[Editor's Note: This post is not our typical "Southern & Jewish" fare; one of our contributors, Rabbi Marshal Klaven, wanted to share a sermon he wrote about homosexuality in the Torah, in light of the ongoing equality debate and the prominence of arguments around this topic "based on biblical texts".]
To Plant or Not to Plant Seed: The Truth of Homosexuality in the Bible
Ladies and gentleman of the jury, Your Honor – the Holy One, Blessed be God, I stand before you today to protest a great injustice and to defend the unalienable rights of fellow members in our human family. Every day, our brothers and sisters – people created in Your Divine image – are having their basic human liberties restricted or altogether stripped away. They are often harassed and tormented; they are often barred from supporting loved ones in times of great need; they are often prohibited from marriage; and, in some places, they are legally thrown out of public places like restaurants and theaters.
Why? What supposed crime have they committed? Simply: falling in love with another human being of the same gender.
And, frankly, it deeply upsets me that this injustice is perpetrated and perpetuated by people of faith, who claim that such blatant discrimination and unabashed bigotry are justified by Your Holy Word. Specifically, contained within the Holiness Code, part of a special section in the book of Leviticus, they point to a group of laws dealing with inappropriate sexual relations. According to just two lines in the entire Hebrew Bible, both of which are found within the double Torah portion of Acharei Mot/K’doshim, we are warned that “if a man lies with a man, as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done a to-eivah, an ‘abhorrent thing;’ they shall be put to death – their blood guilt is upon them.” (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13)
So, no, I will not argue today whether or not homosexual sex is prohibited in the Bible. Clearly, it is. However, I will attempt to answer the question that so often goes unasked in this debate, which is “why was it prohibited?” What about homosexual sex was abhorrent to our ancestors? To answer this pivotal question, which will dramatically change the course of the conservation, I call forward the expert testimony of Robert Alter, Professor of Hebrew Language, renown Biblical commentator. “The evident rationale for such a prohibition,” explains Alter, “seems to be the wasting of seed in what the law envisages as a grotesque parody of heterosexual intercourse.”
Why? What’s the problem with this parody? Well, the problem, according to the Bible, is that heterosexual intercourse, wherein the seed of human life (i.e. sperm) is implanted in the fertile ground of the woman’s womb, is meant for one purpose and one purpose only: to create life, to procreate, “to be fruitful and multiply.” First issued as a blessing in Genesis 1:28, these words only became a Divine command to man upon the depopulation of the world after the flood in Genesis 9:6. There, these words are found among others which deal with a case of homicide. This is intentional, writes the master commentator RaSHI, “for anyone who does not engage in reproduction should be compared to one who sheds blood,” as both require a death penalty.
Anyone, hmmmm? Well then, based upon this rationale a lot of people would be slated for death. Because, in addition to those who engage in homosexual sex, anyone – homosexual or heterosexual – who engages in sex using contraceptives (e.g. condoms), or anyone – homosexual or heterosexual – who masturbates, is likewise guilty of the same crime: wasting seed. What?! Don’t believe me? Then please allow me to introduce into evidence the case of Onan, Judah’s second eldest son. According to the Biblical testimony, “Whenever Onan went to join with Tamar, he let his seed go to waste. What he did,” states the Bible, “was displeasing to the Lord, so God took his life.”
Given this precedent, some may wish to continue their prosecution and persecution of homosexuals. After all, they claim, “God instructed us, in this Holiness Code, ‘to reprove our kinsman.’” True, God did say we should “reprove our kinsman;” however that line ends with “but, we may not incur any guilt because of him.” That is to say, when we see someone doing something we believe to be harmful, we are obligated to say something. However, as the second part of the verse implies, it has to be done in such a way as to not be disrespectful. For, we cannot resolve one sin by creating another. Besides, in God’s law of nature, death eventually comes. Not in body, but in name, as one who does not procreate, has no one to carry it on.
With that, Your Honor, ladies and gentleman of the jury, I rest my case. Clearly, without any true Biblical basis, upon which to ground such injustices, I ask that you dismiss all grievances against these fellow human beings, our kinsmen in the family of God. For, as social psychologist Erich Fromm deduced, “In essence, all human beings are identical. We are all part of One; we are One. This being so, it should not make any difference whom we love,” as long as we love with all of our hearts, all of our minds, all of our souls. With this greater truth, may we go on to honor both God’s Holy Words better, as well as all those who hold these Words near and dear: heterosexual and homosexual alike. Kein y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will as well as our own.
 For example, while living in Cincinnati, OH for seminary training at HUC-JIR, I learned of a law there, which allowed a proprietor of a public place to throw someone out of their establishment if he/she suspected the individual of being gay, leaving this individual without any legal recourse. While this law was thankfully repealed in 2004 by 67% of the voters, many cities still have such discriminatory allowances.
 It is important to note that the Hebrew word to-eivah (“abhorrent,” or sometimes translated as “abomination”) occurs numerous times in the Bible. Taking stock of these, Rabbi Richard Friedman commented, “to-eivah is a relative term in the Bible, which varied according to human perceptions. For example, in Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers that ‘any shepherd is a to-eivah/an abhorrent thing to Egypt’ (46:34); but obviously shepherding is not a to-eivah/an abhorrent thing to the Israelites, as they proudly perform this role.”
 Some would like to add Sodom and Gomorrah to this list. However, nowhere in that story does the Bible say anything about homosexual sex. It is merely inferred from the line: “Bring them (i.e. the men) out to us, that we may get to know them.” (Gen. 19:5) It is true. Occasionally, “to know” is the Bible’s way of saying “sex;” but not always. Case in point: the beginning of the book of Exodus. There we are told “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Ex. 1:8). If everywhere the word “to know/yada’at” means “sex,” then we must conclude that the previous king of Egypt and Joseph were engaged in a homosexual relationship. And, because it did not continue with the new king, the Pharaoh became upset and enslaved our people.
 I explicitly state “homosexual sex” rather than “homosexuals,” because the Bible is clearly not prohibiting a person nor is it calling them abhorrent. The Biblical text is specifically referring to an act as abhorrent.
 Robert Alter. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Co.: New York, 2004. p. 623
 The prohibition was addressed only to man, because of our ancestors’ limited knowledge about procreation. According to their understanding, all the material needed to reproduce life was contained with the zerah/the seed (i.e. the sperm), as a woman’s egg is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Hence, that is the reason why sex between two women was never prohibited in the Bible, though included later by the rabbinic sages.
 RaSHI commentary to Genesis 9:6
 Kinsey, Alfred C. et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Indiana University Press: Philadelphia. 1948 and 1998, p. 499. According to this study, Kinsey reported that 92% of men engage in masturbation. In Kinsey, Alfred C. et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Indiana University Press: Philadelphia. 1953 and 1998, p. 142. According to this study, Kinsey reported that 62% of women engage in masturbation. A similar study was done in 2006 by Gerressu M., Mercer C., Graham C., Wellings K., Johnson A., called “Prevalence of masturbation and associated factors in a British national probability survey.” Arch Sex Behav 37 (2): 266–78. According to their results, 95% of men and 71% of women masturbate.
 See Genesis 38:6-10. The Mishnah, written in the first century of the Common Era, makes reference to this act. As it is written: “The hand that oftentimes makes ‘examinations’ is – among woman – praiseworthy, but among men, let it (i.e. the hand) be cut off!” Just in case we were fooled by the euphemism “examination,” tractate Niddah in the Babylonian Talmud makes it clear that “examination refers only to the emission of semen.” (BT Niddah 13a).
 Leviticus 19:17
 Erich Fromm. The Art of Loving. Harper and Row: 1956.
Rabbis and cantors from Central Synagogue in New York are about to hit the Southern road. Again.
It’s all part of the ISJL Rabbinic Department‘s Rabbis on the Road program. We believe that serving small and isolated Jewish communities is important. For years, we’ve encouraged larger communities and congregations to form partnerships with smaller congregations, in order to make rabbinic and educational services available to more people.
Recently, under the visionary leadership of senior Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, Central Synagogue answered the call.
Over the course of this year, Central Synagogue clergy have traveled South, visiting small Southern Jewish communities. Three of these trips have already transpired, with more to follow.
Feedback from communities has been tremendous. Here’s one example:
“Dear Rabbi Rubinstein – Considering your schedule over the last few days, I cannot say enough how much in debt I am to you for making your visit to Selma happen. The only negative of your coming was it just was not long enough!!! But that is okay, when something is really good, you take what you can get and be happy! Everybody, and I truly mean EVERYBODY, was so happy and impressed with you. They took to heart your words of faith and encouragement, enjoying the high profile stories you passed on. People hung around the Temple ‘til we had to blink the lights to get them to leave, a testimony of how energized you left them. As our attendees left, they couldn’t say enough of how much they enjoyed listening to you… It was a great day for me, Temple Mishkan Israel and historic Selma, Alabama.”
The Rabbis on the Road journeys continue this month. Rabbi Michael Friedman will be visiting with the congregations of Am Shalom (Bowling Green, KY), B’nai Sholom (Bristol, TN) and Emanuel (Stateville, NC). Student Cantor David Mintz will be with the congregations of Temple Sinai (Lake Charles, LA), Temple Shalom (Lafayette, LA) and B’nai Israel (Monroe, LA).
These are transformative experiences for both the visiting clergy and the hosting congregations. We share our unique experiences, but are also brought together by our Jewish identity. Through experiences like Rabbis on the Road, may we continue to sustain and strengthen Jewish life in the South, and throughout the United States.
Soon after I became Director of Rabbinic Services at the ISJL, I received a call from a Chaplain at a private prison in Mississippi. Prior to this call, there had been no recent Jewish prisoners at the facility. They had experienced no need for a rabbi … until now.
I learned from the Chaplain that the prison had just received a new transfer from Arizona. The inmate had conflicting statements in his records. Some indicated he was Jewish. Some indicated he was Protestant. In addition, I learned that the inmate was threatening to hurt others and take his own life if he did not receive kosher meals. The Chaplain expressed this was an emergency situation and asked if I could come immediately.
As I drove to the correctional facility, my mind was racing. I had two primary tasks ahead: determine if the inmate was a threat to himself or others, and determine if he was or was not Jewish. For me, it was the latter that gave me great pause. I was about to sit in judgment upon another individual. I was going to be involved in something that is so personal and thus subjective, making a recommendation that would forever impact someone’s life.
Upon arrival at the prison, which stood on the side of Highway 49 like a large gated rest-stop, I was met by the Chaplain. He began to walk me around the head offices of the prison, introducing me to the Wardens. Additionally, I also had the privilege to meet many of the block captains, security officials, and office managers. Everyone was extremely warm and welcoming, expressing their thanks for my immediate response to their situation.
When the inmate, “R.S.”, was brought into the room, he was extremely agitated (had to be restrained). His frustration was understandable. Having just been transferred from a prison in Arizona, he was in a period of prison in-processing, where – for a week or two – he was allowed no access to his personal items, and given little information. Additionally, he is trying to get used to new guards, a new “cellie” (roommate), a new prison system, he’s on a hunger strike, and now here I am, trying to determine his faith. Any one of us would be equally as stressed.
Although I tried to express my understanding, he would have none of it. It’s not that he didn’t believe me. It’s that he didn’t even want to hear my voice, the chaplain’s voice, or any other voice besides his own. And so for a good hour, R.S. vented. This was okay with me. I just listened. And, this passive engagement with R.S. seemed to start working. Slowly he calmed down, lowering his tone, beginning to share a few details with me of who he was and what he felt was going on. The guards exited, leaving R.S., the Chaplain, and myself to finally engage in a productive conversation.
I told R.S. that it was a pleasure for me to meet with him, and, that my purpose in being here is first to determine whether he was a threat to himself or others, as well as to determine the issue over religious affiliation. While I wanted to get to the more serious life/death issue, R.S. wanted to engage in the religious issue. In the discussion that followed, I learned that R.S. was part of the Kosher Religious Diet Program in his old prison, and was studying with that prison’s Jewish Chaplain. Thus, per the rules and regulations of the prison, which I had handy during the meeting, R.S. was entitled to have that diet continued in the new facility (unless he sells or trades that food to others).
I also learned that R.S.’s maternal grandmother was Jewish. His mother was not observant – which mattered little in formulating his Jewish identity anyway, for he was raised by his maternal grandfather and his step-grandmother, in a Protestant home. But, R.S. informed me, his estranged mother did force him to have a Bar Mitzvah. He called it “one of the worst days in his life,” as many of the family problems erupted during the service. Shortly thereafter, R.S. started getting into trouble, eventually leading to conflicts with the law.
R.S. has been in prison since 2004 for armed robbery. Upon entering into this prison sentence, he began somehow to re-connect with his Jewish roots, studying with the former prison’s Jewish chaplain. He started observing rituals of Jewish prayer, diet, Shabbat, and more. So, in my professional opinion, R.S. is Jewish, at least in an early stage. Not merely because of his mother’s or maternal grandmother’s religious identity; rather, R.S. is Jewish – in my opinion – because he further identifies himself as such and actively engages in Jewish deeds.
With that sentiment expressed to the Chaplain as well as to R.S., he relaxed completely, allowing me to address the other reason for my visit: the prison’s concern that he is a danger to himself and others. R.S. emphatically said, “There had to be some mistake. While I am upset and may act out at times, it is not my intention to hurt anyone else, or myself.”
I then used my remaining moments with R.S. to review with him the sins that Judaism views as particularly dire: idolatry, inappropriate sexual relations, and murder. As keeping kosher is not one of these, I recommended that while waiting on kosher meals to arrive, he eat at least eat some of the vegetables, bread, and other such staples on the regular meal plate so as not to jeopardize his health. I expressed that doing this would also ensure that he would uphold another Jewish value, p’kuach nefesh. He smiled, for the first time that day, and said he would do so.
We ended with the Priestly Benediction and a hand shake, as R.S. was lead out of the meeting room to go back to his cell. Before I departed, the Chaplain and I spoke. He asked if I would be interested in coming up to the prison more regularly to help guide the Jewish program. Without reservation, I said I would be delighted. These are after all fellow Jews and no matter where they may reside, they have the right to be supported in their Jewish faith.
Judaism is not a luxury; Judaism is a necessity. Even when imprisoned, a Jewish person remains Jewish. A person of faith needs their faith while preparing to return to society. And nobody knows that more than these inmates and the spirited Chaplains who serve them.
As a circuit riding rabbi serving an entire region, Rabbi Klaven is a resource for wide swath of Southern Jews, including those behind bars. His “Passover Pilgrimage” program includes conducting seders at a correctional facility. The work of Beth Tikvah Jewish Prisoner Outreach provides a model, as well. Do you often think of Jews in jail? Does your community do any outreach to imprisoned Jews?