Parashat Ahare Mot

Reading The Prohibition Against Homosexuality In Context

The sexual relationships forbidden by the Torah are intended to prohibit non-Israelite religious practices and abuses of power, not committed, loving relationships of any gender.

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Let's assume further that a good and loving God would not create certain people to face the awful choice between permanent loneliness and loyalty to Torah--I cannot accept that the God of Israel's Redemption would not love all those who are created in God's Image.

So how then do we interpret, or re-interpret, these verses, which apparently deny gay and lesbian Jews even the possibility of affirmation? Dr. Avi Rose, a psychologist and Jewish educator (and sometimes Kolel faculty), reviews current thinking about the historical context of this verse in a lovely and moving essay in the anthology ReCREATIONS.

Dr. Rose notes, for example, that the prohibitions on homosexuality occur in the context of rules forbidding Israelites from copying the religious practices of other nations. Furthermore, he quotes scholars who show that other ancient nations did, in fact, engage in rituals with temple prostitutes "of both genders." The word for "abhorrent act," to'evah, may be specifically related to non-Israelite religious practice.

Another possibility is that the Torah is specifically forbidding relationships between grown men and boys. This would make more sense as an ethical rule, given that children can never be considered truly consenting in sexual relationships.

What seems clear to me is that this text in Leviticus could not have been prohibiting long-term, loving, open, committed relationships between people of the same genders--because such relationships were probably inconceivable to the Torah's human editors. Instead, the Torah seems to be talking about sex in the context of non-Israelite religious practices, or abusive uses of power, or some kind of sexual contact outside established, consensual relationships.

In other words, the Torah is probably prohibiting the kind of sexual behaviors a contemporary Jewish ethic might posit as problematic for any religious and ethically sensitive Jew, gay or straight. By looking at both historical context and making plain our theological assumptions, one may thus find the seeds of ethical guidance and holiness of deed in even the most difficult and controversial passage.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.