At the end of this week’s portion outlining many of the practices of the priesthood there is an odd incident of a man born of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man who blasphemes while trying to settle a dispute. He is imprisoned and the people ask Moses, Whois turn asks God, what to do with him. God says to Moses that he should be stoned, and this is to the punishment for anyone who does this in the future. Then God gives other penalties: there is a death penalty for killing a man, someone who kills someone’s livestock has to give equivalent livestock to the owner, injuries must compensated with “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” Moses tell this to the people and they stone the man to death.
“An eye for an eye” talks of equivalence. One does something equal to an offensive act. Yet I wonder about times that things are not equal. My thinking came up last Tuesday night hearing the results from North Carolina, and the anguish of those people I follow. My own anguish was there too. While I am not gay, my wife and I belong to a synagogue that is primarily for the LGBT community. Few of our friends are actually straight. Much of our energy is spent supporting that community. I wish I could spend more this year supporting them, but my holding down essentially two jobs leaves very little room for helping out. I feel for my friends.
I wonder what anyone has against them, to change their constitution to prevent them from ever sharing in the same way one man and one woman can share in North Carolina. An eye for an eye might apply if the gay community somehow hurt the straight community. There is the old worn line about the sanctity of marriage, but there are enough divorce lawyers in the U.S. to say that we have long ago as a culture blasphemed the name of God as people break their wedding oaths.
It hard for me to buy that worn diatribe about the sanctity of marriage. What else could be the hurt be? A religious belief based on two verses in Leviticus? The verse in question, Leviticus 18:22 presented problems for me in that regard a decade ago.
You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination.
I’m bothered by the sentence structure. It’s just not good biblical Hebrew. Hebrew is rather poetic in is structure, and like to uses parallelisms. In poetry, this becomes one of the most distinguishing features of a poem. But even in prose the use of the same or complete opposite word is very common. Everything matches up perfectly.
But Leviticus 18 doesn’t match up. man and woman would match up. male and female would match up. But here we match up with male and woman. It’s just a jarring break of style. Some might claim there is no difference, but often in the text we read the expression of animals “a yearling male.” the word for male is used in places the word for man is not: young and often not human.
Then there’s context. The verse before forbid the sacrifice to Moloch, which is a form of child sacrifice where you have your child burned alive. Verse 23, we have the prohibition of bestiality. What is true of both child sacrifice and bestiality is the victim does not have the mental or physical capacity to resist. The bulk of Leviticus 18 discusses incest cases where women of one’s household are the victims, who are forced to obey in a patriarchal system. In context then, the male of Leviticus 18:22 probably does not have that capacity to resist either. An adult male certainly does against another man. Male here thus refers to a male child – this was about child abuse.
Granted, this is my interpretation. Some people apparently interpret that a verse that only talks about sex includes all types of relationship between two people of the same gender. There is nowhere in the bible which mentions a prohibition of two men marrying each other, but some apparently think that it does. I happen to think it applies to child molesters and not two people of the same gender in a committed relationship.
However, that too didn’t satisfy me for eye for an eye. Where is the hurt that is sufficient to hurt another? A cartoonist I follow gave me an answer in a comic he posted Tuesday night. The hurt is that two people no matter how different their relationship is from the norm can be genuinely happy and care about each other. Some people are not that happy, and that is what hurts. That thought opened the floodgates of ideas.
I believe the answer I seek is due to an identity crisis in the U.S. “Who am I? Where do I fit in this Society?” are questions that we all ask. We all have different answers to an extent. One very common answer is “I am superior to you in X.” It is an old answer, as old as the Pyramids. Indeed a pyramid is one of the most traditional ways to organize things: in a hierarchy. If you are high in a hierarchy, you are good. If you are low, you are bad. One’s place in a hierarchy is based on specific properties, specific values that the person is and holds to. There is the idea of category here, and there is the idea of Superior (up) and Inferior (down). We learn it in school as we are assigned grades and become the “A” student or the “F Student.” We are put into quantifiable boxes, categories. As the pyramid was once the ultimate in technology, today we have the Internet and social media. While I can look up someone’s profile to categorize them, most often we do not judge Facebook friends or Twitter followers on their profile, but by their posts, the stories they tell and retell. On-line we have what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “the Category of the Unique.” Simply put, we are defined by our stories. This is becoming more true off-line in the real world here in the U.S. as well. Categories that were very defined a century ago no longer are. White was superior to Black, Man was Superior to Woman. Christianity was superior to Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and any other religion. Protestants were superior to Catholics. Man was superior to Nature. Proper family life was a man, a woman, and 2.5 kids. In 1912, much of America would agree with those categories – at least those who could vote.
Yet in 2012, all of those categories have fallen. Women have a vote and a place in the workplace. People of all colors and religions participate in society in many different roles. It is still not completely equal to be sure, but the absolutes of category are shattered. One of the last of the categories is what gender we choose to love. Amendment One to the North Carolina Constitution is a gasp to at least keep one category – how a marriage is defined by categories.
Now imagine you have lived your whole life by categories. You have defined your entire identity by categories – and that category tells you that you are good because you are superior. What happens when all those categories melt away? When you ask the question “who am I?” what is the answer? For many, the answer is “nothing” and that is very disturbing. Like an addict, they want their fix back, they want categories they can identify with and tell them they are good.
That is why so many people are unhappy, and that is the injury, the eye for an eye. They are mired in institutions that base everything on category. The life of the institution is category, and their foot soldiers know their own identities only by category. For there to be no categories is to destroy the institution and its followers. Yet that is what happening and those institutions are fighting back for their own survival. Fittingly they often do not believe in Evolution, that species change and new species arise to fit the environment. The polarization of America is again a desire to categorize, to fit in the categories. Indeed they do not even believe the environment changes but stays static, with themselves as the superiors and good being: the man on top.
I do not believe like some that religion is the problem. I believe that religion needs to change. That change is not new. Heschel points out in many of his works there is a strong thread of that change in the classical Jewish texts. The Bible is story, and the Talmud is threaded together on story. We are not categories, we are not story. But like twitter or Facebook, we are the stories we tell. I am not just Straight, and my friend is not just a Lesbian. I am the stories of Hebrew letters I tell and the apps I develop and where I take my wife to dinner while she studies for her degree in chemistry, since she doesn’t have the time to cook even though she love to. My friend is the estoteric Talmud she studies in Yeshiva and the dogs she cares for with her partner the caterer and guitarist. Our stories are far richer than the categories we are put in.
Some believe we are in a situation of eye for an eye. It is the idea that I’m hurt because you strip me of Identity so I’ll hurt you back by stripping yours. I believe this is fallacious because there is a richer more flavorful way of saying I am I: I tell my story. It may be 140 characters at a time, an essay, or just talk around a table. It is a change, a big one from the way we once left the world, for there is no superior or inferior in telling a story, there’s just a good telling of a story. So much of our lives today is about our categories but that is changing and such change is hard for many. Yet, I believe there will be a time that story is how the majority will define itself. A hurt for an hurt regarding our identity will no longer be an issue.
May it be speedily in our days.