Oft Quoted, Oft Misunderstood

Image: Ruth and Naomi, painting, Walker Art Gallery. Artist: Philip Hermogenes Calderon, 1833-1898.

Oft quoted, oft misunderstood: I’m talking about Leviticus 18:22. It’s one of the passages recited so often that just about anyone will recognize it, even if the Bible isn’t a book they read:

וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא׃

Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is a to’evah.

Leviticus 18:22

This line is often translated into English in ways that make it “obvious” that this is about male homosexuality. The Hebrew, however, isn’t nearly so clear. If you are curious about that, see Leviticus 18:22 in Queer Bible Hermeneutics, from the Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University.

Language that suggests love relationships between same-sex individuals appears in the Tanakh. The best example is David and Jonathan, who were passionate about each other. (1 Samuel 18) The passionate vow that Ruth makes to Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17) sounds like a modern marriage vow. Granted, both David and Ruth went on to marry people of the opposite sex, but they did not express love for them.

So if this passage isn’t about homosexuality in the modern sense, what am I to learn from it, since it must mean something?

V’et zakhar lo tishkav – And (to) a male (you) do not lie-down

mish’k’vei isha – from/like the lyings-down of the wife

to’evah hu. – It is a bad-thing.

Zakhar designates something as male, whether it is a human, an animal, or a bit of grammar. Its opposite is nikevah (“female” or “feminine.”) It’s a binary: everything is one or the other. Zakhar overrides nikevah in grammar when both are present. If I put one male horse (sus) in a paddock with 15 mares (susot) the plural changes to male (susim.)

Ishah designates a woman, or more often, a wife. This, too, has power implications, but in this case it is the absence of power. This is a person who is acquired by others who have more power. The first verse of Kiddushin, the tractate of the Talmud devoted to marriage, states:

האשה נקנית בשלוש דרכים

A wife is acquired in three ways…

BT Kiddushin 2a

I’m willing to read tishkav and mis’k’vei as having a sexual meaning, given the context of the surrounding verses. The first is a negative command: don’t be sexual this way. The second is a description of the forbidden sort of sex: having sex as one would with a lower-powered individual.

I think this is a verse about power, and especially about power differentials. I read it as saying that it is forbidden to have an intimate relationship in which one person holds the power, and the other is subordinate. To put it more positively, sexual intimacy is permitted only between equals. Coming as it does on the heels of a set of verses about incest, it makes sense that this is a passage about relationship and power.

One could make the argument that in the ancient world, and in much of the present-day world, most sex takes place between partners of unequal standing. However, that isn’t how it’s supposed to be: here in Parashat Acharei Mot, Leviticus holds up many ideals for us to pursue, whether or not we manage to reach them.

We strive for a world in which strangers are welcomed, and the vulnerable are protected. We strive for a world in which there is no incest and no abuse of animals. In the following chapter, we will be commanded to pursue justice, respect elders, share with the poor, deal kindly with the disabled, and to eschew revenge. We strive for those ideals, too, even though after millennia we still fall short.

We’re still working to live up to those. I read verse 22 to say that we are supposed to be trying to live up to the ideal of consensual sexual intimacy, whoever we’re having it with.

What do you think? How do you deal with Leviticus 18:22?

Advertisements

Stop the Hateful Cycle

Image: Sign with “Violence” and “Hate Speech” with “No” symbols over them. Photo by John S. Quartermansome rights reserved. Cropped for use here. 

I’ve been listening to the news organizations do their endless “special report” drill on the massacre in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando Florida. I finally turned off the television.

The so-called news had devolved into a cycle of speculation: hate crime? terrorism? domestic? ISIS? wash-rinse-repeat…

Let’s get something straight (pun intended): Hate leads to Terror. The magnitude of this particular act of violence is unprecedented, but there is ample precedent for the hate that inspired it. Someone failed to teach the murderer that violence against anyone is unacceptable. Maybe his parents tried to teach him, but over the years acquaintances listened to his verbal violence against LGBTQ folks and said nothing. Someone heard homophobic words and said nothing. Others encouraged him, all those voices that said “someone ought to do something” or that said that “killing LGBTQ people is God’s will” bear responsibility. That includes ISIS, along with voices closer to home.

I believe in free speech and I also believe in the absolute necessity of challenging hateful speech, whether it is justified with a quote from the Bible, from the Quran, or from someone’s sainted grandma. It doesn’t matter how it is justified: it’s still hate. 

 לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not go slandering among your people. Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:16

This verse has two parts. (1) Don’t slander. (2) Don’t stand on the blood of your neighbor.

These two commandments are side by side because they are related. Hateful speech leads to violence, and when we listen to hateful speech and do not challenge it, we stand in the blood of another human being. We do not remain clean.

(By the way, if anyone is thinking about arguing that “slander isn’t slander if it’s true,” please stop right there. Rechilut, the Hebrew word in question, may also be translated “gossip.” It may be either true or false.)

When we listen passively to anyone (elderly uncles included) talk about what “ought to happen” to a group of people, we stand in the blood of those human beings. This is equally true whether the targeted group is a group we like or a group we don’t like at all.

Let’s resolve to speak up every time we hear hate speech against:

  • LGBTQ people
  • People of color
  • Jews
  • Muslims
  • Christians
  • Palestinians
  • Atheists
  • Mormons
  • Persons with disabilities
  • Fat people
  • Thin people
  • Mentally ill people

… and anyone else.

To do less is to stand in the blood of another.

Addendum: I write this as much for myself as for any reader. I, too, have let hate speech pass when I have written off the speaker as beyond learning. I was wrong to do that. I teach not only with my words but with my silence. Whenever I let hateful speech pass unchallenged, I teach the speaker that I think it is OK. I was wrong to do that.

 

 

 

Sh’mini: Back to Basics

Several years ago I heard Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin give a wonderful sermon on Parashat Sh’mini. She pointed out that the first part of the portion has to do with the tragedy of Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. Immediately after their ordination as kohanim [priests] they experiment with making a burnt offering. Instead of working properly, the offering goes horribly wrong and the two of them are burnt up in an explosion of fire from the mishkan, the portable dwelling of God.

Then, she noted, the text swiftly shifts topic. Instead of continuing with the esoteric topic of sacrifices, Chapter 11 of Leviticus switches abruptly to the topic of Jewish dietary laws: “These are the living things which you may eat…” I had always been bothered by this sudden shift, but Rabbi Mates-Muchin explained it: God understood that the Israelites were not in the right place spiritually for the intricacies of the sacrificial cult. What they needed were the basics: “here is the food you are supposed to eat.” That sermon comes to my mind whenever I explain to an Introduction to Judaism student that I don’t cover kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in the “Intro” class.

There is something in us human beings that makes us think that “more advanced” equals “best.” Some of it is ego: we want to be black belts, not yellow belts. And we think that if we can do some of the “more advanced” exercises that makes us better than if we were only doing “beginner” things. So we want to jump ahead to advanced Judaism: we don’t want to know about dietary laws, we want to learn about kabbalah or gematriaBut beginning Hebrew? – that’s so boring!

The trouble, of course, is that when we jump ahead to the things we are sure will be more interesting, we miss the beauty of the basics, and we will be studying whatever it is without the tools we need. Learning Hebrew is a basic skill for study in Torah and rabbinic literature. The stories in Torah and Tanakh are the building blocks of Jewish ethical and legal thought. But even in English, on the simple peshat level –the level of surface meaning – they are a rich treasury of wisdom.

A life of Torah is a journey. Every step of the way can be a thing of beauty, a precious jewel, from “Aleph, Bet, Gimel” to the most complex lesson in the Talmud. May we each learn some new bit of Torah every day, and value it for the treasure it is!