Friday, May 27, 2016

Plebiscite Restraint, Stigma, Gay Men, and a Blaspheming “Bastard” (Emor)

Last week I participated in a panel with Anthony Venn-Brown, Anglican Priest, Rod Bower, and business leader, Peta Granger, regarding the relationship between LGBQTI people, business and religion. The session was facilitated by LGBT rights campaigner Tiernan Brady, who concluded the discussion with a plea for civility and restraint during the upcoming debate in Australia about broadening the legal definition of marriage. I agree that this is extremely important in order to avoid the negative impact on LGBQTI young people of a slanging match that would demonise and denigrate proponents of both change and the status quo.

In preparation for the panel I read; A Life of Unlearning: a preacher's struggle with his homosexuality, church and faith by Brown which he had given me. I found it quite unsettling. The impact that shame made on his life over a period of many years has been devastating. The secret life he led as a gay person left him exposed to exploitation, prone to making self-destructive choices and caused him terrible suffering. Eventually, when he disclosed his sexuality, he was shunned and his family was abandoned by the Christian community of which they had been a part. 

One aspect of Brown’s story, as well as the broader history of the experience of gay men in the 60s and 70s, led me to revisit something I had written in 2011. At the time, I was critical of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s view expressed in a letter written in 1976 that “the whole world despises homosexuals...... and that gay men also despised each other[i]. While no one needs to pretend that the Torah does not prohibit homosexual acts, I argued that it was “hard to believe that this conclusion was based on intensive interviews with a representative sample of homosexuals[ii]”. Yet, Brown writes about the significant impact of stigma, and shaming on gay men in the early 70s that led to a split between activists who wanted to focus on politics and others who sought to focus on improved self-image.

I must concede that Feinstein did have some factual basis for his assertions that were at least true at the time he wrote his letter. Where this Halachic authority and reality part company is in his wishful conclusion that stigma would lead same sex attracted men to avoid homosexual sex[iii]. Brown’s experience illustrates that stigma had no such impact on him, but that it did have an extremely damaging impact on his life. Negative self-perception has also been linked to diminished religious adherence[iv], which is another reason some orthodox Rabbis who are concerned about alienating LGBQTI people have opted for restraint.

The relationship between stigma and alienation from religion comes up in commentary at the end of our Torah reading last week. We read about “the son of an Israelite woman, and he was the son of an Egyptian man, went out among the children of Israel, and they quarrelled in the camp… The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the [Divine] Name and cursed. ...They took the blasphemer outside the camp and stoned him[v]”. Commentary tells us that the blasphemer of mixed heritage ‘was known until shortly before this episode, as the son of an Israelite woman among the other Israelites he had chosen to identify with. His mother had concealed the truth about her son’s birth by an Egyptian father that she slept with while married to another man, because of her honour. Somehow people began to talk about the fact that he was, in fact, “the son of an Egyptian”’[vi].  At that time, he sought acceptance and dignity by being allowed to pitch his tent among his mother’s tribe. However he was rejected and this lead him to lash out against God and ultimately to his death. 

While I am pleased that capital punishment is no longer practiced in Jewish law for blasphemy or any other crime, I think there is a lesson in this story about stigma and its impact on LGBQTI people. Drawing on Brown’s experience as well as the Biblical blasphemer, I think there is a particularly strong lesson relating to those who also seek a home within orthodox Jewish communities and other conservative faith communities. The Israelites in the desert lost a man who desperately wanted to belong within their faith community but instead turned to blasphemy. There is a big difference in tone between Feinstein’s writing in the 70s and the empathy shown by Rapoport, an orthodox Jewish scholar whose book was published thirty years later[vii]

Also at the forum, leading politician Penny Wong talked about the importance of considering where public figures’ words land and their impact. She could have quoted the Talmudic advice; “Wise people, be careful with your words[viii]”. I hope Tiernan’s call for civility and restraint on all sides of this debate will be heeded.  

[i] Feinstien, R. Moshe, (1976) Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4, p. 206, in a letter dated 1 Adar II, 5736
[iii] Feinstien, R. Moshe, (1976) p. 205 and 206
[iv] See Tanya chapter 1
[v] Leviticus 24:10-23
[vi] Abarbanel p 281
[vii] Rapoport, Rabbi C, (2004) Judaism and Homosexuality, Vallentine Mitchell, London & Portland
[viii] Pirkey Avot 1:11

Friday, May 6, 2016

Insecurity, Scapegoating and Re-assigning Shared Responsibility - Acharei Mot

I, like many people, crave the feeling that comes from thinking of myself as being good. This need can be difficult for me to satisfy because I am both flawed as well as virtuous and my habitual self-criticism and insecurities tend to focus more on the former than the latter. Some people, including bigots[i], in their efforts to think of themselves as good, designate someone else as a scapegoat to take the blame for the existence of their shortcomings.  Scape-goating is part of both Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sander’s appeal to at least some Americans.  Either foreigners or bankers are blamed for America's problems.  This tactic is far from new and in fact when we re-examine the origins of this concept, there are dramatically different approaches to the topic of “scapegoating”.

We first read about the scapegoat in Leviticus: “Aaron shall lean both of his hands upon the live male goat's head and confess upon it all the wilful sins of the Israelites, all their rebellions, and all their unintentional sins and he shall place them on the he goat's head, and send it off to the desert...[ii]

The concept of transferring blame implicit in scapegoating is strongly rejected by one of the greatest Jewish authorities of all time, Maimonides. He wrote that ‘sins are not burdens that one can transfer from the back of one person to that of another, but (rather) all these actions are all meant as lessons to bring about fear in one’s soul, until one repents[iii]’. In this approach, the destroyed goat is an illustration of the evil within each individual themselves, that can only be removed by personal change and improvement. The goat is at least in part an aid to the imagination just as the ceremonial “tossing our sins” into the sea by emptying our pockets at the edge of a body of water does not substitute for the hard work of changing habits and repairing our relationships with our fellow humans or God.   

In contrast to the view of Maimonides, the symbolism found in at least one commentary of this ritual appears to reflect the modern concept of a ‘scapegoat’. This interpretation implies that sins can indeed be transferred from one person to another. It symbolically links the two goats and the twins Jacob and Esau[iv] who are seen as ancestors and therefore symbolic of the Jewish and Roman nations respectively.  Despite the similarity of two ordinary goats as well as the twins Jacobs and Esau Jews, Jacob is seen to be held close to God, while Esau is distanced from God. This choice is articulated by God through one of the prophets in the statement: “Is it not (true) that Esau is a brother to Jacob said God, yet I loved Jacob and I hated Esau[v]”. Mirroring this apparently arbitrary selection of Jacob by God, one goat is selected to be offered in the holy temple. The other goat, is sent to a forsaken area in the desert which mirrors the fact that Esau, the archetypal Roman, himself was a man of the field, distanced from God, “bitter, brazen (עז) in strength and wickedness”.  

If we take this commentary at face value, it implies that the Jews can pass on their sins to Rome! Despite my preference for Maimonides’ approach that affirms personal responsibility, I think that sometimes there is in fact merit in assigning shared responsibility to parties other than the direct perpetrator. For example, if members of oppressed minorities commit crimes like burglary, it makes sense to combine the principle of personal responsibility that holds the robber accountable with assigning some responsibility to those who created the unjust circumstances in which those crimes are committed, such as colonialism or institutional racism. This theme is alluded to (in the commentary about the scapegoat) when Esau/Rome, cries out in protest as the crimes are loaded onto him: “how can I bear all these sins?” The complaint is explained as an argument against shifting blame for sins that are not attributable to oppression such as sins of lust[vi].  The implication is that culpability for some sins can be justly attributed to the oppressive, “brazen” state and only some “responsibility re-assignment” is unjustified.  

For me, I believe the most useful thing to do in relation to my self-concept is firstly to combine acknowledgement of my shortcomings with appreciation for my positive aspects. There is no need, benefit or justification to blame others for one’s own faults. There are times when I can use my imagination in a process of moving on, just like the goat ceremony might help someone work on their self-improvement. For example, I can externalise my habitual self-criticism and imagine it coming from a harsh unreasonable judge or a personalised “inner critic” who needs to be told to back off. Religious Jews often talk about the “evil inclination” as if it was another person. This is ok as long as we don’t forget we are just pretending and that in reality the “inner critic” and evil inclination is part of us. In the broader context of inter-group relations, I think the concept of the scapegoat can be, at times ridiculous bigotry and at other times, a rightful redistribution of a fair share of responsibility between those who take harmful actions and those who, through greed, arrogance, stupidity and injustice contributed to the circumstances that made that harm likely.

[i] See the work of Stuart Hall on representation
[ii] Leviticus 16:21
[iii] Guide for the Perplexed 3:46 cited in Nachshoni, Vayikra, p. 768
[iv] Abarbanel Acharei Mot, p. 179
[v]  Malachai, 1:2-3
[vi] Chasam Sofer in Toras Moshe, based on Midrash, cited in Nachshoni, Vayikra, p. 767