Eighteen Twenty-Two

Hebrew Calligraphy

Creative Commons/Nir Tober

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, Igael Gurin Malous examines the verses of Leviticus, read during Yom Kippur, most troubling to LGBT people.

Growing up I used to go to shul (synagogue) religiously, every Shabbat, every chag (festival), and every holiday. I prayed three times a day at yeshiva, got to services right when they started, and left only after they ended. I didn’t know a different way to behave.

It was around the age of 18 that I started realizing I was different from the other people around me, small things at first, the usual, really: how I interacted with other men, what I dreamt about, the kind of partner I wanted, etc. What it meant was that during Mincha (the afternoon service) of Yom Kippur I was confronted with the pasuk (Biblical verse) in Torah that hurt me the most. Leviticus 18:22:

ואת זכר לא תשכב משכבי אישה תועבה היא

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination.

I feared it like nothing else. Unable then to articulate the complex relationship I had with God and Judaism, my reaction to it every year was visceral: nausea, anger and pain. I tried reading other passages. I tried services that skipped the offending verse. I tried reading a book during the service. I tried stepping out of shul in protest right before the service. Eventually, I stopped going to shul altogether.

And then, a few years back while reading the brilliant work of Saussure, I realized that there is another way, a different way of reading things. Ferdinand De Saussure distinguished between two elements of language. He called them synchronic and diachronic. The diachronic element is chronological by its nature. A diachronic investigation of the word ‘man’ in the sentence ‘all men are equal’ will reveal the historical meanings of the word separately from the sentence and the other words around it. That way we can discuss how the word evolved, where it came from, its meaning and its relevance. A synchronic investigation of the word examines the word in relation to the sentence and the other words around it. The content and message of the sentence comes from that word in relation to the other words.