One who studied 100 times is not comparable to one who studied 101 times. (B. Chagiga 9b)
One of the reasons Jews spend so much time reviewing the Torah is that you never know when you miss something or the new insights you can clean from viewing the same text with fresh eyes. Speaking for myself, these “aha!” moments can be truly joyous at discovering a new approach, or frustrating in the, “how could I not have seen this before” sense. Today I’d like to discuss a recent example of the latter, one which will have profound implications for how Judaism, and indeed all biblical religions, ought to relate to homosexuals.
Note: I pre-apologize if anyone has already noted what I am about to write. My intent is not to present an innovative reading, but to demonstrate how easy it is to overlook the obvious.
A prevailing view among religionists is that according to Biblical Law, homosexuality (at least homosexual sex between men) is particularly abhorrent for it is called “an abomination” (Lev. 18:22), a designation not given to any of the other sexual prohibitions in the chapter. Indeed, here is the Artscroll commentary on that very verse:
An abomination – None of the relationships given above are described with this term of disgust, because they involve normal activity, though with prohibited mates. Homosexuality, however, is unnatural and therefore abominable.1
While I disagreed with the conclusion of the above statement, I agreed with the premise that “none of the relationships given above are described with this term of disgust” in that only Lev. 18:22 describes its specific act as an abomination, and indeed if we view the list of forbidden relationships in the chapter we note that the term “abomination” is noticeably absent.
- Lev 18:6 – No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the LORD.
- Lev 18:7 – Do not dishonor your father by having sexual relations with your mother. She is your mother; do not have relations with her.
- Lev 18:8 – Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife; that would dishonor your father.
- Lev 18:9 – Do not have sexual relations with your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether she was born in the same home or elsewhere.
- Lev 18:10 – Do not have sexual relations with your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter; that would dishonor you.
- Lev 18:11 – Do not have sexual relations with the daughter of your father’s wife, born to your father; she is your sister.
- Lev 18:12 – Do not have sexual relations with your father’s sister; she is your father’s close relative.
- Lev 18:13 – Do not have sexual relations with your mother’s sister, because she is your mother’s close relative.
- Lev 18:14 – Do not dishonor your father’s brother by approaching his wife to have sexual relations; she is your aunt.
- Lev 18:15 – Do not have sexual relations with your daughter-in-law. She is your son’s wife; do not have relations with her.
- Lev 18:16 – Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife; that would dishonor your brother.
- Lev 18:17 – Do not have sexual relations with both a woman and her daughter. Do not have sexual relations with either her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter; they are her close relatives. That is wickedness.
- Lev 18:18 – Do not take your wife’s sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living.
- Lev 18:19 – Do not approach a woman to have sexual relations during the uncleanness of her monthly period.
- Lev 18:20 – Do not have sexual relations with your neighbor’s wife and defile yourself with her.
However, as I was preparing my current Sunday class, I reviewed the end of the chapter:
ויקרא פרק יח
כד) אַל תִּטַּמְּאוּ בְּכָל אֵלֶּה כִּי בְכָל אֵלֶּה נִטְמְאוּ הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מְשַׁלֵּחַ מִפְּנֵיכֶם
כה) וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ וָאֶפְקֹד עֲוֹנָהּ עָלֶיהָ וַתָּקִא הָאָרֶץ אֶת יֹשְׁבֶיהָ
כו) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אַתֶּם אֶת חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ מִכֹּל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה הָאֶזְרָח וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם
כז) כִּי אֶת כָּל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵל עָשׂוּ אַנְשֵׁי הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ
כח) וְלֹא תָקִיא הָאָרֶץ אֶתְכֶם בְּטַמַּאֲכֶם אֹתָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר קָאָה אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם
כט) כִּי כָּל אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה מִכֹּל הַתּוֹעֵבוֹת הָאֵלֶּה וְנִכְרְתוּ הַנְּפָשׁוֹת הָעֹשֹׂת מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּם
ל) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת מִשְׁמַרְתִּי לְבִלְתִּי עֲשׂוֹת מֵחֻקּוֹת הַתּוֹעֵבֹת אֲשֶׁר נַעֲשׂוּ לִפְנֵיכֶם וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ בָּהֶם אֲנִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
24 Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things; for in all these the nations are defiled, which I cast out from before you.
25 And the land was defiled, therefore I did visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land vomited out her inhabitants.
26 Ye therefore shall keep My statutes and Mine ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations; neither the home-born, nor the stranger that sojourneth among you–
27 for all these abominations have the men of the land done, that were before you, and the land is defiled–
28 that the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.
29 For whosoever shall do any of these abominations, even the souls that do them shall be cut off from among their people.
30 Therefore shall ye keep My charge, that ye do not any of these abominable customs, which were done before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein: I am the LORD your God.
According to the end of the chapter, all of the aforementioned sexual transgressions are considered abominations before God. This does not only include “unnatural” acts – to use Artscroll’s terminology – such as homosexuality or bestiality, but more “normal” transgressions such as incest and adultery. That the Artscroll commentary accurately translates these concluding verses, only makes its earlier statement more appalling.
At any rate, from the end of the chapter it is clear that homosexual sex between men, while certainly prohibited by the Bible, is no worse than any of the other “abominable” sexual transgressions including sleeping with another man’s wife. The fact that religionists are more tolerant of one abomination over another speaks more to their personal biases than it does to the word of God.
1. Scherman, Nosson. The Stone Edition Chumash. Mesorah Publications. Brooklyn, New York. 2000. p. 653.
Although that doesn’t explain why would that verse be singled out as abominable if the other actions are, as well….
That’s a great point, but it’s a very different question – one of omnisignificance as opposed to a specific (or even solitary) evil of homosexuality.
I believe that homosexuality IS being singled-out as an “abomination” from among all the other abominable sexual sins in this passage. It certainly stands out in its first use. I have heard taught that when God says something twice (or more), we most definitely should take note and heed Him. So, in this context, it’s no mere happenstance that the word abominable is applied, not only collectively to all sexual sins, but also uniquely to the sin of homosexuality. Personally, I don’t wonder at this peculiar emphasis, because, in addition to its obvious perversion of the natural, homosexuality is associated with a host of diseases, maladies, and injuries, some of which are unique to sodomy.
Before this commentary devolves into silly prejudice, let’s examine the text. There is a perfectly logical reason why “only” the homosexuality prohibition is considered an “abomination”, and it has nothing to do with the act itself.
Almost every single verse that describes these prohibitions do not prohibit sexual relations directly. Rather, they prohibit “the uncovering of nakedness.” The uncovering of nakedness is certainly a step toward sexual relations, but one should argue that the prohibition clearly includes sexual relations as a “kal vachomer”, meaning that if the uncovering of nakedness is not allowed, surely sexual relations are also not allowed. However, the uncovering of nakedness alone is not an “abomination.”
I will here prove that only the sexual act itself with a prohibited individual is considered an “abomination” in the text. Only 3 verses in the chapter prohibit the sexual act itself, which is called schavtecha, or “lying down with”. They are as follows; 1) Do not lie with your neighbors wife. 2) Do not lie down with a man in the manner of lying with a woman- it is an abomination. 3) Do not lie down with an animal, and a woman should not stand before an animal to lie down with it- it is a perversion.
The only one of these three verses not singled out as abominable or perverse is that of sleeping with the neighbors wife, or the sin of adultery. It is clear, elsewhere, though, that adultery is an extremely serious offense, to the point that the rabbis consider it worse than any of the other offenses. In addition to being one of the ten commandments, it is also the only one of the prohibitions mentioned in this chapter (with the possible exception of giving one’s seed to Molech, which is an interesting prohibition that is not as much a sexual act as an act of direct idol worship), that the rabbis consider to be “yehareg v’al ya’avor”, meaning that one must allow oneself to be killed rather than to perform.
So where does this leave us? Every time forbidden sexual relations are mentioned explicitly in this chapter, they are considered either an abomination, perverse, or of supreme seriousness. Every time sexual relations are not explicitly mentioned but rather “uncovering nakedness” is mentioned, it is not considered abominable to the same extent.
Two proofs of concept:
1) The first verse of the prohibited relations forbids the “uncovering of the nakedness of thy father.” It is clear from the rest of the chapter that these prohibitions are directed to men and not women- the context is of God speaking to the male children of Israel. As such, the prohibition is against a man “uncovering the nakedness” of his father. The verse does not designate this as an abomination. If this refers directly to the sexual act with one’s father, surely it should be as much if not more of an abomination than homosexual relations! It would be a homosexual act with a family member! A forbidden act on top of an abomination! Clearly, then, uncovering nakedness, as not being the sexual act itself, while forbidden, is not an abomination. However, the next step, the sexual act itself, would be an abomination.
2) The latter half of the chapter refers to all of the preceding prohibitions as abominations, as Rabbi Yuter so aptly points out. But they weren’t called abominations in those verses themselves! How can they all of a sudden be called abominations? Clearly, the second half of the chapter is referring to the “above prohibitions” to include the sexual act itself, as would make sense from the context.
Why, then, is the sexual act mentioned only in these 3 verses? What is it about these 3 acts that compels the text to refer to the sexual act explicitly and not obliquely? The answer is very simple. In the case of homosexual relations or bestial relations, there is not really a problem with the literal “uncovering of nakedness.” It is likely considered somewhat absurd to prohibit men from seeing the nakedness of men, nor of men seeing the nakedness of beasts, and such a prohibition would not necessarily imply that sexual relations were prohibited. Thus, the chapter refers to sexual relations directly, because the precursors to sexual relations, or the “uncovering of nakedness” are specifically NOT prohibited.
For the case of sexual relations with a neighbors wife, the Torah has good reason to be explicit. At other points in the Torah, other various means of congress with married women are forbidden. Being alone with another man’s wife is forbidden, the usurping of another man’s wife is forbidden, even desiring another man’s wife or being jealous of the man on account of his wife are explicitly forbidden. Without a specific prohibition against the sexual act itself, the prohibition could be seen as a variant of the prohibition against stealing. A man’s wife is his own, one cannot plot to take her away. Sexual relations, however, might be allowed if explicitly not done as a means of ownership. The verse in this chapter implies that any sexual relations with another man’s wife are forbidden, even if no “ownership” (taking the man’s wife away from him) is implied. Only from this verse can we definitively conclude that a man may not share his own wife with others for sexual purposes, for example. Yes, these are somewhat barbaric concepts, but this is the chapter in which the Torah is explicit, and no potential human activity, from the understandable to the loathsome, are examined in detail.
Hence, all of the prohibited sexual activities in this chapter are considered abominations. When referred to directly, they are specifically deemed abominations. When referred to as precursors to the sexual act itself, they are not considered abominations in themselves, but they acts they foreshadow are ALL considered abominations, as evidenced from the end of the chapter.
When considered in this contextual reading of the chapter, homosexual relations do not stand out in particular. Rather, they are simply one in a long list of things considered “an abomination.” Even more telling, the Torah does not appear to safeguard against the abomination of homosexuality as much as it does of the other prohibited relationships. There is no prohibition of uncovering the nakedness of another man, unless that man is that man’s father. However, all the other sexual acts are so heinous that even performing precursor actions like uncovering nakedness are forbidden.
I think that too many people enter into the discussion of the biblical prohibition against homosexuality with preconceived notions of what is and what is not “normal”, or what is and what isn’t considered “disgusting” by the Torah. In fact, all of these acts were considered “normal” at the time. The text specifically alludes to how all these actions were performed widely by members of the other nations. However, the Torah does not exist to define what is normal. It only exists to define what is and is not allowed. Arguments about whether one type of forbidden relationship are worse than another display an inherent external bias that has nothing to do with the Torah itself.
Josh great point. Ari, great addition. Very interesting way of looking at it, and hard to argue against.