Friday, April 8, 2016

Religious attitudes about sexuality in the context of harming LGBTI youth - Tazria

River is the name of an Australian high school student who is homeless. Although born female, River does not identify as a girl, but rather as “gender fluid”. Like other LGBTI youth River has been subjected to abuse and hostility ultimately leading to homelessness. On a radio program this week[i], I heard one LGBTI young person who turned to a religious based service for emotional support but found that the minute they identified as gay, there was a dramatic shift in the mood away from compassion and empathy to distance. “When I asked for the help that she (previously) mentioned she said ‘It is not for me’”.

The hostility toward the Safe Schools program that addressed some of the anti-gay bullying in schools has come under fire by religious people. Of course for Jews and Christians there is the Biblical prohibition against homosexual sex. Still, out of the 613 commandments in the Torah this one generates disproportionate passion[ii].  This got me thinking more broadly about religions’ reservations about sex as one possible factor that makes empathy with and acceptance of LGBTI people harder for some religious people.

The Torah reading this week begins with an unusual expression “A woman who will seed and she will give birth to a male[iii]”. It proceeds to declare her ritually impure for seven days as a result of childbirth. I find this puzzling as in Judaism we regard death as the source of spiritual impurity. That being the case I would have thought the miracle of a new life would be a completely positive thing. To put it another way, “the key to birth is in the hands of God and has not been handed over to any messenger (such as an angel), how can this result in impurity?[iv]

One commentary about this verse references the fact that the laws about human impurity follows the laws about animal based impurity. This sequence is meant to lead to humans feeling humbled by reflecting on the fact that both in creation and in listing of the laws they come later than animals. In addition, the Torah seeks to foster humility by drawing a person’s attention to “his lowliness and his disgusting formation from a putrid drop[v] that he was formed from… and how polluted is his birth so how can he be arrogant?![vi]” This commentary does not accord with my view that birth is the most beautiful miracle from conception to delivery.

An alternative[vii] is that on the contrary the “impurity” relates to “the greatness of the human, the chosen one of creation”.  It is precisely because of the holiness of the new life that it draws negative energies[viii]. In this mystical approach, a spiritually neutral situation does not attract the forces of darkness but where something holy is present these spirits are drawn to it, to try to (appear?) similar to the holy. This approach is similar to Newton’s law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

A similar explanation is that the impurity is not a result of birth itself but comes after the birth. It is related to the reason for impurity of a dead body. “The place has been emptied of holiness - that is the soul of the person,   therefore the forces of impurity seek to dwell there. The same is true with a woman giving birth. Because God himself was the one opening (the womb), and therefore when the Divine presence leaves, the forces of impurity desire to attached themselves to her[ix].

Despite the problems some sources have with sexual desire, even linking it to an idea of original sin[x], there are clearly some sources in Judaism that see sexual desire as a positive thing. The Talmud refers to the sexual act as “Shalom Bayit”, peace in the home. Recognising the relational benefit to the marriage and broadening its legitimacy beyond procreation.

Another teaching relates to the verse at the start of this blog post. The Talmud infers a practical message about managing male desire from a creative interpretation of this verse. If a woman seeds (climaxes) first she will give birth to a male...this is only that they (the males) delay themselves… so that their wife should seed first (and as “reward for this”) their children will be male.... [xi] Let us put aside the implications about gender equality arising from male offspring being offered as a reward. This is an ethical teaching about the obligations of men to concern themselves with female desire rather than just their own.   

Male sexual desire is also seen as a positive thing in another context. The basin used by the priests (Kohanim) to wash themselves in the temple was made from the mirrors that the Hebrew slave women used in Egypt to attract their husbands’ attention[xii]. “Moses despised the mirrors because they are made for the evil inclination, but The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him, accept them as these are dearer to me than everything. It is through these (mirrors) that the women stood up many hosts in Egypt. When their husbands were exhausted from the back breaking work they would go and bring food and drink and feed them, they would take the mirrors and each one would see herself and her husband in the mirror and she would coax him with words, saying “I am more pretty than you” and through this would bring their husbands to desire and they would attend to them and they would become pregnant and give birth[xiii].

I don’t know if this kind of exploration of positive religious teachings about sexuality in general can lead to better outcomes for LGBTI young people. Perhaps what is needed is more direct action to ensure that the ideals of compassion and the dignity of all people are extended to LGTBI people, especially in “safe schools”. On the other hand maybe a healthier understanding of this beautiful part of being human can help religious people more calmly see variations of sexuality and gender in context, as just aspects of how various humans are, without losing sight of the humanity of people like River.


[iii]  Leviticus 12:1
[iv] Shem Mishmuel in the name of the Rebbe of Kotzk, quoted in Greenberg, A. Y, (1996) Iturei Torah, p. 64 Yavneh, Tel Aviv
[v] Pirkey Avot – Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 2, Mishna 1
[vi]  Yaffa, Rabbi Mordechai (1604) in Levush HaOrah, on Leviticus 12:6 (note, the Hebrew word that I translate as Polluted is מזוהם)
[vii] This is by a student of Rabbi Yaffa, but he declares his interpretation to be “the opposite, from one extreme to the other” to that of his teacher.
[viii] Eilenberg, Rabbi Y.B, (1623) in Tzeda Lderech, Eilenberg was a student of R. Yaffa, another layer to this I heard in the name of Rav Frand, is that the birth of a daughter requires twice as long to deal with the “impurity” because not only is there one miracle of life but the double miracle of the creation of a child who will herself also bear children.
[ix] Shem Mishmuel in the name of the Rebbe of Kotzk, quoted in Greenberg, (1996)
[x] See Rabbenu Bchai, Tazria 12:7, “it can be explained that the sacrifice was not because of her own sin but because of her mother's sin (Eve) the mother of all the living. Because were it not for that sin, man  would cause birth with his wife not in the way of lust and desire but rather in a completely natural way just like the nature of the tree that brings forth its fruits every year without lust. This woman giving birth, (it can be said of her) like mother, like daughter in the act of sin. Because the branches are rotten with the rot of the root. Therefore she is required by the verse to bring an offering to atone for that primordial sin. ...
[xi]  Talmud, Nida 31a&b see also Rabbenu Bchai, Tazria 12:7 One who can conquer his (evil) inclination and delay himself so that she “seeds” first he receives his reward…
[xii]    Exodus 38:8
[xiii]   Rashi on Exodus 38:8, 

Friday, April 1, 2016

Don’t keep it simple or calm! On political and other leadership

The contrast between Donald Trump and our current prime minister could hardly be greater. The “Donald” fearlessly commits to punishing women for having abortions, ‘building a wall that Mexico will pay for’ and barring Muslims entry to the US. I cringed when I read Kristina Keneally’s sarcastic ridiculing of the caution of our Prime Minister in her article; “Let’s cut Turnbull some slack, he’s had a hard week after making a decision[i]”. Another comparison could be made between the complexity of Hilary Clinton’s candidacy and the simplicity of the Sanders economic message. The attraction of the simple is undeniable. Despite my strong feelings about the leaders more generally, this post is focused on the merit of different leadership styles rather than on the personalities. 

 I was told the other day to calm down while talking passionately about my ideas. I thought: ‘No way will I calm down’. Sitting alongside emotion’s potential for destruction and messiness, is its potency as an ingredient of positive change. I love watching Bernie Sanders getting carried away in delight, as when a bird settled on his podium, or in anger when talking about injustice. On the other hand, emotion coupled with arrogance can be truly scary in a leader.

I also choose to embrace, albeit reluctantly, my hesitancy and difficulty making decisions. While it might be considered heroic or “manly” to be decisive, it can also lead to harmful decisions.

In this week’s Torah reading, we find a caution against getting carried away with emotion in the case of Aaron’s sons who spontaneously and joyously[ii] brought an offering that they were not commanded to bring[iii]. Passion is vital, as symbolised by the constant fire in the temple [iv], but it must be combined with humility[v]. Humility is also highlighted in commentary about Aaron being told by Moses to step forward to leadership[vi]. It is suggested that Aaron was reluctant about leadership, worried about a past failure. However he was told “it is for/because of this that you were chosen[vii]”. This quality of humility and reluctance to lead is itself the virtue that makes Aaron deserving of leadership[viii].  Sanders seems to have a combination of humility and passion which I am drawn to.   

I also have been thinking about the qualities attributed to honey and salt in our traditions. Honey is seen as highly potent and not at all complex: it simply adds to the flavour of foods. Salt is complicated. If you put a lot of salt on a plant, it will destroy it; however, put salt on other foods and it preserves them. So salt is complicated in that it’s  both preserving and destructive. Of the two elements, it is salt that is required in the temple and honey that is generally banned. That might be of some comfort to Clinton or Kasich supporters if complexity was the only thing that mattered.  Humility and passion, coupled with an embrace of complexity and caution, are some of the needed qualities for leadership. As Ed Kotch said when he was running for Mayor of New York, “there are many people better qualified than me to be mayor. None of them are running this year”.  I pray that whoever leads both the US and Australia be blessed with the required qualities to do so.   


[i] The Guardian
[ii] Torat Cohanim, in Torah Shlaima p3, 1
[iii] Leviticus 10:1
[iv] Schneerson, Rabbi Y. Y. in Hayom Yom,  21 Adar II
[v] Talmud, Eruvin 63a, Yoma 53a, and Torah Cohanim
[vi] Leviticus 9:7
[vii] Torah Cohanim cited in Rashi

[viii] Baal Shem Tov in Degel Machne Efrayim, in Greenberg, A.Y. (1992) Torah Gems, Orenstien, Tel Aviv p.266