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First Covenant

Covenant Connection

Vol 4 Issue 2


May 2009 ... Sivan 5769

Gay Politics and Torah


• Gay Politics and Torah

Two, by Rabbi Michael Katz:

Should Noahides Wear a Tallis?

Reason, Authority, and Reincarnation

Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Recent Developments

Recession Economics, Buying Local


In one of the messiest political resignations ever, James McGreevey, then governor of New Jersey, called a press conference to respond to reports that he'd been having an affair with his national security advisor, who was threatening to sue him for sexual harrassment.

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Mr. McGreevey, giving up the governorship reluctantly, he said, admitted the allegations against him: that he had been cheating on his wife by engaging in sexual relations with the employee, his own appointee and his boyfriend. "My truth," said the governor, "is that I am a gay American."

Today Mr. McGreevey teaches ethics, law and leadership at Kean University, in New Jersey. His wife left him and he lives with another boyfriend, a financier. Raised Catholic, he is now, according to his profile in The New York Times Magazine (Sunday, May 3, 2009), a divinity student in an Episcopal seminary. He also, among other things, helps lead a group called Faith in America, devoted to "ending the harm caused by religion-based bigotry and prejudice toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans."

If the "religion-based bigotry" that Faith in America and former governor McGreevey want to eliminate has a central address it's in the section of Torah that the people of Israel studied that same weekend (May 2nd), in the normal cycle of Torah readings: Leviticus 16:1-20:20:27. God Himself addresses the People of Israel in the Wilderness. It's quite a section. It deserves careful reading.

James McGreevey

Translating and condensing a bit of it, very roughly:

[Leviticus 18:2] I am the Lord (HaShem) your God. After the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not do; and after the doings of the land of Cana'an, whither I shall bring you, you shall not do; neither shall you walk in their statutes ["laws engraven": their national, customary way of life]. My ordinances [that is, Mine, not theirs] you shall do, and My statutes you shall keep, to walk therein: I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore keep My statutes, and My ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them. I am the Lord."

[Quoting the J.H. Hertz Torah Commentary: The Rabbis emphasize the word man. Rabbi Meir used to say, "Whence do we know that even a heathen, if he obeys the law of God, will thereby attain to the same spiritual communion with God as the High Priest? Scripture says, "which if a man do, he shall live by them - not priest, Levite or Israelite, but man"],

Prohibitions against incest follow: . . . "the nakedness of your father, and the nakedness of your mother, you shall not uncover [Leviticus 18:7-18]. . ." and specific bans against other horrible acts [Hertz: "such savage idolatry being an infamous travesty of all religion or adoration of God"], the paragraph finishing: I am the Lord (HaShem)." [Leviticus 18:21]

We presume that this is what most offends Mr. McGreevey and Faith in America: "You shall not lie with mankind, as with womankind, it is abomination [Leviticus 18:22]. And [23] you shall not lie down with any beast to defile yourself therewith, neither shall any woman stand before a beast, to lie down thereto; it is perversion."

["Abomination" (to'eva), "perversion" (tevel), terms repeatedly applied in Scripture to crimes, felonies, of oppression, injustice, dishonesty and sacrilege (such as making a repulsive sacrificial offering, or stealing from an orphan.]

"Do not defile yourselves in any of these things, for in all these things the nations are defiled, which I cast out from before you [24]. And the land was defiled, therefore I visited the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land vomited out her inhabitants [25]. You therefore shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations; neither the homeborn nor the stranger that sojourns among you. For all these abominations have the men of the land done, that were before you, and the land is defiled - [27] that the land not vomit you out also, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you [28].

[Hertz: "An exhortation to lay to heart the fate of the Canaanites, whose loathsome customs, disruptive of social morality, would bring about their annihilation."]

For whosoever [emphasis implied] shall do any of these abominations, even the souls that do them, shall be cut off from among their people [29]. Therefore you shall keep My charge, that you do not do any of these abominable customs, which were done before you, and that you do not defile yourselves therein: I am the Lord your God [30].

Before the fashion changed, when homosexual sodomy was still generally regarded as contemptible, even in our leading universities, our teacher, J.H. Hertz, then the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, briefly commented on Leviticus 18:22 and the law that criminalizes male homosexual practices:

"Discloses the abyss of depravity from which the Torah saved the Israelite. This unnatural vice was also prevalent in Greece and Rome."

He continues, in the next note:

"The almost incredible bestialities, revealing the hideous possibilities of corrupt human nature, enumerated in verses 21-23, are but too well attested in laws, customs, and legends of the ancient and medieval world. They are not unknown in modern societies. Nowhere in literature is there such an uncompromising condemnation of these offences as in [Leviticus] 18 and 20. It led to their extirpation in the midst of Israel, and eventually to their moral outlawry among all peoples that came under the sway of the Hebrew Scriptures."

Leviticus 20 restates and elaborates on chapter 18: "If a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination [20:13]. "If a woman approach unto any beast, and lie down". . . [20:16]. . . "And you shall therefore keep all My statutes, and all My ordinances, and do them, that the land whither I bring you to dwell therein not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nations, which I am casting out before you; for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them." [Leviticus 20:22-23]

Currently, against all this Torah - what former governor McGreevey and his group call "faith-based bigotry" - we have what looks like a politically irresistible movement in America and Canada to establish "same-sex marriage." That is, not just laws permitting "civil unions," which would give very close friends and lovers the right to do things like receive their partners' pensions or social security, or be treated in other contexts like next-of-kin, but actual marriage, "the full Monty." Anything less, McGreevey argues, is an insult: it's not "full equality."

What about full equality? Even the degenerates of ancient Greece, who considered sexual relations between men and boys to constitute a uniquely elevated, spiritual kind of love, didn't write marriage contracts between them. But Mr. McGreevey gives a hint about what he's after in his autobiography (written with David French, a ghostwriter), The Confession. He spoke about it on Oprah, too. He doesn't just want others to tolerate his private sex life, he wants us to accept it without reservation; he wants approval.

McGreevey yearned, Confession says, for "a loving and sound sexual experience with another man." Ambitious as he was, though, he married (twice) and had children, to have the kind of "acceptable" life that a successful politician needed, he thought. "So, instead," he wrote, "I settled for the detached anonymity of bookstores and rest stops" - a compromise, but one that was wholly unfulfilling and morally unsatisfactory."

Anonymous sex in bookstores? And rest stops? )? Mr. McGreevey's own complaint tells us something about the Torah prohibition here, the Noahide Law, and homosexuality.

Kinsey Institute sex researchers report that homosexual men tend to be vastly more promiscuous - on average, 50 times(!) more, according to Kinsey - than homosexual women. Many male homosexuals, even though total strangers to each other, often come together in places like libraries and public lavatories for sex, just as Mr. McGreevey did. Female homosexuals - call them lesbians or, as the Torah refers to such, "women who roll with women" - don't do anything like that. They don't go for anonymous sex. According to Kinsey, lesbians averaged no more than ten homosexual partners in their lifetimes. Meanwhile, the "typical" male homosexual in America - or, at least, when Kinsey did this study, before the onset of the AIDS epidemic - had more than 500! [See the sources cited in Rainbow Covenant, pp 164, 179.]

Lesbian practices, according to Torah, constitute lewdness. Lewdness is not good. One of the principle objectives of God's Law is to eliminate or minimize it; to get people to stop animalizing the Divine gift of sexuality with crudeness, lewdness and immorality. Still, the Noahide Law doesn't criminalize lesbian acts, while it does prohibit every kind of lascivious sexual contact between males. [If a man feels homosexual stirrings or thinks homosexual thoughts but doesn't turn them into some kind of prohibited action, there is, of course, no crime.] That means, by definition, by the inherent nature of all Noahide precepts, that such actions are so obviously harmful to the good order of society that society, to protect itself, can, if necessary, actually impose the death penalty (!) to ban it or drive it underground. Which means that the kind of sex that Mr. McGreevey wants us to approve is something that should repulse almost everyone; that everybody ought to know is wrong.

Is that because it's such a powerful transmitter of disease? Because it's somehow nastier than lesbian sex, or dirtier? Because men can and do use it as a tool of domination, humiliation, and oppression? Because it changes males, the less stable gender, in ways that lesbian acts don't change females? Because it impairs trust between men, and between men and boys? Because it discourages men and boys from showing affection - normal affection - to each other? Because it lowers the status of women in society? Because it forces women into lewdness by making them compete with men? Because it tends to fill the world with lewdness - because if male homosexuality is ok, every perversion is ok?

Rainbow Covenant has a pretty good exposition on this subject in Book Two, Section One: Sex Laws. We remember generally that those cultures that have been hardest on women historically, like the Greeks and Muslims, say, have usually been the most accepting of these forbidden acts of sexuality, while those that have, by far, afforded women the greatest liberty and status, the Christians and the Hebrews, have been the least.

We also recognize that male homosexuality is protean - that it manifests itself differently in different times and cultures. Today, for instance, in much of the Arab world, men who play the homosexually "feminine" or receiving role are regarded with contempt; men who play the "dominant" or "male" role usually don't consider themselves to be homosexuals at all. In America, black or African-American gay males can be very different from gay whites, members of the black group often live "down low," hiding its homosexuality even from wives and girlfriends (while, incidentally, imposing horrible diseases upon them).

A book review recently reminded us that, before marketing experts and propagandists began calling it "gay" sex, it was - horrible name; we use it here reluctantly, only because it's necessary - "queer" sex. But, in fact, many homosexuals still prefer to call themselves queer, rather than gay: one "queer" man says that "gay" reduces even serious adults to the level of "giddy irresponsibles, negligible creatures." Reynolds Price, a poet and a self-declared queer, quotes a friend of his in his new memoir, Ardent Spirits (reviewed in The New York Times, May 13, 2008), who says: Please don't call me gay. If you need an adjective, call me morose."

One last word: one should love the sinner but hate the sin (even though the word "love" might be semi-humorously misconstrued in this context, which, indeed, might help explain why the sin is so heinous). It's ridiculous to predict that gay men who practice gay sex will be grievously punished for it in the world to come, after death. Only God can know a thing like that. Furthermore, an individual may be a wonderful person, whose other acts are so saintly that God, in His infinite wisdom and His mercy, won't just absolve but will generously reward him. It's just the forbidden acts, the deeds, that should be outlawed: banned, criminalized [even if only at the level of a traffic ticket - the least-severe penalty necessary to accomplish the object of the law is the penalty that justice requires] and driven underground, so that everyone should understand that they are not ok, not approved of, and not acceptable.


Should Noahides Wear a Tallis?

Rabbi Michael Katz takes a question regarding the tallis (tallit), or prayershawl. This is a four-cornered fringed garment worn by married Jewish men, over their clothes, during daylight worship services.

Catholic clergy have adopted a similar garment, the surplice, for formal, ritual wear, wearing it like a scarf around the neck, hanging down near the waist. Many different denominations in America have adopted a similar garment, like a scarf, based on the tallis, but decorated according to personal taste: black or African-American clergy, for instance, frequently wear these ritual scarves made out of kente cloth, or with bright designs inspired by sub-Saharan Africa.

This is the question, posted in an online discussion forum:

[B'nai Noah] must rely on their own study and on the advice of a rabbi that one trusts to give a proper ruling. What we are showing here is that we can discuss an issue without upsetting anyone.

[Rabbi Katz:] Well said, Steve! In the same spirit I would like to weigh in with a couple of observations.

My feeling is that the desire to wear a tallis (or facsimile thereof) stems from a blurring of distinctions between Jew and Ben No'ach and from a failure to adequately appreciate the unique nature of the relationship forged between God and Israel. Consider these two Midrashim [rabbinic commentaries and stories, part of the Oral Torah].

1. When Shem and Yaphet went to cover their father, Noah's shame, they were rewarded by God. Shem was rewarded with the mitzva (commandment) of tallis while Yaphet was rewarded with burial (Armageddon).

2. When Abraham refused to accept any booty from the King of Sedom, he was rewarded with the two mitzvot of tefillin and tzitzit (for saying that he would not accept anything from a thread to a leather strap.)

Now, the question to consider is what is meant by referring to a commandment as a reward. Commandments strengthen the bond between the power that commands and the subject that obeys the command. More commandments give us more opportunities to demonstrate our loyalty to God and our love of His decrees.

If God, in His wisdom, chooses to give a specific mitzva to Israel exclusively, it is because He has created an additional channel for Israel to grow spiritually. If Israel was never given the commandment of tzitzis or tallis, Israel would experience less spiritual growth. The reward is not the commandment itself but, rather, the enhanced relationship with God that results from the observance of that commandment. Thus, the converse is also true. The Jew who does not obey these particular commandments is not punished except in the sense that he has lost an important dimension to his life.

Let us now say that wrapping oneself in a tallis is a spiritually enhancing experience. God has granted that experience to Israel as a reward in a cosmic sense for the actions of an ancestor. The Jew praying is wrapped in history and attaches his prayers to those of his ancestors. This is what the tallis achieves.

None of this is necessary. The custom among Ashkenazi Jews (except for those from Germanic lands) is that an unmarried man does not wear a tallis during prayer. Are his prayers less worthy? He is still wearing the smaller tallis under his shirt which gives him the mitzva of tzitzis but he is not wrapped in it. So, if wearing a tallis during prayer is not crucial to the experience, there must be something else that is achieved, and I sense that that "something else" is mystical and does not belong in the Noahide world.

I suspect that those B'nai No'ach who claim to feel heightened spiritual levels while wearing a pseudo-tallis are really experiencing auto-suggestive feelings which could be achieved in many other ways.

In short, I don't like the idea of a tallis for B'nai No'ach and I certainly don't like the idea of a Ben No'ach pronouncing a blessing on the donning of such a tallis. Blessing God for having given us the freedom to choose to don a tallis (the text of the suggested blessing in Service of the Heart) is somewhat strange. Why not bless God for giving you the freedom to shave your face or wear a hat?


Reason, Authority, and Reincarnation
by Rabbi Michael Katz

[People often ask us if we're familiar with what we regard as strange religious teachings, from Jewish as well as non-Jewish sectarians, from Kabbalah-teachers, supposedly, and from others. When we check them out, if we check them, we usually find that they contradict the Torah in different ways, or involve anti-Torah innovations. So we end up having to explain that we are Torah people; we are Orthodox Jews and Noahides who love Torah and are dedicated to Torah, who keep the discipline that Rabbi Katz describes just below:]

[From an online posting:] We do not follow an "authority", even one who was under the direct tutelage of Moses, as was Joshua. What do we follow? One answer: "Reason."
When following any view, one's opinion should be based on reason and well thought-
out argument.

[Rabbi Katz:] See Deuteronomy 17:11 "....do not depart from what the judges instruct
you, neither to the right nor to the left." Rashi [the rabbinic commentator, c. 1040-1105], quoting the Sifri [the Midrash]: "Even if they tell you that right is left and left is right, obey them."

It is dangerous for individuals to use their own "reasoning" to ignore the instruction of great Torah leaders. This is what created Conservative and Reform Judaism.

However, if there are conflicting opinions among the great scholars, as is the case with reincarnation, then one may choose whichever one seems to him to be more reasonable.

Reincarnation, as a concept, does not undo reward and punishment. Reincarnation is
itself a punishment. It is agony for the soul to have to be returned to this world. Reincarnation does do a wonderful job of explaining seeming injustice in this world. Children who die before the age of sin are understood to be redeemed souls who achieved a mission left over from a previous life. It is, thus, a reassuring doctrine. But, by no means, is one compelled to accept it just because it was promoted by the Ari [the great mystic Isaac Luria, 1534-1572].

Saadiah Gaon [882-942] is a most acceptable authority upon whom those who do not subscribe to the reincarnation doctrine can rely.

Do you know what is the best thing about this? Both those who believe in reincarnation and those who do not all pray in the same synagogue and share Festival meals with each other. We see no need to establish separate communities for those who do not share the same belief in this matter.


Pro-Life, Pro-Choice

More Americans called themselves "pro-life" than called themselves "pro-choice" in a recent Gallup poll - thereby confounding those who, in the abortion wars, thought that "pro-choice" would eventually sweep the field. The difference isn't much - 51 percent to 42 percent - but it appears to be growing. The Pew Research Center also reported a sharp decline since last August in those saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases - from 54 percent to 46 percent.

Americans remain deeply divided on the subject. According to the Gallup poll, 23 percent believe that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, 22 percent believe it should be legal under any circumstances, and 53 percent say it should be legal only under certain circumstances.

On May 17th, President Obama spoke to a huge commencement audience at Notre Dame, the Catholic Church's flagship school in America. The issue of abortion made it a controversial event. Speaking directly to the issue, the president called for self-restraint, civility and mutual respect between the vying forces. We - the First Covenant Foundation - would certainly like to see that. He also said that he didn't see any way of coming to some middle ground, of "fudging the differences" between them. But there we disagree. We do see a way. You could, in fact, call it "the way."

According to the Torah, the abortion of a human fetus is forbidden, except to save the life and health of its mother, once the fetus is 40-days old, or 40-days post-conception. Before that the fetus is a mere "hairy egg," "mere water," little more than a pinpoint, and it may be terminated for any reason. Parenthetically, a simple procedure, practically speaking, is all that's required.

Demonstating against the president's "moral relativism" and perceived "pro-death" stance, the anti-abortion demonstrators at Notre Dame carried a new anti-abortion symbol, "Precious Feet": the soles of two little feet, of a fetus 70-days post-conception, advertised as being "the exact size and shape of a 10-week old unborn baby's feet."

Precious Feet Lapel Pin (nickel)

We're glad that more and more Americans seem to be awakening to the obvious, that the abortion of a fetus with feet that look like that, if it's medically unnecessary, is outrageous.

Unfortunately, most of the groups that sell Precious Feet would, apparently, prohibit what God's Law permits, the termination of a fetus more than four weeks earlier - before it develops anything that looks anything like feet. Any such man-made prohibition lacks the characteristic of every Noahide law, that it prohibits something that everyone should know is wrong. There is nothing intuitively obvious - mere religious doctrine is not universally obvious, or intuitively obvious - about preventing the termination of a human embryo before it gets much beyond the size of the dot on top of this i or the period at the end of this sentence.

In fact, the pro-life forces would probably find it difficult to rally many supporters around a symbol with the size and shape of a mark of punctuation. And that is as it should be. We have faith in American democracy and in the wisdom of the American people. Extremists at both ends of the controversy may not be happy with the Torah solution to this problem, but God's Way is the only way, "the way," in this case. It's how America will finally find middle ground and "fudge the difference" between the pro-life extremists, on one side, and the pro-choice absolutists on the other.

Recession economics

In these hard times, we hope all our members, readers and friends will remember the wonderful people who run our local bookstores - and particularly, the Torah-trained experts who own and run the nation's Jewish bookstores. These stores are a treasure; they are an indispensable source of Torah knowledge, Judaica - including beautiful ritual objects like mezuzot, cups and candle-holders, and spice boxes, as well as Hebrew-language learning materials, calendars, Jewish, chassidic and Israeli newspapers and magazines - and books.

Not only are these people threatened by the recession, they face terrible competition from the Internet, phone- and mail-order.

We all share in the responsibility for our own times, our own communities, our own homes and our neighborhoods. When we honor our neighbors with our business, to help them make an honorable living, we make our own lives better. We strengthen our neighbors and their businesses with our patronage, so that they can, in turn, strengthen us. A good, God-fearing person tries to leave the community better than when he or she arrived.

We believe that we all need to do what we can to help keep this indispensable resource, the local Jewish bookstore, going. That means buying locally, whenever possible, rather than buying over the Internet, or from a toll-free number; trying to order from the local bookstore first, before ordering from online merchants, and giving the local owner the chance to compete with his far-off competitors.

Rabbi Michael Katz is an important resource too. We can't say too much good about him, a co-director and trustee of this foundation, because he has a commercial interest, Holyland, a center for Judaica. It might benefit thereby, and we have to remain aloof from commerical endorsements, as a strictly non-partisan, non-profit foundation. But he has invaluable knowledge, especially when it comes to resources and information for Noahides; he should certainly be considered as source for information about books, as well as ritual Judaica. If you can't find what you need locally, please see if Rabbi Katz can help - he's a dedicated Torah teacher, who can help you find your right track - before you go to buy what you might not really need online.

You can find other, similar information in LINKS on our website, too. As for Rabbi Katz, you can get his contact-info off the website: click here, About Us (Rabbi Katz)


We call on God for help. As the prayer that Israel says every morning just before reciting the Hebrew statement of faith known as the shema asks (please understand that this is much richer in Hebrew than in English): Our Father, the merciful Father, Who acts mercifully, have mercy on us, instill in our hearts to understand and elucidate, to listen, learn, teach, safeguard, perform and fulfill all the words of Your Torah's teachings with love. Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, attach our hearts to Your commandments, and unify our hearts to love and fear Your Name. Amen.

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