Dear Rabbi Fried,
I read with much curiosity the recent TJP article titled “Temple Shalom makes it clear: LGBT welcome,” Dec. 8, 2016.
The article quotes Rabbi Paley taking issue with Orthodoxy which takes literally the verse in Leviticus 18:22, saying “the Rabbis restricted it making it impossibly narrow.”
I’m interested in hearing your take on Rabbi Paley’s comments.
I would prefer to stay away, in this column, from the actual subject discussed in that article, and rather focus on the thought process by which Rabbi Paley arrives at his conclusions, in the interest of scholarly discussion. I find that if we connect this discussion to the subject at hand, it often becomes an emotional discussion rather than a scholarly one, with one side accusing the other of a lack of compassion and the like. The important thing is to be intellectually honest and to quote proofs in context.
Firstly, to say the “rabbis restricted” the verse; it was never the rabbis who restricted a verse in the Torah, the verse stands on its own right.
Paley’s “proof” that the verse is not to be taken literally is “that Judaism allows for capital punishment, which is almost impossible to do.” This has nothing to do with the interpretation or understanding of the aforementioned verse, as the death penalty is not even invoked in that entire section of the Torah.
Furthermore, I’m not sure how Paley intends to prove from the fact that it’s nearly impossible to carry out capital punishment to reinterpret an explicit verse in the Torah. First of all, is the difficulty to carry out capital punishment a blanket license to reinterpret anything in the Torah?
Secondly, capital punishment, with all of its difficulty, has indeed been carried out in Jewish history, albeit very seldom.
(One may ask, if the Torah invokes capital punishment, why does it make it so difficult to carry out? The Talmud, in fact, discusses a court which carried out capital punishment once in 70 years and it was referred to, derogatorily, as the “bloody court!” The reason is that any misdeed which has capital punishment attached to it shows how severe that act is in the eyes of God, and how careful one must be to refrain from it. But insofar as it’s worthy of capital punishment, rather than us carrying it out, we leave it to God to do so.)
Paley pointed out that numerous passages in the Torah of prohibitions are not carried out today, like prohibitions against cloth blends or mixing two types of seeds in fields, as a further proof that the above verse doesn’t apply today; sadly, it seems he doesn’t know that these prohibitions are very much alive and well. There are laboratories in New York and New Jersey and numerous experts throughout the world who are dedicated to checking clothing for shaatnez, ensuring that in conformance with the biblical injunction against wearing clothing made of linen and wool, these mixtures are not worn by observant Jews. The mixture of seeds is only prohibited by the Torah in the Land of Israel, where that law is also scrupulously observed by observant farmers.
As to Paley’s claim as to “the hypocrisy of one text as our basis,” and that “we do not live biblical Judaism, we live rabbinic Judaism,” I would roundly agree that we do not interpret the Torah based upon its literal meaning, but how it was explained by the Al-mighty in the Oral Tradition, handed down as the Mishna and Talmud.
That does not mean that every rabbi has the license to make up his own oral tradition and interpret anything as he likes.
Paley gives an example from the story of Rabbi Eliezer and the sages who disagreed with him, even in the face of a heavenly voice proclaiming that the law is like the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, saying the Reform Rabbis love to quote that story, deriving from it that whatever we determine will be right.
This story is being taken grossly out of context; the rabbis were arguing over a very subtle point in the Oral Tradition, with ramifications in the esoteric laws of ritual purity. There was no verse anyone was disagreeing with. The lesson of that story is dual: that the laws of the Torah are decided by the majority, and this applies even if the minority opinion will get an “OK from Heaven.” This is because, as the Talmud stresses, once the Torah was given at Sinai it is no longer “in Heaven”; it is to be understood through the principles of Torah passed down at Sinai.
From that point on, the Torah is not understood prophetically, rather with the understanding of the sages. This is applying to the “gray areas” open to discussion, not to explicit verses in the Torah that were already clearly given at Sinai.
Lastly, Paley contends that since in Genesis 1:26 it says that all humans were made in God’s image, “we will create Torah correctly,” meaning that we, in God’s image, can create our own Torah.
It is beyond the space allotted to me to show how grossly this verse has been taken out of context, perhaps another time. Suffice it to say that God clearly had no intention in that verse to say that every human has the wisdom of God to rewrite his or her new Torah. To be in the image of God punctuates our responsibility to fulfill the word of God, not to attempt to play God or be God!
Dear Rabbi Fried,