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