Dear Church of Scotland,
I have before me a copy of the Consultation Paper produced by the Special Commission on Same-sex Relationships and the Ministry, which I have read with great interest, though small pleasure. It may be surprising to you that a Jewish theologian would take as lively an interest in an internal Church debate as I have, but the Church of Scotland, as an established national church, reflects the values of a wider society than the people who sit in the pews every Sunday morning. More immediately, however, as my partner is a minister, I consider the decisions the Church of Scotland takes on matters of sexuality to have an immediate impact on my life.
I must say, I am not neutral in this debate; I believe that a Church that fails to welcome those of our friends who are in same-sex relationships also fails to welcome my partner and I. The language of the Lochcarron-Skye Overture that wishes to limit clergy to participation in ‘faithful marriage between a man and a woman’, while problematically vague, could readily be interpreted as excluding my household.1 Does ‘faithful’ simply imply that neither party is committing adultery? This is itself logically incoherent, unless you actually expect to discipline a minister whose spouse is unfaithful (assuming that, as I believe is usually the case, the minister is unlikely to have knowledge of their spouse’s infidelity). Or does ‘faithful’ mean to imply, as several speeches on the floor of last year’s General Assembly suggested, a specifically Christian marriage? This latter case would definitely exclude us, as I, a Jew, am by definition incapable of being a participant in such a union.
This, though, is not why I am writing. However strong my feelings on the issue may be, I do recognise that it is a matter for the Church, and I am not a member. I realise that my protests against the bias inherent in labelling positions ‘traditionalist’ and ‘revisionist’ will, quite rightly, fall on deaf ears. I do, however, hope that you will grant me a hearing on the issue of the theological anti-Semitism entrenched in this report.
On page 7, the report outlines the ‘traditionalist’ view, rooted in the Biblical message of the Old Testament (particularly Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, and Genesis 19). I realise that it has been the tradition of the Christian churches in general, and the Reformed tradition in particular, to understand these passages as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality in all forms, although, again as a Jew, I do feel compelled to protest against the questionable and highly selective method of interpretation which generates this conclusion. In particular, as a Jew I understand the law in Leviticus to apply specifically–and exclusively–within the context of the Mosaic covenant, to be of one piece with refraining from eating pork or shellfish, wearing garments of mixed wool and linen, engaging in intercourse during a woman’s menses, and a whole host of other things which I refrain from doing, and the members of the Church of Scotland with whom I have had the pleasure of acquaintance do not. Moreover, all of these are commandments which one or two of the Church of Scotland’s more ‘traditionalist’ members have seen fit to criticise me for adhering to–occasionally in rather insulting and overly personal language. I realise that the Church as a whole is not responsible for the poor behaviour of each and every one of its members, but I find it immeasurably disheartening and distressing that the single portion of the Levitical law that the Church chooses to adhere to is the one that is most readily turned into a cudgel with which to bludgeon precisely the sorts of marginalised people who are most in need of the Church’s protection.2
I shall avoid going into detail regarding the long history of alternate interpretations of both the passages from Leviticus and Genesis, as I understand that the section of the report I am critiquing is specifically concerned with ‘traditionalist’ Biblical interpretation, which I fully expect to turn a deaf ear towards modern scholarship which reaches conclusions ‘traditionalists’ are inclined to dislike.3 However, I must object to the omission of any hint of alternate interpretations in the summary of the ‘revisionist’ view, which begins on page 8. Instead of actually addressing the the texts cited by ‘traditionalists’, the ‘revisionist’ view talks of ‘Jewish law’ mediated by God’s ‘inclusive grace’. On page 9, the document states that ‘while Jewish society rejected homosexual practice at the time of Jesus’ ministry, a condemnation of homosexuality was not part of his message.’ This shows very little understanding of, or concern for, the cultural context of the 1st century CE–when, for example, ‘homosexual practice’ had less to do with sexual orientation and more to do with Hellenization (a review of the history of the Maccabean Revolt and the Hasmonean dynasty might be helpful here). Moreover, it perpetuates the law/grace dichotomy that has plagued relationships between the Church and the Jews for centuries, if not millenia. This is especially distressing as that dichotomy forms part of the theological millieu that enabled good Christians to turn their eyes away from ‘the horrors of the extermination camps’ which are described on page 3 of this very report.
In short, the report paints a picture of ‘traditionalists’ staunchly defending the primacy of scripture (however poor the actual interpretation of scripture may be), and ‘revisionists’ wrestling free from the confines of narrow Jewish law and difficult texts to bask in God’s grace, which Christianity alone extends to all humanity.
I’m at a loss for a graceful way to phrase this, so I shall, instead, be blunt:
Stop blaming us.
Judaism is not a religion that ended on Good Friday–or Easter Sunday, or even Pentecost–in the year 33 CE. ‘Jewish law’ is not an historical artefact to be discarded in whole or in part as humanity rides off into the sunset of grace and peace and flowers for everyone. Jews are real, living, breathing people, still walking around in the modern world, and Jewish law is a code of behaviour that continues to inform the real lives of those real people. It has developed and changed a great deal in 2,000 years, and is, in most interpretations (such as the North American Reform tradition from which I write) flexible enough to easily accommodate the issues of differing sexuality with which the Church of Scotland is currently struggling.4
In short, the Church’s problems with scripture are just that: the Church’s problems. We Jews have enough of our own arguments. Please stop drafting us into yours.5
1 While that particular Overture has been withdrawn for the time being, the report still refers to its language as a baseline for what might be adopted should the Church come down against the inclusion of homosexuals in ministry.
2 OK, not the ‘single portion’; so far as I know the Church also doesn’t sacrifice children to Moloch.
3 Although I would really not like to be a guest under the roof of anyone who thinks that ‘the sin of Sodom is clearly homosexuality–and without that meaning, the passage makes no sense’, which is to say that the only problem was that the proposed gang-rape involved homosexual practices–as the anonymous author of this paper seems to believe (p. 9).
4 While Orthodox Judaism still uniformly condemns homosexuality, the Conservative Movement has adopted a teshuva permitting the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy, and permitting the formation of gay and lesbian relationships, although it maintains the distinction between same-sex relationships and traditional Jewish marriage, as well as the authority of the Biblical prohibition on male-male anal intercourse (while recognising that this is not the only form of sexual expression available to two men, and that the prohibition of a single act does not equate to a prohibition on relationship in general–a point which has been, so far as I can tell, entirely lost in the Church of Scotland’s debate); the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements will both ordain homosexual clergy and recognise same-sex marriages. While these issues are still contentious within global Judaism, only a narrow Ortho-normativity would suggest that a blanket prohibition on all forms of homosexual activity is the default or normative position of Jewish law.
5 Or, if you must continue to refer to ‘Jewish law’, then please try to consult one or two (preferably two, and for the sake of balance try to make sure one of them is progressive–or, as the report calls it, ‘revisionist’–and thus actually representative of the majority of Jews in North America and Europe) living, breathing Jews, or, failing that, at least read a book published within the last 10 years.