Monday, 4 May 2015

A Love That Has Been Discussed For Millennia

The USA is celebrating American-Jewish Heritage month throughout May. Many people of Jewish heritage have been instrumental in the development of the lgbt community and fight for gay rights. Among them are Harvey Milk and Magnus Hirschfield. I’ll write several articles throughout May to celebrate the varied contributions to the world made by lgbt people of Jewish heritage.

One cannot mention Jewish heritage without thinking about the Holocaust, the darkest hour in Jewish history. Gay Jews were doubly persecuted, and their sacrifices left a legacy to the lgbt community in the symbol of their persecution, the pink triangle.

Going back into early Jewish history there’s a story of the love between two men which has divided opinion for centuries and is often put forward as Biblical support for same-sex relationships. These two men was David and Jonathan.

The names of David and Jonathan have been used euphemistically to indicate various states of same-sex relationship – homosocial (a strong bromance), homoerotic (physical, platonic attraction), and homosexual (full physical, sexual relationship). It should be remembered, however, that most of the opinions about David and Jonathan’s relationship have been interpreted through 2000 years of Christian doctrine. Few Jewish scholars left any opinion at all until the last hundred years.

I’m sure everyone has their own opinion about the exact nature of the relationship. This opinion may well be based on nothing more than the word of others or a fleeting reference in an lgbt publication. It’s a complicated matter to resolve, as all historians and theologians have discovered.

If you’d like to get a better idea for yourself and form a clearer opinion (or perhaps confuse you even more) may I make a suggestion? How many of you have actually read the Biblical account of the story of David and Jonathan? Have a look at it. It doesn’t matter of you’re an atheist of non-Christian/Jewish. You’re not reading it for spiritual guidance or for any religious reason. You’re reading it to get to know what is actually written. After all, how many adults have read the Harry Potter children’s book series? So, grab a Bible. Turn to the Old Testament and read the book of Samuel. Find a good modern version, as it is more likely to be based on original ancient texts than on Medieval translations of earlier Medieval translations of even earlier translations.

Historians, theologians and academics have a difficult time interpreting the story within its historical and cultural context because so little information has survived. I’m not surprised if the average lgbt person is confused. However, several prominent academics have come out if favour of a gay relationship between David and Jonathan, whether it’s homosocial, homoerotic or homosexual. Even Oscar Wilde referred to them in support of “the love that dare not speak its name”.

A major supporter in favour of a physical, sexual relationship was the gay historian John Boswell (1947-1994). In both of his major works (“Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century”, 1980, and “The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe”, 1995) Boswell discusses some of the ancient texts that are used to support the Biblical relationship.

For the most comprehensive study of the evidence and texts there is probably no better place to go than the “Epistle” website. This site contains several dozen articles by one of the unsung pioneers in the specific study of the David and Jonathan relationship. The articles were written by Bruce Linden Gerig (1936-2012), another gay historian and a practicing Christian. He spent many decades researching the subject. His articles can be found here. Gerig is never clear about his own opinion but he sets out a vast amount of material which supports several different viewpoints.

Whether they’re religious or atheist, many lgbt activists have used the example of the relationship between David and Jonathan to support legislation of same-sex unions. Just as many have suggested evidence to support the opposite. The debate will continue for many centuries yet, I imagine, but it shows just how important Jewish heritage is, not only in modern discussions on same-sex marriage but also in discussions on the religious acceptance (or otherwise) of homosexuality, and of modern interpretations of ancient texts and cultures.

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