Rabbi Michael Rothbaum
Rabbi/educator, Beth Chaim Congregation, Danville, Calif.
Now that the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes state-sanctioned same-sex marriages, the remaining voices opposing marriage equality — or at least the loudest ones — are primarily religious.
Conservatives insist on “biblical marriage.” Progressives, for their part, smugly reject the authority of “ancient texts.” Sides are chosen. Battle lines are drawn. Less listening. More shouting.
But what if both sides were wrong? What if the supposed biblical prohibition of gay sex were in reality an affirmation of honest and loving sexual relationships?
No Extra Words
The text most often quoted by in defense of biblical homophobia is Leviticus 18:22. In Hebrew, it reads, “V’et-zachar lo tishkav mish’k’vei ishah.” It is usually translated as, “Do not lie with a male as you would lie with women,” an apparent universal condemnation of sex between men.
The words “et-zachar lo tishkav” clearly mean “don’t lie with a male” or “don’t bed a male.” In a chapter that’s seemingly addressed to men, that directive would make perfect sense all by itself. But Jewish tradition, best expressed by Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, teaches that there are no superfluous words in Torah. Why, then, would the Torah add the peculiar phrase “mish’k’vei ishah“?
That “mish’k’vei ishah” means “as you would lie with women” is far from obvious. The word “mish’k’vei” itself appears only three times in all of scripture: in the two supposed prohibitions of gay sex in Leviticus, and at the end of the book of Genesis
Whose Bed Is Whose?
The scene is Jacob’s deathbed. As the patriarch prepares to die, Jacob gathers his sons around him to tell them what will happen in the days after his death. First-born son Reuben, perhaps expecting a blessing from his father, is nevertheless condemned by Jacob with the charge of “instability.” And then Jacob directly scolds his son, “Alita mish’k’vei avicha!” reads Genesis 49:4. “You ascended your father’s beds!”
What’s all this about beds? It seems that back in Genesis 35, “Reuben went and lay with Bilchah, his father’s concubine.” In addition to being wed to sisters Leah and Rachel, Jacob has sexual access to two concubines: Bilchah and Zilpah.
In context, then, Jacob’s condemnation is not literal. Jacob is not angry that Reuben was physically in his bed; he is angry about the sexual relationship that Reuben had there. Bilchah, as Jacob’s concubine, is permitted to be with Jacob. Reuben violated that boundary. Read this way, the term “mish’k’vei avicha” — the “beds of your father” — is a metaphor for Jacob’s sexual domain. Reuben is in trouble because he violated his father’s sexual space.
How Genesis Solves Leviticus
Jewish tradition teaches that when Torah uses a similar phrase in two places, there’s a connection, such that information about one case may be applied to the other. It’s called a “gezera shava.” Taking the meaning from Genesis and applying it to Leviticus 18:22, the result is this translation: “Don’t bed a male in the bed of a woman,” or perhaps, “Don’t bed a male in the sexual domain of a woman.”
This is not a text prohibiting homosexuality. It is a text about respecting our relationships.
Recall the earlier incident in Genesis. Jacob has just lost his Rachel, his beloved. Torah tells us that Jacob, having just set the monument upon her grave, immediately hears the mortifying news that Reuben has slept with his concubine.
How do we begin to understand Reuben’s behavior? Perhaps Reuben feels his own pain and humiliation. It has been suggested that Jacob, following the death of favored wife Rachel, established his primary sleeping space with Bilchah, rather than with Reuben’s mother Leah. Reuben’s father chooses not Leah but a concubine. Given such a scenario, it’s not hard to imagine Reuben “acting out.”
What, then, was the sex act about? Who was it about? Probably not Bilchah, who is object, not subject, in this text. Was it Reuben’s intention to “despoil” Bilchah so that Jacob could no longer have relations with her and would have to sleep with Leah? Was it to exact revenge against his father? Control? Dominance? To cast guilt, doubt, shame over all the sexual relations of his father? Over all the “mish’k’vei avicha,” “the beds of his father”?
This sex act, then, was not a loving act. It was an act of anger and vengeance. These are both possible reasons to have sex. And they’re both the wrong reasons to have sex.
Seen in this light, the condemnation we read in Leviticus seems to shift.
“V’et-zachar lo tishkav mish’k’vei ishah.” “Don’t bed a male in the sexual space of a woman.” Who is this woman? A wife of one of the men involved? A woman who expects integrity and honesty in her marriage but is betrayed? And who are the men? Men who long for a full relationship with each other but are denied such by society and must resort to deceit, tortured by guilt and self-loathing? Men who have sex with women not as an act of love but as a grueling burden? Men who bring that torment upon all the “mish’k’vei ishah,” “the beds of women”?
It is an abomination to bring this shame and guilt upon a marital bed. And, all the more so, it is an abomination for any state to demand us to do so.
What Leviticus Is Trying to Teach Us
The Bible is a wild, sprawling document, but to me it has one unifying theme: There’s a Power hidden in all that happens in the world, and that Power is concerned with holiness and justice. Readers from Moses to Martin have found a text that demands an accounting on behalf of the immigrant, the worker, the widow — a revolutionary worldview that our present moment demands perhaps more than ever..
Just as the Bible demands that we being justice to our marketplaces and workspaces, chapter 18 of Leviticus asks us to take the revolutionary step of seeing our bed-space as holy space — to see sex not as merely a mechanical, procreative act but as a conduit to the Divine.
Ultimately, Leviticus invites us to be open and honest with ourselves and our partners, to reject deception, to come out of hiding, and to create relationships that are loving, honest, and sacred.