There is a vague attempt of mine to begin short reflections each day on the Torah portion of the week, its corresponding haftara (portion from the prophets) and discussion of any relevant commentary. For me it is a spiritual exercise. I attempted to begin this last week on the portion but got caught up in the historical critical details of the passage. So I am trying again this week but, of course, get caught up in portions that deal directly with passage that conflict with homosexual inclusion in Jewish and Christian circles. This weeks portions (double portions in non-leap years) are Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, both passages (Lev 18:22; 20:13) that prohibit same-sex sexual activity. These two passages have contributed to blanket prohibitions of homosexuality, particularly in Christian circles and some (but not all) Jewish circles. It is troubling that these verses are our particular focus because there is a lot of enriching material within these portions that, I think, create tensions regarding these and many of the other prohibitions in Leviticus. Today I choose to focus on these two passages. I am not attempting to provide an in-depth analysis of the issues, rather choosing to focus on the interplay of sexual acts and gender norms in these taboos.
Thus, my focus is less concerned with what is prohibited so much as why it is prohibited. Like the majority of biblical scholars, I would argue that Lev 18:22; 20:!3 only prohibit male-male anal intercourse. The taboo legislated by the authors of the Holiness code was strict and applied to specific same-sex sexual activities. Furthermore, like Daniel Boyarin and David Brodsky I advocate the view that the rabbinic authorities themselves understood the stringency of the Torah’s taboo. Other same-sex sexual activities, therefore, constitute rabbinic prohibitions, not biblical ones. As such, studying Jewish textual traditions reinforces Michel Foucault’s central thesis in History of Sexuality, namely that sexual identities are the products of scientific discourses proceeding the Enlightenment and that in the ancient world there was no such thing as a concrete sexual identity. At the very least, any simple or straightforward explanation of Leviticus 18:22;20:13 is impossible. Even the biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, who has written extensively on Leviticus has asserted that these prohibitions only prohibit same-sex sexual activities akin to those of females, specifically that these laws only prohibit male-male incestuous sexual activities and not all male-male same sex relations. This is not to argue I agree with Milgrom’s analysis, but rather to show that there are multiple explanations or rather, there is no simple analysis of what these prohibitions mean or who they focus on.
Instead, my focus is on the issues of gender involved in such passages. These issues are focused on by a few scholars, but the majority To understand how and why the Holiness Code focuses on gender as the underpinning for this prohibition. Daniel Boyarin argues that there is a parallelism between simlat ‘issa is Deut 22:5 and miskabei ‘issa in Lev 18:22. The parallelism is both linguistic as well as that both are accompanied with to’eba “abomination.” Boyarin’s conclusion is the assertion of a cultural relation between them. I am not sure how tenneble Boyarin’s thesis is. Both lemmas are unique in their own contexts, with miskabei ‘issa occurring twice in Leviticus, specifically within the Holiness Code. Nevertheless, I believe that Boyarin’s analysis is interesting to consider due to his emphasis on gender norms.
Both of these phrases implicitly discuss hybridity discourses existent throughout Israelite literature. In Deuteronomy, the prohibition revolves around cross-dressing. It is unclear whether this is a prohibition on actual cross-dressing or if it is a prohibition on cross-dressing for the express purposes of an alterior motive (i.e. adultery) as the Talmud and Rashi understood it. Boyarin goes so far to note that like the cross-dressing of Deuteronomy, Leviticus is discussing the cross-dressing of sexual activities. Sexual acts in the ancient world often revolved around penetration. Gender, in this instance, is more likey a hierarchical continuum. Men who penetrate inhabit the top of said hierarchy, women are below men on the hierarchy, eunuchs, virgin females, and the intersexed are below women on the hierarchy, and penetrated men and penetrating women inhabit the bottom of the hierarchy.
These taboos represent the Holiness school’s view on male penetrative sex, and penetrative sex only refers to anal sex in this instance, which is that a man “using” another man as a female causes the transgression of borders. Genesis 1:1-2:4 is key to understanding this sort of “ontological” assumption. In this text, God creates humans male and female. As such, God’s categorization of male and female at the beginning of creation is threatened by male-male intercourse because it is somehow envisioned as analogous to the wearing of clothes that belong to the other sex. Both cross-dressing and male-male anal sex are seen as participation in a transgressive act.
I agree with Boyarin’s interpretation because Leviticus shows concern with how sexual acts are constituted within gender norms. Leviticus only shows concern for male anal penetration, not other forms of male-male sexual activities. Neither do any prohibitions against female-female sexual encounter exist in any Israelite legislation. Moreover, I find this fascinating because male-male sexual activity can threaten the hierarchy of the holiness code vis-a-vis
The use of both aggadic and halakhic material to understand this prohibition understands the possibilities of subversion. If the act of male anal intercourse is an act of cross-dressing, it can reveal perhaps an actual tension in the taboo itself. Here, I am thinking about performativity and its relationship to Israelite culture. If a hierarchy of penetration is already assumed in the Holiness Code, then it is fair to argue that the assumptions of these texts do not match our own. Furthermore, the hierarchy of penetration is meant to reinforce gender roles themselves. As a gay male who is penetrated by his boyfriend, I am sexually performing as a woman because it is women who are penetrated, not men. As such, I constitute a threat to both the creative order that establishes gender difference and a social order that requires it in order to establish a neat social order. But again, the halakhic order (Holiness Code) and the aggadic narrative that constitutes it (Gen 1:1-2:4) are from the same school of thought: and ordered and coherent society.
While I understand the psychology of the Priestly authors who wrote the Holiness Code, in that I understand that the purpose of their creating this neat order was in response to the existential and social crisis of exile, I cannot invariably agree with their conclusions. This is the queer hermeneutic. Their social categorization perhaps fails to recognize the immense complexity of reality itself. The purpose of queering is as to point out the inherent complexity of life. But I wouldn’t say that being a male who is penetrated means that I am threatening the order of creation but rather that I am threatening someone else’s supposed order of creation, and their supposed categorization of the social order. Perhaps we can gain from these taboos that there is a relationship between gender and power even in the ancient world, that while the Holiness code is drawing upon normative genders/normative sexed bodies, that these are ultimately based in gendered conceptualizations of the sexed body.
It is unclear whether the Priestly authors understood there being more than two sexed bodies. In aggadic and halakhic discussions within the Talmud, there are technically five genders: the androgynos (a human with both male and female sex organs), tumtum (someone with indistinguishable or underdeveloped sexual organs), aylonit (masculine or infertile women), saris (feminine or infertile men). In Jewish Tradition, the Talmud often carries the same amount of authority as the Torah. The Rabbinic account argues that there are more than two genders as expressed in Gen 1:1-2:4. This is not to argue that they are inclusive (I have not studied enough Talmud to know whether they were), but rather to state that the Sages knew gender was more complex than the binary presented in Genesis 1:1-2:4.
There is no way to successfully resolve the problems of levitical taboos. My resolution as a queer Jew means of going about challenging them through challenging their assumptions about gender, about power dynamics, about the traditum the Holiness Code draws upon (Gen 1:1-2:4) in order to establish itself as a traditio. Then again, I like subversion and parody. I like the idea that every time my boyfriend penetrates me, it is as if I am cross-dressing. I like this image not because I necessarily want to be a woman but in order to subvert what it means to be a man, that somehow my sexual acts aid in denaturalizing the assumptions we hold about society and nature. The greatest threat to the Holiness Code’s taboos are the very performance of that being prohibited. Such performances undermine the Holiness Code’s assumptions about the social order and the created universe. They question their naturalness. Queering creation and the social order ultimately reveal that God’s creation is much more complex than we describe it and it ultimately reveals that the sociological principles (ie. Holiness School) that are considered natural (vis-a-vis Gen 1:1-2:4) are not natural so much as they represent sociological constructs that have been naturalized through socialization.
This leads me to my final point and why I think the aggadic material the Holiness halakha relies upon can create a tension between the created order and the Priestly order. The Priestly hegemony in the post-exilic period grew as a direct response to monarchal ideologies that dominated pre-exilic life in Palestine. The Priestly order is aristocratic rather than autocratic. Kingship was a central institution in ancient Near Eastern cultures. The king was often depicted as either the son of God or made in the “image of God.” I believe that the Priestly authors democratized this concept in the Genesis 1 narrative in order to legitimate their own aristocracy. At the same time, it threatens it because this democratization was only limited to the Priesthood during the exodus of Israel in the wilderness. It is here we have various accounts of Israelites being limited from priesthood because they worshipped the golden calf, or how the priesthood was limited from Levites to Aaronids because of Korach’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Then again statements such found in Exod 19, claiming that Israel itself constitutes the priestly nation, or Trito-Isaiah’s prophecies concerning the New Creation and all of Israel as representative of the priesthood also represents tensions.
To end, I believe that a triumphant halakhic system requires acts of queerness. It is to demand a better account and for a more inclusive way of life, understanding the universe (and societies) in which we live are complex and sometimes impossible to categorize. If we harbor limited assumptions about the world, then our halakhic framework itself is also limited. At this point, I think I am done thinking about these passages for the time being.