The Gay Rights Movement: A Jewish Perspective 5 May 2015

LGBT FlagIn her Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich writes that God arranges that even sin will “turn out for the best.” This is a bizarre statement, which is difficult to understand. How can something which God abhors turn out to be anything but evil? To Jewish ears, in particular, there is something inherently strange about the idea. Does the Jewish tradition not write that the growth of the heave offering is itself heave offering (Terumot 9:4) and that something that emerges from the spiritually unclean is spiritually unclean (Bekhorot 1:2)? In other words, if something is prohibited, how can it produce something permissible?

As strange as it may sound, Maimonides (1138-1204), a medieval figure that is probably more familiar to Jews, makes this type of argument about Christianity. In the censored section of the eleventh chapter of his Laws of Kings in his legal code, the Mishneh Torah, he writes:

But the thoughts of the almighty, there is no capacity for mankind to understand them. For our ways are not his ways, and our thoughts are not his thoughts. And all these things of Jesus…they are but to straighten the path to the king Messiah and to prepare the entire world to worship God in unison, as it says “for then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of HaShem, to serve Him with one consent.”

The fact that this explanation, namely that Christianity brought the world closer to monotheism, is uncharacteristic of Maimonides – the consummate rationalist is not one to speculate on God’s involvement in the world – makes what he says more applicable: Maimonides is simply speculating. Like Maimonides, then, this article will also engage in pure speculation, but in this case, it will about the Gay Rights movement.

The reason the comparison is apt, at least in my opinion, is because like Christianity, the movement is based on something that is forbidden in normative Jewish law. Just as both the belief in the Trinity rather than in the one God and the abrogation of laws are anathematic to Jewish practice, the physical intimacy of a gay relationship is prohibited in Jewish law even in the most lenient of interpretations. Also, like Christianity, the movement has recently had a fair amount of success. The movement does not have a Constantine, who famously gave Christianity the boost it needed in 312 CE by making it the official religion of the state, but there are already 36 states in America that now recognize gay marriage, according to ABC News.

So now the question arises, like Christianity (for Maimonides, at least) does the Gay Rights movement have any redeeming qualities, from a Jewish standpoint, that would allow us to hypothesise that divine providence played a role in its success? To answer this question, I will draw on the philosophical ideas that underpin the movement, as well as on two of the monumental court cases pertaining to Gay Rights and on the well-known ideas expressed by prominent Gay Rights activists. The logic at looking at these sources is straightforward: the philosophical, legal, and social ideas that form the backbone of the Gay Rights movement are simultaneously changing the public’s perception on these matters. No greater gauge exists for the consequences of the movement than looking at the levels on which its ideas operate.

I begin with the moral framework for Gay Rights. In his book, The Morality of Gay Rights, (Carlos Ball says that political philosopher Michael Sandel’s critique of the thinker John Rawls has a strong bearing on Gay Rights. Unlike Rawls who sees the individual as prior to – and disconnected from – society, Sandel sees him or her as intertwined with the community, a notion called communitarianism, and he argues that a just society can be formed only when individuals play a role in their community. Ball says that the impact of Sandel’s idea on Gay Rights is profound, since gay and lesbian individuals can find fulfilment only in communities. To simplify this, a society that allows communities to flourish is beneficial to its gay and lesbian members.

In classical Jewish thought, the focus on community is ubiquitous, but a particularly useful example is found in the Talmud in tractate Brakhot 8a, where the Talmud writes about the importance of praying with a community, even stating that God is never repulsed by prayers that are said with others. As a tradition that practicing Jews engage in three times a day, prayer is a fundamental part of Jewish life. And yet, if it is not with a community of worshippers, prayer is more or less meaningless. This is probably the clearest possible indication of the importance of a community to Jewish life.

A statue of Maimonides (died 1204) in Cordoba, Spain.

A statue of Maimonides (died 1204) in Cordoba, Spain.

In addition to communitarianism, Ball also sees what he calls “moral liberalism” as being relevant for Gay Rights. Unlike “traditional liberalism,” which is a modern philosophical view of human fulfilment that is heavily based on the capacity to think rationally and also brackets the question of what is “good”, moral liberalism is more cognizant of human needs. The latter also recognizes one’s dependence on others and does concern itself with moral questions. Since gay and lesbian individuals have physical needs, it is not difficult to see why a philosophical view of mankind that takes physical needs into account is beneficial to Gay Rights. Interestingly enough, moral liberalism is also consistent with the rabbinic view of human beings. This can be seen in Sanhedrin 38b, where God asked the angels if he should create mankind. The Talmud goes on to recount the response of the angels, which was, “what will he do?”, and says that once God answered that question, they advised against it. In other words, the Talmud is saying that man is defined not on rational terms, but very much on moral ones, namely, by his or her actions and the value of those deeds. In this sense, the moral argument for the Gay Rights movement is in line with the classical Jewish view.

Having looked at the moral component, I now turn to two of the watershed court cases. The first case is Baker v. Vermont. The case, which is discussed in Lee Walzer’s Gay Rights in Trial (2002), related to gay marriage but was done with an active effort not to threaten the future of heterosexual marriage. According to court documents provided by Walzer, the wording for the basis of the decision, is “the government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people.” The same focus on the government’s responsibility towards its people can be seen in another case, Romer v. Evans, which related to legal protection of gay and lesbian people. The wording found in the court documents of that case is as follows: “central both to the rule of law and to our own Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection is the principle that government and each of its parts remain open on impartial terms to all who seek its assistance.”

This emphasis on the role of government stands in stark contrast to what the prophet Samuel tells his people when they request a king (Samuel 1, chapter 8: 1-17, JPS Translation):

This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: he will take your sons, and appoint them unto him…And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your men-servants, and your maid-servants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks; and ye shall be his servants.

Clearly, political leaders are suspect in the eyes of the Jewish tradition. Their intentions are seen as aiming towards anything but the good of their subjects. Indeed, as Professor James A. Diamond notes, from Joshua onwards, the Bible can be seen as a long tirade against kings. Seen in this way, one of the crucial benefits of the Gay Rights movement can be said to be the corrective effect it has had on the view of government and its responsibility.

Finally, on the most basic level, the Gay Rights movement has taught the world about tolerance and dignity. Urvashi Vaid, a rights activist, speaking in 1993 during a March on Washington, made note of the proximity of the crowd to the Holocaust Museum, and said “gay people are indebted to the struggle of the Jewish people against bigotry and intolerance.” Vaid was clearly onto something. The Gay Rights movement at that moment was building on the Jewish experience and argument that bigotry is not tolerated.

This idea can be found in the Bible when Miriam, the sister of Moses, the greatest of all prophets, is admonished and publically shamed for speaking unfairly against Moses’ Cushite wife (12:1-15). Further, the Jewish tradition emphasises the importance of being non- judgmental. The rabbis say, for instance, that one ought to first scrutinize himself and then scrutinize others, (Bava Metziah 107b) and also say “judge the entire person favorably” (Avot 1:6). Perhaps underlying these tolerant attitudes is the verse in Ecclesiastes 7:20 that says “For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.”

Yet another idea popularised by the Gay Rights movement was expressed by Barack Obama. At his second inauguration, President Obama said, “if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” In the Jewish tradition, the notion of seeing human beings as created in God’s “image” stems from Genesis (1:27) and is reinforced in the statement about how beloved mankind is, since it is created in tzelem Elohim (Avot 3:14). The idea is also seen in the rabbinic notion of kavod ha-briyot (human dignity) where even strict Sabbath laws take human dignity into account, (Sabbath 81b) and also in the practice of greeting every person one sees (Brakhot 17a).

More broadly, Evan Wolfson, a lawyer, author, and well-known advocate for gay marriage, sums the values behind the freedom to marry in the following words: “The freedom to marry reflects basic values of love, commitment, family, and fairness—and that’s what has inspired a majority of Americans and their elected representatives to decide to support it.” These ideas seem to neatly summarise much of what Judaism stands for. The rabbis famously praise love for its own sake (Avot 5:16); “a fair judge brings about the divine presence” (Sanhedrin 7a).

Now I can finally return to Maimonides, and speculate, as he did about Christianity, that providence played a role in the success of the Gay Rights movement, so that the values that underpin it would permeate our society. In fact, Maimonides may have even agreed with me. Although he would frown on homosexuality – even in his most philosophical work, the Guide to the Perplexed, he considers the reasoning for the prohibition against homosexuality to be obvious (3:49) – he may have admitted that the Gay Rights movement has imbued the world with valuable ideas about the role of government, the individual’s need for the community, and human dignity and tolerance – and that providence may just have played a role in spreading those ideas.

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About Jonathan Milevsky

Jonathan Milevsky is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario where he is working on the natural law theory of David Novak. Jonathan has an M.A. in Humanities and a Jewish Studies Diploma from York University in Toronto Canada, where he researched Maimonides' and Nietzsche's views on character development. Jonathan lives in Toronto with his spouse and three children.

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