Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbi Steve Greenberg deciphers deeper meaning in what appear to be the Levitical prohibitions of homosexuality.
The paired Torah portions of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27) are, in gay Jewish terms, the “scene of the crime.” In these two portions are the two verses that are traditionally understood to excoriate gay male sex. In 1969 they were, as well, my bar mitzvah portion. At the age of 13 I had no idea that this double parasha would come to mean so much to me. By the time Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 came to have their full caustic power on my life, I was a closeted Orthodox rabbi living in Riverdale, New York, and involved in my first gay relationship. The high wire anxiety of this time led me to a showdown of sorts. I needed to make some sense of my life in light of these verses in order to continue in good faith, not only as an Orthodox rabbi, but as a committed Jew.
I spent roughly the next ten years working on the emotional, intellectual, legal and spiritual ramifications of these two verses. My efforts eventually became a book released in 2004 and entitled, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.
The task was especially difficult because there is little controversy in the rabbinic tradition on the meaning of Leviticus 18:22. While it is translated in various ways, the basic meaning has always seemed pretty clear: “And with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman, it is an abomination.” The only difficult phrase is mishkeve isha (usually parsed as “the lyings of a woman”), because the phrase appears nowhere else in the Bible. A similar phrase, the lying of a male (mishkav zachar), appears in Numbers 31:18 and is understood to mean what women experience in intercourse, i.e. penile penetration. Consequently, mishkeve isha is what men experience in intercourse, that is, penile engulfment. If so, then the verse prohibits a man from lying with a male in such a way that his penis is engulfed in the other man’s body. And where is a man penetrable? Here the rabbis make use of the fact that the word lyings is in the plural form. The lyings of a woman are plural because she may be penetrated vaginally or anally. A man, missing the vagina, is singly penetrable anally. Consequently, for millennia the tradition understood that Leviticus 18:22 prohibited anal intercourse between men and Leviticus 20:13 reiterated and punished the crime with death by stoning.
By far the most intriguing element of the puzzle is the fact that lesbian relations are totally unaddressed in the Torah. The only explanation of this lacuna is that the Torah is utterly uninterested in “homosexuality” per se. The sameness of the sex (homo = same) that so dominates contemporary thought in regard to homosexuality is missing here. Instead, there is something about anal sex between men that is at the center of the biblical concern. Of course the obvious question is just this: Why does the Torah consider anal sex between men to be such a problem?
In his Torah Queeries essay of last week, Jay Michaelson suggests that the prohibitions described in this section of the Torah are about cultic purity and forbidding maasei mitzrayim, acts of Egypt – actions that are taboo for Israelites. According to Michaelson, sex between men is a ritual prohibition like eating pork or shrimp, which in a contemporary context pretty much fails to impress any but the most traditional of Jews. However attractive this approach might seem to some, in my view it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The transgressions enumerated in chapter 18 of Leviticus were indeed understood not only to be common among Egyptians, but to be the epitome of wickedness. As Jacob Milgrom in his work on Leviticus powerfully demonstrates, immorality is cultic impurity. The punishment for both ritual and moral violations of the sacred order – whether contamination of the Temple by contact with the dead, or the oppression of the orphan and widow – is exile from the land. Sexual violations are defiling in chapter 18 not merely because they improperly mix fluids, but because they are deemed to be immoral.
So then, what sort of moral argument can be made for the prohibition of sex between men?
One of the best avenues for understanding the meaning of any law is an exploration of the stories that provide the law with narrative contexts. There are a number of rabbinic readings that discover homosexual relations in the book of Genesis where one would not necessarily expect to find them. For example, Noah’s son Ham does not merely see his father naked and drunk in his tent, but either castrates or anally rapes his father. Rape of the father (or the father’s wife, as happens later in Israel’s monarchic history) is a violence short of patricide that could propel a son into the father’s role.
Of course, the most overt biblical narrative depicting male-male sexual relations is the story of the destruction of Sodom. Surprisingly, neither the later prophets who use Sodom as a symbol of evil nor the rabbis of the Talmud portray Sodom as a den of sexual iniquity. The city is singled out instead for cruelty, for the refusal to care for the poor, for inhumanity to strangers, inhospitality and violence. Sodom was no more about sexual license than were the humiliations of the prisoners of Abu Ghraib in our own time. The aim of the people of Sodom, according to the rabbis, was humiliation as punishment or sport, but not sexual fulfillment. Read in this way, the verse in Leviticus 18 might well be prohibiting sex as an expression of power and humiliation while leaving sex between committed and loving partners permitted.
Moreover, this understanding of the verse actually fits the chapter well. The chapter is dominated by rules against incest, the violation of which makes the family a dangerous place. Incest is essentially experienced by its victims as a form of violence and abuse made utterly invisible to the outside world. Adultery violates stated commitments, and in pre-modern contexts typically led to violence. Intercourse with a menstruant woman has the look of violence, and the child sacrificial rituals of Molech were pure violence.
Understood in this light, the verse in Leviticus 18 might reasonably be prohibiting the use of penetrative sex as a tool of humiliation and domination while leaving open the acceptance of a committed loving relationship between two men. And this may be why there is no direct biblical prohibition of lesbian relations in the Torah. Women are simply not capable of penetrative aggression. My proposed, albeit radical, interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 is then: “And a male you shall not sexually penetrate to humiliate; it is abhorrent.”
However, this interpretation of the prohibition poses a problem. If the text is condemning power-driven, humiliating or violent sex then it should surely only punish the penetrating partner of such a dyad. The verse in Chapter 18 works well with this reading since it only prohibits the activity of the penetrating partner and says nothing about the penetrated partner. But Leviticus 20:13 holds both parties liable. “If a man lies with a male the lyings of a woman, the two of them have done an abomination, they shall be put to death — their bloodguilt is upon them.” If in prison, for example, the strong and aggressive men take advantage of the weaker of their fellows and enforce sustained relationships of individual or gang rape, how is the victim to be blamed?
Remarkably, it is the Talmud itself that asks this question. The rabbis read chapter 18 as the warning and chapter 20 as the punishment. So why, they ask, are both parties punished but only the penetrative party warned? The answer according Rabbi Ishmael is found in the verse: “There shall not be a kadesh among the children of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 23:18) There is considerable debate among biblical scholars as to what a a kadesh is. Among the more common interpretations is that the male kadesh and the female kedesha served as prostitutes in pagan temple rituals. According to Rabbi Ishmael, the kadesh is the receptive male who has sex with other males as a part of a pagan rite. Consequently, there are actually two separate prohibitions in regard to male-male sex, one prohibiting aggressive violent power-driven penetrative intercourse and another prohibiting a pagan sexual practice of temple prostitution.
What is left open and unlegislated by these verses then are the sort of sexual relations that occur without violence or humiliation and are not associated with the dramaturgy of pagan rites but are marked instead by intimacy and love, care and commitment … in other words, holiness.