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Neil Duboff


by Neil Duboff, posted May 26, 2011

The parsha in a chapter from the book of Leviticus narrates part of the instructions given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. The chapter deals with a number of sexual activities considered 'unclean' or 'abominable'.  Although the chapter is principally concerned with incest, verse 22 reads:

“Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is an abomination.”

This single reference to homosexual activity has, in recent years, made its interpretation a focus of considerable discussion, debate and emotion.

As I was thinking and reading interpretations about this phrase it became clear to me that if we want to understand the true meaning of this verse, we must look at its historical context. Until we understand what prompted these rules in biblical times, we will not be able to determine if the rules should be applied to the case of two people in committed, loving relationship.

The text itself hints at the intended meaning. We are specifically told that the rules in chapters 18 and 20 are meant to prevent the Israelites from doing what the Egyptians and Canaanites were doing at that time. The term Canaanites refers to the group of nations who lived in the land into which the Israelites migrated when they left Egypt. It follows, therefore, if we can determine what type of homosexual behavior was common among the Canaanites and Egyptians, we will better understand what these verses were meant to prohibit.

Biblical historians tell us the Canaanite religions surrounding the Israelites at the time of Leviticus often included fertility rites consisting of sexual rituals. These rituals were thought to bring the blessing of the god or goddess on crop and livestock production. During the rituals, whole families, including husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins, aunts and uncles would sometimes have sex. Also included was sex with temple prostitutes. In short, every kind of sexual practice imaginable was performed at these rituals, including homosexual sex.

Consider one specific example. Historians tell us that many Canaanites and Egyptians worshipped a goddess of love and fertility called Ishtar. Within her temples were special priests who were deemed to have special powers. Physical contact with the priests was believed to ward off evil and promote good luck. These priests were, in effect, living good luck charms, and worshipers would often ritually touch them as part of their worship practices. Sexual intercourse was considered especially effective.

This is what was going on in Canaan and Egypt at the time the rules were announced — homosexual temple prostitution. The parsha begins with the admonition,

'I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.

And the Chapter ends

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. . . . And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. Everyone who does any of these detestable things such persons must be cut off from their people. Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them "

Sexual perversion was common in Egypt as well as in Canaan. Certain practices were accepted as normal because they were common. The problem for Israel at that time was that this generation had grown up in a surrounding in which every thing "went" in sexual matters. There were no rules or restrictions. The lifestyle of Egypt had become their model, and they would have a hard time to rid themselves of this. However strong the Word of God against these practices, it would be very difficult for them to forget what they had grown up with. They would have to make a clear personal decision to accept the norm of God's Word in order to break out of their past with its experiences and memories.

The chapter includes a long lists of sexual practices common in the cultic rituals. However, they do not speak to the question of whether two people of the same sex can live in loving relationship with the blessing of God.

In fact, historians tell us our model of loving, long-term homosexual relationships did not meaningfully exist in Canaanite culture. This was a tribal culture in which it would have been virtually impossible to form such relationships. Offspring were essential to survival in this primitive agricultural economy. Moreover, there were rigid distinctions between women’s work and men’s work. If two men had lived together as a couple, for example, one of them would have been placed in the position of doing women’s work, and the presence of a man working among the women of the village would not have been tolerated.

It simply is not reasonable to believe torah intended to prohibit a form of homosexual relationship that did not exist at the time. The prohibitions in our parsha are clearly directed at homosexual temple prostitution, and that is how they should be applied.

Some people may object, saying, “But if you ignore the context and just read the words  in black and white, they appear to prohibit all sex between men, not just sex in pagan rituals.” But that is the whole point: The meaning of words depends on context. Remember, other parts of the torah require long hair and head coverings for all women in all circumstances. But, because we have studied the context, we know that is not what was meant. A text taken out of context is pretext. Let’s apply the same common-sense rule here.

The Leviticus passages were clearly written in the context of pagan religious ritual. Since we are not bringing a question about the appropriateness of cultic sex practices for modern life, we can safely set aside these passages.
In my readings on the parsha there is a common thread of one of three approaches to the verse 22

1. Some argue that the text had no knowledge about, and therefore could not forbid, serious and stable gay or lesbian relationships. Leviticus is, perhaps, about idolatrous sexual rituals — and especially does not apply to gay marriage.

2. Some argue that gay people are "compelled" to their orientation by their genes or very early imprinting, and therefore come under the category in which people are not punished for disobeying mitzvot if they are being compelled to violate them.

3. Some say the text, on close examination, does not and cannot mean what it seems to say. "A male shall not lie with a male as with a woman" — How could they? So, the text must be reinterpreted to perhaps read "Do not pretend to be heterosexual when you are not. Come out of the closet."

But I want to suggest a much different view, which accepts what I think is the reality — that in our generation we are affirming a sexual ethic different from the one that is put forward in biblical and in rabbinic Judaism.

I believe that Torah itself has a sense of the evolving, emerging sacredness of the human race

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