It’s the Purity, Stupid: Reading Leviticus in Context

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, Jay Michaelson looks at the Levitical prohibitions around purity – including the ones related to homosexuality – and finds that ethics and morality have nothing to do with them.

Creative Common/sea turtle

Creative Common/sea turtle

For gay and lesbian Jews, parshat
Acharei Mot
contains some of the most infamous passages of the Torah, but the preceding two,
(usually read together as a “double portion”) contain some of the most obscure. In these portions, we learn about the laws of leprosy (actually
, a skin disease similar to it but different in various ways), seminal emissions, and menstruation; here we are told the detailed method of sin-offerings and wave-offerings, and the methods of purity and contamination. Few people spend much time poring over the vivid anatomical and biological details of Tazria-Metzora. And yet, how can we understand the meaning of the Levitical sexual prohibitions without a sense of their immediate context?

In fact, while today one hears all sorts of expedient pseudo-rationales for why “homosexuality” is prohibited in Leviticus 18, a review of the preceding eight chapters reveals an agenda entirely different from those usually proffered in our times.

The extended
(topical section) to which Tazria and Metzora belong begins in the previous parsha, Shemini, which describes how the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, brought “strange fire” (eish zarah, which can also be translated as “foreign fire”) into the tabernacle, and were destroyed. The Hebrew text, in the first verses of Leviticus 10, is actually a bit ambiguous as to what happens; it’s not clear whether God sends out a fire to destroy the young priests, or whether they are consumed by their own creation. But the response is clear: a “team meeting” between Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s remaining sons, in which new rules are set forth for regulating priestly behavior and maintaining the purity of the Israelite nation. In the context of what archeologists tell us regarding the cultic practices of ancient Canaan, which were varied, syncretic, and often ecstatic in nature, Leviticus 10:9-11 is perhaps most important. There, God says directly to Aaron: