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Whose Religion Is It, Anyway?

"AND BEHOLD, it was in the last year of the reign of King Derek when the people of Israel went astray. They followed false political paths and forsook their convenant with the God of Abraham. And lo, there arose in the land two prophets, and they were righteous men. They cried out unto the people of Israel, 'Repent! Betray not the Law and the teachings of your fathers!' And their names were called Kenneth D. DeGiorgio '93 and E. Adam Webb '93."

Although the Association Against Learning in the Absence of Religion and Morality (AALARM) may deny it, few scholars place the Book of Adam and Ken within the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, AALARM co-presidents now claim that their organization, by means of its homophobia, is the true defender of Jewish values at Harvard. DeGiorgio and Webb have done nothing less than attempt to undermine the independent voice of the campus Jewish community.

PROMPTED by AALARM's recent postering campaign, the Coordinating Council of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel last Thursday condemned AALARM's "implied contempt for homosexuals and all attacks on homosexual members of the undergraduate community."

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AALARM struck back. In yesterday's Crimson, Webb and DeGiorgio called Hillel's criticism "misguided." They claimed that their opposition to Hillel's resolution places AALARM, and not Hillel, on the side of the "Jewish value structure."

Hillel Coordinating Council--bogus Judaism. AALARM--authentic Judaism. Got that?

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According to the Book of Adam and Ken, "The very idea of homosexuality is anathema to the Jewish faith...AALARM, in this instance, is the more sincere advocate of the Jewish value structure than the 'Jewish Center' at Harvard."

Until yesterday, few realized that E. Adam Webb was an authoritative expositor of Jewish values. And for good reason.

THERE ARE TWO basic ways to analyze what is or is not a tenet of Judaism or a Jewish value. One is to study traditional Jewish texts. The other is to see Judaism as the culture of a people, the Jews, and see what their values actually are. Either way, the idea that Webb and DeGiorgio could over-rule Hillel's Coordinating Council is ludicrous.

First, consider the textual method. In support of their contention that Hillel's opposing attacks on gays and lesbians violates Judaism, Webb and DeGiorgio invoke the "the Old Testament and the Talmud." (Imagine my surprise at discovering that E. Adam Webb was a learned Talmudic scholar. I didn't even know that he could read Aramaic.)

As it happens, the range of Jewish religious opinion on homosexuality is very broad. Some movements within Judaism, notably the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, not only accept homosexuality but also ordain gay men and lesbian women as rabbis.

At the other extreme, conservative legalists prohibit acts of male (though not female) homosexual intercourse. Yet even they do not make derogatory reference to gay and lesbian people, something AALARM's postering did. This distinction between act and actor, under which persons are respected even when their deeds are not, has been part of Jewish law for as long as rabbis have written. (For one early Talmudic example, see the Mishna, Berakhot 10a).

It is true that a reader of the Torah could find homophobic regulations in the text. But virtually no question of Jewish law is settled by literal application of the Torah, as Webb and DeGiorgio would have it. Traditional Jewish scholars spend years and lifetimes arguing the meanings of every sentence. It is from those discussions that Jewish law is made.

Jewish tradition has reinterpreted many undesirable passages of biblical text. For example, the Torah enumerates many offenses that should incur capital punishment--among them eating bread on Passover or showing excessive disrespect to one's parents. Yet no Jewish community has carried out such executions in thousands of years. (Israeli law has no death penalty.) Today, Jewish legal scholars can argue that penalties for homosexuality should be similarly ignored.

NEARLY 1200 years ago, a Jewish sect known as the Karaites tried to reject the tradition of rabbinic interpretation in favor of literal readings of original text. Finding this approach fundamentally un-Jewish, the Jewish community banished Karaism. Exegesis, discussion and reinterpretation are central to Jewish tradition. AALARM's co-presidents would have the Jewish community abandon that tradition and replace it with a literal devotion to translated text, something notably representative of certain Protestant sects.

And here we approach the root of the problem. Note Webb and DeGiogio's statement that "Hillel claims to represent one segment of the Judeo-Christian tradition upon which our society and many others are based." Indeed, Hillel does work within--and add to--the Jewish tradition. But Hillel is not a Judeo-Christian organization. It is a Jewish organization. There is a difference.

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