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.
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
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.