Jay Michaelson
How can you be gay and Jewish?, p.4

For these reasons, it is impossible to conceive of a loving God who creates gay men only to demand their repression and distortion. Consequently, the interpretation that Leviticus 18 condemns all homosexual activity must be wrong.

What do I offer in its place?

In fact, many different interpretations of Leviticus 18 suggest themselves. Some approve of all forms of same-sex activity. Some approve of only certain kinds of acts. Others approve of none but seek place the acts in 'proper' perspective. Here are some of the interpretations of Leviticus that have been offered by scholars:

- Leviticus 18 is only about sexual violence and humiliation. In the misogynistic culture to which the Torah was given ("The Torah speaks in the language of man"), to be sexually penetrated was a form of degradation. Leviticus 18 demands that this degradation never be visited upon another man. This explains the use of the word et and the strange locution mishkevei ishah: it refers to doing something humiliating to a man. If the prohibition meant something other than degradation, it would have said im adam - "with" a man, rather than et adam, which means, roughly, "to" or "at" a man. Thus only male-male sex acts which can be characterized as being done et adam, "at a man," are forbidden. As Rabbi Steve Greenberg develops in his book, where penetration has none of the earmarks of violence or humiliation as in a loving relationship between men in our culture the prohibition does not apply.

- Leviticus 18 is only about sex acts in the context of idolatry. The evidence for this reading is textual, and twofold. First, the prohibition is located in the larger textual context of prohibitions against idolatry. (Textual juxtaposition is how the rabbis derived the prohibitions of the Sabbath, and is a central halachic hermeneutic.) Second, the Torah goes out of its way to specify that male-male sexual activity is toevah, a label it does not apply in this way to other sexual prohibitions. Toevah basically means taboo -- a word to which it may be etymologically related. Toevah is a practice not intrinsically wrong (the Torah speaks of things that are toevah l'mitzrayim, taboo to Egyptians) but wrong because it is what other nations do, and thus forbidden to us. This explains the toevah categorization applied to same-sex acts, but not to other proscribed sex acts, and the location of the verse in the context of prohibitions against idolatry. Where sex has nothing to do with idolatry, i.e., when it is not a toevah, the prohibition does not apply. (One might even translate the concept idolatry homiletically, perhaps to mean "making an idol out of sexuality," although such a reading is not required by this interpretation.) The purpose of the act matters more than the form. Put simply, if gay sex is prohibited by Leviticus 18, then Michelangelo is prohibited by the Ten Commandments.

One compromise reading of Leviticus 18 is the following:

- Leviticus 18 is only about anal sex. Other forms of sexual activity are permitted. And, just as we do not query heterosexual couples about their adherence to the laws of family purity much more important, legally speaking, than the anal sex prohibition, we do not query homosexual couples about their practices here. We thus can publicly recognize and honor gay couples because there is a wide range of sexual behavior to which the prohibition does not apply. What goes on behind closed doors is their business, and we infer or intrude no more about it than we do about the sexual purity practices of straight couples.

Other 'compromise' readings preserve an expansive reading of Leviticus 18 but nonetheless embrace and support gay people. These include:

- Gay people may fall under the category of ones, or those who sin through compulsion. Because they are acting under compulsion, there is no sin.

- There are some readings of the Jewish tradition which hold that we can never judge what another person's romantic path is meant to be. (See the Ishbitzer rebbe on the character of Pinchas on this point.) Therefore, although we do not resolve the verse, we assume that gay people are, in ways unfathomable to us, fulfilling their own Divine destinies.

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Image: Jay Michaelson

September 2004

Singing God's Praises:
Psalms and Authenticity
Josh Feigelson

Two Prayers for the Days of Awe
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

How can you be gay and Jewish?
Jay Michaelson

Hiding your Sins
Hal Sirowitz

Retrato de Familia
Bara Sapir

Jews and Bush
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From previous issues:

The Truth about the Rosenbergs
Joel Stanley

Bush the Exception
Samuel Hayim Brody

The Warm, Impossible, Wall-less Summer World
Jay Michaelson