A Jewish Approach to Homosexuality
What do we do when we disagree with a sacred text? What are our choices of action? We can stifle our criticism. The text states one thing, we believe (or should I say, feel as if we believe) something else. The divine will, however, is in the text, so it must be our position that is wrong. And how could our intuition be wrong? We have indulged in personal (and less than noble) desires, or we are misled by some popular but ultimately faddish line of thought. Faithfulness requires discipline; not giving in to fleeting wishes or political correctness.
We can, on the other hand, reject the text; assert that it is a misstatement of God’s will, or an artifact of a more primitive past, and that we know better!
Or we can follow another path. I want to examine the issue of homosexuality as a prime example of an apparently clear scriptural assertion running counter to our admittedly liberal attitudes. Could our tolerance of homosexual behavior—certainly a phenomenon of the last few years—actually be an indictment of the excesses and superficiality of liberalism? Is Torah simply wrong? I want to suggest a reading of Torah that does not simply mediate between these two poles, but rather places all of it—our attitude, Scripture, and the very act of reading—on a different plane.
A Personal History
In thinking through how I wish to present my case, I have concluded that there is no good place to begin; or rather, there are too many reasonable places in which to begin. We have three concerns to investigate: the Scriptural text, which I pose to be in some way the word of God, a social and political history of communal attitudes toward homosexuality, and myself (yourself), who is bringing a particular intuitive mindset to the issue. Certainly, all three are interrelated, and to follow the assertions of any one requires attention to the others. We must nonetheless begin somewhere, even if it appears to be in the middle. I have chosen to begin with myself, then describe in a brief and schematic fashion the relevant history, and finally turn to the text. It is important, however, to recognize that each of the sections constantly refer forward and back, almost as if they were to read as laid one on top of the other. The concern narrowly before us is the Jewish attitude toward homosexuality. The broader overarching concern is the interplay between among personal sensitivities, contemporary social and political trends, and a timeless and sacred text.
First, about myself:
In the neighborhood where I grew up, the operating dictum might have been called “malice toward all.” It was a community of wealth and modest means: of Jews, Irish, Italians, blacks, and WASPs. On the playgrounds, derogatory epithets were thrown around liberally. They were meant as insults, but were so frequently (and mostly inaccurately) used, they had no sting. Hence, I was introduced to, among others, “fag,” and “queer.” Being gay or lesbian was, of course, a major ‘no-no,’ but in the cloistered suburbs of the late 1950s, early 60s, we did not know anyone who actually was homosexual. The insults were vague and ultimately meaningless, as were all the ethnic and racial slurs. The net experience of my growing up in this atmosphere was a remarkable lack of animus or discrimination toward anyone.
Homosexuality remained distant and abstract through all of my school years, undergraduate and graduate. Contacts with professed gays or lesbians were extremely rare. Contact with non-professing gays was far more common. I remember a number of acquaintances, classmates, teachers and others—some of whom seem to display the stereotypical gestures of a gay or lesbian person and others who did not—for whom I only learned later were indeed homosexual. Even at the assertively liberal and diverse University of Wisconsin, gays tended to prefer to remain in the closet.
Through college, however, the issue of homosexuality remained a non-issue for me. It was not brought forward until it began to be debated on occasion at the rabbinic seminary. Confronted now with having to take some sort of a stand, I developed a mostly civil rights position. Gay and lesbian Jews ought to be accorded as individuals the same rights and privileges extended to all other Jews.
This position was created principally out of reigning notions of human rights, and also out of the developing scientific attitude toward homosexuality that no longer treated it as a curable disease. I chose to read the traditional condemnation of homosexuality as being predicated on it being a volitional act: individuals choosing a same-sex liaison when they could have chosen otherwise. If, however, a homosexual attitude was more fundamental and ineluctable, the tradition, I believed, could be set aside as mistaken.
While I hardly had a condemnatory attitude toward homosexuality, it was not particularly accepting either. What I had done was divide out an accepting approach toward any particular gay or lesbian Jew from a lingering discomfort with homosexuality itself. The focus in my mind, therefore, was on the gay or lesbian as a Jew—could one join a congregation, have an aliya to the Torah, be ordained a Rabbi—in other words, there should be no distinction among Jews, regardless of sexual orientation, in public Jewish life. What one does in the privacy of the bedroom could be bracketed out of my considerations. Thus, while I had come to grips with gays and lesbians, I had essentially avoided the issue of homosexuality altogether.
This turn was not unintentional. I simply considered homosexuality irrelevant to Judaism. As a colleague remarked to me, “we simply do not need gays.” The colleague, by the way, had impeccable liberal credentials as a person who had been in the forefront of many campaigns from civil rights, the ERA and opposition to the War in Vietnam. The remark was rather a hardheaded determination that homosexuality as a concept simply operated outside of Jewish religious life.
In addition to a vague discomfort with a homosexual lifestyle, I was restrained in going beyond a civil rights stand by the tradition itself. While I believe we could discount classic disapprobation of homosexuality as relying on a faulty understanding of the non-volitional character of sexual preference, I was not prepared to disregard the totality of a tradition that promotes monogamous and heterosexual family structures.
This is no longer the stance I take. How I arrived from my thinking that characterized for most of my first twenty years as a rabbi, to where I believe today, comprises a complex of changing personal attitudes, understandings of the concept of sexuality within a religious context, and a re-reading of the texts. Each element contributes to other: could I have seen something new and surprising in the sacred text if my overall personal attitude had not begun to turn? Would my attitude have changed if I did not learn more about social and historical approaches to sexuality? Would my understanding of social history have had any impact on me if I had not revisited the tradition?
My current understanding of history and my reading of texts are presented below. As for my personal attitude, I began to become uncomfortable with my discomfort. I will admit that the discomfort regarding homosexuality still abides, and I will comment briefly on that near the end of this essay, but I became dissatisfied that this element of my psyche should hold up any further investigation of the place that homosexuality might hold within Jewish religious thought.
It is easy to conclude that I am not the same person I used to be. Accumulated experience has that effect on a person. Yet, I am not radically different either. I have told this story because nothing else that I have to say about Judaism and homosexuality makes sense without it. Since I expect to go on living, learning and experiencing for a number of years to come, perhaps the position enunciated here is only contingent, and will change substantially some time from now. We will see. At this point, we move on to cultural attitudes and to the text.
A principled opposition to homosexual behavior is ancient. I do not think, however, that we should assume that this opposition was obvious or natural. Homosexuality, after all, is not unnatural. It can be observed in nature. Some animals engage in same-sex coupling, and of course, there is a population of human beings who are more attracted to people of their own sex. These observations were as readily available to our ancestors as to us.
Moreover, there is no obvious reason to dismiss homosexual behavior out of hand. We know, for instance, that ancient Greek society ritualized sexual intercourse among men. The reason for this activity was to permit the release of sexual urges without a risk of procreation. Indeed, ancient societies, including Israel, utilized a variety of strategies in order to manage sexual activity. The Bible makes reference, for instance, to cultic and other prostitutes and formal relationships between a man and his wife’s handmaidens. A controlled employment of homosexual activities should be seen as one of the strategies.
I think we can surmise a rationale behind these cultural norms. Societies considered the sex drive essentially irresistible. For the sake of a well-ordered community, and also with concern about control of population growth, they needed to promote ways that allowed for sexual release that were not disruptive, either to personal relationships or to the overall needs of the community. In this context, the promotion of same-sex contact was prudent.
I do not know how widespread or common tolerance of homosexuality in the ancient world was. Such tolerance, however, was clearly not unknown. And it is against this backdrop that we should view the developing opposition that would occur within early Jewish thought, and then also become a central element of Christianity and Islam. Some observers have suggested that the three Western faiths were “pro-natalist;” that is, they promoted child-bearing to the extent that sexual activity not for the sake of procreation was suspect.
This position can certainly be defended. Unlike the Greek city-states, for instance, that were more well-developed urban societies, ancient Israel would have had much more concern about promoting population growth. Having children, both for the sake of the development of the society and in combat against infant mortality, was a high priority, and sexual activity should not be wasted if it was not fulfilling this priority. I think, however, that this approach is too narrow, and too insensitive to the theological dimension.
Israel was similar to other societies in wishing to maintain good order, and even to provide some control to population. The most striking difference, however, was in its belief in a single all-encompassing deity who loved humanity and was worthy of love in return. The possibility of relationship with God, therefore, provided the possibility of channeling the otherwise irresistible sex drive into another activity. For Judaism, the outlets of sexual desire did not have to be controlled as much as the desire itself.
A careful reading of the Hebrew Bible reveals that this attitude toward the control of sexual desire did not spring fully formed within ancient Israel. One can track a developing understanding of the power of faith in God and the role it could play in disciplining one’s urges. Thus, bit by bit, the realization that an intense relationship with God could mitigate even one’s deepest and most uncontrollable feelings, led to the unmistakable conclusion that with these desires under control, the sex act could be directed exclusively at procreation. Employing the same notions of love of God, Christianity and Islam developed and promoted—perhaps even deepened—a similar attitude toward sexual behavior. Over and against the Hellenistic approach, which otherwise was so influential in the creation of Western civilization, European and Middle Eastern societies developed a sex ethic that effectively eliminated the possibility of homosexual behavior.
What Has Changed?
Some observers will point to the Stonewall riot of 1969, as the beginning of the gay and lesbian rights movement. New York City police were engaging in one of their periodic raids of a bar, the Stonewall, in Greenwich Village, that catered to a homosexual crowd, when the patrons decided that they could not take it anymore. The flurry of shouts, resistance, some violence and arrests announced that something profound had changed; in the way gay men chose to view themselves, and subsequently how a significant portion of society would view their lifestyle.
The context for this change is easy to see. The decade of the 1960s had been one of protest and revolution. Gay and lesbian movements had been preceded by Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation. There had also been a dramatic freeing of sexual restraints. The decade witnessed the Griswold decision of the Supreme Court that placed the sale and purchase birth control products under the protection of privacy rights; the Pill was developed and distributed, and in 1970, New York State passed a law permitting women to get an abortion.
If we were approaching the subject from the point of view of social scientists, we would simply note the dynamics creating a movement for homosexual rights, and leave it to the political and social forces to bring about its outcome. I, for one, am not serving in the role of a detached observer. A challenge has been made to religious sensibilities, and a moral value whose truth has been essentially uncontested for over two millennia is being defied. It is not enough to say: that’s the way it is! Let us consider a thoughtful traditional religious response to the events of the past few decades.
Homosexuality is, and continues to be, a component of the larger sexual revolution; one that entails a greater tolerance of sexual activity independent of procreation. Homosexual behavior, more than the options of birth control and abortion, remains the best guarantee of fulfilling sexual desires without producing children. The very pressure toward non-procreative sex has been reinforced by a general sensitivity to overpopulation in the world. We all would be better off with fewer children.
A traditional religious thinker might concede that population control is a good idea, but would still have serious objections to the methods employed. At heart, they are pagan. Not only do they echo those utilized by ancient Greece and other heathen cultures, but they further represent a fundamental denial of faith. In the love of God and in devotion to the divine will, the bodily urges can be controlled without having to resort to other means in order to control procreation. When one gives in to one’s desires, it is because one has given up on God!
I believe this to be a strong, and for many, a compelling argument. Within the context of a faith community, it is a matter of spirit versus carnality. The issue goes deeper than some puritan notion of morality. For a faithful person, faith is important. What can it mean to be faithful to some of God’s demands on us involving care, compassion, righteousness, justice and seeking peace, if we so readily dismiss the demand regarding discipline in our intimate relations with others? If we are going to take our faith seriously, even—especially!—our liberal faith, we cannot go about saying, this I will believe in and that not.
Our attitude toward homosexuality, especially our intuitive tolerance (admittedly a tolerance that has been impressed upon us only in the last few years) demands careful consideration. Can we be both faithful to the divine will and accept the possibility of a homosexual lifestyle?
To the Sources—but with a Detour
If there is a flaw in the traditionalist argument, it could potentially be in the assertion that homosexual behavior is a violation of the divine will. But why do we assert in the first place that God opposes same-sex liaisons? The obvious answer is that Scripture says so. This is the obvious answer, but not necessarily the best answer. I am going to illustrate with an example from the Bible that has nothing to do with homosexuality.
The passage is found in I Kings, Chapter 22. The last section of I Kings is given over to the confrontation between the prophet Elijah and Ahab, king of the northern kingdom of Israel. In this chapter, however, Elijah is replaced by a prophet called Micaiah ben Imlah. This otherwise unknown prophet, however, acts sufficiently like Elijah in order to be him.
The story begins with Jehoshaphat, King of the southern dominion of Judah, coming to visit Israel, apparently after a period of tension between the two kingdoms. Ahab asks Jehoshaphat to join in an alliance with him in order to retake the region Ramot-gil’ad from the kingdom of Aram. Jehoshaphat is ready to commit, but wants assurance: “I will do what you do; my troops shall be your troops; my horses shall be your horses`Please, first inquire of the Eternal.”
Ahab brings together all the prophets in the kingdom. They are unanimous in their support of the invasion. Jehoshaphat, however, wants further assurance. Ahab admits there is one more prophet around, Micaiah, but warns that this fellow is never positive about anything. Sure enough, Micaiah, after a little prodding from Ahab, declares: “I see all Israel scattered over the hills like sheep without a shepherd.” He then adds that God planted a false vision of victory in the spirit of the prophets just so Ahab would march to his doom. The chief of the prophets is so incensed at being called false he slaps Micaiah. Micaiah merely responds that the truth of their respective prophesies can only be borne by the subsequent events.
Ahab and Jehoshaphat ignore Micaiah and march out toward Aram. There Ahab meets with an inglorious death and his army is scattered.
The story serves to bring to an end the wicked reign of Ahab, and to fulfill the theological stance regarding reward and punishment. In doing so, it creates a number of interesting issues. First, there appears to be no difference between a true and a false prophet. (As an aside, perhaps the story names the prophet Micaiah rather than Elijah in order to reinforce this issue. The reader would have readily accepted Elijah’s oracle, but does not know this Micaiah.) The upset prophet in the tale is named Zedekiah, a name that refers to God’s justice. We may surmise that he is a good man, even a good prophet. He is absolutely certain that he has heard correctly God’s will, and indeed, according to Micaiah, he has! Yet, his prophecy is manifestly wrong.
Second, God seems willing to lie, or at least to mislead. What does this revelation portend with respect to God’s will as expressed in the commandments and other divine pronouncements?
Finally, there is the skepticism of both kings. Ahab assembles four hundred prophets, and Jehoshaphat wonders if there is anyone else they should hear from. Micaiah initially agrees with the assessment of the other prophets, and Ahab presses him: “How many times have I had to demand of you that you tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Eternal.” Why did Jehoshaphat want to hear from someone else? Why did Ahab not accept Micaiah’s initial statement?
I believe that the narrative is pulling together a number of related points. For one, there is a difference between a prophet and a seer. Micaiah was a true prophet, not because he predicted accurately the outcome of a war between Israel and Aram, but because he could correctly discern God’s will. For all I know, Micaiah received the same vision as the other prophets. He differed from them in being able to understand the vision was misleading.
Yet, Micaiah was not the only one to see through the fog. Ahab and Jehoshaphat were also hesitant regarding the oracle of victory. Perhaps they had an advantage over the prophets. They did not have to deal directly with the force and power of the vision, but rather, with distance and perspective, were able to evaluate its significance. In the end, however, Ahab proves that even when he senses what is right, he goes ahead does what is wrong.
This story sets up two conflicts. There is the dramatic conflict involving the two kings, the prophets and Micaiah. And there is the theological conflict between an apparently clear vision of God’s will and the intuition—gut feeling—of people. It is the gut feeling that turns out to be true. Thus, what can we conclude about the prophetic vision? I, for one, would conclude that the divine revelation received by all the prophets—all the prophets; should we not read the narrative as suggesting that Micaiah received from God exactly what the rest of prophets obtained?—was not false or even misleading, but rather elusive.
I believe the narrator is playing a joke here; actually, a double joke. The first joke is on Ahab, who is so estranged from God that he is willing to march to his doom, even when he knows in his own heart this is where his actions will be taking him. The second joke is, however, on us, the readers. We are whipsawed by the notion of God lying to the prophets, but it is we who jump to the conclusion that God is deceiving, and not what the narrator says.
What is missing in our reading is what is missing in the reading of every text: the intonation. On the lifeless sheet of paper before us, we can read what was said, but we cannot read how it was said. When Micaiah first responds to the kings’ inquiry regarding a war on Aram, he answers (v. 15), “march and triumph. The Eternal will deliver it into your hands.” With little trouble, we can hear the sarcasm in his response, his intentional parroting of the words of the other prophets. Thus, Ahab challenges Micaiah. Even he can tell it is not a straightforward answer to his question. We have little trouble assuming that the contentious prophet would put on such a tone of voice, but we would never assume that God could do the same!
Of course, neither can the prophets themselves. In the narrative, Jehoshaphat senses something is amiss. Was the oracle from the four hundred prophets delivered in too flat a voice? Micaiah, in receiving what the other prophets received, heard something amiss as well. Maybe it was the same flatness, or an arching of a few syllables that unmistakably suggested “what you are hearing now is not quite the truth.” You and I know these cues when we hear them. Alas, in reading the text (or worse, in chanting it according to the cantillation tropes), we hear nothing at all!
And here is the point of this detour into an examination of a story at the end of I Kings. The words of Torah as they lie on the paper are toneless. When we read them—publicly or to ourselves—they are imbued with a tone, an inflection, which rounds out their meaning. We can imagine just how they were originally spoken—by Moses, by God, by the unknown writer—but ultimately the intonation is ours. And the intonation we choose can make all the difference in what meaning we derive from the text.
These conclusions are critical for my discussion of homosexuality within a Jewish context. From the start, I have contended that one needs to take Torah seriously; all of Torah, and not just those texts and verses that fit a preconceived understanding of proper thought and action. It will not do, at least for me, to aver an acceptance of homosexual conduct (if that is what one wishes to do) by simply ignoring or dismissing those Scriptural references that appear to reject the conduct. We must confront Torah in all seriousness. It is teaching us something, and if we open ourselves up to its lessons, we might be very surprised by what we learn.
Torah and Doubt
References to homosexuality in the Bible are exceedingly sparse. Actually there are only two direct mentions of lying “with a man as with a woman,” and they are essentially the same. Leviticus 18 asserts a prohibition of such behavior. Leviticus 20 then states the same thing, adding that the penalty is execution. Rabbinic literature is also relatively silent. There is an interesting colloquy in the Mishna (Tractate Kiddushin 4:14): “two unmarried men may not sleep under the same blanket. The Sages, however, permitted it.” Clearly, the mishna begins with a concern about homosexual relations, but the rabbis seem to have had enough confidence in the sexual discipline of Jews that they did not consider the exigency of two fellows trying to keep warm at night with only one blanket between them, as an invitation to immoral behavior.
We can conclude that the prohibition concerning homosexual activity was so clear and unmistakable that it was not particularly the topic of any discussion, or even for the need of discussion. The fact that it was immoral was taken for granted. About the only issue under consideration was whether the instance or opportunity of homosexuality was to be construed as a prospect for engaging in such behavior. For the most part, the answer throughout Jewish legal sources tends to be no.
Is the Torah’s attitude toward homosexuality so uncompromising? We need to take a careful look at the section provided in Leviticus 18. Indeed, since the whole formal Jewish attitude regarding homosexual behavior seems to stem from this critical section of Torah, we are going to return to it over and over again in the coming discussion.
The critical verse (22) is embedded in a series of commandments that adjure specific forms of sexual relations. The section itself is introduced with the warning that the Israelites must take care not to follow the practices of either the Egyptians (whom they just left) or the Canaanites (among whom they will reside). Then, at the conclusion, this warning is made more emphatic by suggesting that it is specifically for these offenses that the Canaanites are about to lose control of the land, and such would be the fate of Israel as well if they do not take care in their sexual relations. Lest we miss the point, the same warning and threatened punishment is provided once more at the end of the similar list in Chapter 20.
Could it be that sexual immorality, as defined in this set of commandments, is so offensive that it should be the basis for banishment from the land? The passages from Leviticus are explicit, and appear to lead to no other conclusion. We need to address this concern, but at this point we can surmise that the framing passages to these chapters emphasize just how serious violations in sexual conduct are to be treated.
This chapter attests to the observation I made earlier, that the issue is not in condemning homosexuality itself, but rather in establishing a code of discipline regarding the restraining of all sexual desires. The list can be broken into two parts. First, there are the incestuous relations. This includes sexual contact with blood kin and relatives of blood kin. The prohibitions are given in apodictic form; no qualification, no explanation, just don’t do it!
The second part includes homosexuality, bestiality, adultery (sleeping with one’s neighbor’s wife), relations with both a woman and her daughter, and “offering one’s offspring to Molech.” Something is added here: an indication of just what is wrong. Thus, sleeping with both a mother and a daughter (or granddaughter) is called zimah. The act of men or women sleeping with a beast is described as tevel. Men sleeping with other men is a to’evah. This language is nearly identically applied in Chapter 20.
Tevel (perhaps best translated as “perversion”) is a noun derived from the term for ‘confusion’ [balal]. Bestiality is a category error, a confusing of the divine order as established in creation. Zimah, derived from the word meaning ‘to traduce’ or ‘plot against,’ is mostly translated as ‘depravity.’ It is used in Torah only in the case of sexual relations with both a mother and daughter, and its occasional occurrence throughout the rest of the Bible tends to be limited to inappropriate sexual encounters. To’evah, in sharp distinction, is a relatively common term. Of all the inappropriate sexual relations, only homosexuality is a to’evah, and for this reason it should give us pause.
To summarize briefly, we have sexual prohibitions that apparently require no explanation or characterization, that are simply and self-evidently wrong. These are the relations with blood relatives or the close kin of blood relatives (such as one’s brother’s wife). Why should they be treated as self-evident? I think this is a worthwhile question, but it also takes us away from the issue of homosexuality, and thus should be approached in another forum.
We then have prohibitions for which a characterization is given. We note three in particular, zimah, tevel, and to’evah. What makes having relations with both a mother and daughter something to be called ‘depravity?’ It is not a form of incest. Consider that the practice of levirate marriage (a man marrying the childless widow of a deceased brother) obliges a woman to have sexual relations with two brothers. (Note that Lev. 18:16 specifically forbids a woman from marrying his brother’s wife. The instance of the levirate marriage is thus a specific exception.) It is not, on the other hand, a type of perversion [tevel]. Unlike bestiality, sexual relations with other human beings cannot be considered a violation of God’s order of creation. The depravity of relations with both mother and daughter strike me as being a form of cruelty, heightening the tension between women in a family and needlessly causing rivalry.
Finally, and most important, we come to to’evah, conventionally translated as ‘abomination.’ At the end of Chapter 18, the term is used four times when the text reinforces just how wrong these sexual couplings are to be perceived. All impermissible sex acts—the forms of incest, and that which are considered depravity or perversion—are abominations. This observation does not imply that an abomination is also depraved or perverse. The term to’evah only occurs in this section of Leviticus, but it shows up frequently in Deuteronomy, particularly in connection with foreign gods and idolatrous practices. The prophet Ezekiel also made extensive use of the term, reminding the people that it was precisely because of to’evot [abominations] that God’s anger flared.
At its heart, however, to’evah is an emotion. It is first introduced to us as readers of Torah, in Genesis, during the story of Joseph. Jacob’s sons return to Egypt for provisions during the seven-year famine, this time bringing Benjamin, just as the Vizier (the unrecognized Joseph) had commanded. Joseph orders a feast in their honor: “Serve the meal.” They served him (Joseph) by himself, and them (the brothers) by themselves, and the Egyptians who with him by themselves; for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be an abomination to the Egyptians [ki to’evah hi l’Mitzrayim] (Gen 43: 31, 32). With the employment of the term to’evah, we learn that the Egyptians could not abide sitting with non-Egyptians as they ate.
Must this sense of abhorrence exist? Do Egyptians still have problems eating with foreigners? If they do not, are they violating some cosmic law? Clearly, ancient Egyptian dining arrangements represent a particular aesthetic. It was an attitude created out of the contingency of certain historical and cultural factors; factors that could and did modulate over the years. Can we therefore also conclude that the Torah is implying that a negative attitude toward homosexuality is also nothing more than a contingent aesthetic judgment bound by certain historical and cultural factors?
Abominations and Not So Abominations
It would be simple and satisfying to give an unqualified ‘yes’ to this question. The Torah is a living document, living in each of the eras and historical conditions in which it is read and followed. It spoke one way to the agricultural society that settled the land, in other way to the more urbanized and dispersed community centered in academies in Palestine, and then along the banks of the Euphrates River; and it speaks in still another way to a modern, self-conscious community today. In each case, however, it is not so much the Torah that has changed, but rather the human community – Israel—that is reading it. It is as if God smiles upon the people and whispers: I will teach you one thing now, but later, when you are wiser and more experienced, you will understand better and learn something quite different from the same words.
We see this sort of pointing toward the future in the way subsequent generations came to understand capital punishment and slavery, both tolerated in the text. Or in the rabbinic interpretation of the possibility of reward in the world-to-come, which seems so absent in a plain reading of Scripture. Or in the greater tolerance extended to individuals with physical handicaps who were treated more severely in Torah. Perhaps we can apply the same argument to the hint supplied by introduction of the word to’evah to the prohibition of homosexuality.
I think we can—we should—but not without first considering some basic questions. Why is the possibility of a society in which homosexuality is tolerated (if my analysis is correct) hidden in the first place. Homosexuality, as noted earlier, is not unnatural, nor has it been universally reviled. There were human communities that allowed for homosexual encounter. These societies could have been known to ancient Israel. The Torah, however, in my reading of it, teaches that this behavior was not to be tolerated then, although it might be permitted in some future time. What is different between then and now?
We need to return once more to our text. Leviticus 18 frames the prohibitions in sexual relations with a stern admonition against engaging in the practice of the Egyptians or Canaanites, and an admonition that doing so would lead to forfeit of the Land. Deuteronomy will also take up the theme of the severe consequences that are obtained for not upholding God’s commands. This segment in Leviticus, especially due to its framing—the warnings that both precede and follow the prohibitions—appears to be especially emphatic in warning of the results of impermissible sexual contact. Exile—the forfeit of God’s promised land—is a punishment almost as bad as death!
[The later rabbinic tradition then re-emphasizes the severity of the sexual prohibitions, by having them be the Torah reading on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Israel is already in exile, so the reinterpreted threat, as we read in the scant hours before the day comes to an end, that in defying these commands we risk a forfeiture of divine forgiveness. This may well be a fate worse than death!]
Why should sexual relations be taken so seriously? I would suggest that they go beyond personal morality, or even the concern of disruption of the community. In the references to the Egyptians and the Canaanites, these sexual liaisons are connected directly to idolatry. With the exception perhaps of intentional homicide, no sin could be direr, either within the biblical or rabbinic mind. I have no interest in discussing idolatry within the purview of this essay. Rather, I want to stress that homosexuality and other sexual taboos took on in Jewish history an outsized sense of immorality precisely because they were intrinsically connected with one of the strictest prohibitions: that which the Sages referred to as kofer b’ikar, a denial of the principle of God’s sole divinity.
I commented earlier on the strategy of ancient cultures to ritualize sexual activities. In Leviticus, the inevitable connection between these rituals and the worship practices of these cultures is cemented. Certainly, homosexuality, a sexual ritual that would ensure the elimination of an unintended consequence of procreation, would have been perceived by biblical Israel as among the most prominent idolatrous activities. Unless we wish to belittle classic Jewish concerns about idolatry, we should be quite cognizant and sensitive to how abhorrent homosexuality has been in traditional Judaism.
Yet, is this not the point? I do not believe that even the most traditional Jews relate the impermissible acts in Leviticus to idolatry any more. With the disconnection between sexual act and idol-worship, an important and central source of disapprobation has been removed … but not completely. We must ask an additional question about the biblical attitude reflected in our verses in Leviticus. We have noted that the prohibitions were considered severe because of their connection with idolatry. Now let us ask, why were they connected to idolatry in the first place?
With this question, we complete a circle. All of the ancient cultures sought to control sexual desire—all of them! They recognized that human desire, particularly carnal desire, is possibly the most uncontrollable element of the human psyche. And this is very powerful indeed! Perhaps, it is more powerful than any other human trait, more powerful than reason, obedience, or even hate; powerful enough to be a god! Ancient Israel knew of the fertility cults in the cultures that surrounded it. They knew as well of the carnal appetites that were assigned to the gods in the stories these societies told. Sexual practice not strictly limited to family and procreation could not be considered other than idolatrous imitation.
Those ancient societies with their fertility gods and sex-related rituals have passed into history. The power of sexual desire has not. It continues to cause extreme discomfort, and remains at the heart of many of the cultural and societal divisions we experience in national and international arenas. At the end of the twentieth century, millennia removed from the texts we have been reading, an extra-marital affair led to the impeachment and near conviction of a President of the United States. Sexual desire remains unalterably an intense source of both attraction and fear.
It is precisely that intensity, however, that distorts the whole issue of sex. For ancient Israel, the problem was clearly not sexual relations or sexual desire, but rather idolatry. When, in a Moslem and Christian world, the fertility gods recede from consideration, all that is left is a memory of prohibition and a new morality that treats sexual relations as intrinsically evil. Yet, it was never the sex per se. Sexual relations do, however, both literally and emotionally lay a person bare. It is the most primary of interpersonal encounters, and therefore embodies the most basic values: compassion, promise-keeping, honesty, and perhaps above all, justice. Sexual relations, after all, highlight inequalities in power, strength, and economic well being, and therefore can either be exploited in order to reinforce the inequality, or be a path toward mutual acceptance.
When we return one final time to the text, the term to’evah begins to take on new meaning. Four times at the end of Leviticus 18, the prohibitions listed in the chapter are declared abhorrent. What is abominable: the power we give over to sexual desire that it takes on the characteristics of a god. What is abominable: the masking of our deeper moral concerns by our obsession with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sex. What is abominable: our acquiescence as individuals and a society to have the debate over permissible and impermissible sexual relations to cover a continuation of the injustice of unequal power between men and women. Finally, what is abominable: our anxiety over our own sexuality tends to make us uncomfortable, suspicious or even angry when in social situations.
In the midst of the chapter is the one act called a to’evah. I hear the word as if spoken by two voices. On one pitch, it cautions against the abomination of ever considering an encounter as intimate and personal as sexual interaction to be without consequences. (The scourge of AIDS aside, we hear the plaint arising: what wrong could come from fulfilling sexual desire without the possibility of procreation? We then hear the response: whenever two moral beings are in contact there are always consequences.) And on the other pitch, it warns us of all the abominations we create when turn sexual activity into a moral category in and of itself.
Final Words: A Living Text
I look over my analysis and realize that I could not possibly have written it as recently as ten, maybe five, years ago. The obstacle was not insufficient study or knowledge of the texts. Yes, there may be texts—mishna, gemara, commentaries and/or response—of which I am currently ignorant although they would deepen my understanding. There is always more to learn. In this case, the sources appear to be relatively limited, and I have known them for many years. Something else changed, and what it is that changed is all the difference.
What was it? The simple answer is: everything. I have more experience of the world about me and the ideas and emotions that rattle around inside me. Society is being transformed by social and political movements. Those without voice in the past, have found a way to speak out, say “We are here, take note of us,” and be heard. And the text—words printed on a page, whose letters and vocalizations have not been disturbed in over two thousand years—the text has changed as well. It is not the sight. Ink on paper could just as well be markings chiseled into stone. It is rather the sound! The text reads as it always has, but it says something different. Why? Because, I am different, and the world around is different.
Thus, I began my discussion of the sacred literature on sexual practices with the strange story from the conclusion of I Kings. The account of the prophet Micaiah (Elijah) and the kings of Judah and Israel, serves on one important level as a soul-satisfying tale of the come-uppence of the irredeemably wicked King Ahab. On another, more important, level, it is a lesson about the need to hear God’s voice—or at very least try to listen—even when all we have is the printed page.
So often, we can only hear, however, what we are prepared to hear. This comment, please note, is not the same as asserting that we hear what we want to hear. In the story of Micaiah, neither Ahab nor Jehoshaphat were satisfied with the oracle they were receiving, even though it was quite favorable. Moreover, while Micaiah might have wished ill to Ahab, he did not necessarily want defeat for the kingdom. They were not looking for approval or affirming words, nor did they want to know just what was said. They knew the truth was to found in how it was said as well.
I was not looking for vindication in Scripture for an evolved position either. I did not think I needed to find one, nor did I believe it existed. Moreover, I continue to remain personally uncomfortable with the notion of same-sex intimacy. I did not want to hear an ironic voice in the pronunciation of to’evah with respect to homosexuality, but I was prepared to hear it. This, in the final analysis, is the measure of a living text. It does not just reside before the reader as a mute testimony of certain facts, opinions and/or literary expressions. It rather enters into a conversation with its reader, teaching, cajoling, always bringing to bear its sublime wisdom and insights, but never simply overwhelming the reader with power and authority.
Evolving—not evolved! Even as I have discovered that the Scriptural attitude toward homosexuality is not as condemnatory as has been assumed throughout the history of Jewish thought, I must also concede that no firm conclusion is possible either. This is the measure of a living text as well. The to’evah of “a man lying with a man” continues to be multivocal. We are dealing with thousands of years of cultural assumptions—the echoes of a not-altogether vanished world in which the near irresistible forces of sex and idolatry were intertwined—and our hardly-neatly-arranged understanding of our own sexuality-the unpacking of eroticism, homo-eroticism and auto-eroticism that rattles around in most of our psyches.
The sacred text therefore speaks. It points toward a path, and also cautions that the path is not so obvious, self-evident or easily trodden upon as some might wish.