic level it involves the utilization of our Torah values as a guiding light to study and explore the wisdom of the world. While we certainly hold the value of free speech dearly, it cannot remain unchecked by the Torah’s own system of values.
It is in this spirit that I was deeply perturbed by an article recently published by the YU Observer, “On Halakha And LGBT,” by Dr. Aaron Koller, chair of the Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva College and professor of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies. For those who have not read his article, I encourage you to do so before proceeding to read this article. Since Koller quotes a number of rabbinic statements to bolster his position, I wanted to take the time to explicate how and why these sources do not actually lead to the conclusion that he reaches.
I will not summarize or paraphrase the words of Koller. I do not want my readers to think that I am embellishing or overdramatizing Koller’s position. Instead, I will quote the concluding sentences of his essay directly:
So, in short: In a clash between humanity and halakha, opt for humanity, and have enough faith in halakha that the problem will be solved. And if somehow the conflict remains intractable, I would rather suffer for being a good person than sacrifice someone else’s life on the altar of my religiosity.
With these concluding lines, Koller makes his position clear. In a clash between the explicit will of God as expressed in the Torah and his own modern sensitivities to human feelings, he chooses the latter. A cursory read of Koller’s article would suggest that he has rabbinic support for his position of rejecting explicit verses in the Torah in the face of compassion and sympathy for his fellow. I hope to demonstrate the complete lack of evidence for such a position.
A number of passages that Koller cites demonstrate that in the face of ethical considerations, the rabbis chose to interpret Biblical verses that are ambiguous in their precise meaning or application in a more humane or sensitive fashion (Sukkah 32a, Sanhedrin 45a, Shabbat 64b). In these passages, there is no explicit Biblical verse that the rabbis are uprooting based on their own sensibilities. Rather, they are interpreting and applying Biblical verses based on their own sensitivities. Another passage Koller quotes demonstrates that the rabbis would not enact a rabbinic decree if they thought it was societally unviable (Avodah Zarah 36a). This in no way suggests that it is OK to discard explicit Biblical verses.
Koller additionally cites the well-known dictum of “the Torah was not given to ministering angels.” According to Masoret Ha’Shas (Berakhot 25b), this dictum is employed four times in the Talmud. The first time is during a discussion of a law that is purely rabbinic (Berakhot 25b). The next two times are regarding laws that are physically impossible to keep (Yoma 30a and Kiddushin 54a). It is not physically impossible for one man to abstain from sleeping with another man. While it might be very difficult for him to abstain from homosexuality, it is not physically impossible for him to do so. The final time is an explication of why the stones used in the Temple’s construction were only sanctified after the construction was complete and not afterwards. The reason given is that since “the Torah was not given to angels,” we are concerned that a construction worker may get tired while working and rest on one of the Temple’s stones, thus desecrating its sanctity. Therefore, the stones were only sanctified after the Temple’s construction was complete (Me’ilah 14b). None of these four sources indicate that it is permitted to discard explicit Biblical verses when they fly in the face of our sensibilities.
While my writing gives the impression that I am taking a hard stance against the LGBT movement, I also want to express the importance of sensitivity to this issue, albeit not at all in the same way that Koller utilizes it. If a person is wholeheartedly committed to the Torah, yet feels a sense of estrangement from the Orthodox community due to his sexual proclivities, I have nothing but empathy for him. If someone is struggling with determining how he, as a celibate, will be able to fit into the broader Jewish community with its heavy emphasis on the family unit, I have nothing but empathy for him. It is only those who brazenly and wantonly disregard explicit Biblical verses whom I have no empathy for.
Given Orthodox Jewish understandings of the Bible as the word of God and the commandments of the Torah as eternal, it is hard to argue that Koller’s position falls within the accepted theological boundaries of Orthodox Judaism. It is very simple: Orthodox Jews choose to listen to explicit Biblical verses, while non-Orthodox Jews choose not to. Koller writes that he chooses not to. In rejecting an explicit Biblical verse, Koller stands opposed to the most basic beliefs of Orthodox Judaism. It behooves the administration of Yeshiva University to ask themselves if it is appropriate to have someone with such blatantly anti-halakhic beliefs as head, or even part of, its Jewish Studies department.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons