Is the Torah Moral? Parshat Chukat and Ta’amey Hamitzvot (Reasons for the Commandments) and an Answer to Rick -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 3, 2009

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat-Balak, the Torah presents the chok (mitzvah who’s reason we can not know) par excellence, the Parah Adumah, the ashes of the red heifer as a procedure for removing the ritual impurity caused by being in contact with a dead body.  Is this classic chok, (or for that matter all chukim, or according to some, all mitzvoth), one whose reason (1) we do not know; (2) a mitzvah whose reason can not be known except by the Divine; or (3)a mitzvah with no reason at all?

I will explore this classic question of Taamey Hamitzvot (whether there are reasons for mitzvoth) and I then hope to link the answer to Rick’s comment on my post from last week regarding gay Jews.  His question was, once we see people in homosexual relationships with more love and less rejection don’t we run the risk of accepting other forbidden relationships such as incest?

Summary: This is a long post so let me summarize first.  Having a Kiddush to celebrate the commitment of two homosexuals to raising a family together (which is not forbidden)  would not lead us to having a Kiddush for a brother and sister raising a family together as partners because homosexuality is not immoral in our society and incest is.  The torah forbids both but that says nothing about morality, only about halacha.  Both sexual acts are forbidden, neither Kiddush is, but we should not celebrate an incestual union since it is morally depraved and will affect other’s moral compass, whereas a homosexual union, while forbidden, does not effect our moral compass and our ability to imitate God which is only based on mitzvoth which have as their reasons mercy, compassion and morality.

Post: Rick’s is a classic argument against tolerating homosexuality.  From a secular point of view people can make distinctions between one kind of relationship and another (many states permit homosexual weddings but not the other kinds Rick mentioned) but from a religious point of view it is more difficult.  If the Torah is our measure of what is moral and what is forbidden then aren’t all forbidden relationships equally immoral?  If we see in a less harsh light something the Torah forbids then why not permit everything the Torah forbids?   What will stop us from having a Kiddush for an incestual couple if we have one for a homosexual one?  It’s a good question that deserves a serious answer.

The Mishnah (Megilah 25a) states: “One who is leading the prayer service and prays, “Even unto a mother bird does your mercy extend”…we quiet him.””  The Talmud records two opinions as to why this is so (each is an opinion of a different Rabbi named Yosi); either, (1) because we will create jealousy among the creatures (since God is singling out the bird for special treatment), or (2) because this prayer leader is depicting the Torah’s commandments as motivated by mercy and they are nothing more than decrees of the King (with no moral motivation such as mercy behind them).  This Gemara is presenting both sides of the argument -the opinion that mitzvot have no reasons (even those miztvot which seem to reflect moral intentions) and the opinion which holds that the purpose of all Mitzvot are to teach us to be just, merciful and moral.

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Welcoming Gay Jews in the Orthodox Community, by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

June 26, 2009

In the series of posts that I have been writing about welcoming various populations of Jewish people, I am not purporting to address the halachic (Jewish legal) implications of the lives of populations of Jews, I am rather exploring how we as an Orthodox community can tweak our vision of the world and of people, in order to cultivate more welcoming Orthodox communities that can in turn be open to the widest range of Jews.

Last week I wrote of welcoming intermarried families and this week I would like to address how we see another population of Jews that often feels unwelcomed -Jewish people who are not physically attracted to people of the opposite gender, but only to the same gender, and how we as communities observant of halacha can welcome them and to what extent.

Various studies estimate that anywhere from 4%-20% of the American population is homosexual.  It would be dangerous for us to believe that Orthodox Jews are an exception.  That the torah forbids men from having sexual relations with each other is testament that in the Torah’s preview such a desire does exist.

My community encompasses several gay members, some are open about it and some are not, some have partners or are married and others are not, some live a celibate life alone (or have tried to) and others do not.   Just as there isn’t one type of heterosexual person so too there is not homogeneity among homosexuals.  Ultimately people are individuals (an entire universe of their own, as the Mishna in Sanhedrin says), and must be attended to as such.

What should an orthodox Rabbi do when a congregant comes out to him?  What should an Orthodox community’s attitude be toward their gay brethren?   Should we reject them?  Accept them?  Tell them they can never live a life with a family and have children?  Find them a proper partner?

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