Fighting back against the homophobic religious right’s hateful misuse of sacred literature
Juan Pájaro Velásquez, International Day Against Discrimination According to Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, Cartagena, Colombia, May 17, 2019 (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).

There is a pattern in the religious right to use—and to misuse—religious texts and traditions to support their revanchist, fascist agenda. It is important to understand this and have the tools to push back because it is important to not let the religious right have a “copyright” on religion and spirituality. Real spirituality has always been about connecting better with one’s fellow human beings—as well as with Mother Earth—and becoming a more charitable person. False political religion has always been about power and control, the opposite of real spirituality.

In particular, to take the example of homophobia, it is a tragedy how white supremacist Evangelicals will twist and distort sacred texts and use their faulty understanding of traditional literature for their own agenda. If an LGBTQ person, especially a young person, hears from a religious authority that their very existence is an “abomination,” that can cause untold emotional and spiritual harm that often ends up in suicide or turning to drugs or alcohol to cope.

As an openly bisexual person myself, in my younger days, I had to deal with much bigotry from various quarters that tried to use intentional misunderstandings of religion to promote homophobic agendas. I am fortunate in a way because as a follower of Reform Judaism, I don’t run into homophobia within my own tradition as I would if I were a practitioner of some forms of Christianity where homophobia is much more widespread—due in many cases, ironically, to their Church leaders taking Jewish literature and misrepresenting it for their own purposes.

Lying with a man

Fundamentalist protesters on Bourbon Street, New Orleans, September 4, 2010, by Satanoid (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

A favorite passage in Leviticus, part of the Torah or the Five Books of Moses, that the religious right likes to misuse to promote its own bigotry, is a text that, as sometimes translated, reads, “Do not lie with a man, as you lie with a woman, for that is an abomination.” This is in part of ancient legal codes found in the Torah that deal with cleanliness rules that often do not apply to our current day. Such rules, for example, call upon women to ritually cleanse in a bath (called a mikvah) following their period, something which only very few women do in our current day.

To keep this brief, rabbis in the Conservative denomination of Judaism (which is less traditional than Orthodox Judaism but more traditional than Reform) did a deep dive into the context of this controversial passage several decades ago, and determined that this was in the category of kosher rules (kosher being religious rules but not necessarily moral rules, such as not eating shellfish. Cleanliness rules were specific to that place and period (the Iron Age in which they were written) and were not included in that higher category of universal moral laws such as not stealing or not coveting someone else’s spouse such as we find in the Ten Commandments.

Specifically, this disputed passage in Leviticus referred to one particular type of male-on-male sexual intimacy and did not remark upon or prohibit other forms of sexual intimacy, nor did it comment on female-on-female sexual relations. And again, even that one prohibition on that one particular form of male sexual intimacy was motivated by a desire to prevent the spread of disease, at a time when there was little understanding of disease and only the vaguest knowledge of how to prevent its spread. In a similar vein, there were also rules about avoiding touching dead bodies and needing to ritually cleanse oneself if one encountered a dead body, to again prevent the spread of diseases.

So, long story short, the prohibition in Leviticus concerning itself with one particular type of male sexual intimacy, motivated by a concern with preventing STDs, is a very far cry from saying “gay people are an abomination,” which is how the religious right likes to interpret it. The modern-day application of this rule would be the obvious understandings we have about limiting sexual contact to consenting adults (of whatever gender), being smart about practicing safe sex with partners we may not know very well, and in general, treating ourselves and those with whom we have intimate relations in a respectful manner. It is common sense stuff, really. But it is sad the way the religious right takes texts written over 2000 years ago, creates whole new meanings out of them, and uses them to promote their hateful agenda. A psychologically unsettled guy with access to automatic weapons can somehow justify mass murder in a dance club by citing this “abomination.”

Read with care and you will encounter a number of persons in the Tanakh (which is what  Christians call the “Old Testament”) that from the context we would consider to be representations of LGBT characters. Examples include: Mordecai, a relative of Queen Esther, who is referred to with male pronouns but is also said to have nursed Esther as an infant, indicating an example of a non-binary or FTM transgender person; the prophet Daniel, whom many scholars believe to have been a eunuch in the Babylonian court, which is a close ancient-world corollary to a non-binary, MTF type of transgender individual; Judge Deborah and her female companion Yael, who in the Book of Judges helped to repel an invasion from a rival tribe in the very early days prior to the establishment of the Hebrew Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and from the context, seem to be an example of a lesbian or bisexual couple.

Deborah the Judge, by Gustave Doré

The list continues: People wonder about the prophet Jeremiah, for example; and most famously, perhaps, the early Judean King David is well known to have been at least bisexual, due to a prior relationship with Jonathan, son of King Saul, David’s predecessor. Of course, these are literary characters, so it is a bit like arguing about, for instance, the sexuality of Sherlock Holmes: There can never be a final answer to questions of literary interpretation. But the point is, given an unbiased reading of ancient Jewish literature, it is clear that heteronormativity was not, well, so normative in that culture and time period as the religious right would like us to believe.

On a related issue, the religious right likes to claim the husband-wife-and-kids family model as Biblically ordained by God. But men in the Bible could have several wives, not to mention concubines and slaves, so this is another topic about which modern-day theology is imposed upon the past.

There are other issues too, beyond LGBTQ concerns, where the religious right intentionally misrepresents sacred literature for their own bigoted purposes. Race is another prime example of how sacred literature is falsely used to promote a hateful agenda.

It is important to be educated on these issues so we can push back against the narrative of the religious right. “Any religion without love and compassion is false,” says a character in Stephen King’s short story “Children of the Corn.” This needs to be the starting point when dealing with attacks from the religious right, a defined sector of the religious bandwidth in sync with the most reactionary elements of corporate capitalism, that cannot be allowed to hold a monopoly on religious discussions in the public square. It would be a bit like letting tobacco company executives run public health. Tobacco use is precisely the opposite of promoting health, just as misusing religious literature to promote hate is the exact denial of real spirituality, in all of its varied and unique cultural manifestations.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article represents the opinions of its author.

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Francis Erdman
Francis Erdman

Francis Erdman is an IT worker in Massachusetts and is active with the Society for Humanistic Judaism, advocating for LGBTQ and gender equality and wider social justice issues within Jewish communities, including the communities of Jews by Choice and Jews of Color.