2 May 13 // Clobber Passages

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As part of a series on “The Clobber Passages” in scripture, I recently wrote this consideration of Leviticus 18 & 20. Comments are, as always, welcome and I encourage you to check out what is happening with the organization OneTable.

-Randall

2 May 2013

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Leviticus 18 and 20 are probably the first passages that come to mind when discussing religion and homosexuality, other than the story of Lot, Sodom, and Gomorrah. It seems so clear how we should read Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 – don’t do it.

“Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” (Lev. 18:22)

“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” (Lev. 20:13)

Rather than deconstruct these passages and rebuild them in a way that suits me, I want to assume we should take them at face value. The text of Leviticus is clear – sexual relations between men, or rather, treating a man as if he were a woman, is wrong according to scripture.[1] Further, I don’t even want to excuse their inclusion in scripture by discussing the various theories of who authored the Pentateuch, or over what periods of time the text may have been revised and updated to affirm new cultural norms. I am not a historian, and while I certainly value insights into the Hebrew Scriptures, I believe the volume of commentary and research remains close, but not conclusive, just like study of any other epoch. Rather, I am more interested in the fact that these passages have survived over time in many distinct faith communities. This, I believe, is a testament to the commonly held beliefs of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who hold these passages as sacred that we should not take lightly or try to argue against our predecessors as though we, this current generation, have the moral authority or insight to correct our foreparents. Having already assumed that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 should be taken at “face value”[2] and reading these verses as explicitly condemning certain sexual practices, what remains to be said? Having been raised in the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, there is an expression that is appropriate here – “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.” If Jews, Christians and Muslims can agree on something, shouldn’t we give this idea the benefit of the doubt?

Here’s why and how I don’t:

The easiest argument to make is to persuasively reason that the other sexual practices in both Leviticus 18 and 20 are archaic, to convince you that we should reject a traditional reading since sexual behaviors and mores have evolved. Rather, no good citizen of the world is bound to the Levitical laws since they are relics of an ancient time and their proper place is the rubbish bin of history. An easy argument, perhaps, though it is both anachronistic if not Oedipal in nature – each successive generation supplanting its predecessor – though it is, above all, incorrect.

In February of this year, Charles Horton of Cedar Springs, MI, was imprisoned for having intercourse with his dog.[3] It was not the first time his sexual preferences brought him before the court, as court documents reveal he was previously charged (and penalized) in the center of progressive culture, Grand Rapids, MI. More, he is not an exception. Kurtis Peterson, also of Michigan, was sentenced to 15 years for bestiality earlier this month.[4] Also in February, Kara Vandereyk of Las Vegas was charged with having sex with her pit bull.[5] In each case, their subsequent sentences indicate that the Levitical laws are still valid and in usage. Some sexual practices are simply not allowed in our society, evidence that the Levitical reasoning is still being affirmed. But rather than treat these three people as a statistical deviation, I want to volunteer that I personally know of two instances of a woman getting “stuck” with a horse in Louisiana, I know of two instances of incestuous relations in Arkansas, and a third incident of a woman with a dog in Tennessee. Perhaps I need new friends. Or perhaps we are able to individually turn a blind eye to those practices taking place in our own bedrooms. Whatever the case, it seems both chapters, 18 and 20, are more concerned with incest.[6]

The writer(s) are rather explicit in which familial sexual dynamics are prohibited in the community than this vague phrasing of sex “with a man as with a woman.” You yourself may have heard curious tales of sexual deviance over your lifetime and your response may very well confirm the legitimacy of these practices being disavowed. Or perhaps you feel these passages do not go far enough. Perhaps there are sexual liaisons you feel are “unbiblical” though there is no explicit prohibition. In this, it seems we are quick to assume what the text means and how far it goes even as we demand others to take scripture seriously. We want others to share our morals, when there is no precedent in scripture. That is, we want others to have the interpretational ideals and subsequent morality that we do and so we seek to both legislate and prohibit others from expressing their sexuality. That is, we are shocked to know humans have sex with animals or relatives, and there are reasons why which exist off the page. Further, while certain areas have “relaxed” laws about incestuous couples, this does not prevent either their occurrence or the frequency that normalizes them.[7] Other countries have such a high degree of incestuous coupling that applications have been created to inform the parties whether they share relatives[8] and yet, when we hear about these things, our reaction is not to paint a sign, rally our friends and coworkers, and inform these incestuous neighbors of ours that they are horrible people destined to Hell, corrupting the morality of a nation, and endangering our children. I believe this too is indicative of something; we choose our battles for particular reasons. More, we as an American culture actively support polygamous relationships by consistently giving high ratings to shows like Sister Wives, underage marriages in My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and adultery with so many films and television programs that space would not allow me to enumerate them all. Naturally, for psychological purposes, we resist this information and distance it from ourselves. That’s television, not reality or I don’t know people like that. That doesn’t happen here.[9] We are quick to disturb the peace when it suits our socio-religious purposes and abstain on other matters – a practice I and many others refer to as “buffet theology” for the ability to pick and choose what ideas you like without balance a meal out. Want a God of ice cream and sprinkles? No problem.

 

The thing is, we’re not shy about discussing how alternative forms of media affect, both explicitly and implicitly, young people and demoralize them. When the Boston bombing took place, news sources were quick to seek out what media outlets and entertainment channels had influenced the Tsarnav brothers, so if we are speaking of natural behavior, or “what comes naturally” over and against the ways that cultural exposure changes our mores, we would do well to first acknowledge the ways in which we naturally distance ourselves from information we feel is not relevant to us and also acknowledge the break from reality we are actively participating in. How many times have we been shocked to find out that the thing we thought could never happen to us caught us unawares because we thought “that kind of thing only happens on television” or “over there, in that other country.”

Indeed, it seems that even the conservative groups among us want to create a double standard of both Lev. 18 and 20, where sexual and social practices are being discussed. We want to be entertained by the sins we reject in one moment and then denounce what happens in other people’s bedrooms, behind closed doors, as being wagged in our faces. This is hardly the kind of liberation Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad intended; rather, it is unethical behavior that shames our faith. When we are not paying attention to out world, we can’t come along later to those squatters who farmed and nourished it and claim some moral entitlement. While, there is certainly ground here for making some comment about hypocrisy among religious communities, I also accept that as a given and won’t argue it. People sometimes cannot explain the intricacies of their choices – religious or not. Even the well-intentioned apostle Paul once wrote that he didn’t understand why he participated in things he hated and was unable to live up to the ideals he had for himself.[10] Indeed, the “father of our faith” Abraham seemed rather faithless in spiritual matters, immoral in social norms, and were we to read the Genesis account of his life as a document of ancient literature, his sexual impotence would be a physical manifestation of these internal shortcomings. None of us are able to live up to the standards we set for ourselves, whether straight, gay, or anywhere else, and on this I believe our united faiths can agree that grace and mercy are both desired and appreciated as we seek to correct and modify out behavior. But rather than use this as an excuse, we must confront the reality that our inability to extend hospitality, to welcome and invite gays and lesbians to our community, is simply not supported by our scriptures or our ideals. Marginalizing, and riotously overcoming another person was never what God intended.

It has been my experience in studying the ever-panoramic research findings of social scientists, extensive conversations with friends, counseling with parishioners at the churches I have worked for over the last decade and a half, viewing of numerous documentaries and films, and listening to LGBTQs at rallies and public events, that sexuality is not a “behavior.” That is, same-sex attraction isn’t about a certain behavior that we can over time restrict, modify, or condition ourselves to abstain from. It is a desire so deeply ingrained in out neurochemistry that even the best reparative therapists simply cannot root it out. It is an exercise in metaphor to explain why the opposite gender appeals to us on so many levels. Biologists have conducted numerous studies of hormones, pheromones, and social conditioning and still come up short. I trust the same is true for my gay and lesbian friends – the mixture of our chemistry and biology which compels us to attraction is not something we can consciously control or even condition ourselves to respond to. For some, this points to the power of biology and, without mutual exclusion, the pervasive creative abilities of a metahuman cosmic force many call “God.” For others, the power rests not with God, but with evil. It points to the power of sin and how deeply ingrained sin can be in the human experience. As for those frequent incidences of small children who exhibit same-sex attraction but have not yet reached that age of accountability to “choose” and the well-documented cases of homosexual attraction in other mammals, these are further effects of the cause of sin, similar to birth abnormalities. We may be able to forgive the sick or perhaps even heal them, but we don’t have to acknowledge their wholeness in the tapestry of the global experience. They begin and end with sin, for this is their lot and they are destined for damnation. Contrarily, what of myself as a straight male in his early thirties? How can I articulate the myriad combination of chemical, biological, and psychosomatic reactions that affirm my heterosexuality? It is not one or even a handful of behaviors; it is a concoction of neuroplasticity, chemical combinations, social learning, and yes, an erection that either needs to be attended to or “modified” to the other side of my pants. My sexuality, like that of my homosexual neighbor, is beyond my control and yet one of us can continue with privilege while another is damned just for existing.

Continuing down this line of thinking and theology leads us not forward to the Talmudic writings of the Babylonian communities, to the collected sayings of Jesus, to the writings of Paul, or even much further to the writings of the esteemed and controversial Reformers. We do not arrive at a determination of sin, or something having gone wrong in the human experiment along the way as though homosexual attraction is a new development, a mutated and aggressive form of the sin disease. Rather, this line of thinking leads us to a gross misreading that the world has been made flawed or has fallen outside the scope of a sovereign God, a priori. It refuses to accept the goodness of the world around us as much as the times in which we live, actively rejecting mounting evidence of a God who is dealing with people in new situations and contexts, the changing views of faith communities over time in different locations, social and contextual norms. Such a view ultimately refuses to affirm that same-sex attraction may be, indeed, God-given and “good,” for this kind of apophatic belief is predicated on the worldview that humanity is inherently sinful, and that sexuality is the most egregious offense of all for sexuality went all wrong after the Fall with the impact of original sin. Put another way, this view holds that sexuality – one of the most basic expressions and enjoyments of all life forms – is inherently sinful, and that or rather sexual behavior is a curse. Such a view is anachronistic, spiritually detrimental, even I would posit heretical. It further ignores the parallel between the writings of Leviticus and the ways in which faith communities have developed social contracts with each other over time in matters of law, agrarian reciprocity, and sexual expression. To return to the headlines I mentioned earlier, it would helpful to pause for a moment to distinguish whether your reaction was based on personal mores, spiritual insight, or social norms.

 

In my own faith, which is a strand of Christianity that relies more heavily on the Hebrew Scriptures than Christian, I find it helpful to recall the Acts narrative, which informs how I understand welcoming and rejecting new friends into a congregation of faith. In Acts, the Early Christians sought to redefine their faith based on the Pentateuch – the first five works of the Hebrew Scriptures. The First Christians held Leviticus and Deuteronomy in such high esteem that they not only affirmed it implicitly, they explicitly referenced it in their early creeds. Indeed, this makes sense because Jesus quoted Deuteronomy upwards of 46 times and from Genesis upwards of 27 times. The apostle Paul references the Hebrew Scriptures so frequently that one can hardly say they understand the epistles at all without having read the Pentateuch. While Jesus borrows from Deuteronomy more than any other book, and Paul borrows from Genesis more than any other book, the Early Christian community in the Acts narrative borrows from Leviticus, which heavily informed their creeds, doctrine, and behavior – namely, but not limited to, Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.

Peter’s vision in Acts 10 is a turning point for the new understanding of Christianity. Though the leadership of the Early Christians maintained ties to their Jewish heritage, their acceptance of Jesus is not the defining break from Judaism. Rather, Peter’s reimagination of dietary restrictions – namely, that there are none, for God has blessed all of creation – upset previous conclusions about what was allowed, what was permissible, who was holy and who was included in “the people of God.” This migration takes place not as a novel paradigm shift, nor even a reinterpretation of scripture, but as a reaffirmation of Pentateuch. The Earth and all of its properties, inventions, systems, land holdings, species and genus are affirmed as “good” under the Kingdom of God. Any counterargument to this cannot be sustained, for it is against the will of God. Indeed, the greatest challenge to the Church as they face this new frontier is not policing the behavior of those who are already in, but coming to accept the changes taking place as God brings other cultures and understandings to their shared table of community.

Indeed, I – and I hope you as well – love the ideas presented in Leviticus, even those concerned with sexuality, food, and clothing which seem so fascinatingly outdated in our own time. I would never seek to “rewrite” them or change their intentions towards holiness.[11] Rather, I feel we should agree that the cohesive interpretation of these passages is important both to the traditions of our shared faiths as much as our shared understanding today.

However, and on this I hope we can agree as well, our interpretation does not always respect creation, humanity, or the ways that scripture evolves over time. At some point, we were told that the canon of scripture was closed and we have subsequently come to believe in some mystical sense that our holy texts are dead, that they stopped “breathing” with respirational cycles of in and out, and that there is movement – shaky and tremulous as it may be at times. Tragically, many of us, myself included, obey the memory of a dead relic more than we appreciate the living presence of God among us. This is, I believe, what both the books of Leviticus and Acts account are all about – God among the people. It is not the acts of the Hebrews or apostles or even the people that interest us, that stir our imagination and evoke our deep desire for something more meaningful, more beautiful. It is instead the actions of God’s presence among the peoples – those already part of God’s activity in the world, and those who so clearly are outside of it.

As a parallel, who can go to a wedding without a sense of wonder and joy? Who can go dancing without the body swaying? Or who can play without a child without the happiness of your own childhood wonder coming out? Who has not longed for someone to talk to when cleaning the apartment? Who has not desperately longed to talk to someone when driving long distances? There is a transcendence behind activities that both accepts and welcomes others into our shared experience. In this light, as radical as it may sound to some, I believe this is what is happening with rabbis like Sharon Brous, David Wolpe, and the interfaith adoption of the writings of Joseph Telushkin and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Their acceptance into other faith communities is evidence that God is, indeed, among all peoples. The writings and ministries of these Jews are welcomed in Christian circles, even as they welcome and actively invite Christians into their congregations and homes. Muslims like Rumi are used to bring people – Jews and Christians alike – to an awareness and love for Allah heretofore unknown. We are, across all nations and social restrictions, falling in love with God more each day and so pleasantly surprised to find more people – like us as much as unique unto themselves – who share our desire for the presence of God among us, bringing us together in some serious way very much like a family. The beauty and goodness explored by these faiths should not surprise us, and we should not be surprised when God continues to act in ways that are unsettling to our predetermined theological understandings. It should not surprise us when there is evidence that creation is “good”. It should not surprise us when films by avowed atheists touch us on spiritual levels. And it should not surprise us when gays and lesbians desire to celebrate with us, for they are also welcomed and blessed as “good” by God.

 

The book of Acts gives us this precedent: Jews understand Peter’s vision as a decisive moment in the distancing of the Jesus community. That same Jesus community, and Christians since that time, have understood Peter’s vision as allowing Gentiles into their midst. Admittedly, it is a self-serving idea. The envisioned food was a symbol of the “unclean” peoples, the Gentiles, pronounced “clean” and welcomed into the people of God. As a Gentile, I celebrate Peter’s vision. God’s command is about food, but the food is symbolic and indicative that the faith community should no longer continue divisive practices. Gentiles, if the metaphor of welcoming Gentiles into the faith is correct, are now “clean” and resolutely part of the people of God where they were previously not welcomed.[12]

This reading of Acts 10 is affirmed in both the Gospel of Luke, especially Jesus’s final words about his intention for his followers to share what they have learned with all nations and peoples. The preceding nine chapters of Acts share this view, as the shared understanding on Pentecost is to be understood as decisively welcoming all peoples and nations into the people of God, as evidenced by the shared revelation to people of al nations and tongues. Previously unclean foods and peoples (Gentiles) are to be welcomed and integrated into the community. While this may seem a self-serving understanding of Peter’s vision, as I am a Gentile by birth myself, the instances I have already named of Sharon Brous, David Wolpe, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joseph Telushkin, and Rumi who both welcome by and welcoming of those who hold a faith not their own. “Self-serving” as it may be, the better nature of our faiths understand that – despite already large religious populations – that which unites us is greater than that which divides us. The nature of our beautiful faiths welcomes others and creates in us a desire to be welcomed in return. In fact, so prevalent was this view in the Gospels and the nine preceding chapters of Acts that the general believer already understood it. By the time Peter’s vision takes place, only the leadership and a shrinking minority opinion remain to endorse what the Christian communities are already affirming – welcoming the outsider into their homes and lives. God has already so clearly welcomed sinners, foreigners, and people of other faiths. What counterargument can they make?

Acts 15 revisits this issue. Apparently, counterarguments were being made – and for very good reasons. The Early Church, even as they wanted to move forward and adapt to their times, were not fully agreed that Peter’s revelation or the movement away from Judaism was the most fully “Biblical” way to do things. In short, conservative groups wanted to remain faithful to their heritage, wanted to protect their political interests, and wanted to keep their spiritual communities “pure.” Rather than draw the obvious parallel to conservatives in our own time, we should pause to affirm their desire to hold to tradition. Their unwillingness to accept the movements being made by the Early Church to accept other understandings, practices, cultures, and backgrounds is commendable, for it respects previous generations and their understandings. It remains faithful to their sense of racial identity, and it respects the “face value” of the Pentateuch. Granted, their hesitance could be seen as overt racism and the “legalism” of so many later commentaries, but let us be considerate enough to extend the benefit of sensitivity in the same way that we would wish our own peculiarities, spiritual understandings, and cultural identities to be respected.

I come from a faith heritage that embraces progress without giving up tradition. The streets of New Orleans attest to this, even in the face of civil and architectural advances. The French Quarter is a center of urban development with meccas of industry, gaming, and international trade interspersed with French Revivalist lattice ironwork and the lush jungle of natural horticulture. I was raised on a steady diet of gumbo, which I suppose influences the way I see theological issues. My beliefs, like gumbo, are a complex mixture of seemingly disparate ingredients and so it was from my Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian, and Pentecostal traditions that I came to believe that “the book of Acts isn’t closed, and Revelation has yet to happen.” Accordingly, I hold to the truism that we do not live in the same period or place that these scriptures were written, but we can still understand ourselves as “people of the Book” – which is alive and, in some metaphysical sense “breathing” life into us and sustaining our hearts and minds across time. Our shared love for scripture inspires us to keep our options open and revisit those places where we are as-yet-unable to make sense of the ancient social recipes for our present circumstances. The revelation of Peter in Acts 10 should give us pause, as should the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 because they are instances of religious communities grappling with this very issue – how do we make sense today of something so long ago? How do we live communally with the ancient ways if “the book of Acts isn’t closed and Revelation has yet to happen”? We are well served to embrace the ways that the book of Acts is not exclusively a “Christian” text any more than Leviticus is a “Jewish” text and of no use to Christians and Muslims. That is, Peter’s revelation, as an extension of his own Jewish faith, and predating the times of Muhammad, should be taken together as bearing upon all People of the Book.

So it was that the more conservative traditions brought before the religious council in Jerusalem their complaint that certain people, if they continued in their unclean ways, should be excommunicated and barred from the faith. Worth noting – the Pharisees stood up for what they believed in. Whether we agree or disagree, they were willing to discuss their views with those they knew held an opposing position. They didn’t use slander others, they held to their reading of scripture that the traditional reading was definitive and this is commendable. The Jerusalem Council, rather than taking the opposing position, considered the questions seriously and determined that, from what they saw both in scripture and experience, God and the people had chosen to welcome the outsiders into their community and that this was evidence of a holiness they did not quite understand. This mystery, they attributed to the Spirit of God who they saw living and breathing the hearts of those the Council would have previously disavowed. Further, in their estimation, God did not discriminate against these people and, lest they err on the side of a harsh judgment, they felt it appropriate to officially welcome the foreigners among them, for “God has purified their hearts.” The issue is not behavior, not gender, not attraction, but the people’s hearts.

This was a compelling narrative for me in my own understanding of welcoming my gay friends into my spiritual life. Though New Orleans is more permissive than other parts of the Gulf Coast, I could neither in good conscience ignore the desire of my gay friends to participate in my faith, nor could I ask them to recode their biology. I have never claimed to possess that degree of moral authority. Rather, I came to believe that God was active in their lives –in some cases, in more expansive ways than my own, or those of the religious leaders I once sought to emulate. Instead, I concluded very much like the Council of Jerusalem that I did not want to make it difficult for people to enjoy the same depth of religious experience that I did, or go farther than me in spiritual matter, for who was I to curse what God had so clearly blessed?

But what of the list of behaviors that the Council denounced – food offered to idols, sexual immorality, and meat that had been strangled? Of the three prescriptions, two are concerned with food. If we probe further, many commentators feel that these dietary issues are really about idolatry in light of Exodus 20:1-4 where God is concerned not with the idolatry and image-making as much as the ways that we forget our story. It was God who had saved the people in times previous, it was God among them at the Council, and it will be God who concludes the story in a way suitable vindicate their experience. As for the strangled food, this speaks not to the actual foodstuff or even to some other form of idolatry as much as to the care for the rest of creation, respect for life even in those animals bred and raised for our sustenance. Even here, we see that the story is important. We must show dignity and ethical care for the rest of creation.

Which brings us to this last prescription about sexual immorality. I confess, given my previously stated love and diligence to scripture, that I want to remain sensitive to the ways that differing cultures understand “immorality.” Having studied Jewish ethics over the years, I naturally gravitate to the maxim that one must show respect for your partner. If you act “immorally” with your partner, you are considered “immoral” because you did not treat them with the same attention to their bodies and nature as you would to the rest of creation. In Judaism, there is a connection between behavior and desire that cannot be navigated around. But, and this is of course note worthy as well, there is more consideration for your partner, whatever their gender, than there is the gender of those partners. Whether you are gay or straight was never the point, and was never the basis for determining immorality – how you cared for another human, as part of God’s creation was, and is, the basis. We see this reflected in the verses being discussed, Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 with the vague prescription not to treat another man as you would a woman.

As Nick Palacios pointed out last week,

during times of antiquity, men (and the kings) of conquered tribes were often raped by the invading army as the ultimate symbol of defeat and humiliation. Male-to-male rape was a way for victors to accentuate the subjection of captive enemies and foes and a way of humiliating visitors and strangers. If we miss this, we not only miss what was going on in the Sodom and Gomorrah text, we also miss the meaning behind other passages such as 1 Samuel 31:4 and 1 Chronicles 10:4 where Saul, gravely wounded by the Philistines, instructs his armor-bearer to: “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it lest these uncircumcised come and abuse me.” What we have here is similar to prisoners in jail being gang-raped by other prisoners as a means of lording one’s power and inflicting violence.

Taking this same logic, I would take the inverse to be true as well – refrain from treating a woman as though she were a man. To revisit the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, most Talmudic and Biblical scholars pause before speaking to whether the destruction of those cities in Genesis 13 was about homosexual behavior. Primarily, Jewish and Muslim scholars will point to Ezekiel 16:49. Virtually every serious translation reads the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah not as homosexuality, but “arrogance/pride, overfed/lazy, unconcerned/heartless, and refusing to held those in need.” Ezekiel, a prophet second only to Isaiah in Biblical prophecy, clearly has a reading far, far afield of the “traditional” reading by Evangelicals. Sodom’s destruction, according to Ezekiel and numerous scholars, was pride and refusing the help those in need – not sexual immorality. From what archeologists and scholars can conclude, Sodom was known for pagan practices and rituals – many of them ambisexual and sado-masochistic. But, as Ezekiel points out, it is the people of God – the holy and “pure” ones – who are committing the sin of Sodom by exiling those who would seek God. Jesus picks up this teaching as well, as does the first Christian martyr Stephen whose thoughts on this topic led to his execution. Both Peter and Paul continue this idea, encouraging local congregations to welcome the “outsiders” and roundly condemning them for keeping people away.

Lest we move away from my initial promise to take scripture “at face value”, I would like to evoke the same tools used by the Council of Jerusalem, my predecessors in Christianity, and my beloved and esteemed brothers and sisters of Islam by telling a story.

My stepsister is gay. This became obvious to me when she was finishing high school, and I would tease her sometimes about her “friends” sleeping over, her attachment and rather boisterous “love” for them that – when asked – she insisted was “just close friends, like sisters.” When she moved away from my father and stepmother and began attending college, she began to be more open about her “friendships” until she finally told them outright that, yes, she was gay. Their reaction was like that of many other parents. They cried, they got angry, they quoted scripture, they even asked whether she had tried being straight. As could be expected, she didn’t come back for many years and when she did, they persisted that she was “living in sin” and would be “going to Hell.” In the last ten years, she has slept in our childhood home less than four nights and each time has ended as terribly as the one before it. Two years ago, I visited my dad and stepmother for the holidays. Sad that my stepsister wasn’t there with us, our conversation gravitated towards why she hadn’t and wouldn’t “come home.” Our conversation quickly escalated, and I found myself saying, “I don’t know what’s worse – the fact that I have to remind you that God loves her, or the fact that I have to remind you that you do!”

Together with many other believers, my parents have committed the “sin of Sodom” in shunning my sister, turning her out, and refusing to welcome her. Their inhospitality, humiliation, abandonment of “natural” parental love, and aggressive lording of moral superiority over her led her to feel (rightly so!) unwelcome, unloved, and abandoned. In solidarity with her, I have refused to sleep under their roof as well. My parents would rather keep their opulent home, their cars, wealth, and the satisfaction of “being right” than help either my sister and I as we begin migrating from academic training into a profession – statistically, the hardest time in life. Personally, there have been nights where I have not had food but have relied on the kindness of friends even as my parents have insisted on “keeping the Bible and shunning evil.” I tell all of this not to defame them, but to contextualize. When you, like Lot and the other Sodomites, are willing to push out your own children to maintain your own dignity, or perception of God, or sense of morality and spiritual authority, I must question how righteous you really are. When you are willing to lose not one, but both of your children, over these verses in Leviticus, I must question who has “won” the battle for holiness. Which God are we speaking about? One who is no longer alive and active but buried in the holy seplechure of scripture? Or one who welcomes all who desire holiness? As Hosea 6:6 says, the God of scripture desires “mercy and not sacrifice.” Jesus, centuries later, called his followers to understand what Hosea meant by this. In Matthew 9:13, it is recorded that Jesus once said, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ because I have not come for the ones who have it all together.” If, like my parents, the issue is some sense of holiness and righteousness, of keeping the faith of our ancestors pure, we may be well served – all of us who are religious – to revisit Peter’s vision, which concludes with God saying,

The voice spoke to him again, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15)

Naturally, Christians have a breaking of fellowship from both Jews and Muslims who hold that, despite Peter’s vision, certain foods should not be eaten. After all, when did this change occur, and how can offshoots of the Abrahamic faith so openly defy kashrut? Those coming from this position dismiss Peter’s vision entirely, for God does not do new things in the world. For them, God’s “rest” on the seventh day continues until today – God’s activity among creation is once-and-for-all finished and the conversation ends there. For others, the time stamp comes with Jesus’ last words, “it is completed.” (John 19:30). For these people, nothing can change after Jesus, which may explain their hesitance to accept reports of what others claim to be the Spirit of God among them. And so the conversation ends there. For others, it comes with the final revelation to John on Patmos. Others claim that the revelation to Muhammad was complete and so the conversation ends there. And yet, in contemporary times, we have not yet gotten so far afield of Peter’s vision that we can forget how laced it is with Levitical theology. Indeed, while some are still trying to determine on which hill God died, when, and how many angels were standing on the head of a hairpin were in attendance, multitudes continue to be evicted from their homes because of their attraction to someone of the same sex. We cannot excuse these scriptures, Leviticus or Acts, as being a testament to a long-dissolved period of time. They are alive and breathing even today in profound ways for our faith communities. We are still trying to determine who is “in” and who is “out.”

Sharon Brous, a Conservative rabbi in Los Angeles, writes that scripture is full of stories about those who possessed the “moral courage” to “demonstrate extraordinary chutzpah” and find new ways of understanding the ways of God on Earth.

Some of the central moments and characters of Israelite and Jewish history are characterized by a holy refusal to accede to social norms or their presumed fates. It seems clear that as much as Judaism is about obedience to God and mitzvot, it is also about a legacy of willful defiance against unjust social, political, and religious structures and even at times against God. Jews are known in America to be bold and courageous, to challenge unethical laws and norms, and to stand at the forefront of movements for social change, from civil rights to labor and immigration. But all too often, this holy assertiveness does not translate into our Jewish lives – precisely the place where it ought to be nurtured. The Jewish posture in synagogue is sitting quietly, not disturbing the order – “Please rise. Please be seated. Please turn to page 82 for Aleinu.” Don’t dare to speak out of turn, cry out in pain, or, God forbid, say anything too “political”![13]

For me, I feel we are either at the zenith or nadir of this discussion. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have come to believe God’s statement that creation is good, to believe that God is still present among us, and to affirm the historicity of God challenging us to new understandings. To deny gays and lesbians access to God is indeed beyond our employ and, like the Levites and Early Christians, we must either accept gays and lesbians, or we must refuse God. There is no other way, Biblically, spiritually, or traditionally for us to understand this moment. We must either accept what God has declared though the hearts and minds of the believers to be so, or we must categorically reject God. We must accept gays and lesbians, or we must die as martyrs to a dead god. Should we continue to believe that God is dead, or is resting and has left this world to our judgment until waking up in a stupor, we are destined for failure for when has religious zealotry even worked for any of us? Rather, we must accept scripture, tradition, experience, and reason as all pointing to what is so abundantly clear – what God has blessed, let none of us seek to curse.


[1] Something about the phrasing of this command has always struck me as odd. That bit about sexual relations as one does with a woman. It is a phrasing worth careful attention, I imagine, as there seems either a cultural or even contextual bias against women and I am not sure which bothers me more – that the first writers included this phrase, or that so few present commentators gloss over this and continue to affirm sexism.

[2] Whatever that means!” you might be saying. True enough, but what I mean by referring to face value is a reading which takes the text, separate and apart from its context and without unpacking it through exegesis. Since these passages are treated in this way – lifted out of context and read alone, or even in connection with the other references to homosexual behavior in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, I am treating them in like manner. No a priori knowledge is necessary.

[6] I would argue for reproductive health more than social or moral concerns.

[7] Former New York Mayor and Presidential candidate Rudy Giulliani’s first marriage was to his cousin.

[8] Tom Sykes. “Iceland’s Incest-Prevention App Gets People to Bump Their Phones Before Bumping in Bed.” The Daily Beast, 23 April 13. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/04/23/iceland-s-incest-prevention-app-gets-people-to-bump-their-phones-before-bumping-in-bed.html

[9] Anonymous. “Growing up Gay in Iran” The Guardian, 13 Jan. 2013 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/iran-blog/2013/jan/13/growing-gay-iran-tehranbureau&gt;

[10] Romans 7:14-23

[11] For example, as I am allergic to most fish and was raised around pig farms, I have no problem holding to kashrut. I am disgusted when my friends invite me out for sushi and cringe when they devour a California roll.

[12] One can hardly make a statement like this without noting an incongruency. From their exit of Egypt, the Hebrews were told to welcome foreigners into their community (cf. Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19; 23:7; Ezek. 47:22-23). It believed that these passages fell out of practice after the Babylonian captivity, and absolutely by the 2nd Cent. Many rabbis of that period were discussing how to maintain ethnic and spiritual “purity” apart from their Gentile neighbors and a cursory reading of the Gospels show that the Pharisees were deeply troubled by Jesus’ acceptance of Gentiles into the community he taught. What is interesting is not so much the novelty of Jesus’ ministry, Peter’s vision, or Paul openly endorsing Gentiles into local congregations – but the reluctance of the interreligious discussions of that time to ignore those passages about compassion to protect their own holiness. In the end, keeping people out of houses of worship was and remains a political and racial issue – not a spiritual or even “scriptural” one.

[13] Sharon Brous. “Synagogues Reimagined.” Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future. Ed. Rabbi Sidney Schwartz (Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013), 64-65.

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