The next time you hear about a terrible earthquake, there will surely be an aftermath -not only in the tectonic movements of the Earth- but also in the Jewish news. After every earthquake you will hear a homophobic rabbi say, “It is because of the Gays that this or that earthquake occured.” Why? Because it is written in the Talmud!
I would like to use this anecdote as an exercise to explain what I call “cherry-picking in the sea of the Talmud” and to show how dangerous, harmful and foolish such declarations are.
Let’s start by Googling. Enter “Gays,” “LGBTQ,” “Rabbi” and “earthquakes” in your search engine and you will find declarations like the one above from Rabbi Shlomo Amar (add the year) , Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu (2023), Rabbi Meir Mazuz (2020) and Rabbi Yehuda Levin (2011). These are not unknown rabbis, ignorant rabbis or rabbis on the margins of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox community. Most of them are extremely popular and influential rabbis with important positions in Israeli society (and even with paid salaries from the Israeli government). All of them would say that they are not homophobic but that they are merely “quoting” what the Talmud “says,” and if “the Talmud says so” it is the unquestionable divine truth.
A Blessing for Earthquakes
Let’s use this opportunity to teach a little bit about what the Talmud has to say on the subject of earthquakes.All Talmudic discussions about earthquakes originate in the Mishnah (Brakhot 9:2). The Mishnah prescribes that upon seeing or experiencing an unusual natural scene or event we should make a blessing. For example, upon seeing zikin (shooting stars) or experiencing zevaot (earthquakes) the Mishnah directs us to pronounce the following blessing: “Baruch Ata Adonai SheKocho uGevurato Male Olam (Blessed are You Adonai whose strength and power fill the world).” Anyone who has experienced and survived an earthquake can surely say that they felt the immense strength and power of nature (or God, in the Jewish understanding), and for that we have this blessing to express our deepest feelings.
Later, the Talmud (b. Brachot 54a) continues to discuss this issue. According to the opinion of Rabbah, we should say (or add) still another blessing when we experience an earthquake: “Baruch Ata Adonai Ose Maase Bereshit (Blessed are You Adonai who reenacts the work of creation).” The comment of this rabbi creates a whole series of discussions and debates in the halakhic (jewish legal) literature. For example the Rambam in his Mishnah Torah (Blessings 10:14) states that it is preferable to say, “whose strength and power fill the world,” but that if someone wants to say the other blessing he or she may choose to do so. The Raavad, a famous commentator of the Halakhic Code of the Rambam, says that we shouldn’t choose between the two blessings but rather that we should say both blessings, one following the other.
The “Reasons” Behind an Earthquake
I have discussed thus far what the Talmud and the Halakha have to say about earthquakes. What about the Aggada (the non-legal material of the Talmud). What about Jewish lore and theology? Where does homosexuality play a role in earthquakes in these sources?
If we look at the Babylonian Talmud (Brachot 59a), the Talmud that we usually study and upon which we base our laws, we find unanimous agreement – something unusual indeed – that the main cause of earthquakes is “when the Holy One, Blessed be He, remembers His children who are suffering among the nations of the world, He sheds two tears into the great sea. The sound of their reverberation is heard from one end of the earth to the other. And that is an earthquake.” According to this dominant position, earthquakes are a consequence of God’s heavenly suffering because of the poor state of dispersion and oppression of His people. The rabbis disagree only on how exactly God produces earthquakes. Some say it is because he cries and the ocean overflows, others say it is because he claps in distress, and still others argue it is because he kicks the “base” of the earth and everything trembles. Up to this point there is no correlation between homosexuality and earthquakes.
It is in the Jerusalem Talmud (Brakhot 9:2) that we will find the purported basis of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis’ connection between homosexuality and earthquakes. In this version of the Talmud, following the same discussion of the Mishnah about what blessing is to be said (and adding that according to some authorities the Shofar should be blown after an earthquake), the editors (?) offers four different opinions about the origin of earthquakes:
- Rabbi Nehorai says that they are due to the sin of Trumah and Maasrot (heave and tithes). Today This is the equivalent of saying earthquakes occur because people do not give enough Tzedakah or do not pay their fair share of taxes.
- Elijah the prophet (yes – Heplays a role in the Talmud discussion!) says earthquakes occur because of the prevalence of theaters and circuses: “if the Holy One, praise Him, sees theaters and circuses existing in safety and quiet, but His temple is destroyed, He is menacing His world to destroy it.” The rabbis despised the Greco-Roman love of theaters and circuses; they saw such things as promiscuous, violent and meaningless. Maybe like today they will be talking about the amount of time we spend on tick tock rather than studying.
- Rabbi Aha, and now it comes, is the one who says that earthquakes happen due to gay anal sex: “The Holy One, praise to Him, said: You made your member tremble for something that is not for you; by your life, I shall make My world tremble because of that man.”
- And finally, the general rabbinic opinion is that earthquakes occur because of quarrels (Machlokot), in that people (especially rabbis) are not unified but rather have different opinions and follow different laws.
We have seen here that the Talmud offers five “theological” explanations of the origin of earthquakes. Neither one of them are scientific analysis or eternal truths but rather emotional and metaphoric responses of our rabbis of what they perceived back then different mistakes, sins or even their own suffering. Our rabbis are not God and they couldn’t understand the real origin and reason behind these earthquakes, like prophet Isiaiah famously said: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (55:8-9). But still they try to make sense, they give their own human and mortal opinion of why these terrible earthquakes occur. Some say that is due to God’s suffering because of the poor condition of the Jewish people, other because people don´t pay their Temple taxes as they should, other because people waste time in the circuses and theaters rather than praying in the synagogues or studying Torah, other because of the all the quarrels among the (jewish) people and the lack of unity… and still other say it is due to gay anal sex. Yes, it is true. There is one opinion (is not THE TALMUD) among the many opinions in the Talmud, the opinion of a single rabbi called Aha, that correlates gay sex with eartquakes… why? Because he saw this as a great sin and he thought that a good idea to discourage this type of forbidden sex was to say “be careful because if you put your penis in the wrong place (pardon my language) God will shake the world”.
But why frequently (for not saying always) in modernity ultra orthodox rabbis only quote this last opinion and not the others? Why do they quote the Jerusalem Talmud rather than the Babylonian Talmud in this regard? And why in the Jerusalem Talmud they chose to quote more prominently the opinion of a single rabbi rather than the opinion of the majority of the Rabbis? Why the opinion of Rabbi Aha and not the most accredited opinion of Elijah the prophet? Why? Because they are homophobic and they are just cherry picking in the Talmud to prove their point. Is ok, we all cherry pick from our tradition to emphasize what we are and what we think… but at least we need to be honest.
How to read Aggada
And one more very important methodological point: since the medieval times the Geonim and Rishonim stated once and again that we shouldn´t take as an “eternal truth”, neither as a “catechism” or science the non-legal passages of the Talmud. In matters of jewish law, halacha, we must follow the dynamic, rulings and argumentations of our blessed rabbis, but in every other matter are just their own (sometimes very deep and meaningful) opinions. They were rabbis, teachers, masters, but neither angels, prophets or God. They were human, very human. They express their opinions based on the context of their times, the science of their times and their own inner feelings and opinions… we may study their quotes and ideas, we should meditate on them but we are not obligated to take them as truth. Sometimes we can honestly and openly disagree with their beliefs, their opinions and their science.
It is well established in the “rational school” of Jewish that since medieval times that Aggada is not a “revealed truth” and is not binding. More recently Rabbi Moshe Hauer stated in more eloquent words: “The problem with how we read Aggada today is that our approach, instead of being idiomatic, is idiotic.” People are just dumb (pardon my language again) if everything they read from the Aggada they just quoted without understanding their context, their pretext and it´s (many times) more metaphorical or even philosophical language. The Rambam in the XII in his Perek Chelek already established that we can´t take everything the Bible or the Talmud says as literal, neither as a false statement, but rather we need to consider each statement based on our own reasoning and the science of the day. Not every statement could be just “copy paste”.
When an ultra orthodox rabbi just “quote” the Talmud to blame the LGBTQ community for eartquakes or the Zionist movement for the Shoah they are not just quoting the Talmud, they are cherry picking one of the (probably) many opinions of the Talmud about a specific subject and turning into a everlasting truth were it was just one opinion… The emphasis in blayiming the LGBTQ community of different natural distasters is not the trend of the Jewish overwhelmed tradition but rather shows the homophobic approach of many current Jewish leaders in the ultra orthodox community… and this is very harmful and arrogant. “Show me what you quote and I will tell you who you are» we may even say. So arrogant is the idea that we can understand why God brings an earthquake and state it out loud that this can even produce an earthquake according to Avot d´Rabbi Natan (9:3) itself!.
Let´s review now in which way this kind of statements are harmful:
- It´s harmful to the LGBTQ community. They become the scapegoat to explain terrible natural disasters like the Jewish people have being targeted at other moments in our history.
- It’s harmful to the Talmud because any person who reads these “mis”quotes will think that this is what the Talmud is all about and not a beautiful, rich and deep source of thinking, discussions, legal reasoning and amazing stories.
- It’s harmful to the Jewish people. Is what the rabbis called “Hilul Hashem” because many non-jews will not be able to distinguish between what this rabbi say and will think that all the jewish people (or at least the jewish sources) support this crazy and hateful notion.
- It’s harmful for these same rabbis… because for many people all the other good writings, ideas or Torah that they may have is obliterated and put aside because of their aggressive and hateful comments towards the LGBTQ community.
Let’s finish with a very famous story from Chayim Soloveitchik. He was testing one of his students in his last rabbinic test before becoming a rabbi. And he asked him: what is the content of the fifth volume of the Shulchan Aruch? The surprised student said that that volume does not exist, that there are only Arba’ah Turim, four rows (volumes) of the famous Jewish legal code. Rabbi Soloveitchik at that moment said to his astonished student: indeed there is a fifth volume: is your sechel (common sense). When quoting the Jewish sources we need to use our rationality and our common sense! And also, there is still, I will humbly argue, a sixth volume: ahavah (love). When learning our sacred sources we need to use common sense, our rational understanding and love to know exactly how to interpret, what to say and how to say it.
Rabbi Uriel Romano
8 of Adar 5783