[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.
A new congregation in Savannah, Georgia was looking forward to celebrating the high holidays together for the first time, but they needed something pretty important: a Torah.
They contacted our museum to arrange a loan. I had shipped items from our collection before, but I was curious if any special precautions needed to be taken with a sacred artifact like a Torah. Was there any specific ritual? Did it need to receive the Traveler’s Prayer before shipping?
Like most people of my generation, when a question like this arises, I first turn to Google. I typed “shipping a Torah” in the search bar. Nothing. I then consulted with my co-worker, who also happens to be a rabbi, and together we determined with the proper packing the Torah would be safe in the hands of shipping professionals, gentle handling required, but no prayers necessary. So I took the Torah measurements and called FedEx, to find a proper box and get this special delivery underway.
“How about a golf bag box?” The service representative asked. I admitted to him I wasn’t exactly sure how tall or wide a golf bag was but after he gave me the dimensions it seemed to be the best solution to this unusual problem.
I strapped on my Jewish educator cap and walked into the local FedEx with a 41” long Torah in my arms. I carefully squeezed through the doorway and immediately got the attention of the staff and customers in the room.
“How can I help you?” a tall man with a slight Southern accent asked.
I told him I needed a golf bag box, packing materials and a lot of shipping insurance.
“What is it exactly you are trying to ship?”
This could have gone two ways. The first would have been simple enough – I could have just said, it’s a museum artifact. But remember, I had my educator cap on, so I began to explain what a Torah: that it was a scroll containing the five books of Moses, carefully handwritten by a scribe on sheets of parchment sewn together. I told him it was a sacred object that is read from each week in Jewish congregations and contains the story and laws of the Jewish people.
“So … is it okay if I touch it?” he asked.
I smiled and replied “Yes, people have been touching Torahs for thousands of years”
He went beyond his normal service duties and helped me carefully wrap and pack the Torah securely into the box. We decided to list the Torah under Fine Arts and insured the package using its declared value. I thanked him immensely for his help.
The Torah made its way to Savannah, arriving safely within the next two days to the delight of the community – and now, I can officially add “Torah Shipping” to my resume. So if you by chance have found this post by Googling “shipping a Torah”, please send me an e-mail and I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned!
Questions about shipping golf clubs? You may be best to try someone else.
There are 650 miles and 3 states between Fort Mill, South Carolina and Greenwood, Mississippi, but their connection is closer than ever after Michael and Carol Pleskoff made the trek to Jackson, Mississippi, two weeks ago.
The couple, along with other members of Fort Mill’s Temple Solel, met with Rabbi Marshal Klaven on a rabbinic visit to the newly formed congregation in July. They were looking for a Torah to use during the monthly services they hold in a local church. Rabbi Klaven recommended contacting me, and two days later I was helping to arrange the loan of a Torah from the collection of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE).
The Torah once belonged to the congregations of Temple Beth Israel in the Mississippi delta community of Greenwood. Jews arrived in Greenwood in the 1850s, and by 1890 they had begun to organize a Jewish community. In 1897, a group of merchants met in a store house and formed the first synagogue, a Reform temple named Beth Israel.
Beth Israel always remained a small synagogue. In 1940, there were 30 members. By 1957 the temple had 66 members and twenty students in Sunday school. Like many small communities in the region, when people started to leave Greenwood for opportunities elsewhere the Jewish community was not able to replenish itself, and the congregation closed its doors in 1989. The Torah and other religious artifacts were donated to the MSJE.
The end of Beth Israel does not reflect a dwindling of Jewish life in the South. Just the opposite, Temple Solel is an example of Jewish communities growing in different parts of our region as populations shift to larger cities like Atlanta and Charlotte. Michael and Carol are examples of dedicated congregants, traveling that 650 miles to Jackson in their RV, in order to preserve their Jewish traditions. By replanting a piece of Southern Jewish history in their new congregation, Temple Solel will continue the legacy of Jewish life in the South. As congregants read from this Torah they will be reminded of those who read from it before them and how those congregants promoted Jewish life in this region in order to pave the way for thriving communities today.