Tuesday, February 17, 2015

God vs. Gay? A Review

What is the attitude of Judaism and Christianity to being gay? This is an extremely dangerous question, not least because “Judaism,” “Christianity,” and “gay” are such wonderfully complicated concepts that any debate on the subject is likely to get caught in semantic tangles. On the other hand, there are both real religious and real gay people in the world, and it’s senseless to think that the people at the intersection of those sets won’t be deeply concerned with their relationship.

Jay Michaelson wrote God vs. Gay? about three years ago, and claimed in it—intensely—that Judeo-Christian religion is compatible to its core with every kind of human sexuality. Michaelson makes his case in three stages. First, he argues that the “fundamental values” of Judaeo-Christian religion emphatically support homosexuality. Second, he gives his readings of what he calls the “bad verses” in the Bible—that is, the parts of the Old and New Testaments that seem to condemn homosexuality. Perhaps predictably, he makes a scholarly case that none of the verses says what it seems to say, and that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality as such. Third, he makes a constructive case that homosexuality, far from wrecking, will strengthen religious values, if only it is allowed to take its place in the range of human behaviors that are glorified in the eyes of God and God’s worshipers.

I think that this is a profoundly misguided book. It is rife with scholarly confusion, analytically weak, and—ironically given its pretense to inclusion—dismissive of diversity within religions. Most seriously, it denies or ignores the real problems that gay believers face as they struggle to reconcile their faith in God with their human need for love. Let me explain why I think so.

The crux of Michaelson’s argument is that despite what most Jews and Christians think, Judaism and Christianity are pro-gay religions. As he says on the first page of his introduction, “Not only does the Bible not say what some people claim, but the Bible and centuries of religious teaching in Christian and Jewish traditions argue strongly for what sometimes gets called ‘gay rights’.” So we’ve got a two-part claim. First, God and His Bible are pro-gay, second, the religious traditions that are based on God’s word are inherently pro-gay too.

The difficulty here is not hard to spot. On the one hand, Michaelson wants to show that the religious traditions, contrary to common belief, are so filled with love that they embrace homosexuality. But on the other, he criticizes those very traditions for failing to contain enough love. What, then, is the religious tradition? This is a question whose answer Michaelson keeps purposely vague, thus allowing himself to muster all the moral authority of religion to support his political purposes, even as he attacks real-life religions for failing to support those purposes sufficiently.

But this isn’t generous enough. What, we should ask, are Michaelson’s grounds for saying that God and religion embrace homosexuality, but despise, say, murder? In the case of Judaism, if we want to figure out what the tradition thinks about a topic, we usually start with the Talmud, which is a collection of codified oral law, and a vast number of texts commenting on that law. Texts like this:

Mishna: Rabbi Judah said: An unmarried man must not tend cattle, nor may two unmarried men sleep together under the same cover. But the Sages permitted it. 
Gemara: What is the reason [for this permission]? The Sages said to Rabbi Judah: Israel is not suspected of homosexuality or bestiality.

ר’ יהודה אומר לא ירעה רווק בהמה ולא יישנו שני רווקין בטלית אחת וחכמים מתירים
גמ’ מאי טעמא ... אמרו לו לר’ יהודה לא נחשדו ישראל על משכב זכור ולא על הבהמה

Uh oh. Michaelson, though, does not seem to take the Talmud very much into account, despite citing it here and there to support minor points, and despite referring to it fondly as a collection of traditional Jewish wisdom. Nor does he seem to pay much attention at all to the Church Fathers, or for that matter to any Christian who put a quill to parchment before 1960. In fact, despite his claim to speak for thousands of years of tradition, it’s almost exclusively the Bible that Michaelson relies on as a guide what to Jewish and Christian teachings are. And insofar as Michaelson makes an empirical argument in God vs. Gay, it is by his reading of the Old and New Testaments that his argument stands or falls. So let’s look at the Bible.

1. Leviticus
18:22: You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination [toʿevah]. 
20:13: If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.
These verses—especially for Jews—are often the starting point of any Biblically-based discussion of homosexuality. Trembling before G-d, a beautiful documentary about gay Orthodox Jews, uses the second as its epigraph. They are the basis of the Rabbis’ categorical prohibition of all sexual contact between males, which we just saw expressed in a particularly contemptuous way.

Michaelson disputes this rabbinical interpretation. Quoting the passage that precedes these “problem verses,” he attempts to show that they boil down to this formulation: “Leviticus 18:22 is a prohibition on male anal sex in the context of idolatry. Nothing more.” That’s to say that since Leviticus 18 had paganism and only paganism in mind, it is silent on the modern same sex-love that has nothing to do with worshipping Baʿal Peor.

An enormous mass of philology, most of it from left-leaning scholars, is brought to bear to support this point. Most of Michaelson’s emphasis here is on the meaning of the Hebrew toʿevah, usually translated as “abomination.” This word, says Michaelson—a mass of evidence from Proverbs aside—bore no ethical connotation among the ancient Israelites. It was instead a term restricted to discussions of paganism and idolatry, and was meant to connect the act of lying with mankind to the abhorrent practices of the Canaanites.

Let that be the case. Let’s assume that the Levitical code had a pagan context firmly in mind when it prohibited homosexual practices. Even so, does it follow that its censure of those practices is any less harsh? In the Biblical mind, precisely the reason the pagans are so hideously perverse is their practice of vile rites, homosexuality included. God even promises that if the Israelites mire themselves in such depravity, the land itself will vomit them out, just as it vomited out their Canaanite predecessors. So Michaelson is right to point out a connection between lying with men and passing a child through fire to Moloch. The author of Leviticus meant to condemn both as un-Israelite, ungodly cultic practices. Luckily, though, unless we’re bound by orthodoxy, we can dispassionately conclude here that we have our own attitude to homosexuality, and the Priestly Author had his. But we should be clear that it was revolting to him, especially (though perhaps not solely) because it was bound up with the worship of foreign gods. So the context of these verses is every bit as important as Michaelson says it is. But the context only fleshes out the ancient priests’ horror and disgust with respect to homosexual sex. Shellfish is a similar case—the Bible describes it as a toʿevah too. It was deemed a monstrosity of the deep, suitable to be eaten only by ungodly gentiles.

Here’s my question: what would Leviticus have to have said for Michaelson to conclude that it was anti-gay? Just how explicit would it have to be? If we applied the same same extreme generosity to the rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church as Michaelson applies to Leviticus, I’m convinced that we’d be able to make them into civil-rights pioneers.

By the way, in a nod to Christians, Michaelson repeats the stock argument here: since Christians eat shrimp, which is also prohibited in Genesis, why don’t they also relax about gay sex? The response to that argument is too complicated to go into here, but suffice it to say that it’s not like the Southern Baptist Church has never heard that one before. Traditional Christianity, which has existed for millennia, has its reasons, and they won’t be shaken by an offhand comment on page 66 of a lefty Jew’s book. Speaking of Christians:

2. The New Testament

Romans 1:26–7 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.

I Corinthians 6:9–10 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators [pornoi], nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals [malakoi], nor sodomites [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.

Michaelson’s approach to these verses might be predictable by now. In the case of Romans, he holds that Paul’s primary intent in the passage was to establish that men are punished for their wrongdoing by being unnaturally submitted to women. Thus, when Paul describes homosexual acts between men and between women as unnatural (para physin), it’s the natural male-ruled sexual hierarchy being violated, not the natural order of heterosexuality. So Michaelson concedes that this passage is sexist, not anti-gay. And that, since “categories like physin are culturally specific,” Christians need no longer heed Paul’s advice on women either.

Next, Michaelson argues that what Paul is condemning in both passages are by no means the stable homosexual relationships that we are familiar with today. Though he does not come to a clear conclusion, he suggests that when Paul used the words arsenokoitai and malakoi, he was perhaps only talking about a) pederasty, b) “softness”; that is, an unnaturally effeminate way of life, c) cultic homosexuality, or just d) “male lascivious sexuality”. Above all, Michaelson wants to avoid the conclusion that Paul’s use of arsenokoitai, “man-bedders,” is meant to suggest a blanket prohibition on homosexuality. 

If it were possible, I would be willing to grant Michaelson all of his arguments here, but since he offers such a slew of contradicting translations of arsenokoitai in a furious attempt to avoid the “problematic” one, it would be hard to know just what I were granting him. Let me simply assume, then (against my better interpretive judgment), that these passages are not talking about homosexuality, or at least not in the form we would recognize it in today. Even so, I think there is other evidence that Paul did, in fact, consider a man’s lying with another man a depraved revolt against God. In order to understand Paul’s broad understanding of sexuality, let’s read I Corinthians 7:1–9, which follows on the heels of the passage just quoted.
Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. ... But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself [i.e., celibate]. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. 
I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.
This is an awfully gloomy view of sexuality. Paul’s logic is this: though celibate devotion to God alone is the ideal, human beings are in so much danger of yielding to their basest passions that, in order to save his flock from utter depravity, he’ll make one concession and one only to them; that is, marriage between men and women. Even this is a surrender to the weakness of flesh, but it’s a battle that must be lost if we’re going to win the cosmic war against sin. So we have a whitelist of acceptable sexual behaviors, which includes only one item: male-female marriage. Therefore, even if Paul doesn’t explicitly proscribe homosexuality in I Cor. 6, he certainly does so implicitly in I Cor. 7. Just like any other extramarital sexual act, it’s one of the passionate fires that heterosexual marriage is intended to protect us from.

Paul, then, whose entire theology is based on the overwhelming love of God for the universe, was not thereby prevented from saying that homosexuals (and fornicators and adulterers, and for that matter robbers) are mired in repulsive sin. Was this a mistake? Did Paul go wrong? Was he deluded as to what the love of God really entails? We might be prepared to say something like that in the twenty-first century, and I have nothing to say either for or against that kind of non-empirical argument. But be that as it may, the early Christians thought this: Christ came to earth to save us from our vile, human, worldly, sin, and that among those sins was ungodly lust. Would Paul’s Christ have loved the homosexual? Of course! But likely in the same way he loved robbers and prostitutes, whom he loved so much that he liberated them from robbery and prostitution.

A final point. It was a standard trope of Graeco-Roman invective that when a speaker or writer wanted to wreck the reputation of a certain man, he would call him out for nonstandard sexual practices. And though in certain periods and places (like 5th-century Athens) homosexuality seems to have been fully acceptable, in others (like 1st-century Rome) it was humiliating to be accused of it. So in the texts that every Latin student reads, we have examples of authors accusing their targets of homosexuality in order to humiliate them. Even Julius Caesar wasn’t spared, and was mocked by Suetonius for sleeping with Nicomedes IV of Bithynia. Suetonius actually leveled similar accusations against almost all the early emperors, and sexual deviance in general seems to have been the lowest-hanging fruit for his invectives. So if Paul was using homosexuality as such as a mark of shame, he was in good company.

3. David and Jonathan

Having triumphantly disarmed the anti-gay verses in the Bible, Michaelson moves on to show that the text in fact affirms homosexuality, presenting as evidence the saga of David and Jonathan. He certainly has good grounds for saying this. David and Jonathan do quite a bit of kissing each other (I Sam. 20:41), swearing fealty to each other (20:17), and making poetic elegies for each other (II Sam. 1:26). And as he rightly points out, the story of David and Jonathan was cited from the Renaissance onward as an exemplar of love between men. Oscar Wilde even brought it up at trial when the prosecutor demanded he define “the love that dare not speak its name.”

But the truth is that we just don’t know what David and Jonathan’s relationship was meant to be. And there is enormous circumstantial evidence to suggest that the author of Samuel did not intend it to be homosexual. For one, if Bathsheba, Avishag, Michal, and countless other women whom he slept with are any clue, David was one of the most emphatically heterosexual man who ever lived. Jonathan, too, had a wife and children. (Of course, this is an appeal to the anachronistic assumption that sexual orientations are mutually exclusive; an assumption that the ancients didn’t always hold. But it’s just as wrong to think that all the ancients believed homosexuality and heterosexuality to be fully compatible with each other, and it’s unclear whether the Israelites shared the Greeks’ concept of diverse sexual interest.)

Besides, many of the behaviors that we associate today with a sexual relationship—passionate embraces, writing poetry, etc.—were considered normal, non-romantic displays of affection in the ancient Mediterranean world. They still are in the modern Mediterranean: I was thrown off guard when I went to Italy by how much more acceptable it is to kiss a close male friend on the cheek than it is among the unfeeling Americans. In short, there’s no explicit homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan, and what few hints there are can all be explained as common displays of extremely close friendship. (If there is any homosexual feeling in I Samuel, it’s Saul’s death-seeking, demonic passion for David, which isn’t so palatable to us.)

But though one might—squinting and thinking wishfully—see David and Jonathan as lovers,  I have another suggestion for Michaelson, and to all Jews and Christians who search intently in the Bible for homosexual characters: take a look at the Greeks. There you’ll find Sappho, who longed for the bride at a wedding feast. You’ll find Zeus, who turned himself into an eagle to sweep up the boy Ganymede. You’ll find Apollo, who came down to earth and courted Hyacinthus, only to be thwarted by the jealous Zephyr. You’ll find Agathon’s symposium, whose wonder-filled guests worshipped homosexual love as first among the gods. You’ll find Nisus and Euryalus, Achilles and Patroclus, Daphnis and PanHadrian and AntinousOrpheus and the Thracian youths, Hercules and everyone, Corydon deprived of Alexis. In short, the Greco-Roman tradition is so overflowing with homosexual characters; so filled with every shade of same-sex love, loss, and longing, that it seems almost laughably futile by comparison to furiously scrape to the bottom of the David and Jonathan story in the hopes of finding a sexual relationship. It’s like chewing on sand in the next room from a Thanksgiving dinner.

The King of Goddes did burne erewhyle in love of Ganymed
the Phrygian. And the thing was found which Iupiter that sted
had rather bee than that he was. Yit could he not beteeme
the shape of any other Bird than Ægle for to seeme.
Now, the reason why most Jews aren’t willing to go over to the Greeks is pretty straightforward: very few want to stray from their emphatically non-hellenistic religious tradition. Michaelson, though, who practices Theravāda Buddhism, and who recently proposed a radical Christianization and simplification of the Jewish liturgy, should have no trouble with abandoning the Bible as a source of examples of the love he wants to celebrate. But instead of casting it into the same bin that he casts the Rabbis and the Fathers, Michaelson wants to claim that the Bible embraces all types of sexuality. But it doesn’t—at least not on its own terms—and that’s about all there is to say about it.

Michaelson, though, was never out to prove convincingly that the Biblical passages are decisively pro-gay. Instead, he wants his readings only to “tie,” to end up seeming just as plausible as the traditional readings that he opposes. “Religious values” will do the rest. The origin of these religious values is obscure, if it’s neither the Bible itself nor the mainstream religious traditions’ other historical texts, but let’s let Michaelson pull off his sleight of hand in this case. At the very least, Michaelson does not pretend to take an unbiased look at the mindset of the Bible’s authors. Consider this paragraph, which just caused me to audibly gasp in the library:
[Dale Martin] has written that “any interpretation of scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable.” This is a crucial point. If we approach “the question of homosexuality” as a legal, academic, or hermeneutical enterprise, we will get nowhere religiously. All the arguments work, and the anti-gay ones are just as clever as the pro-gay. No—to be responsible members of a faith tradition, we must first open our hearts. [pp. 28–9]
“Leviticus,” he says elsewhere in the same vein, “does not shape the boundaries of compassion; compassion shapes the boundaries of Leviticus.”

This is an intellectual abdication of any real secular scholarly authority, which, while no sin in itself, seems to call into question any positive Biblical claim that Michaelson might make in support of his argument. It means that from a logical perspective, there’s really nothing we can say against Michaelson’s readings, because he explicitly refuses to submit them to any empirical, nonemotional test. They therefore have more to do with Michaelson’s whims than anything the authors of the Bible had in mind. And that would be fine, if Michaelson didn’t rely on those very readings to frame his argument about what Judaism and Christianity say about homosexuality. If you’re writing a book that’s meant to convince us logically that the Bible is compatible with compassion towards gay people, you’d better not take Biblical compassion for gay people for granted.

So much for Michaelson’s argument from religious tradition. The other main beam of his argument is theological. “God vs. gay” is, after all, an hypothesis about God, and if it’s to be refuted one has to say something about Him. Michaelson accordingly spends many chapters attempting to show that God, in his love for the world, filled it with all kinds of human affection, all of which are meant to glorify his name. How, he asks, could a loving God have doomed a large number of his sons and daughters to a lifetime of repressing their deepest longings?

Good question. But let me ask a more radical one: how do we modern city-dwellers know anything about what God wants? How do we know which kinds of love are affirmed by a silent heaven? Homosexuality is definitely included in that category, Michaelson insists. But not sex with strangers: that, as Michaelson is eager to say on p. 83, is an “unhealthy form of sexuality,” a “shameful lust.” In person, I’ve heard Michaelson wonder aloud whether polyamory is a truly natural expression of love. The criteria for making these judgements are obscure, especially since Michaelson nowhere reveals his scientific method for picking the signal of God’s wishes out of the static of the world’s phenomena.

Michaelson does refer us to biological science on this point, arguing in chapter 4 that since homosexuality is present in hundreds of species, it is natural, and therefore must have been part of God’s plan. I have a special dislike for this sort of argument. Do you know what else is natural, and thus part of God’s plan? The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed over 200,000 people. Brain cancer. Dementia. And most relevantly: the instinct, found in hundreds of species, to rape, slaughter, and devour other living beings alive. If nature is a guide to conduct, then it’s worse than Leviticus interpreted in the most barbaric way possible. And throughout chapter 4, if one substitutes “parricide” for “same-sex love” and its variants, the argument loses no persuasiveness. Michaelson actually mentions this point directly on p. 39—and he leaves it unrebutted. It’s fine to insist on moral standards, and doubly fine to think that murder’s bad and same-sex love great. I do so myself. But it’s not fine to claim to derive those standards from any phenomena in the world, or any ironclad train of logic.

And it’s therefore Michaelson’s mystical, emotional passages that carry the most theological weight with me. “If there exists a loving God,” Michaelson says on p. 18, “I know in my heart that this God could not wish for human beings to lie, to repress their emotional selves, and to distort that aspect of the soul which leads to the highest of human satisfactions into a dark force of evil and objectification. ... There is no reconciling a loving God and the closet.” My first reaction here is to say that yes, of course no loving God would permit that. I’ve said similar things to my religious friends. But my second reaction is more cynical: nor would he permit the slaughter of millions in the Congo for no reason. That’s why the suffering of gay people is just another drop in the ocean of evidence against there being a loving God in charge. That’s of course not where Michaelson is going here. He wants to say that God does exist, that he is loving, and that he loves his gay children the way they are.

But now it’s worth calling to mind the sheer variety of pictures that man has drawn of God’s love in the last two thousand years. To some, God has chosen the Jews from out of the chattering mass of humanity, deeming only them worthy of salvation; whereas Amalek has been chosen specifically for annihilation, hated by God and godly people. There are some who believe that God has granted salvation only to those he has rescued through Jesus Christ, and that everyone else is dangling over an outer darkness. There are some who believe that God’s love is so overpowering that every living being in the cosmos, including Satan and Pol Pot, will be drawn into his loving arms on the last day. And there are some who, standing in Auschwitz, are convinced that God must either hate all of us; or that he is blind, asleep, or demented. There are so many beliefs, in other words, about whom God loves and whom he doesn’t, that we are bound to wonder what special revelation Michaelson has received that allows him to proclaim on behalf of all Jews and Christians that God cherishes homosexual love. Michaelson is obviously free to say what he thinks about whom God loves. He’s also free to be part of a denomination that has a tolerant attitude to homosexuality. He’s not, though, free to say that the Jewish and Christian “traditions” agree with him.

And in fact, the billions of Abrahamic believers hold a fantastically diverse array of opinions on the specific question of how God views homosexuality. Take, for instance, the blogger Tim Dukeman, who concedes all of Michaelson’s scientific arguments:
I’ve seen many Christians absolutely go to the mat trying to prove that same-sex attraction is not an inborn trait. That’s a mistake. It’s a mistake because the entire discussion is pointless. Really.

—If same-sex attraction isn’t genetic, then it’s an environmentally-produced temptation to sin. It must be resisted.
—If same-sex attraction is genetic, then it’s a genetically-produced temptation to sin. It must be resisted.
How can Michaelson argue against this? He could, like I do, cast it aside as a frightening denial of the human spirit. But it’s hard to imagine building a logical argument that a) God exists, b) no, he doesn’t like thieves and perjurers, but c) yes, he’s more than okay with same-sex love. The best that Michaelson’s book can do with such a belief is to take its place alongside it in the pantheon of theologies, perhaps as a cupbearer to mild Unitarianism.

So the problem actually runs far deeper than Michaelson makes it seem. Billions of people in the world live by one of the Abrahamic religions, and almost all have religious traditions that have a history of condemning homosexuality. To suggest Michaelson’s solution—that religion by its fundamental nature is gay-friendly—is profoundly unhelpful. Sometimes religion just opposes homosexuality, and offers good textual grounds for doing so. This is a dilemma that cuts to the center of countless gay men and women’s lives across the world. It has no clear solution, as far as I can tell, but to talk as if it did seems blithely arrogant to me.

A much more human approach than Michaelson’s blithe denial of “God vs. gay” is that of Trembling before G-d, which I mentioned above. This is a movie about Orthodox Jews who are trying desperately to make sense of the deep contradiction between their religion and their sexuality, both of which are of the utmost importance in their lives. They suffer unimaginably, and so do their opposite-sex spouses. What strikes me as deep and honest about the movie is that it proposes no easy exit for homosexual halakhic Jews. (If there were one, God knows these of all people would have found it.) Instead, it gives us a painful portrait of the agonizing problems that do exist for them. Sometimes, all we can do is recognize the problem.

But let me close with something else. I think God vs. Gay is misguided. I think it contains scholarly falsifications. I think in its quest to affirm sexual diversity, it ends up glossing over religious diversity, failing to imagine how an honest, compassionate religious person could hold an illiberal view. It is probably irrelevant to almost all homosexual and and almost all religious people in the world. And yet: I’m glad that Michaelson wrote God vs. Gay. I’m glad, because there might be some religious person in the world for whom this is exactly the right book. Someone, perhaps caught in a bind between her faith and her sexuality, for whom the book will be a life-transforming spur to the imagination. In that spirit, I gave my copy of the book to charity—in particular, to Chicago Books to Women in Prison—in the hopes that it will find someone it can help. After all, the true and the useful aren’t unrelated to each other, but they’re not identical either. Sometimes fudging the truth lets you drive a stake through Sisera’s head.  

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