Thursday, February 18, 2010

The emperor and the rabbi

The following piece of rubbish has been making the rounds of the ‘net.

"Thirteen months before 9/11, on the day New York City passed homosexual domestic partnership regulations, I joined a group of Rabbis at a City Hall prayer service, pleading with G-d not to visit disaster on the city of N.Y. We have seen the underground earthquake, tsunami, Katrina, and now Haiti. All this is in sync with a two thousand year old teaching in the Talmud that the practice of homosexuality is a spiritual cause of earthquakes. Once a disaster is unleashed, innocents are also victims just like in Chernobyl. We plead with saner heads in Congress and the Pentagon to stop sodomization of our military and our society. Enough is enough." -- Rabbi Yehuda Levin, spokesman for the Rabbinical Alliance of America.

Does the Talmud in fact offer any support for the notion that homosexual conduct is “a spiritual cause” of earthquakes? Apparently it does, according to the expert opinion of Tzvee.blogspot.com.

As a friend remarked, "The primal event featured the first homosexual who exclaimed, 'I felt the earth move, did you feel it?'" Later on, it became common for one partner to say to another: "Forget about camping up a storm. Let's cause a 'quake!"

I digress.

Back to reality. As Tzvee indicates, the relevant passage stems from Yerushalmi Berakot (9:2). In fact, the text asserts that earthquakes are brought on by any one of a number of acts, including disputes; not taking heave offering and tithes from your produce; and also because God is unhappy that the Temple lies in ruins and Jews are flocking to theaters and circuses.

Gay sex may also occasion the tremors. In Tzvee’s translation, “ [E] Said R. Aha, ‘[The earth quakes] on account of the sin of homosexual acts. God said, ‘You made your genitals throb in an unnatural act. By your life, I shall shake the earth on account of [the act of] this person.’"

For those of us who have been studying the sad, tenacious history of prejudice against gay people this notion has a familiar ring. It stems from the Christian emperor Justinian I, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from 527 to 565. In 538 this homophobic ruler issued a law (Novella 77), which condemned sodomites to death "lest, as a result of these impious acts, whole cities should perish together with their inhabitants," a reference to the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, as recounted in the book of Genesis. The edict spoke of "diabolical and unlawful lusts," maintaining that because of such crimes there are famines, e a r t h q u a k e s, and pestilences. In Justinian’s view same-sex acts are not simply immoral--they constitute a grave danger to the body politic.

The canon of the Jerusalem Talmud was closed about 600 CE, two or three generations after the promulgation of Justinian’s aetiological ruminations incorporated into Novella 77. Evidently the notion was still fresh at the start of the seventh century.

Unless an earlier Jewish source can be found--and I know of none that directly makes this case--the Sages were channeling their hated enemy, the anti-Semite Justinian I. As I have shown elsewhere in these pages, this would not be the first time that the rabbis have borrowed from Christianity.

Does Yehuda Levin know that he is echoing a Christian source?

It probably wouldn’t matter to him. For bigots it suffices to spread the slur, whatever its provenance.


UPDATE. A recent news report indicates that Rabbi Levin has at least one counterpart in Israel. According to a report in IsraelNN.com, Shlomo Benizri (of the right-wing party Shas) caused a stir in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, a few days ago when he linked homosexuality and earthquakes. "I suggest that the Knesset inquire into how it can prevent sodomy and thus save us a lot of earthquakes," Benizri said. He later explained to a reporter that the Gemara (presumably the Talmud) calls earthquakes "zevaot," teaching that they are caused by a number of things, including male homosexuality. "I therefore suggested that in order to limit the damage from earthquakes, it would be better to make fewer laws that encourage sodomy and other perversions, like adoption of children by lesbians," he said. (As I have explained elsewhere, lesbianism is nowhere prohibited in the Torah.)

It will be interesting to see if this homophobic claim is taken up further, so that the defense of Israel is linked to the repression of sodomy. Generally, Israeli official policies have been progressive with regard to homosexuality. However, that is not the view of the ultra-Orthodox.

As stated above, I believe that the motif of homosexual activity as the cause of earthquakes is of Christian and Hellenic origin, only later migrating into Judaism. In addition, though, there may be an Islamic analogue. In a satirical poem of the early twelfth century, the Afghan poet Sanai of Ghazni portrays a pious Muslim who disapproves of pederasty, claiming

"These sinful ways of yours," —that was his shout—
Have ruined all the crops and caused the drought!"

Later, Sanai shows the pious man as a hypocrite who sodomizes a boy, heedless of the danger to the crops. Of course crops are not the same as earthquakes, but Justinian's legislation makes it clear that the seismic disturbances are part of a larger pattern that includes pestilences and famine.

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