Same-Sex Tolerance in the Torah?

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Written by Rabbi Galina Trefil. Rabbi Trefil, a first-time Jewrotica writer, has been published by Romea.CZ (in English and Czech,) Neurology Now, Jewcy, The Dissident Voice, Open Road Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and the Pakistan Chronicle. She has spoken on behalf of human rights before the Nevada State Legislature and been interviewed on BBC radio.

Today’s image was created by guest artist Marcelle Lee. Marcelle is reachable by e-mail at marcellelee213@gmail.com

Rated PGWe’re all familiar with the concept of selective Biblical reading; that many amongst us would like us to believe that if you flip open your Tannakh, you can drop your finger down on any old sentence and, badda bing, it’s there—that one phrase that can magically stand on its own as absolute proof of whatever argument the speaker makes. But the allegation of the abridged version of Tannakh sufficing always tends to get us into trouble. In the parsha most pertaining to the GLBTIQ community, “Acharei Mot/Kedushim,” (Leviticus 16:1-20:27,) we see a major example of this.

This is the section in which a huge number of laws are put forward, including the laws of “proper” sexuality. This section, which prescribes a death sentence to offenders, wound up being interpreted by the modern mind as meaning that Jewish sexuality was a thing forever set in stone. Nothing could be more untrue and, point of fact, we know that some of the more ethically-sticky, yet still admired, marital relationships described in Torah are here called into question.

For example, we see that, with the new written reforms, a man is no longer allowed to marry two living sisters. So much for Jacob on that one. And Abraham married Sarah, whom tradition says was his half-sister and niece! Yet, 250 years prior to this new decree, give or take, these patriarchs were considered highly pious; their behavior in terms of marital choice beyond reproach. Obviously though, enough men must have followed their examples, marrying pairs of sisters, or even their own sisters, to demonstrate to the Israelite people that this created, bare minimum, more drama and headache than was needed. That drama and those headaches grew painful enough that, with the passage of a couple centuries, the Hebrews saw fit to change the law and, in-so-doing, change the way that the majority of modern Americans define marriage.

This tends to get glossed over quickly, but let us stop for a moment to really imagine the full impact that this reformation must have had on the Jewish people at the time. It invalidated a vast untold number of relationships. Protesting and civil unrest were an absolute guarantee, both before and after the law was put into effect. Likely cries equivalent to “marriage cannot be redefined” and “if you change this, what gets changed next?” abounded. And yet, obviously, the uproar eventually died down and the Hebrew people adapted. Now, marrying one’s sibling is culturally unthinkable; indeed repulsive. Change wound up accepted as without doubt for the best.

Some might consider this and capitulate: yes, this reform is in Tannakh. Therefore, Tannakh-listed, it must be okay, but other reformations would not be kosher. To that argument, we must recall the banning of polygamous marriages—a Tannakh-exempt occurrence which undoubtedly rocked the Jewish world’s martial core a great deal more than sisters no longer being a potential wives.

So we have established that Jewish marriage is not a steel concept, but instead fluid and it tends to flow in pursuit of higher levels of human rights. And yet…though marriage’s definition has been upgraded repeatedly, probably more times than we are aware, many still argue against its flexibility today, when, again, marriage is confronted with new cries for reform.

The same-sex relationship…. It is the hot topic that has the ability to potentially make or break the political powers that be of our time. Many politicians, in direct violation of the separation of Church and State rule, continually bring the Tannakh up, using it as a platform from which to defend their position. So, let’s get literal, and examine what’s really there…and not there.

Lesbianism and female bisexuality…. Some might be surprised to know that there is not one place in Tannakh itself where these are denounced. It is assumed that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, but, when you boil down to it in specifics, the Torah only forbids the sleeping of men with men, (which has a question mark that we’ll address later). The very concept of women being with women, however, is never approached.

Why is it not brought up in Torah? Perhaps, in a time period where there was one husband per a half dozen wives, arguing against it might have been seen as a lost cause. King Solomon, so praised for his interpretation and enforcement of the law, had roughly a thousand wives and concubines, all reserved for his male ardor alone. Statistically, it seems unlikely that one thousand harem women would have been completely heterosexual. It also seems unlikely that he was capable of providing adequate sexual satisfaction to all the women he possessed, so them seeking it from each other, according to basic human nature, is a typically logical scenario; one that all harems throughout the world are well-familiar with. (Lesbianism in harems, point of fact, was common enough that many harems had documented legal codes on how to address it.) Yet we never hear of King Solomon ruling against female-female relationships. Maybe he didn’t consider his status as husband threatened by his wives having romances with each other so long as they did not have them with other men. Or, perhaps, just as the fantasy of two women together is so culturally encouraged now, men with multiple wives back then might have even considered a degree of lesbianism as one of the perks of polygamy.

Who knows? We can’t know…because no one bothered to write the reason for the lesbian omission down and, as it is not written, Judaism has no right to claim any definite dogma regarding it.

So if a Jew is addressed by a same-sex female couple about their relationship and that Jew cannot point to any part of Torah objecting to it, then surely, some would argue, Torah must state somewhere that marriage absolutely must be between a man and a woman, right? Actually, no, it does not. There are no examples of non-straight couples being married in Torah, but there are no outright objections to it either. Marriage in general is never defined according to gender. We are told to draw our own conclusions by modern commentators, but how can we claim to know the minds of our ancient forefathers, let alone all historical aspects of the culture in which they lived?

From the lesbian perspective, such assumptions would be a tremendously slippery slope, as any polygamist woman will acknowledge that, in marrying her husband, she is also entering into an intense familial relationship with all of his other wives. In the days of Torah, were there instances where the girl married the guy in order to get the other girl? Doubtless. Did all guys care? Doubtlessly not.

So if a female same-sex couple has no basis for discrimination within the original written Jewish law—(and here I must specify that I reference Torah and not the works of commentators who came later, along with their own personal biases)—what should we then think of male same-sex couples? If the goose is vindicated and off the hook, should the gander still be tarred and de-feathered? Should modern Judaism tolerate anti-male sexism?

Here we would typically find Sodom and Gomorrah referenced, with all their accompanying perversions, but when we look at the chapter where Sodom and Gomorrah pay the ultimate price, we do not see the deity targeting gay men. We see Him targeting gang rapists—individuals committing an act which is devoid of true heterosexuality or homosexuality, but stands completely separate from both. Rape may be a perversion, but, as any survivor can testify, it has precious nothing to do with sex; is entirely centered on torture and power. Sodom and Gomorrah‘s destruction would be much better compared to the deaths of Leopold and Loeb than, say, Bert and Ernie. Therefore the argument that it was destroyed due to G-d’s anti-gay hatred seems to have a pretty significant flaw.

If you want to get technical, yes, Judaism prescribes a death sentence for men who lie together “as with a woman.” But does this mean sex? Or does it mean that it is totally unacceptable for a man to treat any other man with the same regard during sex as he would a female? In a time when women were bought and sold as slaves—oops! “brides,”—perhaps this law might have carried a guarantee that men could not give money to another man’s father and forcedly acquire sexual rights to him.

“You cry like a little girl,” a common phrase now which has ancestor terms going back thousands of years, all of which imply the same thing. Women are weak and do not merit respect. So the idea that male sex, if it happened, would have the strict regulation to not remove your partner’s dignity, that you not “defile” him, not overpower him as you would a female, on penalty of death…this is a concept which could relegate this law, albeit in a very sexist way, more towards how to have an appropriate, respectable homosexual relationship. Women are forced to submit but another man is a voluntary sexual equal.

That interpretation could be argued, granted, but what cannot be is that, at this point, it was common for men to “put a hand under each other’s thigh” when swearing an oath. This was perfectly respectable and a sign of intimate trust. What does this phrase really mean? No way to be anything about it but blunt: these men weren’t touching each other’s thighs, but instead their own personal holiest of holies. For a purely homosexuals-must-die religious group, it does seem odd that men would be socially encouraged to grab hold of each other’s genitals. True, as bizarre as it may sound to us today, this was not necessarily a sexual thing; was even practiced between fathers and sons. But, as in the harem scenario, let’s take human nature into account here, people. The concept that the law-makers of old never considered that this tradition might lead to male-male friskiness, at least occasionally, makes no sense. Yet, despite that, this custom was never banned.

At the end, we have arguments…for and against same-sex marriage and relationships. We have bits of Torah that can be interpreted either way. The verdict is inconclusive, so we have no option but to follow our own conscience and decide what we believe is the best viewpoint as regards sex, love, and marriage.

But, at least unlike reforms of old, which were mainly geared at protecting people from the suffering marriage can provide, the new cultural change is brought about by the persistent, refuse-to-give-up, mutual love of two human beings. And love tends to be a very precious thing, else G-d would not have created it.

Rabbi Galina Trefil has been published by Romea.CZ (in English and Czech,) Neurology Now, Jewcy, The Dissident Voice, Open Road Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and the Pakistan Chronicle. She has spoken on behalf of human rights before the Nevada State Legislature and been interviewed on BBC radio.

  • rayclayman

    I just started reading the article and already found something that doesn’t make any sense: the laws of the nation of Israel were given at mount Sinai. Before that God did not give any laws, save the ones explicitly mentioned. Therefor there was no violation of laws on the one hand, and no evolution of law on the other hand: the laws were given as a single codex at one time period. A handful of the laws made an early appearance before the codex was given. That’s all.

    Since your argument is based on the law itself evolving, and on equating laws given each individually as personal laws with laws given as part of a codex of national laws, I’m not sure the rest of your article is worth reading.

  • Laurentina

    Dear Rayclay,

    You have a point with that interpretation. And I could add to it the fact that this “evolution” always gets more strict, not less.

    However, your assumption that this first point is the basis for the rest of the article is wrong. The points that follow are very intriguing. It is worth reading.

    Rabbi, kol hakavod on bringing up some great arguments that I’ve never heard before! (And I have heard a lot on this topic.)

  • Oy

    Yet, there are so many more flaws in the author’s analysis.

    The author cautions against a “slippery slope” – but what else should we take from such dismissive statements as “how can we claim to know the minds of our ancient forefathers, let alone all historical aspects of the culture in which they lived” or ” I reference Torah and not the works of commentators who came later, along with their own personal biases”? The author gravely announces that there are “arguments either way,” and therefore draws the most slipper-slope conclusion possible: “to follow our own conscience and decide what we believe is the best viewpoint.”

    She is correct that Sodom’s destruction is not reflective of a divine condemnation of homosexuality. She even raises an interesting interpretation of the traditional source in Leviticus for the prohibition on homosexuality: that it perhaps refers to the subjugation of another male, as oppose to sex with another male – a point first raised by Rabbi Steven Greenberg in his book “Wrestling with God and Men.”

    However, she omits several key points, which belong in an article of this nature.

    1. Torah only matters if it is of divine origin. Otherwise, who cares what the law was then? But it was G-d who gave it, then it was not that “the Hebrews saw fit to change the law,” as the author flippantly suggests.

    2. Once the Torah was given, there was never any “evolution” in which disregarding the prohibitions of Torah was ever acceptable. There was one instance during the 10th century where, for pragmatic reasons, Rabbeinu Gershom banned polygamy for Ashkenazic Jews. Nobody ever pretended, however, that this was anything more than a rabbinic ordinance of something absolutely permitted by the Torah.

    3. Everything that we, as Jews, accept as what makes a Jewish marriage, is derived from the interpretation of a single passage in Deuteronomy (24:1): “When a man takes a wife and is intimate with her…” From here is derived all of the halachot about what it is that constitutes and consummates a marriage. And the Torah is unambiguous about that the fact that it is a man who takes a woman. Throw that out, then throw the whole thing out. Why a ring? Why a chupah? There’s no reason that marriage shouldn’t be consummated with a wink. So that author’s statement that “Marriage in general is never defined according to gender,” is not really accurate.

    4. The author recognizes that there is nothing in Torah that addresses lesbian marriage (although, can anybody tell me what G-d meant when He said In Leviticus, 18:3, “Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do”?), but then draws the highly questionable conclusion that Torah would never gender-discriminate – even as she argues that the Leviticus prohibition is really that a man should not treat another man as poorly as a woman.

    5. The author’s Leviticus argument has some serious flaws of its own. First, is it a better interpretation of Torah for a man to be prohibited from subjugating another man as he MAY do with a woman? Doesn’t that sanction the mistreatment of women? Second, as most Jews see the Torah as G-d’s living word, that continues to have relevance in every age – has that passage in Leviticus now lost its relevance, since we no longer sell our women? It’s easy and convenient to dismiss Torah on the basis that it solely addressed the cultural norms that existed at the time – but is it honest? Is that really our belief? Perhaps it means exactly what it has been construed to mean over the past 3 millennia: that sex is a powerful connection that G-d intended would be utilized by a man and a woman, but between two men? (Or between a man and a MENSTRUATING woman; or between a man and a RELATED woman – and by the way, the Torah does NOT prohibit marriages between uncles and nieces.)

    So, we actually have NOT “established that Jewish marriage is not a steel concept, but instead fluid and it tends to flow in pursuit of higher levels of human rights.” Instead, all we have established is that the author would LIKE same-sex marriage to be permissible under Torah law.

    There nothing wrong with reexamining traditional understandings to determine whether earlier interpretations may have been unduly restrictive. But that reexamination should be earnest – not flippant, and with great care to the significance of interpreting a 3,000 year-old book upon which our religion and very sense of morality is based. It should be respectful of those that have devoted their lives during that period to accurately interpreting G-d’s word – and not simply dismissing them because they had “personal biases.” Is that too much to ask to obtain Torah’s endorsement?