Amalek and Homosexuality: Choosing to Believe

So, the shabbat before Purim, we read about Amalek. Backstory; The Megillah , i.e. best fairy tale ever (buy an Artscroll illustrated kid edition and read it in English (or Hebrew depending on your native tongue) to your kid for a week – you can thank me later), is about Haman the Amelekite, who tries to commit genocide against the Jews. God, working through Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai, saves the day, and the Jews survive, and decide to party and give each other present. Cookies for everyone!

More backstory: In the desert, the Amalekites attack Israel – according to rabbinic tradition a) they attack the back of the camp, ie the sick, the young, and the weak b) they are the first nation to attack Israel post-Exodus story, thus warming the water for all the other nations who were waiting to jump into the pool. Every shabbat before Purim, this story is read (connecting it to the whole Amelekite attempted genocide that’s part of the Purim story), along with the obligation to “erase the memory of Amalek: Do not forget”. Interstingly, the Hebrew letters for “memory” are the same as the letters for “male”, so there is an alternative reading, but that reading was not accepted as the correct one by the rabbinic consensus.

Either way, this passage is extremely disturbing: It is basically commanding mass-murder. The only passage I can think of offhand, that is as disturbing to me, is the passage to enact the death penalty for one who “lies with a man as one lies with a woman”. First of all, a) the decision of the rabbis to limit the death penalty in Jewish law to cases where there were two male witnesses, of good character, both of whom testified they had warned the perpetrator and s/he had replied the s/he knew the what s/he was about to do was wrong, but were choosing to do it anyway, means not only that practically speaking, such a passage was virtually unenforcable, but also that the rabbis might have shared some of my discomfort b) at least lesbianism is not mentioned, and anal sex between two men is one sexual act, and does not preclude being gay or engaging in other types of male-on-male pleasure c) since rabbis habitually refer to anal sex as sex “not in the way of a woman”, wouldn’t anal sex, by their very definition, not count as “lie with a man as one lies with a woman”? d) Since being with a man and a woman are qualitatively different experiences, is it even possible to “lie with a man as one lies with a woman”?

Leaving my apologetics aside however, the plain meaning of the verse remains the same. So how do I reconcile my concept of a loving God, who wants humans to be happy – and sexually fufilled, since that generally improves ones happiness – with one who created humans with homosexual urges, knowing that, at least at first glance, male anal sex is forbidden? How do I reconcile my concept with a God who loves people and wants us to live in peace, and to do all we can to protect human life, with one who mandates total war against a group of people, based on the sins of their ancestors?

I do not have an answer. I do have two dvar Torahs:

Neither davr Torah satisfies me. However, I choose to ponder this dilemma, of how to reconcile my concept of God with two Biblical passages that seem to contradict it, based on that one word – seem. Since I take it as axiomatic that there is a loving God who created all of us in His image (not that God has a gender; I simply bow to the conventions of the English language), I believe that the resolution of my dilemma is out there, it just has not been found – much like a doctor who believes that AIDS can be cured, if we just put in enough time, money, and research. The doctor has faith in the power of science. (Please do not read this analogy as anti-science: I love science. I find it absolutely fascinating, and believe in pouring money and research into it. Our cells have mitochondrial DNA, and we have wave-particle duality – it doesn’t get much cooler than that – unless, of course, one starts discussing the amazing signals our brains transmit across synapses! To me, science is actually evidence for the existence of an omniscient God – it is hard for me to believe this loveliness is all just coincidence. I also beleive that intellectual honesty is the proper pursuit of a religious person, and scienctific method has so much to offer in that realm.)

i suppose I am getting far afield, but the point is: I choose to search for an answer to my dilemma by working within my tradition, rather than abandoning my tradition as a result of my dilemma. This decision is an exercise in freedom of choice, and as such, it is extremely empowering.

My attitude towards my dilemma can be summed up in the words of Eugene Korn: “In situations where our initial understanding of halacha conflicts with tzelem Elokim values, we should strive to deepen our comprehension and resolve the tension. We should ponder the texts, discuss them with others, and seek out wiser and more sensitive people to guide us in solving the problem.  As long as our tzelem Elokim sensitivy remains violated, we can not rest, but must say, as did the rabbinic interpretive community throughout centuries, “The simple interpretation is not the correct interpretation”, or “The halacha is normative, but perhaps does not apply in the present circumstances”, or “I do not understand the authority correctly”. These responses are thoroughly traditional, adopted by ancient and modern poskim, by halachik conservatives and liberals alike. In addition to our commitment to halacha’s claim on us, we must maintain unshakable faith in the halacha’s moral character. The operative faith of a morally sensitive halachik Jews is just this: In any given situation, there exists a legitimate interpretation of halakha consistent with tzelem Elokim values. This belief obligates us to “turn over, turn over” our sources, until we find that interpretation.”

For the full article “Tzelem Elokim and the Dialectic of Jewish Morality”, first published in Tradition magazine, please go to the following link:

A note on my belief in God: I do not want to get into debates about theism verse atheism on this blog. Since I am on the topic however, I will say as follows: For me, belief in God is a choice. I believe there is evidence for the existence of God, and evidence against it. Thus, one has three options: 1. Take a look at the evidence, decide the evidece for theism is stronger, and choose to believe, despite the fact that the evidence does not constitute absolute proof 2. Take a look, decied the evidence for atheism is stronger, and decide not to believe, despite the fact that the evidence does not constitute absolute proof 3. Decide that while there is evidence for both sides, even though one side might have more evidence than the other, there is no absolute proof. Acknowledge that it is impossible to prove a/theism, thus, it is possible that God exists, and also possible that He does not – though you might believe that one possibility is more likely than the other. The third choice is agnosticism.

Thus, I believe that atheism. like theism, is a choice to believe, even though this choice is based on evidence, it is not based on absolute proof. Atheists I know counter that if faith (ie belief not dependent on evidence) is a bridge, their bridge is shorter than the bridge of Theists – however, most Theists feel the opposite: namely, that the Atheist bridge is the longer one to cross. It really irks me when atheists, who often decry religious intolerance and cite it as a reason for their disbelief, claim their atheism is inherently more objective than theism: They are essentially claiming to be more “correct” than religious people, and I find that claim to be intolerant. I am not trying to stereotype athiests – I do not believe the majority of them are like that, but I do believe that a smug feeling of intellectual superiority over religious people pervades the works of some major modern atheist thinkers, such as Dawkins, and it makes me a lot harder to respect their work. For more on the choice to believe, please see this article from the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy:

One more note on atheism – again, this is not to get into an argument, but simply to explain a little about where I’m coming from – if this blog is based on the concept of all people being created in the image of God, it helps to know what I think about God. (By the way, I’m a fan. Still haven’t managed to buy an autograph on ebay.)

Often, people will cite grave crimes carried out in the name of religion as an argment against God’s existence. 1. It is – unfortunately – part of human history that atrocities get committed in the name of ideology. Plenty of atrocities have been committed in the name of secular ideologies, such as nationalism, fascism, and communism. However, I do not believe it is productive to get into an argument over who’s done worse things – people acting in the name of religious causes or people acting in the name of secular causes. Such arguments merely widen the rift between two camps that should be working together for the sake of humanity. 2. It is possible that all religions are false, yet God exists – that God has simply not revealed Himself to humans, or did reveal Himself, but the true religion became a cult and died out. Therefore, proving organized religion to be false does not prove God does not exist. 3. Organized religion could contain the truth yet be destructive – why assume that what is true is also what is good for humanity? 4. Even a religion that claims Divine revelation, often also admits human intervention. Thus, Judaism, for example, admits Divine revelation at Sinai, but also believes that post-Sinai, God put the powers of law-making into the hands of the rabbis. This means that, once Sinai happened, the power was in the hands of humans – who, like all humans are fallible. Thus, it is virtually statistically impossible that there were no messups in the 2000 years that followed -and the system of Jewish law understood that there would be mess-ups to be fixed and adaptations to be made, which is why it provided legal mechanisms for changing laws. Certain texts can not be uprooted, because they are foundational to the Jewish legal system, but they can be re-interpreted using a system of Jewish jurisprudence relying on recorded rabbinic opinions and rulings, in order to form a cohesive argument – much like Constitutional law in the US. This is by way of saying: Since many religions admit that humans have been involved, somehow or other, in their formation, it could be that the messups in said religion are due to that human involvement, not due to God, and thus, such messups can not be viewed as a counter-argument to God’s existence, but rather, as evidence of human fallibility.

I suppose I have gotten far afield. My main point, was to avoid apologetics, to explain that I am bothered by certain texts, yet this being bothered does not prevent me from being an observant Jew: I choose to live a life of cognitive dissonance (introduced to the concept by Rabbi Solivetichik, of course), and of intellectual honesty: I would consider it dishonest towards my own beliefs and opinions to abandon my faith based on this problem, just as I would consider it dishonest towards myself not to acknowledge the problem in the first place.

As a post-script, there is actually an argument in academic circles, that modernism was much to blame for the Holocaust. Many of these critiques encapsulate some of my own problems with modernism, and as such, I would like to share links in case you are interested in the topic:

Succinct summary/review of Modernity and the Holocaust, by Zygmunt Bauman

Notes on M&H, by ZB, from Duke University’s Sociology Dept.:

Standord Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Theodore Adorno, one of the first to explore the link between modernity and the Holocaust. Explore the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” and “Ethics and Metaphyics After Auschwitz” subheadings:

Causes of Genocide in One Page:,%20Causes%20of

Summary of Link Between Genocide and the Modern Nation State:

Link To Amazon Page For Seminal Book On This Issue:

Paper on Genocide and the Modenr Nation State:

Lecture on the work of Lemkin, considered the father of modern genocide studies:

My namesake: One of my middle names is Esther, which explains why I’m posting so much on Purim. Also, thanks to Martin Shuster to introducing me to many of the theoretical works on genocide I’ve referenced, including the works by Baugman and Levene, in his undergraduate course at Johns Hopkins University, “Genocide As a Philosophical Problem”.


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