Kochavim / Stargazing

Jewish World Review Sept. 12, 2000 /11 Elul, 5760

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

Dawn of the Orthodox celebs

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- FOR ORTHODOX JEWS, fifteen minutes of fame may stretch all the way to November.

Thanks to the selection of Joe Lieberman as a vice-presidential candidate, it is fine to talk about Orthodoxy in polite company. Orthodox Jews need not walk waiting to be picked up as extras in the next Woody Allen exercise in Jewish self-flagellation. Many Americans will find their curiosity piqued. They will want to find out just what it was that could make Joe Lieberman miss out on attending his own victory celebration after a successful campaign. More importantly, they will want to know just what it is that spells the difference between talking about morality, which many politicians do, and taking it seriously enough that it translates into real changes in daily behavior. They will sense that there might be more to traditional Judaism than they ever thought. As Charles Krauthammer put it, the focus on Lieberman’s roots will contribute to the “demystifying of Judaism,” and allow the profundity of the Torah to impact on Jew and non-Jew alike.

In the next few months, non-Jewish America will learn more about the Sabbath than the vast majority of Jews know about it today. The Sabbath will be seen as something positive, not an atavistic relic of the past. It will be cool to observe the Sabbath, not embarrassing or quaint.

Fame has its price. Jewish law, which survived pretty well as a living system for a few thousand years, saw new and strange incarnations of itself provided by various spokespeople who claimed to have the inside scoop on how an observant vice-president would cope with Sabbath restrictions, or where Lieberman gets his ideas on abortion.

Jewish celebrities, especially Orthodox ones, are going to be working overtime explaining fine points of Jewish law and practice. Providing the right answers will be far more important in the next few months than ever before. A recent media battle between two Jewish notables never received the attention it should.

We would have thought that Dr. Laura Schlessinger, as a relative newcomer to both Judaism and Orthodoxy, would be no match for someone with yeshiva background. Instead, she got it right, and her opponent, Rabbi Shmuli Boteach, got it thoroughly wrong.

With Laura on the ropes over her rejection of homosexuality as a morally acceptable volitional behavior, Boteach seized the opportunity to set the record straight. In a column that was carried in Jewish papers throughout America, the advocate of Kosher Sex averred that Jewish law does not reject homosexuality with the revulsion that Bible-thumpers do. Dr. Laura, he claims, does not hew to a Jewish view on the issue.

Two of his arguments cry out for a response. Homosexuality, he says, is no more horrific than a host of other transgressions that are termed abominable by the Torah, such as faulty weights and measures, and remarrying a divorced wife. Do we revile other sinners the same way? Why should gays be different?

It is a specious observation, belied by the Maharsha, a Talmudic commentator who wrote almost five hundred years ago. The Talmud itself singles out homosexuality for special contempt, expanding the word toevah – abomination – into toeh atah ba (you err through it). Despite the use of the word toevah in regard to other evils, homosexuality merits special treatment, explains the Maharsha. It is the only member of the list of proscribed sexual unions (which are serious transgressions to begin with) to be termed abominable. There must be something particularly nasty about it.

Far more serious than forgetting a comment by a single (albeit important) commentator, is Boteach’s second argument. There are two types of sins described by the Torah, those between man and G-d, and those between man and man. Only the latter, he says, are moral failings. Would we heap moral opprobrium on eaters of cheeseburgers?

The distinction is both wrong and dangerous. It may please lots of folks who see themselves as good people without any need for religious ritual, but it runs afoul of much in our tradition.

Moral failings can be found in all facets of life, just as moral excellence can. Boteach’s distinction is as hollow as a host of others: mind vs. body, reason vs. feeling, nature vs. nurture. All attempts to isolate the most important element in the human condition meet with failure, because in the final analysis, all parts of the complex are important.

Man’s moral life is no different. Man was created to interact with other humans, and with G-d. When Man seriously misconstrues the nature of either relationship, he damages himself morally, and distances himself from where he should be. And that is what moral failing is about.

The three cardinal sins of Judaism – murder, idolatry, and forbidden sexual unions - demonstrate this rather neatly, according to the great 16th century authority, Maharal of Prague. Between them, they just happen to neatly cover three distinct types of relationships: those between Man and his fellow man, between Man and G-d, and between Man and himself. For each of these transgressions, a Jew must offer his or her life, rather than violate. Each one of these areas is important enough to make further living in a fallen state an impossible notion to contemplate. (It is also significant that Maharal does not view sexual impropriety as a violation of Man’s relationship with G-d, but of his relationship to himself. Presumably, homosexuality would be no different.)

To be sure, there are differences among the commandments. As Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (12th century Spain) observes in Kuzari, the 613 mitzvos (commandments) divide themselves between two global values – making us better people, and making us holy people. A person can be good without being holy, i.e. without developing a special closeness to his Creator. This does not mean, however, that all mitzvos aimed at G-d rather than people are holiness mitzvos. To the contrary, our gift of being able to appreciate and relate to Divinity is so important a part of our basic nature, that subverting it can be a major corruption of what we are, i.e. can be a moral failing.

Rabbi Boteach should have satisfied himself with pointing out that the Torah rejects homosexual acts, not homosexuals, and that it certainly does not call for singling out one group for discrimination or shunning by society. Those points have been made before by others. While they may appear a bit tired, what they lack in glitz, they make up for in accuracy.

And lack of accuracy, it would seem, should be considered a moral failing in anyone’s book.

JWR contributor Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in
Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. You may comment
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© 2000, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein