“How can you be gay and Jewish?” by Jay Michaelson

Reference: Zeek Magazine

I am sometimes asked: “How can you be gay and Jewish? Doesn’t the Bible forbid homosexuality?” Here is my attempt at an answer.

At the outset, I am only answering this question as part of a subset of a subset of Jews: religious Jews who feel themselves bound or in some way affected by the Torah and Jewish law. Of course, the majority of Jews do not believe themselves to be bound in any such way. For them, the issue is much simpler: any prohibitions which may exist are historical in nature and far less important than conscience, ethics, culture, and other values. The law evolves, or doesn’t matter anyway. So what the questioner really means is: how can one be gay and religiously Jewish, with a religious consciousness that, for whatever reasons, treats what the Bible says with seriousness. That is the question I mean to answer.

The Bible does not forbid homosexuality. ‘Homosexuality’ is a modern term, a pseudo- scientific category created in 1869. It refers not only to sexual acts, but to a sexual orientation, an identity, and is today used (imprecisely) to describe a range of sexual behaviors, attractions, and ideas about the self. This way of looking at sex acts was unknown both to the Bible and to the Talmud. Where the Torah does speak of sexual acts, as we will see below, it has no conception that these acts relate to personal identity, or to love. It expresses no belief that such acts are indicative of an inborn proclivity, and no conception that acts “make you gay,” or even that one type sex act is necessarily related to another. Those who say that the Bible (or Torah, or Talmud, or halacha) forbids homosexuality are simply wrong. There is no such thing as Biblical homosexuality.

What the Bible does forbid is contained in one sentence, found in two different places in Leviticus: “And at a man you shall not lie the lyings of woman.” This language is awkward in English, but, as we will see, it is necessary to capture the nuances of the Hebrew: v’et zachar lo tishkav mishkevei ishah. We will return to the grammar and vocabulary below. Notice at the outset, however, the parameters of the prohibition. Lesbian sexual activity is not mentioned at all; this was treated very lightly by the Talmudic rabbis (as a form of “mere lewdness,” akin to wearing a bikini bathing suit) and was not proscribed until much later in Jewish history. So for all but Orthodox Jews who regard later rabbinic decisions as irreversibly binding, lesbianism is not under discussion here. Second, sexual acts which do not count as “the lyings of woman” are not included. Such acts may later be rabbinically prohibited under the rubric of “building a fence around the Torah.” However, the unclear verse itself only prohibits this one kind of behavior between men.

How, then, do we understand the verse? The answer depends on how one reads Jewish texts, which in turn depends on one’s overall Jewish philosophy.

For many religious Jews, the Torah is only one source of many for religious norms. If our moral sense, or other considerations, after careful deliberation and thought, lead to a different conclusion from the text, then these Jews respectfully set aside the Levitical prohibition. They understand it as a product of its place and time, and recognize that we have evolved morally, widening our sphere of consideration, becoming more tolerant. This is true even if God “wrote” the Torah, because, as the saying goes “the Torah speaks in the language of men [sic].”

Few halachically observant Jews, however, take such a view. For them – the “subset of a subset” I referred to earlier – the reasoning above is specious at best, blasphemous at worst. These Jews cannot simply set aside the text, even for a very good reason, and thus adopt a range of strategies for interpreting it when it is ambiguous or troubling.

Within this subset of a subset, there is still a wide range of textual strategies available. On the far “right,” the Torah is the explicit word of God, and is interpreted strictly according to tradition. If the text appears to be unclear, we turn first to the Talmud, then to later authorities, and defer to their interpretations, because they represent an unbroken chain of interpretation dating back to Sinai itself.

Somewhat more liberally, many halachic Jews recognize certain authorities as empowered to interpret Scripture, and defer to precedent except in rare circumstances. We respect the tradition so highly that we are loathe to ever depart from precedent. Clear statements in the Talmud are never (Orthodox) or hardly ever (Conservative) overturned. Opinions of prominent later authorities are set aside either never (Orthodox) or only after careful, written discussion and analysis (Conservative).

However, even for Orthodox Jews, the apparent literal meaning of Torah verses is often not the true meaning. Few, for example, adhere to Deuteronomy 22:13-21, which states that a marriage is only valid if the bride is a virgin. All Jews who know their Talmud know that Talmudic rabbis if not contemporary ones read entire laws right out of the Bible, such as the provisions regarding the ‘rebellious son’ and ‘leprous house.’ Guiding these interpretations, in proportions which vary by community, are hermeneutic principles, precedents, conscience, and the needs of the community.

Applying these principles to the verse in Leviticus 18 is difficult. The precedents vary, the words are unclear, the conscience is often confused, and the expressed needs of the contemporary community conflict with one another. Turning to precedent, the Talmud is surprisingly vague on what acts the verse’s prohibition includes within its ambit. (See Steve Greenberg, On Wrestling with God and Men [and my interview with him in an earlier issue of Zeek], and my own Response to the Roth Tshuvah for discussion of these points.) Questions that are left open include: Does the verse only apply to anal sex, or to a wider range of behavior? Is it, like the laws of Shabbat, to be understood according to its context (it, and other sexual purity laws, are contained in the context of discussions of idolatry)? What does toevah, the category of offense, mean?

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