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The 'Old Testament' and Homophobia
Last uploaded : Monday 4th Aug 2003 at 00:11
Contributed by : Cay Philips


There have been, as usual, the litany of poisonous pronouncements in the British press this past month that target Israel, as well as Brian Sewell?s diatribe about Kashrut. Richard Ingrams, who earlier this year interpreted the worries amongst Diaspora Jewry about intermarriage as a form of racism, wrote in a recent column that he does not bother to read letters from people with ?Jewish sounding names? that he assumes are about his negative writings on Israel and Zionism.

However, nothing could quite prepare me -- or many rabbinic and journalistic colleagues -- for Brian Sewell?s column, ?Sex, the Bible and the real world.? (The London 'Evening Standard' newspaper, July 8 2003.) Written well nigh three weeks ago, you may wonder why I have taken this long to respond. To paraphrase a respected rabbi with whom I discussed the piece, I was so shocked by the article that I could not express myself, on paper or otherwise.

Sewell, an art critic by profession, is rightfully upset that a vicar, Dr Jeffrey John, has been rejected by the Anglican Authorities for promotion to Bishop because he is gay. I, too, was dismayed that Dr John was treated as a less-than-whole being because of his sexual proclivities.

Brian Sewell, however, goes on to blame the Jewish Old Testament for the attitude taken by the clerical authority that refused Dr John the post of Bishop of Reading. Proclaiming that the most restrictive and merciless attitudes emanate from the Jewish Bible, Sewell says, ?..why should we observe any instruction or prohibition advanced in the Old Testament on any matter: social, political, theological or sexual?? It gets worse. He goes on to say that Jesus was a far cry from his father, God -- ?irrational, vengeful, baneful and merciless?-- and that the Son of God was forgiving, merciful, forbearing, unlike the Jews, who, Sewell, says, ?were none of these.?

Frankly, it is difficult to convey the impact of Sewell?s prose. When he says that the Jews to whom Jesus preached were under Roman rule ?more unforgivingly Jewish than ever before? he sounds like those old ?farbisseners? one encountered in childhood haranguing Jewish Fifth Graders in my hometown.

Sewell also links the ungenerous attitude of the Anglican Authority to their having reversed the generosity of modern Christianity and reverted to ?the stifling folds of Jewish law and custom.?

Last week President Bush made clear his view on homosexuality and gay marriage. I doubt his sentiments arose from a chat with a rabbi. By the same token Mr Sewell may wish to note that Anglo-Jewry has produced some world-class rabbis who also happen to be regarded as part of the ?out? gay community, amongst them Lionel Blue and Mark Solomon. In fact, the Progressive Jewish movement has been far more liberal than the Anglicans in promoting those who are not living traditional lifestyles.

Sewell insults Orthodox Jewry by spitting at the idea of the Torah being divinely inspired. He asserts that the concept of divine inspiration is ?nonsense.?

Britain has a dynamic and exceptionally cynical press. I love it and am honoured to be a member of the profession. Sewell?s rantings, however, are frightening because his words reverberate with all of us who, at one time or another in our lives, have been at the receiving end of an angry Christian blaming us, the bloody Jews, for the fate of Jesus. At its worst, this anger has in past centuries spilled over into bloody pogroms, officially-sanctioned massacres and expulsions. I was pleased that Rabbi Julia Neuberger responded to Sewell?s article with an impassioned letter to the ?Evening Standard.? She stressed that she is not one to find an anti-Semite lurking in every corner but that she had to reply to the inaccurate and inflammatory Sewell piece. She was particularly offended by his description of the Old Testament as a ?compilation of convenient myth and a history of racial justification and aggrandisement? and chastises him for omitting the comforting figures of the prophets.

Readers may think we spend most of our time at JewishComment slamming British writers but the massive volume of material appearing every day is staggering. I am still trying to get through ?Rogue Nation? by Dr Vernon Coleman and have to keep putting it down, its poisonous text about America and Israel is so extreme. I suppose nothing has changed since the earliest days of the Norwich Blood Libel. The UK media may have an obsessive dislike of the mostly-Jewish ?neocons? surrounding George Bush but the fact that the neocons? religion is rarely mentioned in American papers indicates to me a maturity that does not yet exist in Old Europe. That Brian Sewell can connect the rejection of a gay vicar to a revival of Jewish attitudes evidently repudiated by past Christians is an appalling notion.

Despite Vernon Coleman?s assertions about the barbarity and stupidity of Americans, my fellow American journalists would never be so medieval as to ?blame the Jews? for a vicar?s misfortunes.

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