Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Leviticus 18:22 according to Rabbi Ishmael

This Shabbat we read the portions of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, containing the famous verse Leviticus 18:22:

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.


  1. I'm going to need to read that again, but I think it's fantastic.

    If you don't mind, (and I assume you won't), you just became part 4 in my series. (Of course, I won't just copy and paste, you'll get your own link.)

  2. you should be aware that your interpretation would make female homosexuality an issur deorayta- which, you no doubt are aware, is not the conventional opinion.

    But then again, I don't think that something can be deorayta if it isn't considered such in an earlier rabbinic period, so perhaps you are safe.

  3. How do you figure? The issur would only apply to incestuous or adulterous same-sex relationships, for men and women alike (not female homosexuality in general).

  4. This is...unconventional. You surely realize this is the first klal ufrat uchlal ever that spans so many verses, in fact the first one (to my knowledge) that involves more than one mitzvah.

    If you're going to use "mishk'vei isha" as a klal because it's unclear, you will have to apply the term "abomination" to all of the sins, and you'll have to explain why "it" is an abomination, not "they"; similarly, you'll have to explain why the next verse begins with "and," as a continuation.

    You also conveniently omit niddah and molech from the k`ein haprat, assuming this is relevant; you've also effectively omitted all the included verbs (don't uncover, don't approach, don't take, don't give).

  5. I am so confused..."lyings of a woman"? So it's ambiguous, fine, but I'm still unsure what traditional interpretations of this abiguousity are... Are there any? Or did the Rabbis just leave it at that?

    (this is what I get for staying up until 3:12 am...)

  6. I'm not so sure about the viability of this interpretation either, but I'd like to hear more. (a la "jxg")

  7. "Mishkevei ishah" is a kelal not because it's unclear, but because it is a general category that encompasses all of the specific relationships listed in verses 7-20, all of which (as stated) involve lying with a woman.

    I'll look into the other issues.

  8. Very interesting and creative. Like JXG (hi!) and dobe, I'm looking forward to hearing more.

  9. This is clever; I'd say its major problem is that it transforms what umpteen generations of followers of Rabbi Ishmael thought about the text. I still think, as the teaching beloiw suggests, that we should face the fact that we are in the midst of a profound self-transformation of Torah, just as the Talmud itself was. Forgive my chutzpah in posting what follows. -- Shalom, Rabbi Arthur Waskow

    Beyond Leviticus 18 & 20: Eden for Grownups
    Arthur Waskow *

    Twice in the Torah portion of "Aharei mot" we are told, "You shall not lie with a man as in lying with a woman." (Lev. 18: 22 and 20: 13). Today this has become perhaps the world's most contentious Torah teaching, far beyond the Jewish people.

    Some have argued it prohibits all male-male sexuality. Others have argued that the verse must mean something else, for this "lying with" seems anatomically impossible. Is it only about casual or ritual homosexuality, not committed relationships? How did some of the greatest rabbis of the "Golden Age" in Spain write glowing erotic poems about male-male sex?

    But let us go beyond these historical or midrashic questions, to look more deeply into Torah. Does Torah anticipate – even intend -- its own transformation? If so, under what circumstances?

    Let us learn from a passage of Talmud (Baba Kama 79b) that cautions against raising goats and sheep in the Land of Israel. Since our forebears did precisely that, how could the Talmud have the chutzpah to oppose it? The Rabbis knew that since great and growing numbers of humans were raising goats and sheep there, these flocks would denude and ruin the Land. The world had changed, and so did Jewish holy practice.

    Biblical Judaism professed three basic rules for proper sexual ethics: Have as many children as possible. (Gen. 1:28: "Be fruitful, multiply, fill up the earth, and subdue it."); men were to rule over women (Genesis 3:16, where God says to Eve, "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you"; and sex was delightful and sacred (Song of Songs, throughout). Celibacy was strongly discouraged.

    "Be fruitful and multiply" worked against homosexuality, but what shall we do today, when the Earth is so "filled" with human beings that the whole web of life is at risk, and so "subdued" by human technology that the world-wide climate is in crisis? Like the rabbis who wisely warned against raising goats, today should we be encouraging, not forbidding, sexuality that avoids biological multiplication? We might read the precept to be fruitful and expansive emotionally, intellectually and spiritually rather than arithmetically.

    The rule that a man must rule over a woman left no room for a relationship of two men. Which should rule over the other "as with a woman"?

    Is the rule of male dominance intended by Torah to persist forever? No more than the twin statement (Gen. 3: 17-19) that men shall "toil in the sweat of their brow," wringing a livelihood from a hostile earth. We do not act as if Torah commands us to eschew the tools that ease our labor. Instead, we seek to shape a world in which work is far less toilsome.

    These statements about toil, fruitfulness, and male dominance are not edicts to be obeyed but a map of post-Edenic history, to be transcended and transformed.

    Through the deeds of human history, God has shaped the modernity that eases our work, makes women and men more nearly equal, and brings the human race to fill up and subdue the earth. So now we must ask ourselves, as the Talmud asked, what must we change in our new world?

    In a world already filled and subdued by the human race, Rule 1, that we must multiply our numbers, may actually contravene God's intention.

    In a world where Rule 2, that men must dominate women, has been transcended so that men and women can be equal, one man can lie with another "as with a woman" without disaster.

    The third basic rule -- that sex is delightful and sacred -- still stands. The Song of Songs embodies it. The Song points both beyond the childish Eden of the past and beyond the sad history that followed Eden; it points to "Eden for grown-ups." In the Song, bodies are no longer shameful, as they became after the mistake of Eden; the earth is playful, not our enemy; and women and men are equal in desire and in power. God is no longer Father/Mother as in Eden, giving orders, but -- unnamed -- is inherent in the very process of life, as our parents become when we are fully adult.

    The entire Song is the name of God.

    Though the Song is on its face heterosexual in the love it speaks of, it describes the kind of sensual pleasure beyond the rules of marriage and family that has characterized some aspects of gay and lesbian desire. Today we can dissolve the walls that have separated sensually pleasurable homosexual relationships from rule-bound heterosexual marriage. We can instead encourage playful marriages suffused with joy and pleasure -- for a man and woman, for two men, for two women.

    At the Burning Bush, God took on the name "I Will Be Who I Will Be." Instead of rigidly defending marriage as it used to be, we can honor the God Who Becomes by expanding the circles in which marriage -- a new kind of marriage -- becomes possible.

    * Rabbi Arthur Waskow directs The Shalom Center and is the author of Godwrestling -- Round 2, among many other books of Jewish thought and practice.

    1. Do you have a link to the piece by Rabbi Arthur Waskow? - I am collecting sources on the issue.

  10. from: Reinterpreting Leviticus 18:6, 20:13

    This pristine example of midrash halakha essentially argues with great erudition that the verses we normally understand to prohibit man on man sex actually prohibits both men and women from having incestuous, adulterous, or bestial relationships. It's a brilliant exposition, yet it leaves me with two different problems.

    One, is that this is probably not what the Torah meant, since it's redundant. However, as the original meaning of the text was not paramount to the Rabbis, I can let it slide.

    Two, BZ learns from the categories of the list that the topic is incestuous or adulterous relationships. However, the list also includes bestiality, molech, sex with a menstruant, and leaves out the man's daughter, nieces, and wife of his mother's brother.

    The context of the interpeted is bookended by prohibitions of being like the following nations 18:1-4 and 20:22-26. I would need to be convinced that the Torah approved of non-incestuous same-sex relationships. Whether this impacts on his midrash I have not yet decided.

    In any case, bravo on a brilliant understanding of the text using classical methods.

    1. "Originally Leviticus 18 prohibited homosexual incest with a man’s father (v. 7) and his uncle (v. 14). When the prohibition of male homosexual intercourse was added, the Torah modified the aforementioned laws and consequently changed the meaning of לגלות ערוה “to uncover nakedness.”[1]

  11. When I read your point about the English translation being about as clear as the Hebrew is, I laughed out loud. Nice work!

  12. I wonder what Rabbi Ishmael would say if he were writing 18:22 today...We have a Lesbian daughter and are very proud of what she has achieved in her life.Too much thought is given to who she is lying with in the privacy of her bedroom. My wife and I do not conjure up images of sexual activity, be it homosexual
    or hetro sexual, we are concerned with the whole person who spends
    2/3 of her life outside the bedroom doing great things for humanity, the Jewish people and mankind in general.Being kind and generous as she and her life partner are, is what we consider
    important, and not what some Rabbi
    wrote thousands of years ago in some small shtetl who was only concern was sexual activity and procreation...

  13. With all due respect, R' Yishmael's rules aren't intended for use in that way.

    In any case, the way that verse is understood by the rabbis, because I saw that some people didn't get it, was like this. "Mishkavei isha" is in the plural. "Layings". An unspecified plural in Torah sources is always assumed to mean "two".

    The act of sex in Judaism is called "bi'ah", and it means penetration with a penis. The Torah recognizes two types of bi'ah: k'darka, and she'lo k'darka. Ordinary and... well, not-ordinary. The former is vaginal intercourse, and the latter is anal.

    Since vaginal is impossible for two men, the verse must therefore be referring to anal.

    The problem isn't the prohibition of anal sex between men. This is a fact, and it's not something that can be honestly disputed. And there are plenty of gay men out there who find the idea of anal sex to be disgusting. It's a shame that it's become so identified with *being* gay.

    Jewish law doesn't care if a person is gay. Straight men in the military or in prison are just as forbidden to engage in anal sex with one another as two guys in a park in San Francisco. The homophobia in the frum community is purely a social phenomenon, and has no basis whatsoever in Torah sources.

    No, two men can't get married according to Jewish law. Nor can two women. Believe me, if that weren't the case, my partner and I would have gotten married quite some time ago.

    But what's unfortunate is attempts like these to try and push Jewish sources into saying something they don't. It's well-intentioned, but all it does is confirm the view of the 'phobes that everything is agenda-driven.

  14. But what's unfortunate is attempts like these to try and push Jewish sources into saying something they don't.

    It's also unfortunate to suggest that the rabbis' creative readings of Torah are what the text really really means, while our own creative readings are not. The rabbis often used exegetical principles (such as the one you cite, that an unspecified plural in the Torah always means "two", or R. Ishmael's principle that I used) to produce an interpretation that is very different from the text's surface meaning. (I mean, obviously Exodus 34:21 is talking about the year before the shemitah year, and isn't actually talking about Shabbat.) Quite often, they already knew what the halacha was, and were just looking for the place in the Torah from which a given halacha could be derived. (This is explicit in many discussions in the Talmud.) I suppose one might call this "agenda-driven".

    I have great respect for the classic process of midrash halacha, by which the rabbis' evolving halacha could be anchored in the unchanging text of the Torah, and I don't think this process has to stop now.

    Of course, different Jews will disagree on whether we're permitted to make such a rabbinic-style interpretation if the rabbis didn't think of it first. B'ha kamipalgi.

  15. One might call it "agenda-driven", but only if they didn't really get how the system works. Of course they're looking for verses to support an already-known law. That's what the Talmud is all about. And it's not just some rare instances, either.

    I get that the Conservative movement has done a good job in trying to convince people that the Oral law is "commentary" on the Written Torah, but it's not true. The Oral Torah is the essential corpus of law and lore that Hashem gave to us. The Written Torah functions almost as a mnemonic device (though obviously it has more of a purpose than just that). It certainly isn't primary.

    The laws we were given are the laws we were given. The law doesn't come from the verses. And while practical halakha certain does evolve, you seem to have a mistaken idea of what that means in terms of the law itself. What you're suggesting isn't entirely Karaite, since you aren't dismissing the Oral Law entirely, but it's close, in that you're viewing the Written Torah as the only part that's directly from Hashem, and the Oral Torah as man-made.

    I grew up Conservative, Ramah and all. But that's false.

  16. I tend to have some of Lisa's concerns with halachic revision, especially when the new stance contradicts an older one; but I do think all Jews agree that halacha is an ongoing process--it is not discrediting older sources to add new material. Even if one maintains that Tanach through Gemarra are not man-written, we have much more halacha after that, the Shulchan Aruch, Mishna Brura, modern-at-this-moment haluchic decisions. Obviously these come at a lower level than previous sources, but they are legally binding, and they sometimes contradict what was said before; there are just rules about how you do that. Whose authority we're going on is what usually worries me (and divides movements), and I'm a lot less learned than both of you, but it seems to me that this interpretation is as legitimately grounded in halachic process as any modern teshuva. Getting anyone to accept it as a ruling is a whole separate issue, more political than actually religous, and an issue we should also examine with these considerations.

  17. Lisa, who are you calling Conservative?

  18. I'm not calling anyone Conservative. But surely you aren't claiming that your analysis is according to Orthodox methodology, are you? It's exactly the kind of methodology that I was taught to use in the Conservative movement. That doesn't mean that you're Conservative. I'm simply making an observation.

  19. No, I'm not claiming that either. Ok, just checking.

  20. I think that the idea of yeridat hadorot (please correct me if I messed up the phrase)-- the idea that each generation is somehow less holy or less able to apprehend God's will than the previous generations-- is somewhat dangerous, because it leads to complacency. My sense is that being a good Jew requires an active engagement with our tradition and an assertion that we have a responsibility to take our own interpretations of the text seriously. What BZ has proposed is no more radical than some interpretive moves made by rishonim and achronim who were also responding to the tenor and needs of their times.

  21. I should add that the Rambam (don'ts 350-352), following the gemara in Sanhedrin, says that relations with one's father or father's brother are separate mitzvot.

    Rabbi Yishmael is on record there as disagreeing with you, BTW.

  22. While I agree with you that the first kelal of Lev. 18 is 6, I don't see why the perat should not extend through 23, with 24 being the latter kelal, and thus saying that 22 is not a kelal, but rather one of the peratim. Furthermore, when looking at ch. 20, it is evident that it is also used there in a sense of perat and kelal.
    this sanctity applies to two people of the same sex who consecrate themselves to each other so wrong as male homosexual sexual relationships are forbidden in all cases
    I also second JXG's concerns.
    Knitter of Shiny Things, the rabbis didn't (to my mind, but I should look again) really darshen the pluralness of "lyings of a woman", but the literal meaning is probably something along the lines of all sorts of forms of lying with women and not just strictly sex.
    Echoing Benjamin's second point of concern with BZ's read, how would BZ create holy incestuous relations?
    Irving Wiseman, to come correctly, Rabbi Ishmael lived 1900 years ago, most certainly did not live "in some small shtetl" and he was concerned with a great number of things.
    Lisa totally has it down correctly about the parsing of the text....

  23. With all due respect, Anna, you misapprehend the way the Rishonim and Achronim operated. You have an incorrect impression of how the halakhic system works.

    My sense is that being a good Jew requires an active engagement with our tradition and an assertion that we have a responsibility to take our own interpretations of the text seriously.

    Whatever your sense may be, the fact is that the methodology by which the halakhic system works was given to us, part and parcel, with the rest of the Torah at Sinai.

    The formulizations of aspects of this methodology by Rabbis Akiva and Yishmael cannot be taken out of context. Certainly they cannot be used to permit something that is not only a Torah prohibition, but is a subset of the arayot, which one must die rather than violate.

    Anna, posts like bz's, as well intended as they may be, make life inestimably harder for those of us who are gay and who are committed to halakha. To give you an example, I can be talking with another Orthodox Jew, and be half way to convincing him (or her) that the homophobia in the frum community is unjustified by anything within halakha. And then they'll turn around and say, "Well, look at Steve Greenberg, who portrays himself as the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, but then writes articles trying to bring intermarriage into the mainstream." Or, "Well sure, that's what you say, but then I see this blog entry on Mah Rabu, and it sure looks like anyone who isn't homophobic is actually anti-halakhic." And what can I say to that person? "Mah Rabu isn't representative." "Steve Greenberg isn't representative." How do you think that goes over?

    It's incredibly frustrating. I mean, if you don't want to accept what the halakha says, then just say, "Screw it. The halakha ain't the boss of me!" But please, don't harm us with help like this.

  24. Drew Kaplan writes:
    so wrong as male homosexual sexual relationships are forbidden in all cases

    This begs the question. If one reads Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 the way I do, then they aren't forbidden in all cases.

    Echoing Benjamin's second point of concern with BZ's read, how would BZ create holy incestuous relations?

    That's easy. BZ wouldn't.

  25. JXG writes:
    Rabbi Yishmael is on record there as disagreeing with you, BTW.

    This doesn't bother me. Mishnah Eduyot has a long list of cases where Beit Shammai disagreed with Shammai.

    I'll check out the Rambam.

  26. Lisa writes:
    Whatever your sense may be, the fact is that the methodology by which the halakhic system works was given to us, part and parcel, with the rest of the Torah at Sinai.


    The formulizations of aspects of this methodology by Rabbis Akiva and Yishmael cannot be taken out of context. Certainly they cannot be used to permit something that is not only a Torah prohibition, but is a subset of the arayot, which one must die rather than violate.

    Again, this begs the question. If one reads Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 the way I do, then it's not a Torah prohibition in the first place.

    Let's take a step back for a minute. JXG and Benjamin have raised interesting points about the internal logic of my post, and I'll have to go and study further before I can respond. Other people's comments boil down to the obvious fact that we disagree on basic axioms of Judaism, so it should be no surprise that we also disagree on the details.

    I thought it was self-evident that my post does not provide a satisfactory interpretation for those who believe that a static Oral Torah was given at Sinai. I didn't begin the post by writing in big red letters "THIS POST IS NOT COMPATIBLE WITH ORTHODOX JURISPRUDENCE", because (a) that's self-evident from the fact that I provided an explanation for pesukim that departs completely from chaza"l's understanding of those pesukim, and (b) I believe that liberal Judaism shouldn't constantly be defining itself relative to Orthodox Judaism.

    I'm not attempting to convince anyone who believes that chaza"l's understanding of Leviticus 18:22 was given on Sinai. As you've all pointed out, such an attempt has no chance of success. The primary audience of this post is those who believe in an evolving understanding of Torah, and who are committed to observing the mitzvot according to this evolving understanding, and who continue to faithfully read this verse every year (so we can't just say "the hell with Leviticus 18:22"). Though everyone's still welcome to stay here and hang out.

    "Well sure, that's what you say, but then I see this blog entry on Mah Rabu, and it sure looks like anyone who isn't homophobic is actually anti-halakhic."

    It's not really my job to keep silent to prevent anyone from making stupid generalizations. If you want to prove that there are non-homophobic people who share your understanding of halakha, then find people who fit this description and tell them to get their own blogs.

  27. If one reads Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 the way I do, then they aren't forbidden in all cases.

    But if one does that, one is reading it in a way that has no validity within Judaism. That's not to say it has no validity, of course. But Judaism has rules, and those rules don't allow for your reading. Judaism isn't all roll-your-own.

  28. As I said above, we disagree on basic axioms of Judaism.

  29. Just wanted to note a few points:

    1) Your conclusion--though not your precise analysis--was already anticipated by a student of Jacob Milgrom's and is cited in his Volume II of his commentary on Leviticus. I find the substantive conclusion as to peshat offered there unconvincing, though. As pointed out by another scholar, Devarim's objection to cross-dressing clearly indicates a broader discomfort with gender crossing activities, not just a narrow objection to certain incestuous relationships.

    2) I think your kelal uferat arguement is flawed in that the verse in question does not fall under the rubric of she'eir besaro--we are not dealing here with a relative of any sort. This prohibition, along with those of bestiality and Molekh worship are tacked on to that broader category. It is therefore not really a subset of the former category.

    3) Though I don't have space to elaborate on this here, I think we would all be best served by acknowledging that, from the Torah's perspective, all homosexual encounters were deviant and forbidden and considered a boundary crossing activity of the worst kind. The claim made by those who see it differently today is essentially that there is a different category of person to whom the Torah's harsh proscription might not apply. To put it another way: though the Torah only imagined 2 genders, some claim that today there are at least 4 (male, female, gay and lesbian), if not more. This is not necessarily a zero-sum game. Opening up the possibility that this verse does not speak directly to gays need not necessarily say anything about its ongoing and forceful application to straights, assuming that those categories reflect some deep and accurate social truth.

  30. I find this approach very interesting indeed. And the skillful use of R. Yishmael's principles to derive this reading is very good scholarship. However, my problem with trying to resolve the problem of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 in this fashion is that, as far as I can tell, this kind of return to the wellspring of Mikra for a completely new reading is essentially operating as though we modern rabbis had Tannaitic authority. And I am deeply unconvinced that we do or should have such authority.

    I have thought for some time, and continue to think, that the best resolution for these verses that we can hope to achieve is to write and issue a takanah l'akor davar min ha-torah, which would essentially be a takanah l'shem tikun ha-olam. Since it is inconceivable that Hashem would give us a commandment that would permanently stigmatize and torment around 1/10 of the Jewish People simply because of how He created them, and nobody yet has been able to come up with a workable interpretation of them that is consistent with the authority we currently have, the best thing that we can do is to admit that we do not understand how the verses are to be utilized, and until Eliyahu Hanavi brings the moshiach to clarify everything and teach us what these verses really mean, we declare them to be in abeyance as sources for practical halachah. This is a radical approach, to be sure, but it is a solution with the bounds of post-Talmudic rabbinic authority.


  31. I read your blog some time ago, but on rereading it feel moved to say yasher koach. I believe creative exegesis, whether of Tanakh or Rabbinic texts, is just what we should be doing. Have you developed the idea any further, especially dealing with any of the finer points and technical issues raised by some of the responses?

  32. I've recently been entertaining the idea that this might be also referring to hermaphrodites; is there any evidence in the original Hebrew to back this up?

  33. So, what I gather from your summary is that same-sex ralationship is permissible as long as it's not incestuous?

    1. I'm sorry, but I will never accept that God condones same-sex relationships. It sounds ludicrous! God created them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife (woman, wife, female).

    2. What do you mean by "I'm sorry"? You don't sound sorry.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. I just mean that my opinion is contrary to that of the writer. Just an observation, in Lev 18:22 there is no mention of relationship as stated in previous verses, eg "Do not have sex with your father's sister, she is your aunt." It says "a male" and "a woman." So I don't know how one could come to that conclusion.