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Progressive Inversions

THERE AREN'T MANY theological issues that could unite the ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel, the Catholic Church, and the International Communion of Evangelical Churches, but gay marriage is one of them. Last month, as so many people in New York and around the country celebrated the State Senate’s vote to legalize gay marriage, it was easy to forget that this victory for civil rights appeared to these religious groups as a calamitous defeat. Traditionalist Jews, Catholics, and Protestants had all lobbied intensively against the marriage equality bill, and it received enough Republican support to pass only after religious organizations were exempted from having to perform or acknowledge gay marriages.

At the same time, of course, liberal members of these faiths were just as passionate in support of the bill. For Jews, a perfect image of this intra-communal divide came when Sharon Kleinbaum, a tallis-clad rabbi holding a pro-equality sign at an Albany rally, was spit on and told “you are not a Jew” by a young Satmar Hasid. (By putting her arm around the man’s shoulder, in violation of the rules of shomer negiah, or the religious avoidance of physical contact, Kleinbaum, the rabbi of a gay congregation in Manhattan, surely expected to provoke a reaction, but perhaps not such a passionate one.)

In the unlikely event that Kleinbaum and that Hasid were to sit down with their Bibles and debate the Torah’s view of homosexuality, who would come away the winner? The answer seems totally unambiguous. Just look at Leviticus 20:13: “And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death: their blood shall be upon them.” The law as written does not apply to women, but for homosexual men it means death.

At this point, the twenty-first-century Jew—like the Protestant and the Catholic, anyone whose religion views the Bible as holy writ—has two simple choices, and one messy and unsatisfying one. The first simple choice is the one the Satmar Hasid would take: the Bible being God’s word, homosexuality is ipso facto an abomination, Q.E.D. The second is the one any secular rationalist would take: the Bible is not God’s word, and it has no more binding force than any other ancient Near Eastern law code. The Code of Hammurabi, for instance, holds that “If a man’s wife be surprised with another man, both shall be tied and thrown into the water,” but we are no more obligated to follow this law today than we are to follow Leviticus. Both reflect millennia-old views of gender and sexuality that now appear simply unjust.

The third choice is the one represented in The Bible Now, the new book by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky. They have set out to explain “what the Bible has to say about the major issues of our time,” in particular “five current controversial matters: homosexuality, abortion, women’s status, capital punishment, and the earth.” Some people turn to the Bible for guidance, they observe early on, “because … the Bible is the final authority and one must do what it says.” But as secular academics, Friedman and Dolansky recognize that the Bible was written by historically situated human beings, with various political and religious agendas. They belong to the other category of Bible-seekers, they say, those “who do not believe that the Bible is divinely revealed, [but] turn to the Bible because they believe it contains wisdom—wisdom that might help anyone, whatever his or her beliefs, make wise decisions about difficult matters.”

The first chapter of The Bible Now is devoted to homosexuality, and it is not long before Friedman and Dolansky run into Leviticus 20:13. It is easy to sympathize with their embarrassment. Here the Bible is saying something they obviously regard as cruel and retrograde, something they would not hesitate to brand as homophobic in any other situation. What to do? Well, “for one thing, one must address the law in its context.” Turning from ancient Israel to Assyria, Egypt, and Greece, Friedman and Dolansky observe that these other Near Eastern societies generally had nothing against homosexual acts as such. They reserved their odium for the passive partner in anal sex, the man who was penetrated. A “Middle Babylonian divination text” instructs that “If a man copulates with his equal from the rear, he becomes the leader among his peers and brothers”; on the other hand, Plutarch writes, “We class those who enjoy the passive part as belonging to the lowest depths of vice.”

Never mind that these texts were written more than a thousand years apart, in two very different civilizations, neither of which was Israelite. Friedman and Dolansky use them to establish “the wider cultural context” of Leviticus, from which it follows that “what the authors of Leviticus … may be prohibiting is not homosexuality as we would construe the category today but, rather, an act that they understood to rob another man of his social status by feminizing him.” Why, then, does Leviticus, uniquely among ancient Near Eastern law codes, prescribe death for both partners in homosexual acts? Friedman and Dolansky argue, quoting another Bible scholar, that it is because Leviticus “emphasizes the equality of all. It does not have the class distinctions that are in the other cultures’ laws.”

This is a remarkable performance. Before you know it, a law that unambiguously prescribes death for gay men has been turned into an example of latent egalitarianism. Friedman and Dolansky imply that it was not homosexuality the Bible wanted to condemn, but the humiliation of the passive partner. And since we no longer think of consensual sex acts as humiliating, surely the logic of the Bible itself means that homosexuality is no longer culpable: “The prohibition in the Bible applies only so long as male homosexual acts are perceived to be offensive.”

But wait: doesn’t Leviticus also say, in Chapter 18, that “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination”? Here too, Friedman and Dolansky have a reassuring response. “The technical term to’ebah,” they write, is usually employed in the Bible not for absolute moral laws, but for cultic taboos: “an act or object that is not a to’ebah can become one, depending on time and circumstances.” Maybe homosexuality was once to’ebah, but “why do people assume that things relating to God must be absolute and unchanging? Even for a person who believes in God wholeheartedly, why should that person assume that God is never free to change?”

By this point, the game has been pretty well given away. “We must use [the Bible] with integrity—and humility,” Friedman and Dolansky remark in their preface. “We have to recognize what it teaches even when that teaching goes against what we want. Better to reject the Bible’s teaching than to twist it to make it say what we prefer.” Yet their treatment of Leviticus is nothing but a masterful example of twisting the text to make it say what they prefer. What licenses this kind of reading is the principle that “God is free to change,” that is, to change his mind about what is offensive and inoffensive, good and evil—but only, it seems, in ways that bring him more in tune with the views of people like Friedman and Dolansky (and, I hasten to add, myself).

But this is not a hermeneutical principle; it is an anti-hermeneutical principle. It is also a principle that has historically been inimical to the Hebrew Bible. After all, the New Testament was written on the premise that God “changed his mind” about the law, and about the chosenness of Israel. Could God also change his mind about, say, child sacrifice? Once we start to believe that we know God’s mind independently of the Bible, why do we need the Bible at all? “Most people on earth,” Friedman and Dolansky write, “including most Christians and Jews, do not accept the Bible as an absolute authority in their lives. … In their position, the Bible can still be the Bible without our having to insist that it is right 100 percent of the time … the Bible can still be a guide, a significant guide, but human beings must accept the benefits and the burdens of becoming their own authorities in the end.”

This is an honorable way to be religious, and The Bible Now is an honorable book. It is quite possible, Friedman and Dolansky show in later chapters, to discover an environmentalist ethic in the Bible, and a feminist one. It is even possible to read the Bible’s extensive list of crimes that call for capital punishment—from murder to consulting a medium—and conclude, as they do, that the Bible’s true message is that “we cannot do execution until we arrive at a more advanced state of human civilization.”

So why, if I am basically in agreement with what I take to be Friedman and Dolansky’s views on all these questions, does The Bible Now make me so impatient? My reason is that, by paying so much attention to the way the Bible can be made to corroborate modern ethical beliefs, this book—like many similarly liberal and well-intentioned religious books—slights the actual sources of those beliefs. When it comes to the way we actually think about questions of right and wrong today, we owe more to Spinoza and Kant and Mill than we do to Leviticus—even though, it is fair to say, the West could never have produced those Enlightenment thinkers without its biblical inheritance. And the key principle of the Enlightenment is that we depend on our own autonomous reason, not on the authority of ancient texts, to decide what is just and unjust. We owe it to ourselves—especially in a country where the Bible enjoys so much moral and political authority—to declare openly that our moral reasoning is our own, that we do not have to reconcile our judgments with Leviticus in order to validate them.

There is still something exhilarating in Kant’s answer to the question “What Is Enlightenment?”: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’—that is the motto of enlightenment.” It is not the motto of traditional religions and their ancient sources.

This piece was originally published in Tablet.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.