This week's portion: you shall be holy
Four Seasons

Ways to redeem one problematic line (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

This week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, contains one of the most oft-commented-upon verses in Leviticus: 18:22, the verse which declares lying with a male as one lies with a woman to be to'evah. Who among us isn't aware what reprehensible and soul-crushing teachings and behavior that line has been used to justify?

As a passionate liberal and a passionate Jew, I can't ignore the text or wish it away. All I can do is study. And studying it again this week, I realize anew that a clear and close look at the passage shows a far more nuanced text than simplistic or literalist readings would imply.

There's a staggering difference between reading the verse as a pithy one-line aphorism (along the lines of the position parodied by, and reading it embedded in the chapter where it belongs. The chapter is book-ended by exhortations to the Israelites to avoid imitating the other peoples around them. It 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.) And the final six verses of the chapter state clearly (and repeatedly) that the Israelites are to avoid defiling themselves through these behaviors in which the nations on this land before them engaged.

Between those two parallel injunctions comes a laundry list of prohibitions, most of which relate to nakedness and sexuality, though verse 21 prohibits offering one's offspring to Molech -- clearly a destructive and idolatrous act. (And then comes the source of so much tsuris, verse 22.)

These are proclamations meant to distinguish the Israelite nation from the other peoples of their time. Which leads to one of the frequent explanations liberal commentators offer for this verse: that it refers to same-sex temple rituals, to imitating other nations in a way that was ritually impure, and not to the contemporary identity we know as "queerness" today.

That's one way of reading this text that may make it more palatable to the liberal sensibility. Another is focusing on the way the verse privileges differentiation. "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman" implies the fundamental wrongness of mis-taking one partner for another or ignoring the reality of who he is. That's the perspective taken by Arielle Kristan in Two cents on Leviticus 18:22:

Jewish law and tradition is big on separation. In fact, separating, differentiating, is a holy act. Creation was one big act of separation -- night from dark, sky from earth, land from sea... So, what I've always taken from Leviticus 18:22 is simply the importance of differentiation.

...In my mind, it would be an abomination for a man to sleep with a man in the same way that he slept with a woman. It would be an affront to any sexual partner to not recognize him or her as unique and differentiated. Since sex is the most intimate and vulnerable of all acts, mistaking your partner for someone else is callous and cruel. It would evidence a complete disregard for that person's holiness and spirit.

In this, Ari echoes Rabbi Arthur Waskow's perspective. In R' Waskow's essay The Emerging Torah of Same-Sex Marriage he makes a similar argument, but focuses in part on power dynamics, on the wrongness of treating a man "like a woman" (as a powerless object rather than an empowered subject.) R' Waskow articulates a theory that the Biblical view of sexuality could be characterized by three basic rules for sexual ethics, one of which is the "He shall rule over you" of Genesis 3:16.

In a relationship of two men, neither one could be subordinate -- 'as with a woman.' [cf Lev 18:22] Such a relationship would blow out all the circuits. Conversely, a relationship between two 'subordinate' women would not even turn the power on and so was ignored in biblical tradition.

Is this statement in Eden intended by Torah to persist forever? No more than the twin statement (Gen. 3: 17-19) that human beings (or at least men) shall 'work in the sweat of their brow,' wringing a livelihood from a hostile earth. Do we think Torah commands us to eschew the machines that make our labor easier?

Of course, others prefer to engage with this verse differently. In Homosexuality and Judaism, Michael Tolkin is quoted as saying,

Lev. 18:22 is as open to interpretation as any other compound sentence in the Torah.... There are ways of reading it to soften the harshest understanding, but... it might be more courageous to say that it means exactly what we don't want it to mean. Better to defy the law, to stand in direct rebellion to G-d, in a heroic conversation with Him.

Certainly it's true that Judaism has long regarded God-wrestling as an appropriate way of manifesting Jewishness. From Abraham avinu straight through to Sholom Aleichem's fictional Tevye the Dairyman, we have a long tradition of arguing with the Holy One, and maybe argument is the appropriate response to a passage like this.

To'evah isn't a term unique to this situation. Rabbi Debra Orenstein points out that "[T]he Bible uses to'evah to describe everything from eating nonkosher animals to withholding charity to practicing idolatry to committing adultery." Many among us, particularly in the Reform movement where kashrut was for a time considered anachronistic, have eaten our share of non-kosher meat. Most of us, I imagine, have at one time or another failed to give as much tzedakah as we could afford. And yet few would cast us out of our communities for these to'evah acts.

R' Orenstein also notes that the rabbinic tradition reinterprets great swaths of Torah with impunity. Torah, our sages teach us, has layers and levels of meaning, and the pshat (literal sense) of a text isn't always the interpretation we privilege. She writes:

...Consider rabbinic limitations on the death penalty, compared to biblical law. Had the ancient Sages accepted the peshat of Deuteronomy 21, the stoning of rebellious children would pose quite a challenge to Jewish continuity.

...I don't consider myself lenient regarding laws of sexuality. I try to be stringent on "love your neighbor as yourself."

Nothing I've just said (or quoted) is new, but it bears repeating. Reading this text in context this year -- both in the context of where and how it appears in Torah, and in my own personal context of a deeper commitment to Torah study and a regular Torah study practice -- I'm seeing it all the more clearly as something I can negotiate and navigate in a way that's true to the text and also true to my sexual values.

This kind of interaction with the text -- turning it in different directions like a prism to see how it refracts the light of holiness -- is a, maybe the, quintessential Jewish act. One of my favorite teachings on that subject comes from the former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Ismar Schorsch, who writes:

[I]n Judaism precisely because the Torah is revered as divine, it becomes susceptible to unending interpretation. It would be a denigration of God's word to saddle it with just a single meaning. In contrast to human speech, which carries a finite range of meanings, the language of God was deemed to be endowed with an infinity of meanings.

Within the infinity of meanings compressed into this one line of Torah, there are many which celebrate the full personhood of all, regardless of gender or orientation. We owe it to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to God to wrestle with the text until it yields these blessings.