Copyright © 2011 by and Gary Konecky

In previous installments, we discussed some of the techniques needed to interpret the Bible.  We also discussed the creation story, the sin of Adam and Eve, the sin of the generation of the flood, and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  In every one of these cases, it turned out that things were not the way religious fundamentalists claimed. 

We will soon be coming to the two verses from Leviticus (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) used to attack the LGBTI community.  The crucial question is; do these two verses mean what we are told it means?  Are these two verses the blanket condemnation of homosexuality that the religious right, Christian fundamentalists, the Roman Catholics, the Mormons, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Orthodox Jews, the Religious Right and their allies claim they are?  If these two verses are the blanket condemnation of homosexuality that the aforementioned religious groups claim they are, and I do not believe they are that blanket condemnation, we still have a critical question that must be asked; does the LGBTI community have any recourse?  Before we even try to understand these two verses from Leviticus, I think we must answer the question of recourse first.

This brings us to the Midrash of Daniel the Tailor (Leviticus Rabbah 32:8).  In addition to this midrash being fascinating in its own right, this midrash highlights a major cultural difference.  The Talmud frowns on calling someone names, especially hurtful names.  That said, this midrash is very frank in its use of language and its discussion of worldly subjects.  Therefore, it uses a word that our society would consider a curse or swear word.  As it is imperative to accurately convey the meaning of this important midrash, I am going to use the same language as that used by this midrash.  

This midrash covers the occasional situation involving Jewish religious law (halacha), where the intent of the law is undermined by the strict interpretation of the law.  An example of this situation occurred in ancient Israel and concerns the law involving the mamzer (bastard).  Deuteronomy 23:3 states; “A bastard shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even the tenth generation shall not enter the assembly of the Lord.” The halacha that relates to this verse is interpreted to mean that a mamzer can only marry another mamzer.  Additionally, it prohibited a mamzer from various aspects of Jewish religious, communal and civic life; in effect banning the mamzer and its descendants from society and communal life in ancient Israel.

We now come to fascinating discovery.  The English word “bastard” is the proper translation of the Hebrew word mamzer.  Many of us are all familiar with the word bastard.  Yet, a clear, easy to understand word, bastard, in this context does not mean in Hebrew what it means in English, even though the translation is accurate and correct.

A child born to an unmarried woman (what we call an illegitimate son or bastard) is legitimate according to halacha.  A child born of a forbidden relationship, such as adultery or incest is a mamzer according to halacha.  Furthermore, while we use the word bastard to refer to a male, the Talmud discusses the concepts of a male bastards and female bastards. 

Why is such a child a mamzer?  The child is innocent.  The child did not ask to be a mamzer.  The child did not ask his parents to engage in a sexual act forbidden by the Torah.  Why is the child to be punished?  Not merely the child but the child of the child even unto the tenth generation.  What is this about?

Adultery and incest can be very destructive to a family.  All kinds of jealously, family rivalry, hatred and mayhem can sprout from such relations.  Therefore, the halacha tries to be as forceful in condemning these relationship as the potential for destructiveness.  Parents usually love their children, therefore, by forcing the parents to understand the terrible consequences of their conduct, not for themselves but for their children, their children’s children and their children’s children’s children, the Rabbis hoped to discourage such potentially destructive relationships.  The motive is good, but what of the outcome? 

Ecclesiastes 4:1 states:  But I returned and saw all the oppressed who are made [so] under the sun, and behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they have no consoler, and from the hand of their oppressors there is power, but they have no consoler.” (

Who are the oppressed?  Who is the oppressor?  Who is the consoler?  There are many possibilities to each of these questions.  However, we will discuss the conclusions expressed in the midrash of Daniel the Tailor. 

Who is the oppressed?  Daniel says it is the mamzer, the child who is punished not for anything he did, but is oppressed for the sins of his parents. 

Who then is the oppressor?  None other than the Sanhedrin (the court) charged with enforcing Torah law, for it is the Sanhedrin that condemns the child until even the tenth generation.

Who then is the consoler? “And there is no one to comfort them – Therefore, says the Holy One of blessing: ‘It is upon Me to comfort them.’ In this world there are unworthy ones among them, but regarding the times of the Messiah, Zechariah prophesied: ‘Behold I see them all like pure gold.’”  (see note)

This is expanded upon in the Talmud by the Jewish sage Rabbi Yose who says “in the days of the Messiah, bastards…will be pure.” Rabbi Yose’s statement is accepted by the Talmudic sages. (see note)

The effect of all this is that the very sages who accepted the Torah as G-d’s word had the nerve to challenge Divine teaching in the name of G-d.  They rose up and spoke out against the injustice that flowed from G-d’s Torah as contrary to G-d’s will.  This was not some opinion they invented.  This very cry against injustice comes from other Torah teachings (including the Deuteronomy 16:20 declaration that “Justice, justice shall you pursue…”) and is solidly based on Jewish teachings and traditions.

The Sanhedrin was merely carrying out the Torah laws that had been given to the Jewish people by G-d at Mount Sinai.  Yet because of the injustice of this halacha, the Rabbis condemned it and found an ingenious compromise.  Ultimately, it was decided that it was forbidden to reveal that someone was a mamzer.  If you knew someone was a mamzer and you did not tell, then no harm resulted.  The law was intact, the goal of strengthening the family and protecting it from harm was intact; yet the innocent were not punished.  Two competing goals were satisfied.

What does this have to do with LGBTI people?  The answer is that even if the religious right’s interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as condemning LGBTI people is correct, it need not be used as an instrument of harm.  If Jewish sages could interpret the law of the mamzer so as not to cause injustice; then the same should hold true for LGBTI people, for LGBTI people are as innocent as the mamzer.  An impressive body of scientific evidence proves that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice but of biology and genetics.  Our sexual orientation is as much a part of our being as our skin color.  It is given to us by G-d and it is a part of us that cannot be changed.  (See Appendix:  Can Sexual Orientation Be Changed?).  

Just as the mamzer had no choice in its parents and its status, so too do LGBTI people have no choice in sexual orientation.  Just as mamzer is what it is at birth, so too are all of us what G-d made us at birth.  Just as the mamzer was discriminated against and the victim of injustice, so too are LGBTI people discriminated against and are the victims of injustice.

A way was found by devoutly religious men to rectify the injustice inflicted upon the mamzer.  Why are so many religious leaders today so unwilling to rectify the injustice inflicted on LGBTI people?  Why is it that the heirs of the rabbis that heeded Daniel the Tailor (meaning all the clergy that condemn LGBTI people regardless of their faith tradition) insist on perpetrating injustices similar to or worse than the very ones that Daniel the Tailor condemned? 

Why do these religious leaders demand that religious laws and teachings be used as weapons against LGBTI people, weapons that cause injustice, needless suffering, cruelty, poverty, suicide and murder?  Why do they go so far as to demand that not only religious laws and teachings, but also that civil laws also be used as weapons of persecution and injustice?  What business is it of these religious leaders to meddle in hospital visitations, funeral arrangements, inheritance, medical insurance, legal relationships, parenting decisions, and so on? 


Much of the this material in this installment is based on, or quoted from, an excellent explanation of the Midrash of Daniel the Tailor found on pages 69-71 of Essential Essays on Judaism by Elizer Berkovits, edited by David Hazony, copyright 2002, Shalem Press.

An excellent discussion applying the Midrash of Daniel the Tailor to LGBTI people can be found on pages 211-214 of Wresting With G-d and Man, Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, by Rabbi Steven Greenberg, copyright 2004, University of Wisconsin Press.

See also:  The Soncino Midrash Rabbah, Judaic Classics by David Kantrowitz, Version 3.0.8, Copyright 1991-2004, Davka Corporation.  

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