Biblical Rules and Personal Autonomy: Homosexuality?

April 27th: Achare Mot/Kedoshim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In Orthodox synagogues, the Saturday morning Torah reading includes the whole parashah which is usually several chapters long. Most Conservative congregations use an old Babylonian triennial system where a third of each traditional portion is read each year over three years—thus sticking with the traditional weekly portion but focusing on a shorter part. Reform congregations generally focus on a passage of ten to twenty verses from the weekly portion with the Rabbi (or Bar/Bat Mitzvah) choosing the section of the traditional parashah that is most meaningful.

On a week like this, when the Torah portion goes from Leviticus 16 through Leviticus 20, I usually choose what is known as the Holiness Code, the beautifully spiritual and practical passage that starts with “You shall be holy,  for I, the Lord your God, am holy,”  and concludes with “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19.1-18).  One cannot get more profound than this essential message from the Torah. That is what I usually choose.

What I usually do not choose are the two verses in the Torah which prohibit homosexual relations. They are problematic on several levels. In Leviticus 18.22, we have the commandment: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” And, in Leviticus 20.13, we have this law: “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them.” Though the Hebrew Bible does not seem to know about lesbian relationships, the negative judgment about male homosexuality is quite clear, and we who have more modern sensibilities are put in a position of choosing between the Bible and individual liberties.

The context may give us a little help. The Leviticus 18 passage is in the midst of prohibitions of sexual practices of surrounding nations—sexual practices that the Torah considers terrible. Leviticus 18 begins with, “You shall not copy the practices of the Land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the Land of Canaan to which I am taking you…” and concludes with “Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants.” One could read this text as the Torah’s writers trying to establish a separation between our behavior and that of our sinful neighbors.

A similar reading could be attempted for the Leviticus 20 passage: it is part of a section prohibiting incest. Could one read this as a prohibition of intra-family sexual liaisons and not as a blanket condemnation for all homosexuality?

There is also some thinking that some of the forbidden sexual behavior was part of the Canaanite religion. They believed that the fertility of the land is the result of the copulation of the two main gods, Baal and Ashtoreth, and their temples featured all kinds of sexual rituals which “got the gods in the mood.” The Bible’s Prophets considered these temples with their sacred prostitutes and religious orgies disgraceful and spoke against them vehemently. Therefore, a modern could ask: Was the objection to these sexual practices moral or ritual? Were the sexual practices evil in-and- of-themselves, or was the problem that they were part of a polytheistic, idolatrous cult?

Some modern thinkers have also wondered whether the Bible’s writers understood the possibility of a loving, consensual homosexual relationship. Indeed, one modern rabbi, Arthur Waskow of Philadelphia, gave a kind of tongue-in-cheek Midrash on the subject. The prohibition forbids a man lying with a man as with a woman, but, in loving homosexual relationships, both men are thinking of each other as men and not as women; hence the verse would not apply.

These are all ways that modern liberal religionists try to historicize or Midrash their way out of the prohibitions, but I think that these verses are so clear that such Midrashim are more eisegesis than exegesis—reading our thoughts into the text, rather than drawing out the essential truths of the text. The fact is that Torah is quite clear about prohibiting homosexual relations. What can we do with this very clear declaration?

Some subjects are not so clear and are much more amenable to modern interpretations. An example is abortion, a subject not addressed anywhere in the Bible. In order to derive a Biblically-based opinion on the voluntary termination of pregnancy, moderns are forced to engage in a reasoning process in which they draw on (tangentially) relevant Biblical principles and extend them into relevance. This is how both pro-choice and anti-abortion thinkers arrive at their religious positions. However, when it comes to homosexuality, there is no ambivalence in the Bible, and thus it is very difficult to argue with Orthodox Jews or Fundamentalist/Literalist Christians. Even if one were to explain that homosexual/lesbian inclinations are innate—created by God in each LGBTQA individual, the text still stands: God creates all kinds of sinful urges in us, and it is our duty is to be guided by the Biblical rules and resist the sinful urges.

So, while some modern subjects can be Midrashed, something as unequivocal as the Biblical prohibition of homosexuality pushes us to clarify our thinking on the nature of the Torah and its authority over our lives. If the Torah/Bible is as Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist/Literalist Christians believe, the authoritative and unchanging law that God commands us to follow—and upon which God will judge us at the end of our days, then there is very little wiggle-room. The Torah considers homosexuality perverse and sinful, and it says so twice in this week’s portions.

If, on the other hand, we have a different view of the revelatory texts—considering them human works based on what the authors thought was piety and goodness, then we can thoughtfully and spiritually disagree with some of their opinions. The liberal religious understanding—in both Judaism and Christianity—is that the Torah/Bible is the product of wise human beings whose writings reflect their thinking about God and their ideas on how to live in relationship with God. It makes sense that they would have written in their time-bound and culture-bound attitudes of propriety, but time, culture, and science have redefined our understanding of many components of life—among them, sexual orientation. We see LGBTQA sexual orientations as natural varieties of human sexuality and therefore not moral or theological problems.

In some religious circles, it is uncomfortable to draw a distinction between reverence for the Bible and strict obedience to it, but, in my mind, it is the only way that we moderns can reconcile traditional religiosity and our modern beliefs in personal autonomy and civil liberties.