By Chaim Levin
This open letter comes after a few days of comments and articles written by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a proud supporter of gay rights and a dear friend of mine. He has lambasted Dan Savage for certain remarks made in reference to the Bible. Rabbi Shmuley went so far as to compare Dan Savage to the “Westboro Baptist Church of the left.” Seeing this headline, I was shocked that Rabbi Shmuley was able to conjure such an analogy about a man who created the It Gets Better Project dedicated to helping save the lives of LGBT teens all across the world. On the other hand, the Westboro Baptist Church and other right wing fanatic groups have literally called for the death of homosexuals, likening LGBT people to pedophiles, murderers and many other abhorrent comparisons that don’t even deserve to be mentioned. Dan Savage has never crossed such a line.
Savage did refer to specific verses that call for the murder of homosexuals as “bullshit,” but it was in the context of speaking “as someone on receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible.” Rabbi Shmuley and many others have seen Savage’s remarks on the Bible an “attack” on the Bible. What these critics fail to observe is that we generally do ignore those parts of the Bible that Savage criticized. Savage is not the first person to question the applicability of such passages. In Judaism, the death penalties prescribed in the Torah have been suspended since between 30 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., and Jesus famously said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” in defense of a woman accused of adultery — a sin to be punished by death according to Leviticus. Had I been speaking, I’m not sure that I would have tied such strong wording to the Bible, which many people believe to be holy and find meaningful. Nonetheless, Savage’s point still stands.
The taking of isolated verses from the Bible as justification for hatred and vilification of LGBT people is complete and utter nonsense that is inconsistent with the Bible and religious tradition. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 1:4) required that the death penalty be inflicted only after trial by a Sanhedrin composed of 23 judges and with the testimony of at least two witnesses of the act itself who must also have issued a warning beforehand that the act would lead to execution and that the criminal stated his willingness to commit the act despite this. Not even confession was accepted as evidence.Throughout the Talmudic literature, this whole subject is viewed so much unease that the rules in the literature made the death penalty virtually impossible to impose. Talmudic law on the death penalty emphasized the primacy of the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:17). A similar appreciation for the Bible and the commandment to love one’s neighbor was emphasized by Jesus in the Christian Bible. The commandment to love one’s neighbor is one that seems often ignored by those on the right.
Generally, we all ignore the things in the Bible that today would be considered barbaric, inconsistent with basic morality and contemporary understandings of freedom and justice. Savage gave specific examples of things that are ignored, such as the Bible’s justification of slavery, the prescribed execution of a woman if she isn’t a virgin on her wedding night and many other things. Indeed, most of the world was shocked by the Muslim and Yazidi stonings of Soraya Manutchehri and Du’a Khalil Aswad, despite these penalties being based on similar ancient customs and religious texts. If we interpreted everything in the Bible as applicable today, we would be living in very different times, and I’m fairly certain that they wouldn’t be good times.
Like Rabbi Shmuley, I was raised as an Orthodox Jew with the Torah as my guide to morality and life, but I do not believe one needs the Bible to teach them the basic tenets of human decency. It is not because of the Bible that I do not murder or steal. According to the Bible, all human beings were created in the image of God and have knowledge of good and evil. Such values are enshrined in the traditions of other cultures, both religious and secular. Moreover, the Bible does not prevent immorality, even in the communities that recognize it. I have seen firsthand self-identified religious people stray from the core belief system of their religion and commit terrible crimes against others. I understand that the actions of adherents do not define their religion, but at the same time, one cannot claim that the Bible is the only source of morality. In many ways such a position is offensive to all people, especially the good upstanding citizens of our world who have never had any association with the Bible or its teachings.
Rabbi Shmuley, I’ve been a welcomed guest in your home many times and hope to be in the future. I cannot tell you how incredible it was for me to be able to bring my then-partner to your house for a meal on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. You have opened the minds and hearts of people on important issues, and I hope you keep doing so. However, I think it is important to realize that Dan Savage has never ever spoken anything like these right wing groups. These groups use the Bible to justify their hatred against LGBT people. I think that most moral people would agree that that is wrong. To compare Savage to people who are filled with such hatred is absurd and reminiscent of the disturbing trend to misrepresent anti-bullying activists as bullies themselves. Even if this were the case, the Bible does require “an eye for an eye”; nonetheless, there is a world of difference between speaking out against bullying and bullying. Unlike those fanatics on the right, Savage never advocated for death, pain or condemnation of any group of people; right wing groups fight ferociously against basic rights and freedoms through legislation and widespread reach in conservative communities. In the context of being someone who suffered abuse justified by some by portions of the Bible, Savage referred such passages as “bullshit.” While his choice of words may not have been the best, there is little to fault in his actual argument.
Dan Savage is a hero in the eyes of many people in this world who found themselves without hope or comfort during the most trying of times. I am one of those he has comforted and given hope.
(cross posted at H. Post)