Defining Morality Down
by Rabbi Avi Shafran
Am Echad Resources
April 3, 2000
The Central Conference of American Rabbis’ decision last week to support Reform rabbis who choose to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies is causing a good deal of grumbling in some Reform lay circles, as well it should.
For Orthodox Jews, who regard the revelation at Sinai as no less an historical fact than any other mass-witnessed, recorded and entrusted event, the shock of Reform rabbis sanctioning acts the Torah considers deeply sinful was somewhat mitigated. After all, the Reform movement was built on rejection of the Torah’s divine origin and the binding nature of its laws. This latest move was but a new manifestation of that old repudiation.
For many other Jews, though, who had never given the historicity of Sinai much thought but had come to feel most comfortable in Reform temples, the recent move has brought about a crisis of conscience. It is widely known that the Reform leadership’s cautious endorsement last May of certain traditional Jewish practices was largely laity-fueled. Reform Jews who are not afraid of returning to their Jewish roots are certainly chagrined at the violence their leaders visited last week on a deeply Jewish value. Even, however, for many Reform Jews who may never have been greatly troubled by their movement’s jettisoning of the laws of kashrut or the Sabbath, this most recent decision was somehow… different.
They are right. For while all the Torah’s laws are binding on all Jews, its directives regarding the deepest and most holy realm of human relationship, the sexual, are in a category of their own. They cannot be labeled rituals, observances or even simple prohibitions; they comprise the essence of a deeply Jewish concept English-speakers call morality – a concept long embraced by much of the non-Jewish world, which, according to Jewish tradition, is likewise charged with its adoption.
To be sure, and contrary to popular assumption, no sexual orientation itself is condemned by the Torah. Axiomatic to Jewish law is that only acts and willful attitudes (like nurturing desires that are wrong) can be prohibited, not initial proclivities. Among the acts, however, that the Torah clearly regards as immoral – regardless of the actors’ sexual inclinations or self-definition – is sexual congress between men (and, to a lesser degree, between women).
Human beings are subject to many desires, and they can experience urges for an assortment of Torah-prohibited acts, both common ones like adultery or speaking ill of others and rarer ones like murder or bestiality. The premise of the Torah’s moral code is that being a God-fearing person means controlling urges that run contrary to that code. In fact, the Talmud even asserts that people with greater spiritual potential have concomitantly stronger proclivities to sin. By choosing to fight those urges and channel their energies to doing G-d’s will, they realize their potential and achieve their divine purpose.
But aren’t homosexuals fixed in their orientation, unable to sexually relate to the opposite gender? Interestingly, though much of the modern psychiatric community would answer that question in the affirmative, there is an abundance of sociological and ethnological evidence, both ancient and contemporary, that weighs in with a powerful no. History is replete with accounts of societies, like that of ancient Greece, where men were expected to live as homosexuals for a number of years and then marry and raise families. Or, for an example closer to historical home, take the sixties countercultural icon Lou Reed, who lived and openly self-identified for many years as sexually unconventional but who has since settled into a heterosexual life. There may be a predisposition to homosexuality, as there may be to other behaviors deemed immoral by the Torah, but none of them are beyond human control.
Isn’t love, though, all that really counts? Most certainly not. Even in the most libertarian contemporary minds, acts of adultery, incest or bestiality are rejected as immoral and unsanctioned, although the case for love might well be made in each of those examples. Many will no doubt bristle at the comparison of those practices to homosexual unions and protest that no one is currently promoting "open", brother-sister or man-pet "marriages". The bristlers, though, might take a moment to consider how the average person – or, for that matter, the average Reform rabbi – a century ago would have reacted to the sanctioning of a sexual union of two men or two women that the Reform movement has now endorsed. The fact is inescapable: Once morality is gravely injured, it bleeds profusely.
And equally inescapable is another fact, an uncomfortable, but trenchant one: The engine that is empowering acceptance of homosexual acts both in larger society as well as, now, among Reform leaders, is nothing other and nothing more than the contemporary credo of self-centeredness, the conviction that (with apologies to Alexander Pope) "whatever one feels like doing is right" – the polar opposite of the very essence of 3000 years of Jewish tradition, of the profound Jewish idea that only what G-d has instructed us to do is right..
It would be tragic enough were any religious group to abandon the very concept of morality. That a Jewish group has now chosen to do so (and amid much hoopla and self-congratulation) should be a source of deep shame to all Jews.
But especially to the many thoughtful Reform laymen and laywomen who hearts are closer to the Torah than those of their religious leaders. May they have the courage of their convictions.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as American director of Am Echad]
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