These Torah portions contain a number of different accounts of God speaking to Moses and giving him guidelines around ways of living – in relation to God-self, to the world, and to fellow human beings. Leviticus 16 describes the Tabernacle ceremony for the festival of the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 17 establishes the rules around sacrifice, slaughtering animals, and the consumption of blood. Leviticus 18 discusses specific instructions about sexual relationships. Leviticus 19 discusses ritual and moral holiness as well as holy community, and Leviticus 20 warns against immorality and discusses the penalties for respective actions. In the context of a service acknowledging the violence and persecution of LGBTQ people, too often done in the name of religion, the part of this Torah portion that most stands out is Leviticus 18. Here, God speaks to Moses about many of the specificities of sexual relationships and sexual morality, including same-sex sexual relationships. On the latter, the text reads, in verse 22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Lev 18:22). This is only one verse of one book of an even larger collection of books, yet this verse has had a serious impact in theological interpretations of sexuality as well as in the personal and spiritual lives of LGBTQ people worldwide. In short, it is a text that has been consistently used to oppress, persecute, incarcerate, discriminate against, and perpetrate acts of violence against LGBTQ people domestically and internationally. It would, then, make sense to address this text head-on in a Gilead Sabbath service.
Rabbi and Jewish scholar Rebecca Alpert writes that this Leviticus text poses a central question for LGBTQ Jews, namely, “How do we live as Jews when the same text that tells us we were created in God’s image also tells us that our sacred loving acts are punishable by death by decree of that same God?” She continues, “this question may impel us to deny the power of Leviticus, but in truth we cannot. For all of us involved in any way in Jewish life, this text has authority. It has authority in that it is used by others to support the belief that homosexuality is wrong…And whether we ourselves consciously accept the authority of the text or not, we would be foolish to think that it does not affect us deeply, sometimes in subtle or insidious ways. For those of us who are lesbian or gay [bisexual, transgender, or queer], it can undermine our pride in ourselves, feeding our own homophobias as well as that of others.” Recognizing the damage this text has caused and acknowledging also the complex historical, theological, and personal ways a text functions, Alpert suggest “three methods of coming to terms with Leviticus.” First, she suggests “we can, as did our ancestors, interpret the text to enable us to function with it on its own terms.” Second, she offers that “we can, like biblical scholars, treat the text as a historical record and draw conclusions based on the way it functions in a given context.” Finally, she asserts that “we can encounter the text directly with our emotions and our self-knowledge, allowing it to move us to anger, and then beyond anger, to action.”
In pursuit of these first two suggestions – interpretation and biblical criticism – it is helpful to turn to the ways scholars and biblical critics have come to view the text. Here, the Oxford Encyclopedia proves helpful in providing a comprehensive treatment of how scholars have wrestled with this text. In an article on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Interpretation, the Encyclopedia reads:
What do Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 mean when they literally command that men should not lie with a male “the lyings of a woman?” One apologetic move argues that these texts are really about “idolatry” (when paired with Lev 18:20, per Countryman 1988); or about gay sex outside of a loving relationship. Olyan (1994) argues that Leviticus 18:22 condemns the insertive role in anal intercourse, a rule also found in Middle Assyrian Law A 20. Leviticus 20:13 extends the rule to both participants. Boyarin argues that these texts reject a specific sexual act—male anal intercourse—which functions like cross-dressing, a gender-deviance that “mixes kinds” (Lev 19:19). He points out, however, that the Babylonian Talmud permits heterosexual anal intercourse as the second of two possible “lyings with a woman” (cf. b. Sanh 54). Milgrom argues that the command applies only to Jews in the land of Israel (as suggested by the rhetorical frame (Lev 18:24–30). Stewart suggests that these texts only apply to male-male incest relations to the same degree of kinship for which male-female incest is forbidden. Nearly all commentators now note that lesbian sex is not mentioned: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Lev 18:22).
These interpretations take an apologetic approach to the text, seeking to understand what was meant in the original context, calibrate the text’s bearing in our current context, and find ways to live sexually healthy lives given the nuanced understanding of the passage.
Another approach, the approach of much of queer criticism, instead accepts the text’s condemnatory tone but places that condemnation in a greater context. The Oxford Encyclopedia again proves helpful. It reads,
“Much queer criticism of the Bible accepts that a few biblical passages condemn at least some forms of same-sex sexual relations. Queer critics will generally note, however, that same-sex sexual relations were not conceptualized in the world that gave us the Bible in the same way that homosexuality is understood today. As in other ancient societies, the writers of both Testaments almost certainly interpreted same-sex eroticism in terms of a politics of penetration that understood intercourse to involve an active, penetrating social superior and a passive, penetrated social subordinate. The model for this understanding was, precisely, heterosexual intercourse in a patriarchal society. For example, the levitical proscriptions of male same-sex intercourse are explicitly articulated in terms of gender differentiation, inasmuch as such intercourse is referred to by comparison with lying with a woman (Lev 18:22; 20:13). Thus, there is little direct correlation between such passages and contemporary debates about homosexuality, which are informed by very different notions of sexual practice on all sides of the issue.”
This interpretative approach seeks to differentiate the social worlds in which such sexual acts are understood and enacted and thus suggests that the difference between these contexts must be appreciated when applying the text today. We must acknowledge, in other words, that the sexual practices referenced in Leviticus differ on many levels from the sexual practices of LGBTQ people today.
Both of these interpretive frames address the power that this single verse has wrought throughout history. They seek to mitigate, contextual, or complicate what has been understood as a definitive and unquestionable pronouncement. It is important to acknowledge that these texts are complicated and that we must honor that complexity in our uses, adoptions, and applications of these texts. Sometimes, as the queer criticism above suggests, the texts include a deeply troubling and condemnatory language, and it is important to acknowledge the ways the text has been used to justify violence, persecution, and discrimination against LGBTQ people. Using the text in such a way requires removing the complexity within the text, isolating it from overall biblical message, and unreflectively applying the text to the present day. There are many methodological, not to mention ethical, problems with interpreting in this way. Nevertheless, many continue to use the text in this way, and LGBTQ people face the consequences. In this country and across the globe, LGBTQ face persecution, violence, and discrimination because of laws, social barriers, and prejudice largely based in religion. Here, you could speak further to the realities of LGBTQ people globally (see our factsheet or the first hand stories of LGBTQ people)
The violence causes by these texts can also be personal and emotional. It is difficult to read that these words came directly to Moses from the mouth of God. Encouraging your congregation to experience these texts on an emotional level, as Rebecca Alpert suggest, offers a space for pain, anger, and even action. It also invites empathy and solidarity among those who may not experience violence or persecution directly. At the end of the day, as Rebecca Alpert writes, this text exerts power: in our lives, in the lives of those who are oppressed, and in the ambit of religion. We must address this power, place it in context, and reclaim our own agency. By doing so, we can begin to reckon with the underlying source of religion-based violence, discrimination, and persecution of LGBTQ people.
Rebecca T. Alpert, “In God’s Image: Coming to Terms with Leviticus,” in Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay, and Jewish, edited by Christie Balka and Andy Ross, 61–70. Boston: Beacon, 1989.
David Tabb Stewart, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Interpretation,” in Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford, 2013.
Ken Stone, “Queer Criticism and Queer Theory,” in Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford, 2013.