Response to Rabbi Paul Saal’s “Queer for Jesus”

I would like to commend Rabbi Saal for his willingness to address such a sensitive subject.1 His shepherd’s heart and concern for individuals, as well as for the Messianic Jewish community are evident throughout the paper. This is clearly demonstrated in his relational approach to the topic, and his core premise of marginality and identification. Rabbi Saal has presented some thought provoking issues and questions that need to be addressed. He challenges us to:

1. rethink our pat answers, our self-identification of “us” and “them,” and our standard arguments for the exclusion of the larger LGBT movement from our communities;

2. to consider how visceral “old world” attitudes toward these have caused hurts and damage to these communities, as well as to the Messianic Movement; and

3. to contemplate our next moves.

In my response, I would like to offer some clarifications, qualifications and warnings in three areas: the biblical principles of distinction and boundaries, the emphasis on punishment and penalty as boundary markers, and the use of marginality and identity as the control for Messianic Jewish ethical thought.

Distinction and Boundaries

Adonai created boundaries and distinction. At creation, He separated light and darkness, day and night, morning and evening, the waters above from the firmament below, and He created distinct species of flora, fauna and sea life. More importantly, He distinguished the seventh day from the other six days of the week. Each of the six days of creation was called good (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21 & 25), but He blessed the seventh day and called it holy (Gen 2:2-3). The six days of the week are chol – common, normal; only Shabbat is kadosh – holy. The ontological distinction between chol and kadosh established at creation runs throughout the Bible. This distinction does not indicate or imply that one is better than the other, or that one is of lower status than the other. The fact that Adonai called each of the six days good precludes such an understanding. The difference lies in the ontological distinction of chol or kadosh.

The Tanakh further distinguishes anything chol according to defilement. It is either pure or impure, or sometimes translated clean or unclean. Being pure/clean does not make something or someone holy, but what was holy was always pure/clean. There are two different types of defilement, ritual purity and moral purity.2 Rabbi Saal is not fond of distinguishing between ritual and moral purity. He is, in part, responding to the traditional three-part division in Reformed theology that separates Torah Law into moral, ceremonial, and civil (judicial) elements.3 According to this theology, only moral law, which focuses on the ten commandments, has permanent application. The ceremonial and civil laws were only a shadow of Messiah, and therefore valid only for the time of the Tanakh. Rabbi Saal is correct for rejecting this supersessionist theological presumption. He goes too far, however, in his comment on the Holiness Code (Lev 17-26): “The hackneyed device of separating moral, ritual and civil commands contradicts this holiness code and all of Torah which makes no such separation.”4

While the biblical text does not use modifiers such as “ritual” or “moral” to differentiate different types of defilement, it does describe two distinct phenomena that defile: one limits a person’s physical proximity to the sacred in relation to the presence of Adonai and the other is iniquity. The modifiers “ritual” and “moral” help prevent confusion between the two concepts.

Ritual purity concerns one’s status in relation to the Sanctuary – meaning the Tabernacle or the Temple – where the presence of Adonai dwelt. Such defilement results from direct or indirect contact with normal daily life functions of birth, sex, death, and disease,5 and is virtually unavoidable. In fact, some sources of ritual impurity, like reproduction (Gen 1:28, 9:7) and burial (Lev 21:1-4), are even obligatory. Ritual purity is NOT sin. It is a temporary status that limited a person’s access to the Sanctuary until remedied by specific purification rites.

Moral purity/impurity relates to defilement that is sin or iniquity. The Torah identifies three areas of moral impurity that defile the person, the Temple, and the Land:

  • forbidden sexual unions (e.g. Lev 18:1-30, 20:10-21);
  • idolatry, including infanticide and magic (e.g. Lev 19:31, 20:1-5); and
  • murder (Num 35:33-34).

Leviticus 18-20 states that moral impurities are an abomination (to_’evah) to Adonai. Leviticus 18:22 specifically calls the activity of a man lying with another man an abomination (to_’evah) to Adonai,6 while verses 24-30 conflate all forbidden sexual unions in the chapter as an abomination (to_’evah). Moral impurity is iniquity that defiles the person, the Temple and the Land (Lev 18:25). It concerns a person’s status within the community as a whole. Whereas ritual purity is remedied by purification rites, moral impurity is resolved by cessation of the act. We see this in Yeshua’s response to the suspected adulteress (John 8:3-11). After her accusers dispersed, He said to her, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.” (v. 11) Yeshua acknowledges that adultery is sin, he acts with chesed, and He requires the cessation of the sinful activity.

There are two significant and relevant correlations between Yeshua’s interaction and attitude toward the suspected adulteress, and Leviticus 18-20. First, note that adultery is one of the forbidden sexual unions called an abomination to Adonai. Second, the relationship between chapters 18, 19, and 20 reflects the character of Adonai as presented in the thirteen middot in Exodus 34:6-7,7 and are demonstrated by Yeshua. Adonai is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in chesed. He is faithful to a thousand generations. BUT, He still holds the guilty responsible. Chapter 18, which contains the most systematic and complete collection of laws in the Torah dealing with forbidden sexual unions, clearly teaches that Adonais holiness demands judgment on iniquity (vv. 24-30). However, the chapter does not pronounce the detailed punishment for each action. It only states that the perpetrator will be cut off (karat) from the covenant people. Chapter 20 contains the same topics dealt with in chapter 18, but emphasizes the punishment associated with disobedience of the commands, many of which are the death penalty. Chapter 19 counterbalances these two chapters containing judgment. Chapter 19 focuses on Adonai’s mercy, love, and care. This chapter informally reiterates the ten commandments and exhorts Adonai’s people to live out his holiness in the fear of Adonai as a natural part of life through sincere worship, honesty, integrity, justice, charity and love (cf. Deut 6:4-5; Matt 22:37-39). Adonai calls on Israel to love their neighbor (v. 18) and the stranger (v. 33). Actually, the very way to show our love for Adonai is to fulfill covenant duties to one another and to strangers. In chapters 18 and 20 Adonai holds people accountable for their actions, while in chapter 19 He is merciful. Thus, we see Exodus 34:6-7 in action: Adonai is merciful and compassionate, while at the same time He holds the guilty accountable.

The distinction between ritual and moral purity is most clearly seen from the fact that neither an adulteress or a murderer was prohibited from entering the Sanctuary. The ceremony of bitter waters used to determine a suspected adulteress was held inside the Tabernacle/Temple (Num 5:13-22) and a murderer was not prohibited from approaching the altar (Ex 21:12-14). This is also true of “sinners” and tax collectors in the Apostolic Writings. They were not prohibited from entering the Temple Mount (Luke 18:10-14), though they were forbidden entry due to ritual impurity. Ritual impurity becomes moral impurity when a person willfully disregards Adonai’s holiness and commands. Rabbi Saal provides a wonderful example of this: sexual intercourse between a man and a woman during menstruation. This act is included in Leviticus 18 (v.19) as one of the sexual violations that leads to divine judgment (cf. Lev 20:18). Yet earlier in Leviticus 15:24 the same act is considered among those that simply render a person unclean until evening. The difference lies in the intention of the offender. An act that leads to simple contamination (ritual purity, i.e., Lev 15:24) becomes moral impurity, when a person willfully disobeys the command (i.e., Lev 18:19). We need to be careful not to get derailed by a discussion of ritual purity laws as they are a tertiary point. Since the Temple is not standing, ritual purity is only relevant to our discussion in relation to Jewish communal traditions and halakha. On the other hand, moral purity should be considered one of the central criteria for discussing alternative sexuality, as such acts defile the community as a whole.

Punishment and Penalties as Boundary Markers

Rabbi Saal points out that the punishment for the prohibition of a man lying with another man as with a woman is death (Lev. 18:22, 29, 20:13). Leviticus 18:29 states that anyone involved in such an act will be cut off (karat) from the covenant people, and 20:13 states that both persons must be put to death. The context of Leviticus 18 shows that karat is a direct act of Adonai’s judgment. While many good principles can be and have been gleaned from a comparative look at punishment and penalty in the Bible, it should not be one of the main criteria in our discussion of a reasoned Messianic Jewish approach and perspective concerning alternative sexuality.8 My main reasons for stating this are that a focus on punishment and penalty:

1. obscures our perception, causing us to see people as sinners needing to be judged instead of as beings created in the image of Adonai. Here we should heed the halakhic principle Kevod Ha-briyyot, the concern for human dignity (Berakhot 19b; cf. Shabbat 81b, 94b, Eruvin 41b, Megillah 3b). This principle is one of the major halakhic concerns among Jewish discussions of the inclusion/exclusion of homosexuals in our communities;9

2. is a moot point since any discussion of the death penalty for such crimes is a mere intellectual exercise because it lacks involvement in actual life situations. No Western government imposes the death penalty for sexual crimes and homosexuality, and similar acts have been decriminalized in Western nations for a long time. Furthermore, the halakhic principle dina d’malchuta dina (b. Nedarim 28a, Gittin 10b, Bava Kama 113b, Bava Batra 54b), renders the law of the country binding in commercial, civil and criminal law; and

3. does not reflect Yeshua’s actions of chesed and accountability as demonstrated with the suspected adulteress (John 8:3-11).

Rabbi Saal’s point that love and chesed should take priority over any prohibition or exclusion is a good criterion to use in any situation, but is particularly apt for our discussion of alternative sexuality. In his comments on the role of love, he uses two Greek words for love, eros and agape, to distinguish between erotic love characterized by physical attraction and unconditional love characterized by acceptance and self-giving.10 He loosely associates these two Greek words with the Hebrew words ahavah (love) and chesed (loving-kindness, covenantal love).11 Based on this philological development of the Greek and Hebrew words, Rabbi Saal suggests “it is highly plausible when this kind of deep committed love and intimacy (agape) exists between two men they may potentially desire to concretize it (eros) when inclinatio naturalis exists.”12 I do not support his hypothesis. First, the Greek word eros is not used at all in the Apostolic Writings and appears only twice in the LXX: Proverbs 7:18, which speaks of a loving embrace, and Proverbs 30:16, where it translates otzer rehem (barren womb) as “love of a woman.” Second, the LXX never translates the Hebrew term chesed with either agape or eros. Most often it uses some form of eleos (mercy) or dikaiosune_ (righteousness or justice). The closest possible association of chesed with eros is found in Hosea 2:21 (English 2:19), where Adonai declares that He will betroth Israel in righteousness and justice, in chesed and tender compassion. Later Adonai commands, “Sow righteousness and reap chesed.” (Hosea 10:12) Once again righteousness and chesed are connected, just as we saw above when discussing Leviticus 18-20 and the distinction between kodesh and chol. The two (righteousness and chesed) acting as one, should be a foundational principle for any community of God toward all.

Rabbi Saal acknowledges that “boundaries of appropriate behavior” need to be established to preserve the fabric and well-being of the community.13 However, he concludes that homosexual behavior in not one of the deeds for which a person was expelled from the early Yeshua believing community. One of his supporting arguments is the expulsion of a man sleeping with his father’s wife (1 Cor 5:1-5). Because homosexual acts are not specifically stated here, or anywhere else, he deems it reasonably plausible “to conclude that homoerotic acts are not counted among the most egregious in the economy of the incipient community of Yeshua believers.”14 It is just as reasonable to conclude that the silence is because they were not considered part of the community, so there was no need to exclude them. Additionally, if a man sleeping with his father’s wife is grounds for expulsion from the community, how much more is a man lying with another man. This kal v’khomer argument is strengthened by the fact that both actions are included in the list of forbidden sexual relationships in Leviticus 18.

I am not advocating the expulsion from, or the blatant refusal to allow into, our congregations and communities those who identify as LGBT or SSA (same-sex attraction). Rabbi Saal encourages us to make every effort “to welcome them as is possible while being true to the foundational norms of the religious community.”15 And we should, as long as a person is seeking Adonai and/or Messiah Yeshua. If they continue hardheartedly in the practice of any of the forbidden sexual unions some actions should be taken. We would do well to heed Leviticus 19:17 that warns us, “You must not hate your brother in your heart. You must surely reprove your neighbor so that you do not incur sin on account of him.”

Rabbi Saal also ponders whether homosexual monogamy can exclude a person from congregational leadership if Sabbath breaking, greedy business practices or gossip do not.16 While one type of sin should not be privileged above another, the distinctions are influential for establishing boundaries in our communities, especially regarding leadership. The boundaries for accepting a person into the community is and should be different than for appointing someone to leadership (See e.g., Exod 18:21-22; 1 Tim 3:1-13).

Marginality and Identity as Controls

In closing, I want to make some brief comments on marginality and identity as a control. Marginality and identity can advance the discussion of alternative sexuality, but it must be done circumspectly. I have two major concerns. The first is the privileging of “marginalized groups” over “main stream,” and the second is victimization. As mentioned in Rabbi Saal’s paper, Yeshua ate and interacted with tax collectors and sinners, the so-called marginalized. However, Yeshua also ate and interacted with Pharisees (Luke 7:36, 11:37-38, 14:1), the “main stream.” Moreover, the Besorot record more interaction between Yeshua and the Pharisees than with the “marginalized.” A better principle to extract from Yeshua’s treatment of others is that he extended the same acceptance, love, and chesed to everyone, while not neglecting righteousness. We should do likewise.

Messianic Judaism’s identification as a marginalized group with other marginalized groups must guard against victimization. Victims see themselves as oppressed and emotionally broken, and blames society or others for their loneliness and disenfranchisement. Such a perspective removes all responsibility for our attitudes and actions when we have been wronged or abused, and sabotages intimate relationships. An amazing picture of Adonai’s plan for the “marginalized” is the bitter waters encountered by B’nei Yisrael soon after they passed through the Reed Sea. Adonai showed Moses a tree. When Moshe threw the tree into the bitter water, the bitter became sweet. Even in bitter or difficult situations, we can be victorious. The Apostle Paul tells us that no matter what the situation, we are more than conquerors (Rom 8:37). It all depends on our perspective. My point here is not to trivialize the hurts and damage of those in the LGBT movement or any individual who has been victimized. Such hurts and damage take time to heal, and require more than a simple fix. My caution is directed to the Messianic Jewish community as a whole. In our empathy with others, like the LGBT movement, we should not take on their hurts and perspectives, but rather heed the admonishment in 1 Peter to:

brace your minds for action. Keep your balance. And set your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Yeshua the Messiah. Like obedient children, do not be shaped by the craving you had formerly in your ignorance. Instead, just like the Holy One who calls you, be holy yourselves in everything you do. For it is written, Kedoshim you shall be, for I am kadosh. (1 Pet 1:14-16, quoting Lev 19:2)

This is a good place to stop as it sums up everything I have said above. May we all walk in the holiness and chesed of Adonai.