A Jewish Perspective on Homosexuality

on Thursday, 10 February 2011. Posted in Rabbi Marshall's Sermons

V’et zachar, lo tishkav mish’kvei isha; toevah hu. Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is a taboo.[1] As the Marriage Equality Bill will be signed by Governor Gregoire as early as possibly tomorrow, I wanted to explore and interpret one of the passages in the Tanakah that has been recited against gays and lesbians and has caused families and communities such pain.

           

V’et zachar, lo tishkav mish’kvei isha; toevah hu. Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is a taboo. First, this verse must be read in context. The chapters before it forbid avodah zara, foreign forms of worship, which are considered toevah, taboo. God doesn’t want the Israelites to imitate the behaviors of other nations. We read: When you come into the land which the Eternal your God gives you, you shall not learn to do the toevot of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or who uses divination, or is a fortune teller, or an enchanter, or a witch…. For all who do these things are toevah to the Eternal.[2] Six other verses identify idolatry, child sacrifice, witchcraft, and other “foreign” practices as toevah[3]. This section of the Torah is about setting the Israelites apart through cultic purity, and the prohibition of foreign actions which contaminated it. A toevah, taboo, confuses the distinction God is trying to set. These verses are not about “homosexuality,” not about what is natural, not morality. No, the context is the distinction between Israelite and Canaanite rituals. As we shall soon see, it is that violent male penetration is taboo for Israelites.

Let us examine the Hebrew further: “Vet zachar…” The word et is                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          untranslatable, but it suggests something humiliating done to or at a man. If the prohibition meant something other than degradation, it would have said im adam - "with" a man, not et adam, "to" or "at" a man.  This verse is better rendered “And to a man you shall not lie….” Thus only male-male sex acts characterized as being done et adam, forcibly at a man, are forbidden.

Leviticus 18 is only about sexual violence and humiliation. In the misogynistic, ancient-Greek culture of the Torah, being sexually penetrated was a form of degradation. Penetration was something done to a person, not with them—a form of humiliation. To be in this category was to be demeaned; in most cultures, it included only women, slaves and non-adult boys. Ancient Judaism extended the sphere of moral consideration, and said that no man should be “womanized.” This verse demands that this degradation never be visited upon another man. Where penetration has none of the earmarks of violence or humiliation, the prohibition does not apply.

Lesbian sexual activity, incidentally, is not mentioned at all in the Torah. It was treated very lightly by the Talmudic rabbis (as a form of "mere lewdness," akin to wearing a bikini) and was not proscribed until much later in Jewish history.

 

The verses prohibiting this toevah address activities, not sexual identities. The Bible does not forbid homosexuality. “Homosexuality” is a modern term, referring not only to sexual acts, but to a sexual orientation, an identity.   In biblical times, the possibility that same sex couples could establish stable, monogamous, loving relationships and even have children was non-existent. To say “the Bible forbids homosexuality” is as ridiculous as saying “the Bible forbids the internet.” Neither are part of the biblical worldview.[4]

And yet, we do have instances of same-sex romantic love in the Tanakh. In the David and Jonathan story, the two make a lifetime pact openly, they meet secretly and kiss each other, shed copious tears at parting, proclaim that love for the other surpasses his love for women, and publically display love.[5] And it is this romance which prepares David for his ascent to kingship. Their passionate love seals the transmission of the Davidic monarchy and shapes the messianic redemption.

Here is a biblical universe with multiple configurations of sexuality.[6] While a modern conception of homosexuality did not exist in biblical times, we do have a touching story of one man’s love for another and every reason to believe that it was a homosexual relationship.

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But Rabbi, some might say, “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” We’ve heard the cliché, and we’ve heard the claim that male and female are at the heart of God’s plan for the world—that heterosexuality is the only natural sexuality. But, homosexuality is present in hundreds of animal species, and in every culture in the world. Sexual diversity is the rule, not the exception. And even the story of Adam and Eve isn’t as simple as it sounds.[7] The pairing of Adam and Eve was the solution to a problem. God creates humans but then has to tinker with the original plan because of the first flaw God finds. What is the flaw? // Loneliness. “It is not good for the human being to be alone,” God says in Genesis 2:18. This is a shocking pronouncement; six times God has remarked how good everything is: light, heaven and earth, stars, plants, animals—all of these are “good.” Yet suddenly God realizes that something is not good—the condition of being alone. God presents Adam with every animal in the world but none suffices. As Jay Michaelson asserts, this story validates the importance of human love and companionship in all its forms.[8]

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Our Tanakh contains 4 verses out of a possible 27,570 which forbid male-to-male violent penetration. The rest of our sacred texts teach the values that loving partnerships heal the primary flaw in creation, they command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” that sexual diversity is natural and a part of the Eternal’s creation, and moreover, that inequality is an affront to Jewish values. Critics like to say that homosexuality is just about sex, but sexuality is about so much more than that—it’s about love. How we love, whom we love, how open we are with the channels of love in our lives. And when those channels are blocked, deep emotional pain wracks us. If the Eternal creates sexual diversity, and is a loving God, can Leviticus 18 possibly mean to proscribe loving, committed relationships?

 

In addition, by understanding these verses as a product of their place and time, we recognize that we have evolved morally, widening our sphere of consideration, and becoming more tolerant. There are instances of the Rabbis deciding that certain laws no longer apply (such as the law of the sotah, a woman accused of adultery who was commanded to swallow poison). Judaism is a tradition of evolution and growth which builds on new understandings as we more deeply comprehend that our fundamental ethics support, rather than oppose equality for sexual minorities.

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There are many ways to address problematic texts. We can ignore them. We can understand them as a product of their time and place, less relevant to us today. We can dissect the Hebrew and look at concordant words to reach a more nuanced understanding. This Shabbat, our exploration uncovered that the word toevah, often translated as abomination, really is an effort to discourage Israelites from following Canaanite customs. The word et refers only to sexual violence and humiliation, not to homosexuality or lesbian relationships. We recalled the Eternal’s assertion that loving partnerships heal the primary flaw in creation, and we reiterated our recognition of the Torah as a product of its place and time.

An understanding of these verses and our tradition’s teachings about loving partnerships enables us to consider whether our scripture dictates the intolerance that many claim it does. At Shabbat services in two weeks, we will further explore the intersection of religion and politics. Together we will seek to better understand political justifications for law. Today, may we hold in our hearts the affirmation that as humans and Jews, we have evolved in our acceptance to embrace a spectrum of loving partnerships, and may we also feel pride that our Torah demands that we grant others equal civil and social privileges, and extend compassion and caring to all of Divine creation.

Shabbat Shalom.



[1] Leviticus 18:22.

[2] Leviticus 18:9-12.

[3] Deut. 12:31, 13:14, 17:4, 20:18, 27:15, 32:16.

[4] Jay Michaelson, God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, Beacon Press: Boston, 2011, 11.

[5] Tom Horner, Jonathan Loved David, 27-28.

[6] Michaelson, 101.

[7] Michaelson, 4-5.

[8] Ibid, 6.