A Torah, not a template
by Rabbi Avi Shafran
Baltimore Jewish Times
March 19, 2004
Contrary to what some assume, no sexual orientation is condemned by the Torah. It is Jewishly axiomatic that only acts and willful attitudes (like nurturing improper desires) can be prohibited, never innate 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).
In the context of contemporary popular culture, that might seem unfair, if not downright cruel. Why interfere with love? Why limit the expression of deep and sincere feelings? But human beings are subject to many unsummoned loves and desires, and can experience deep urges for an assortment of illicit acts, both common ones like adultery or slander and more rare ones like murder or incest.
The Torah is not a template onto which we lay what we wish to do. It is a code of behavior for those who (apologies to JFK's speechwriter) seek not to tell God what He must do for us but rather what we must do for Him. The premise of the Torah's moral code (much of it, as per the Noahide Laws, intended for all of humankind) is that living a God-directed life means controlling, not venting, urges that run contrary to its mandates.
The Talmud even asserts that people with greater spiritual potential have concomitantly stronger proclivities to sin. By choosing not to succumb to, but rather to fight, those urges - to channel their energies instead to doing G-d's will - they realize their deepest potentials.
Jewish tradition is replete with narratives that make that point. One of the most famous is the story of Joseph, who merited the epithet "tzaddik
", or "righteous one," precisely because he withstood a sexual temptation, that of Potiphar's wife, although his "orientation" - not to mention Mrs. Potiphar's insistence and a misleading prophetic vision - argued powerfully for his submission to his natural desire.
Part of being human is being subject to desires, and that includes desires for behaviors deemed improper by the Torah. One example that has always existed is the desire, at least for some people, to engage in homosexual behavior. But no predisposition or desire, no matter how strong, is beyond the most powerful and most meaningful force in the universe: human free will. We are not mere animals, responding to whatever urges overtake us. We are choosers. And at every moment of our lives, can choose right or choose wrong. If we subscribe to the belief that we are here not to "be what we are" but rather to "be what we can," we must endeavor to choose right.
One of humanity's saving graces over history, the Talmud teaches, has been its refusal to legitimate male homosexual relationships. It is distressing that much of American society and popular culture seems to be abandoning respect for fundamental aspects of the Torah's sexual behavior code intended for all of mankind. We Jews, though, must not allow ourselves to be pulled aboard the cultural bandwagon.
We must instead remind ourselves that, no matter how the society around us may devolve, we remain answerable to a truly higher, and unchanging, Authority.
The current American cultural milieu will redefine morality as it sees fit. So, for better or worse, will religious organizations and movements. But truly Judaism-conscious Jews, whatever their affiliation or lack of one, whatever they are told by the media or politicians or even clergy, know that we are a people chosen to show the world what it means to bend human wills to that of the Creator.
Our father Abraham, our tradition teaches us, was called the "Ivri" - the "other sider" - because "the entire world was on one side" of a conceptual river, and he "on the other." Nothing is more fundamentally Jewish than to stand apart from the Zeitgeist and affirm timeless truths in the face of an unbridled society.
As heirs to a timeless and holy wisdom, and bearers of the responsibilities it entails, we Jews live up to our name and our mission when we resist society's shifting mores. Let us endeavor, here as everywhere, to be a light, even - no, especially - in an increasingly darkening world. Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.
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