(Re)Reading Leviticus 18:22
May 17, 2004
Recently, a few readers have commented on my posts about gay marriage, wanting to know how I can reconcile my ardent Jewishness with my deep-seated support for GLBT rights both civil and religious.
One reader kindly requested that I read Leviticus 18:22, שאת-זכר לא תשכב משכבי אשה תִעבה הוא, "With a male you are not to lie (after the manner of) lying with a woman, it is an abomination." (transl. Everett Fox.) Here's the thing about that passage, though: different people translate it differently, both the actual words and the implications thereof.
Some interpret the passage literally, arguing that it says men must not lie with men, period, end-of-story. There's historical precedent for literal interpretation. But it seems to me that literalism is an all-or-nothing proposition. If one interprets that passage literally, one must also regard as טמא/tamei (ritually unclean) anyone who touches a weasel, a mouse, a gecko or monitor lizard. (Until sundown, anyway.) When a man dies without a son, the literalist must order his brother to marry the newly-widowed woman so she can bear a son in her deceased husband's name. These are, after all, the laws.
Most Jews today would argue instead that we should follow the reinterpretation of these laws established by the Rabbis and sages. The crowning achievement of the Rabbinic age was the shift from reading Torah literally (the Torah says we must sacrifice so many animals on such a date each year, therefore we must do so) to reading it metaphorically (since there is no Temple, we can fulfil the mitzvah by reading about the sacrifices instead). According to this mindset, halakhah evolves, and Torah can be reinterpreted to meet a changing world. That's the viewpoint I favor.
How do I reinterpret Leviticus 18:22? For one thing, the verse takes on nuances when read in context. Leviticus 18 begins, "What is done in the land of Egypt, wherein you were settled, you are not to do; what is done in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you are not to do; by their laws you are not to walk." (transl. Fox.) Ritual prostitution was part of Canaanite religious culture (and part of Egyptian religious culture, too). So it's arguable that Leviticus 18:22 refers to same-sex temple rituals * **
If you scroll down far enough on that religioustolerance.org page, you'll find an encapsulation of some of Rabbi Arthur Waskow's thoughts on this. Arthur cites two alternate meanings for the passage:
- "Do not lie with a man as if it were the same thing as lying with a woman." That is, when two gay males have a sexual encounter, they should continuously be aware that it is different from a male-female coupling. It might be interpreted to mean: "Set up a parallel set of institutions for dealing with this kind of sexual relationship, different from those that apply to sexual relationships between a man and a woman."
- "Do not sleep with a man as if it were with a woman." That is, if two males engage in a sexual act, neither should pretend that the passive partner is like a woman. They should be fully aware of their sexual orientation and maleness, i.e. they should come out of the "closet" and recognize their gayness. ***
His interpretations are unorthodox, but they fit within the framework of Rabbinic exegesis, and they resonate for me. (As the religioustolerance.org page notes, most people gravitate towards interpretations of Leviticus which jive with their preexisting religious beliefs; I'm no exception.) This article on the art of interpretation does a pretty good job of explaining how and why people of faith can disagree so widely on what that one wee little verse means.
Homosexuality And Judaism also sheds some light. I'm especially interested in the section entitled "The Biblical and Talmudic Positions on Homosexuality," which begins, "The Bible does not condemn homosexuality in general, but it does condemn three things: homosexual rape, the ritual prostitution that was part of the Canaanite fertility cult that was apparently, at one time, in Jewish practice as well, and homosexual lust and behavior on the part of heterosexuals." The paper goes on to provide an excellent overview of the last several decades' worth of scholarship and interpretation, from both traditionalist and liberal points of view.
My goal is not to convince people who read Leviticus in a traditional way to suddenly start reading it in a liberal way. Instead, I want to show some of the range of possible readings of the text. I believe that we are each entitled to interpret Torah in accordance with the teachings which resonate for us, but we can't have genuine dialogue on the subject unless everyone agrees that multiple readings of Leviticus exist.
This talk of Leviticus may seem like splitting hairs. It is said of Torah, "Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it," and surely we can each tilt the text so that its words suit our needs. Here's what it really comes down to for me: I believe that each of us is created b'tselem Elohim, in the image of God. That includes my gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters. Therefore, I must approach them in what Martin Buber would call an I-Thou way, allowing the spark of God in me to relate to the spark of God in them. And once I've done that, I can not condone a literalist reading of Leviticus which denies their existence or their humanity.
I regard the Torah as divinely-inspired, but written down by human hands. God may have whispered it to Moshe atop Sinai, but by the time it reached parchment, it had already been translated from God's infinite speech to limited words humans could understand. Humans are fallible; we bring ourselves to what we write, even when we're inspired by God. To me, Leviticus 18:22 is more a reflection of the social/cultural mores of the time when the Torah was first transcribed than it is a reflection of God's will regarding what we know today as queerness.
Regardless of your stance on this, I recommend reading this essay by a gay Orthodox rabbi. Being a traditionalist who is deeply attached to halakhah, he wrestles with this in ways that I don't. I found his words moving, and his conclusions powerful.
There's a famous saying which goes, "Where there's a rabbinic will, there's a halakhic way." The Torah says disobedient children should be stoned to death; but that's an outdated commandment from another era, and some scholars have argued that it was never meant to be followed in the first place. So the Rabbinic tradition found a way to mitigate it; to continue to cherish the text in all its possibilities, while structuring normative halakhah in such a way that no disobedient child would die under a hail of rocks. Just so, the contemporary incarnation of the Rabbinic tradition wrestles with Leviticus 18:22, and many denominations of Judaism have reached the conclusion that the verse can be read in alternate ways -- that queer Jews are whole Jews, and should (indeed, must) be able to live whole, joyous, sanctified Jewish lives.
Today is a historic day in Massachusetts: marriage licenses are being granted to gay and lesbian couples statewide. There's a Hasidic teaching that when two people marry, the coming-together of their individual holy sparks creates a fire greater than the sum of its parts, and the happiness it generates ripples throughout the four worlds. May every couple seeking marriage today, and in the days to come, know happiness together -- and may our world, and all the worlds above, be blessed by the light of their joy.