Pursuers of Peace: A Response to Rabbi Paul Saal’s “Queer for Jesus”

I thank the Hashivenu board for inviting me to respond to Rabbi Paul Saal’s learned, provocative, and gracious essay.1 Let’s begin with a story. The Talmud (Berachot 61b) records that when the Romans forbade the teaching of the Torah, Rabbi Akiva continued to teach it. He explained himself by the following parable:

Fishermen were casting their nets into the sea and the fish were swimming to and fro. The fox called out to them, ‘Fish, why are you swimming to and fro?’ ‘Because,’ they cried, ‘we are trying to escape the nets.’ Said the fox: ‘Why don’t you come up here on dry land, where you will be much safer?’ The fish replied, ‘If we are in danger in our natural habitat, how much more would we be in danger if we were to leave it.’

In this parable, water is the natural habitat of fish as Torah is the natural habitat for Jews. Jews cannot adopt an ethic that is incompatible with Torah. Rabbi Saal and I fundamentally agree that homoeroticism is contrary to Torah.

We are living in a time somewhat like that of Akiva. In the past, almost everyone believed that homoerotic activity was incompatible with Scripture and this was written into many ecclesial statements. In the future, almost everyone will again recognize this. But today, the traditional position against expressions of homoeroticism is increasingly marginalized in Western society, labeled bigotry, and considered beyond the pale of civil conversation or theological debate.

Rabbi Saal begins with a story about marginality. We should identify with the marginalized and accept the marginalized position of Messianic Judaism. We should consider how the identity we embrace informs or even threatens the self-identity of others. LGBT persons are among our family, friends, and neighbors.2 With all this I agree. We will find different allies and different opponents on various issues, so we had best not alienate potential future allies when we find them to be present foes. Recently a Catholic bishop suggested that Catholics could learn from Mormons how to serve God and society in the margins. In my essay “Paul Employing Leviticus,” I criticized Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza for overturning the scriptural witness using material from outside Scripture.3 Richard Hays also criticizes her. But he later writes:

Despite these serious reservations about the theological and pragmatic viability of Schussler Fiorenza’s hermeneutic, any fair assessment must acknowledge the importance of her work. It is a grave indictment against the Christian tradition that a book such as In Memory of Her needed to be written at all. Women have in fact been oppressed and marginalized in the church, and their history has been obscured and lost. By courageously undertaking a ‘feminist theological reconstruction of Christian origins’ with scholarly rigor and hermeneutical sophistication, Schussler Fiorenza has forced both church and academy to take a fresh look at the past and to confess their complicity in an androcentric distortion of our history. As a result of her work, many women have taken heart and discovered a new vision of their dignity as children of God and ministers of the gospel; furthermore, women and men alike are challenged to dream anew about the church as a ‘discipleship of equals.’4

Much of that equally well describes some gay-affirming theologians.

Regarding our present subject, Rabbi Saal has little use for the Sodom story (infra, 53), and I have never used it in my essays. But traditions about Sodom underlie Romans chapter 1.5 So does the Genesis Creation story, which is more important, having textual links to Romans,6 Leviticus,7 and the teachings of Yeshua.8

I like Rabbi Saal’s decision to devote attention to natural law. He dialogues with Rabbi David Novak. With Novak, we get Jewish, Catholic, and Aristotelian philosophy. I am also glad for Saal’s citations of Pope Benedict XVI and Stanley Grenz, an evangelical ethicist. Future Messianic Jewish thinking on sexual ethics should look at the Catholic tradition.9 Jews and Protestants have sometimes dismissed celibacy. This can mistakenly lead people into unsustainable or sinful sexual relationships.10 Messianic Jewish leaders should seek out suitable celibate sexual minority messianics, listen to them, and give them visible positions of responsibility.

Natural law reasoning attempts to find common ground in reason that people from different faith traditions, or from no faith, can share, so as to understand one another, reason together, even reach agreement, or bring into the public square. Rabbi Saal assesses Novak’s natural law arguments both from a secular position and from a Messianic faith position. Novak’s reasoning does not impress Saal when wearing his secular hat, but he accepts it when he dons his kippah. The best defense in the public square of one man one woman (conjugal) marriage is the book What is Marriage? and its sequel Truth Overruled,11 which Novak called the most philosophically astute and historically accurate defense of traditional marriage to date.12 A good secular case for the state’s interest in promoting marriages of one man to one woman has been made, based on the welfare of children. While Saal is right that there is no point in admonishing those not prepared to listen, defenders of conjugal marriage should anticipate that a time will come, “after the wine has gone out,” when Nabals will be ready to listen to Abigails (1 Sam 25:37). For their part, Abigails need to hear justified criticism of wrong views such as that homosexual persons could change their orientation if they tried hard enough.13

Novak incurs criticism by Saal because he compares homoerotic acts to rape and incest. While part of a “well-reasoned argument,” it will cause a sensitive reader to bristle. I am perhaps more willing to entertain such comparisons. I have used the comparison of Acts 15, where the ekklesia admitted Gentiles to the people of God without circumcision, to the contemporary issue of admitting homosexual persons to the ekklesia without requiring them to become straight.14 Further, I have sometimes compared homoerotic behavior to idolatry,15 which probably offends many. An idol of our time is the individual with no commitments beyond personal desire. Scripture often condemns idolatry and sexual sins together. Three sins are so serious that Jews should forfeit their lives rather than transgress: murder, idolatry, and giluy arayot, which includes same-sex intercourse.16 On the other hand, there are other sexual transgressions classified as giluy arayot, and many transgressions, such as desecrating the Sabbath, that also are subject to the death penalty. Nor is it correct to put homosexual persons in the halakhic category of defiant rebels, as Novak does elsewhere.17 A prominent Orthodox rabbi said that homosexuality was almost as bad as cheating in business. (Parenthetically, one should say “homosexuality” only to include behaviors, identity, and impulses, not behaviors alone). The argument can also be made that when judging others, one should look for mitigating factors. Anyone without any legitimate sexually emotional outlet, or facing constant temptation, should be treated with compassion.

Turning to the positive, I agree with Rabbi Saal that we should expand our love for other persons to the whole body of Messiah. Friendship includes the possibility of deep committed love between men, though not expressed through sexual contact. Here I recommend the website “Spiritual Friendship” and book of the same name.18

Rabbi Saal wants the messianic movement to ask itself if homosexual monogamy can exclude a person from congregational leadership if Sabbath breaking, greedy business practices, or gossip do not. I agree with Saal and with a statement from the Vineyard movement on pastoring LGBT persons that objections about ethical consistency have merit.19 It is hypocrisy to combine laxity about heterosexual eroticism, including divorce and remarriage, with severity about homoeroticism. But there are times when a specific topic takes on greater significance than it would have otherwise. I noted that there were three cardinal sins for which one must give up one’s life rather than transgress. But there were circumstances, as during the time of the Maccabees, when persecution focused on an issue such as eating pork, in an attempt to destroy the Jewish people. Some Jews became martyrs over the issue, and were praised by later generations for doing so. I also believe that discipling is a ministry of the gospel.20

In a chapter, “What is the Church’s Response to Enduring Conditions?” Mark Yarhouse describes the sincere struggler as one who is trying to live faithfully before God with their sexuality. They agree with the traditional teaching that sexual expression is reserved for marriage between a man and woman. At the other end of the spectrum is the assertive advocate, who wants to change doctrine and behavior in the ekklesia. They believe that you love them by agreeing that homosexuality reflects God’s plan for creation and that same-sex behavior is an expression of identity and diversity rather than a moral concern. Sometimes a sincere struggler becomes an assertive advocate after years of frustration. Toward the assertive advocate who is part of the ekklesia, Yarhouse counsels: lead by example, practice “convicted civility,” listen and share, and encourage them in their walk with God.21 By implication, you do not expel them. Different is a new person coming to a congregation and trying to displace the rabbi and make everyone adopt the newcomer’s vision. That of course should be resisted and may require expulsion. But let’s take the case of an obviously gay couple who want to attend worship services in a Messianic synagogue and who have no intention of living as celibates. I see no reason to discourage them from attending. For sincere strugglers Yarhouse recommends communicating a solid foundation in the Word of God, a proper perspective of our identity in Messiah, and support in perseverance. Be patient. His key points are that God’s provision may take unexpected forms, listen for the “periods” people place on their own lives, avoid forcing “exclamation points” on the lives of others, and come alongside those who are sorting out issues and trying to live faithfully before God.22

Toward the end of his essay, Rabbi Saal cites with approval Rabbi Russ Resnik’s call for hesed (mercy) as the ethics of Yeshua at the margins. I want to extend this thought. In Jewish ethics, it is permitted to slay a person who is pursuing an innocent third party in order to kill that one. In discussing possible reasons for abortion, halakhic decisors consider the tragic situation where the life of the mother can only be saved by ending the life of the unborn child. Maimonides frames the issue by classifying the fetus as a rodef, a pursuer. How can this be? The fetus is entirely innocent, while the classical rodef is an intentional murderer. Yet many poskim accept this analogy in order to give the life of the mother priority over that of the unborn baby.23

Consider for a moment that Jews, sexual minorities, and followers of Yeshua at various times and places have been considered threats to the community, innocent perhaps but yet threats (that is, queer as rodef) who seemingly had to be silenced, punished, expelled, or killed for the greater good. At times they really were innocent, while yet being real threats. But sometimes neither. I want Yeshua’s disciples to become pursuers of a different sort: lovers of peace and pursuers of peace (ohev shalom v’rodef shalom), loving our neighbors and drawing them near to the Torah (Pirkei Avot 1:12). Like Paul, whose spirit was provoked within him when he saw that Athens was full of idols (Acts 17:16), we should seek to find common ground, with reasoned dialogue in both the synagogue and the market place.

1 Rabbi Paul L. Saal, “Queer for Jesus: A Messianic Jewish Perspective Concerning Alternative Sexuality and the Ethics of Identity” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Hashivenu Forum, Enfield, CT, May 18-19, 2016).

2 See Mark A. Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2010), 157-59 on how sexual minorities in our religious community are our people. But they don’t feel included; they feel isolation, guilt, and shame.

3 Jon C. Olson, “Paul Employing Leviticus: Same-Sex Intercourse,” Kesher 26 (Summer/Fall 2012): 89-90.

4 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1996), 281.

5 Philip E Esler, “The Sodom Tradition in Romans 1:18-32,” Biblical Theology Bulletin: Journal of Bible and Culture 34, no 1 (February 2004): 4-16.

6 “Male” and “female” (Rom 1:26-27) echoes Genesis 1:27. “Images” (Rom 1:23) recalls that humans are created in God’s image. The same creatures (birds, cattle, reptiles) appear in Romans 1:23 as in Genesis 1, and Paul diagnoses “exchange” with creation in both idolatry and homosexuality (Rom 1:23, 25- 26).

7 Jiri Moskala, “Considering Levitical Food Laws,” Perspective Digest 18:1, accessed August 16, 2015, www.perspectivedigest.org/article/88/archives/18-1/considering-levitical-food-laws. On links to Leviticus 18:22 see also Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007).

8 On how the twoness of the sexes is the foundation of the twoness of the sexual bond, see Robert A.J. Gagnon, “What the Evidence Really Says about Scripture and Homosexual Practice: Five Issues,” accessed August 16, 2015, www.robgagnon.net/articles/homosexScripReallySays.doc.pdf. See also Robert A.J. Gagnon, “Why the Disagreement over the Biblical Witness on Homosexual Practice?” Reformed Review 59.1 (2005): 56-57.

9 For example, Christopher C. Roberts, Creation & Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage (London: T & T Clark, 2007).

10 Chaim Rapoport, Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004), 90-100; Yuval Chernow, “Single Women Who Want to Have a Baby,” Conversations 8 (Jewish Institute for Ideas and Ideals, 2010): 95-111.

11 Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom (New York: Regnery, 2015).

12 See Novak’s praise of Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter, 2012), back cover.

13 Stanton L. Jones, “Same-sex science,” First Things 220 (Feb 2012): 27-33.

14 Jon C. Olson, “The Jerusalem Decree, Paul, and the Gentile Analogy to Homosexual Persons,” Journal of Religious Ethics 40:2 (2012): 361-85.

15 Jon C. Olson, “Idol Food, Same-Sex Intercourse, and Tolerable Diversity within the Church,” Anglican Theological Review 95:4 (2013): 627-47.

16 Rapoport, Judaism and Homosexuality, 1, citing TB Sanhedrin 74a; TJ Sheviit 4:2; Maimonides, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 5:1-2; and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 157:1. According to some authorities, one is not obliged to choose death rather than submit passively to homosexual intercourse.

17 See Rapoport, Judaism and Homosexuality, 54-56.

18 See www.spiritualfriendship.com, accessed September 14, 2016; and Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015).

19 Vineyard USA, “Pastoring LGBT Persons,” accessed 24 April 2016, http://vineyardusa.org/site/files/PositionPaper-VineyardUSA-Pastoring_LGBT_Persons.pdf, 24.

20 Marlin Jeschke, Discipling in the Church: Recovering a Ministry of the Gospel (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988).

21 Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian, 185-88.

22 Ibid., 188-97.

23 Tirzah Meacham, “Abortion,” Jewish Women’s Archive, Encyclopedia, accessed September 14, 2016, http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/abortion.