וְאֶת זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה הִוא
"A male do not lie the lyings of a woman; it is an abomination."
If this English translation is less than lucid, then it faithfully transmits the clarity of the Hebrew original. Whether one agrees with Ben Azzai that the central principle of the Torah is Genesis 5:1 ("When God created humankind, God made it in God's image") or agrees with Rabbi Akiva that it is Leviticus 19:18 ("Love your neighbor as yourself"), one way or the other it is incumbent upon us to read Leviticus 18:22 in a way that is consistent with these Torah principles. Many such readings of this verse have already been proposed, often taking into account the historical context of the Torah text and/or our contemporary understanding of human nature. In this post, I will supplement these with a new reading that I believe to be consistent with the methodology of midrash halachah, the process by which the rabbis established a correspondence between the mitzvot as written in the Torah and the mitzvot as observed.
Rabbi Ishmael, the second-century tanna, listed 13 hermeneutical principles by which the Torah can be interpreted. Of course, little original work has been done in this area for the last 1800 years, but I'm going to try. I won't be so arrogant as to propose a new gezeirah shavah (R. Ishmael's 2nd principle: connecting the contents of two apparently unrelated verses because they share a common word), since classically a gezeirah shavah must come from a received tradition. However, the other 12 principles are fair game.
R. Ishmael's 6th principle is kelal ufrat uchlal i atah dan ela che'ein ha-perat ("general, specific, general - you can only infer [items that are] similar to the specific [items]"). As The Practical Talmud Dictionary explains:
When a general term is followed by a specific term (or terms) that is in turn followed by a second general term, the halakha neither includes the whole general class (since a specific term has been stated) nor is it restricted to the specific item(s) (since general terms have been stated), but it applies to all items that are similar to the specific term(s) stated in the Biblical text.
Let's apply this principle to the overall structure of Leviticus 18. The chapter contains a series of commandments regarding forbidden sexual relationships. All of the commandments are given in the second-person masculine singular, but all agree that these prohibitions apply to both men and women. For example, 18:9 forbids the male addressee from having sexual relations with his sister, but if such an action were carried out, both the brother and the sister would be culpable. (Leviticus 20:17 prescribes the punishment of kareit for both of them.)
Kelal (general): Leviticus 18:6 says אִישׁ אִישׁ אֶל-כָּל-שְׁאֵר בְּשָׂרוֹ לֹא תִקְרְבוּ לְגַלּוֹת עֶרְוָה -- "None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness."
Perat (specific): Verses 18:7-20 list a series of specific sexual prohibitions, all referring to relations between a man and a woman. A man may not have sex with any of his close female relatives by blood or by marriage, or with another man's wife.
Kelal (general): Leviticus 18:22 says וְאֶת זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה הִוא -- "A male do not lie the lyings of a woman."
According to the principle of kelal ufrat uchlal, the general terms ("kol she'eir besaro / anyone of his own flesh" and "mishkevei ishah / the lyings of a woman") only apply to items that are similar to the specific items on the list, viz. incestuous and adulterous relationships. However, the general terms extend the reach of the specific list so that it includes some additional prohibited relationships in the same general category. Leviticus 18:22 says that the male addressee should not lie these mishkevei ishah with a male. Therefore, just as a man is forbidden from having sex with his mother, his sister, or a married woman, he is also forbidden from having sex with his father, his brother, or a married man. Likewise, since all of these commandments apply to women as well, we can derive an equivalent category of forbidden relationships between two women.
The other verse to address is Leviticus 20:13:
וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת-זָכָר מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה עָשׂוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם מוֹת יוּמָתוּ דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם
A man who lies a man the lyings of a woman, they have committed an abomination. Both of them shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.
Rabbi Ishmael's 3rd principle is binyan av (constructing a prototype). In particular, we'll use binyan av mikatuv echad, constructing a prototype from one verse. A classic example is Deuteronomy 22:11, which forbids clothing of sha'atnez, a combination of wool and linen. This verse constructs the prototype that sha'atnez refers specifically to wool and linen, so that Leviticus 19:19 (which also refers to sha'atnez, with no further details) is also understood to refer only to wool and linen, rather than any arbitrary mixture of fabrics.
Likewise, Leviticus 18:22 (by way of the kelal ufrat uchlal that we have explained above) constructs the prototype that mishkevei ishah refers specifically to the incestuous and adulterous relationships of the sort listed in Leviticus 18, so that Leviticus 20:13 can also be understood to refer only to these categories of same-sex relationships.
Leviticus 19:2, at the center of the Holiness Code, commands "Kedoshim tihyu / You shall be holy", and a long list of positive and negative commandments, including the arayot (prohibited relationships) in Leviticus 18 and 20, explains precisely how to do this. The first part of the marriage ceremony, in which two individuals become consecrated to each other, is called kiddushin, sanctification. The blessing over kiddushin begins "...asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al ha'arayot" -- "...who has made us holy with commandments, and commanded us about forbidden relationships." Why are the arayot invoked in the blessing for marriage? Because just as the Torah's prohibition of certain foods sanctifies the act of eating, the Torah's prohibition of certain relationships emphasizes that the relationship between the two people getting married is not only permitted, but sanctified.
The juxtaposition of the arayot with Kedoshim tihyu and with kiddushin has long been understood to show that some heterosexual relationships are forbidden while others are sacred. Likewise, by reading Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to refer to similar classes of same-sex relationships that are forbidden, we see that this sanctity applies to two people of the same sex who consecrate themselves to each other.