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Sunday 9 March 2008

Rabbi Marmur on Shas

Reform Reflections:
Shas - all shook up
Members of the Shas Party have contributed much to understanding and
tolerance over the last few weeks in Israel. Two weeks ago it was Nissim
Ze'ev, who likened the prevalence of homosexuality in Israel to the
phenomenon of Avian Flu, and suggested that only radical action similar
to the mass culling of chickens could help root out this abomination.
Last week it was Shlomo Benizri, who has suggested that the most
efficient way for the government to protect against the threat of
earthquakes would be to abolish homosexual practices, since it is a
well-known scientific fact that homosexuality causes earthquakes.
Now there is an important difference between these two learned
contributions to the public debate on sexual orientation and public
health. The reference to bird flu is certainly an original insight of MK
Zeev, who certainly deserves all the credit for this breakthrough in
immunology. This is not the case with regards to MK Benizri, who has not
been slow to point out that he has done nothing more than quote our
sacred sources.
It is indeed the case that both in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot,
Chapter 9, Halakhah 3, 13c) and in the Midrash on Psalms (both 18 and
118), as well as in later anthologies of Midrash, a statement can be
found according to which the phenomenon of earthquakes is ascribed to
prohibited homosexual activity. The explanation provided is a clear
example of a microcosmic world view: that which happens in the human
domain is played out in the heavens. Paraphrasing for the sake of our
more sensitive readers (the Talmud is often X-rated, or demands at least
Parental Guidance), the logic offered is as follows: since the earth
moved for you by becoming excited in an inappropriate way, so I, the
Creator of the World, will make my earth move on account of your
I heard Benizri on the radio recently, and he was in robust form:
repentance was not what he had in mind. He argued that the world was
silent when opponents of Shas lambast Ultra-Orthodox Jews and accuse
them of being obscurantist parasites, but suddenly everyone gets
agitated when a rabbi quotes from our sacred sources. In short, the
world is going to hell in a handbasket.
There is nothing wrong in pointing out the inadequacies and
inconsistencies of the free press in Israel, but it is difficult to see
Benizri's defence as anything other than an elaborate diversion. He is
saying to us: if you want to talk about gay rights, I want to talk about
the rights of my constituency to respect (and also massive subsidies).
Behind the smokescreen of outrage, something else is going on here.
These religio-politicians are presenting a picture of Judaism and its
place in the world which goes like this: the Talmud is the source of our
values, and it provides us with the Truth. All we need to do is to quote
it as it is - if you don't agree with it, the problem is all yours.
I disagree profoundly with this approach to Judaism, and for that matter
to life. I believe that all we can ever do in a particular context and
generation is to search for the values by which we might best live. As a
Jew, I am part of a tradition which offers an extraordinarily rich
reservoir of moral insights and ethical tenets - I know of no greater
But the Judaism of which I am a part is one which considers the human
story as one comprising both decline and advance, both backsliding and
forward-thinking. On the question of sexual orientation, I believe that
we know more today than once was known about how our urges and
preferences come to expression. I look at my friends in caring same-sex
relationships, and I ask myself: is this the love which causes
earthquakes? If anything, it's the centuries of repression and denial,
the pain caused by an inability to face up to who we are which has
stored up enough frustration to account for any number of volcanic
eruptions and seismic shifts. The love which dared not speak its name is
now out of the closet, and that is something for which all of us should
thank God. In a way, this has caused an earthquake: it has forced us to
look again at our notions of Love and Family. It's worth remembering
that the passage quoted relates to the teaching that an earthquake is
something over which a blessing should be recited
Rabbi Acha, in whose name the earthquake tradition is to be found, was
using a metaphor. He was expressing his own belief that homosexual
relations were an aberration, and using it to cope with the Divine
aberration of natural disasters. In my version of Judaism, acknowledging
that the love between two adults of the same sex is a fact for me to
accept and celebrate encourages me to find new metaphors. It is the
constant interplay of changing moral insight and the religious
vocabulary of our tradition which has kept Judaism changing and growing.
Looking to the Talmud for insights and values is a wonderful idea.
Looking to it for geological analysis and contemporary social policy is
courting disaster.
So blaming homosexuals for earthquakes is really about how we want to
live our lives as moral and faithful human beings. Using the excuse that
it says so in the Talmud is no excuse: it represents a denial of the
notion that Judaism grows and evolves through time and in culture. The
God in whom I believe wants me to grapple and grow, not to mock and shrink.
And besides, there's a great deal to quote in the Talmud: in each
generation it is up to us to choose what we wish to quote. It is worth
reading further in the Talmudic passage to which MK Benizri referred.
Another explanation for the existence of earthquakes is given in the
name of Rabanan, the Sages as a collective: they say it is the continued
existence of fruitless conflicts which causes a shift in the Richter
Scale. It's lucky the MK didn't quote this in the Knesset - there might
have been a landslide.


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