December 9, 2022 -

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Polyphonic Judaism (Achrei Mot/Kedoshim 04/24/21)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Polyphonic Judaism
I’m continually fascinated with people’s varying levels of observance with regards to Jewish traditions and laws.
When I was growing up, it seemed there were just four types of Jews: the Ultra-Orthodox who segregate themselves, the Modern Orthodox who uphold all the rituals but integrate into modern society, the Conservative Jews who keep many of the practices but are lenient or progressive in certain areas and the Reform Jews who are primarily concerned with Judaism’s morals and ethics, but not so much with ritual.
Nowadays, the spectrum of observance is ever more expansive. Among the Modern Orthodox is there is now Open Orthodoxy (those willing to do interfaith and interdenominational work) and the Egalitarian Orthodox who believe women should be considered equals in Jewish law.
The division between Conservative Jews and Reform has lessened as many Reform Congregations have reembraced ritual observance, and many Conservative synagogues have embraced music and streaming on Shabbat.
One of the issues that have challenged Judaism recently is the open acceptance of LGBTQ people in society. The Torah perspective, one addressed in our reading this past Shabbat, has a very negative view towards homosexual relations:
Lev 18:22 Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.
Lev 20:13 If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death – their blood guilt is upon them.
Reform and Conservative Judaism were the first to fully accept LGBTQ members as progressive thought is a tenet of both denominations. It’s been harder for the Orthodox who accept the Torah as God’s exact word.
Scholar Jacob Milgram suggests understanding the prohibition of lying with a man comparable to the prohibitions of lying with a woman. In other words, the text indicates that just as a man cannot have sex, for instance, with his uncle’s wife, so may he not have sex with the male counterpart to her, his uncle. Homosexual activity with a man from outside one’s family would then be permitted.[1]
Rabbi Steven Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi and proponent for the Jewish LGBTQ community interprets the phrase “lyings of a woman” as a reference to sex as an expression of “humiliation and violence.” Following this, Rabbi Greenberg suggests that the verse considers it an abomination for a man to have sex with another man only when it is “for the perverse pleasure of demeaning another man.”[2]
Dr. Rabbi David Frankel offers a novel approach as well. He suggests that by the Torah only forbidding homosexual relations in one book (Leviticus), but not addressing it in any others, it is opening the door for choice. By contrast, regarding the sexual practice of bestiality, the Torah prohibits it across the board in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. But the same “Holiness codes” in Deuteronomy don’t address homosexuality. Does its omission imply that such relations are allowed?
Furthermore, there’s a vague reference to a possible homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan in the book of Samuel:
2 Samuel 1:26 I grieve for you, My brother Jonathan, You were most dear to me. Your love was wonderful to me more than that of women.
Now if David was just declaring his kinship for Jonathan, shouldn’t he have said, “Your love was more wonderful than my own brothers”?
Frankel posits that the Torah, with its numerous cases of contradictions, is offering us a life with options. “If we approach the Torah with a similar literary approach, we might say that it does not ask us to harmonize the contradictions between its various reports concerning what God demanded of Israel at Sinai, but to acknowledge them and ponder and evaluate the significance of their competing claims.
Where does that leave us when it comes to what the “Torah” says about homosexuality? I would argue that the polyphonic Torah calls on us to struggle with its alternative positions and to ultimately take responsibility and take a stance. We cannot claim that we were not given choices.”
It seems to me that Frankel’s polyphonic model has been unknowingly accepted by many Jews. Just take, for example, our own congregation’s observance of Kashrut. The synagogue building is to adhere to a very high level of kashrut, yet some people don’t keep kosher at all. Others won’t eat non-kosher meat in restaurants but will eat fish or dairy. Many people don’t mix milk and meat but will eat non-kosher meat. Others keep kosher at home, but not outside. Some eat non-kosher beef or chicken but draw the line on pork or shellfish. Some don’t keep kosher at all except on Passover! It’s a polyphonic response.
If you belong to a Conservative synagogue, some rituals and traditions are obviously very important to you. On the other hand, other laws may not mean as much. We live in a time when the spectrum of adherence and non-observance is very wide. But we’re still moved and inspired by our long revered beliefs and practices. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve become polyphonic Jews.
[1] David Frankel, “Male Homosexual Intercourse Is Prohibited – In One Part of the Torah” TheTorah.com (2017). https://thetorah.com/article/male-homosexual-intercourse-is-prohibited-in-one-part-of-the-torah
[2] Rabbi Steven Greenberg, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition (Madison Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 205-206.

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