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A Bible Lesson for Rick Santorum: Why It's Not Immoral to be Gay

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Dear Rick,

I know you to be a man of deep faith in God and a person whose faith causes you to have a strong sense of responsibility to improve the world. Several years ago I heard you speak passionately about the threat of a nuclear Iran to the world and when I thanked you for your attention to this important issue you immediately quoted for me a verse from the biblical Book of Esther: "Perhaps it is for this exact purpose you have been placed in this political position" (Esther 4:14).

Because you are so conscious of the role of religion in government and political life, I wanted to share with you a concept from the Jewish interpretation of the Bible.

According to Judaism there are two different types of commandments: There are certain commandments known as "mitzvoth" and there are other commandments known as "chukim." The rabbis explain that mitzvoth are those commandments which can be explained logically and make good sense, for example, honour your father and mother, or do not murder. But there is another type of commandment that is called a chok; a chok is a law that we must equally obey however, the rabbis recognizes that this law cannot be understood rationally. We must obey the law because God has ordered it and not because we necessarily understand it.

The interesting thing is that we do not always know into which box we can place a commandment that appears in the Torah.

Sometimes a commandment is explicitly called a chok. The most famous example of this is the commandment to slaughter a red heifer, known in Hebrew as a parah adumah, and sprinkle its ashes as a purifying mechanism upon a person who became ritually impure. The rabbis tell us that the wisest human being in history, King Solomon, said about this law: "I said that I would understand it, but it is distant from me" (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3, quoting Kohelet 7:23).

But in most cases it is not entirely clear.

I argue in my book Fifty-Four Pick Up (p. 223-226) that an example of a law that is a chok, is the biblical discussion of homosexuality. The Torah specifically declares that a homosexual act is prohibited but I say about this law: "It is my law, and it is distant from me. I know that the Torah uses the word to'evah -- usually translated as abomination -- about this prohibition, but I also know that the word to'evah also appears in other contexts throughout the Torah that are not necessarily morally charged, like bringing an animal sacrifice that has a blemish on it (Devarim 17:1) and the prohibition of eating certain animals (ibid. 14:3)."

This distinction may in some cases help us transmit our religious beliefs in a passionate manner without alienating those with whom we disagree. As a Jew I know that Torah requires us to keep kosher, but I would never cast moral judgment upon those who choose not to follow the dietary laws of the Torah.

Similarly, while I try with all my heart and soul to follow all the commandments of the Torah, I would never cast moral judgment on those who are gay. The Bible prohibits homosexual acts, and I can never argue with that, but in accepting the commandment I can say: "It is my law and I do not claim to understand it." Some people like to say about homosexuality, "Love the sinner and hate the sin." I totally disagree with that approach. I don't hate the sin. Not at all! I accept the Torah's command, but I do not claim to understand it.

Ultimately religion is about submitting oneself before our Maker. We cannot pretend to understand all of His ways and commands. But we must follow all of his commands and in this respect there is a hierarchy: Our rabbis tell us that fundamentally the entire Torah can be summarized in the teaching: "Love your neighbor like you yourself."

Sincerely,

Shmuel Herzfeld
Rabbi,
Ohev Sholom--The National Synagogue
Washington, DC

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