A Small Organ of Great Consequence: On the Harmful Conflation of Sexual Immorality with Identity
We have in our bodies two small organs discussed in religious literature. One is described as hungry — and can be overindulged. The other is described as a small fire, “a world of evil,” and as the rudder of the ship — a very small rudder which steers the large ship driven by strong winds. But which is which?
I’m a sexuality and relationship educator for a group of middle school students using a comprehensive curriculum called Our Whole Lives (OWL) where inclusion and justice matter. As in many Sex Ed curriculums, we focused on the shape and size of that “small (reproductive) organ.” Students constructed models with recycled arts and crafts. We taught there is diversity in shapes, sizes, and appearance among all people. Also, the appearance of our reproductive system at birth is not necessarily indicative of our gender identity, nor does it determine sexual attraction and orientation. In the next lesson, our young people discussed “tacos,” “peaches,” and “eggplants” among other more colorful words, as we explored language around sexuality.
If my students who are familiar with religious language, had to take a guess between the two small organs, they might say that the first (relating to hunger) would be the tongue and, well, they would giggle or squirm uncomfortably before finding a euphemism for the “rudder” of the ship.
But the opposite is true.
In the Oral Torah, this idea of the small, hungry organ is described this way:
“Rabbi Yohanan said: A man has a small organ used in sexual relations. If he starves the organ, and does not overindulge, it is satiated; however, if he satiates the organ and overindulges in sexual relations, it is starving, and desires more, as it is stated: ‘When they were fed, they became full, they were filled, and their heart was exalted; therefore they have forgotten Me.’ (Hosea 13:6).” (Sukkah 52b)
No one can deny that our sexuality carries with it a hunger (or lack of) and there can be consequences to how we manage that hunger. One consequence may be a certain type of indulgence that leads to forgetting — perhaps about God, or, for the less religiously inclined, as a forgetting to love our partners or ourselves.
By contrast, the tongue receives a much more colorful description in the literature:
“So also the tongue is a small organ, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of evil; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the wheel of birth, and is itself set on fire by hell…no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God.” (James 3:5–9)
This sounds a bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but fair warning to those who appear respectable and use their tongue to bless the Lord — then go and curse those made in the image of God. This small fire of the tongue sets alight a world of evil by our members. It spreads like wildfire into staggering psychological harm and physical acts of violence. One thing is certain: Violence spreads from the pulpit to the people.
Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigations show that the vast majority of hate crimes are based on religious intolerance, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation/gender identity. In 2016, the New York Times ran an article: L.G.B.T. People Are More Likely to Be Targets of Hate Crimes Than Any Other Minority Group. These statistics change year-by-year, with Jewish (and Muslim), African American (and Latino), and LGBTQ+ people being victims of violent crimes. Each of these groups have been falsely accused of sexual immorality in different and intersecting ways. The conflation of sexual immorality with a person’s identity causes deep and lasting harm.
Sexuality and language are two creative powers of the body. But between the small “hungry” organ and the tongue that is a “world of evil,” the uncontrollable tongue may be the small organ of greatest consequence. These creative organs can be integrated when we live and speak our truth. Empowered by something invisible to the eye, fabulous queer, trans, non-binary, lesbian, bi and gay people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs find a way to share their stories, despising the shame of false accusation. So, I say: blessed are you who live and speak in the truth. Yours is a faith that gives humanity hope that Love is Love.