Tag Archives: Torah

The Problem of Homophobia in Leviticus, and How Genesis Solves It

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.

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July 20, 2013 · 10:00


Joshua Stanton.

Associate Director, Center for Global Judaism

.As a greenhorn rabbi, ordained only a matter of weeks ago, I find myself seeking out more experienced religious and non-profit leaders to figure out how they do what they do. While the moment of ordination was meaningful and moving, it did not (at least as far as I can tell!) endow me with new abilities as a leader. I have so much left to learn, especially about what it means to lead.

One of the more interesting pieces of advice I received from a veteran leader in the public sector was to reread Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” In Shakespeare’s depiction of the leader, King Henry, in contrast to other English rulers, spent many of his formative years out among the people, learning about their wants and needs. Rather than shying away from the public or isolating himself within the palace walls, Henry sought to connect with people and their concerns. Even when he assumed the mantel of leadership, he walked among his troops before a key battle to learn where their thoughts were. Henry was not afraid to hear their fears and pain, even when he was the object of their discontent. He sought out the feedback of the people out, both formally and informally, throughout his life.

Henry V’s example of leadership, though an imperfect analogue for clergy to be sure, evokes a lesson that does still very much apply: religious leaders need not only learn about the aches and pains of people, but must also be able to hear people’s criticism of them as leaders. This is, of course, no easy feat. It requires several interrelated skills, including the ability to receive another person’s criticism of you and discern what to do about it.

Interestingly, Shakespeare’s presentation of Henry V drew into sharp relief a figure that I usually associate more immediately with religious leadership: Moses. When reading this week’s Torah portion of Korah, I was struck by Moses’ strengths and limitations as a leader.

Adopted into the royal family of Egypt as an infant, Moses spent many of his formative years behind palace walls. Key moments in Moses’ growth took place as he left the safe confines of his childhood home and interacted with more and more people. His leadership journey began by witnessing the pain and suffering of the Israelite slaves, ultimately killing an abusive Egyptian taskmaster and fleeing into the wilderness (Exodus 2).

It was in the open air of Midian, far from the palace of his youth, that Moses learned to connect more deeply with other people (including his wife Zipporah) and with God. It was there that Moses was commissioned as a prophet and sent by God to lead the people of Israel to freedom.

Yet, I wonder if traces of Moses’ insular upbringing, living apart from most Egyptians — and for that matter from most Israelites — endured throughout his life. It is unclear to me that Moses spent significant time engaging in conversation with the members of his community, inviting them to share with him their hopes and fears, and their opinions of him as their leader. Even in initially playing the role of mediator in disputes large and small (see Exodus 18), Moses mostly heard from the Israelites in times of dispute or distress. What about the times in between?

This week’s Torah portion is named for the rebel who seemed to have seized upon this weakness, creating a disruptive place for himself in the gap between Moses and the community. Long after the glow of the exodus had passed, Korah led a rebellion of two hundred and fifty community representatives against Moses and Aaron. In challenging the Israelite leaders, he asked a stinging question: “Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Exodus 16:3).

Many commentators over the ages have questioned the validity of Korah’s remark, citing impure motivations for his rebellious ways; many have argued that Moses possessed at his core a desire to serve God and the people, while Korah and his fellow bandits were but power-hungry antagonists (see for example, the comments of the great modern exegete, Nehama Leibowitz, in her “Studies in Bemidbar”).

While the various criticisms leveled against Korah and his co-conspirators may be justified, I think it still important to ask if Moses allowed too much distance to grow between himself and his community. It is hard to criticize such a heroic figure given all that he did for God and for the Children of Israel, but it is important to scrutinize his actions (and inaction) if we are to maximize our learning.

Throughout his many years of leadership, Moses expressed frustration and even outrage when the Israelites complained or expressed grave fear. In fact, in next week’s Torah portion, his anger boils over in one of the most painful interactions with his community recorded in the Torah (Numbers 20). When the Israelites cry out for water at Meribah, Moses strikes a rock in a moment of rage, defying God’s command to bring forth water for the Israelites with a verbal invocation.

To be fair, Moses also demonstrated great compassion for the Israelites, including instances in which God grew so frustrated with the people that He threatened to wipe them out. In fact, there is a stunning example of this dynamic in our Torah portion.

In response to the rebellion and God’s punishment of Korah and the 250 rebels, the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron saying, “You two have brought death upon the Lord’s people (Numbers 17:6). God responded to this latest outburst by telling Moses and Aaron to remove themselves from the midst of the community so that He could “annihilate them in an instant” (17:10). What did Moses do? He immediately instructed Aaron to take a fire pan in hand and make an expiation offering to God on behalf of the people (17:11). The result is that the prophet and high priest stopped the plague of death that God had unleashed against Israel.

Nonetheless, for all of his brilliance, for or all of his excellence, for all of the ways in which Moses will forever be the archetypical religious leader in the Jewish tradition, he was also imperfect. Among his challenges, it seems to me, was his limited ability to engage his community in conversation and to elicit their feedback before and between moments of crisis.

While Korah and his companions may well have been inspired by jealousy and ambition, we need to listen carefully to their critique of Moses and ask if it contains some elements of truth. Had the great prophet drifted too far from his community? Was this an ongoing issue?

What can we learn from the triumphs and missteps of this noble religious leader? A great deal, and perhaps as much from his moments of weakness as from his singular success.

ON Scripture — The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.



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Eternity Envy

05/30/2013 15:55   By JONATHAN ROSENBLUM

I think most would concede that the haredi world is the largest repository of a heedless attachment to Torah, far removed from any worldly calculation.

Haredi demonstration against IDF enlistment legislation in Jerusalem, May 16, 2013
Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post
In response to the Church of Scotland’s adoption of the “An Inheritance of Abraham?” report, a veritable potpourri of reasons for rejecting the Jewish claim of a historical connection to the Land of Israel, the ever brilliant David Goldman offers one of his startling aperçus: “The most successful Christian communities embrace the State of Israel, while the least successful abhor it.”
The Church of Scotland certainly falls into the latter category. Since 1956, the Church of Scotland has shed two-thirds of its members, and continues to lose them at a rate of 5 percent a year. (Ironically, in happier times for the Church of Scotland, it was a hotbed of Christian Zionism. A 19th-century Church of Scotland cleric coined the phrase, “A land without people for a people without a land.”) The same observation applies to the Church of England, another fast-fading religious establishment.
Less than 40% of Britons say they believe in God, and more British Muslims than British Christians attend weekly religious services.
Like the Church of Scotland, the Church of England has increasingly descended into mindless political correctness. Israel has often borne the brunt of that political correctness in the form of resolutions for disinvestment.
The religious energy in America has shifted dramatically from the old mainstream churches – Episcopalians and Presbyterians – towards evangelicals. Here too, Goldman’s observation holds up. Both the Episcopalians and Presbyterians have passed disinvestment resolutions in recent years (though the Presbyterians’ was subsequently rescinded). Meanwhile the evangelicals have proven to be the most stalwart supporters of Israel, often citing the biblical verse, “And I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
(Genesis 12:3) GOLDMAN CONNECTS his observation about failing religions to another: anti-Semitism is correlated with declining national groups.
Europe’s most prominent anti-Semitic party at present is Hungary’s Jobbik Party, the thirdlargest in the country. And Hungary’s fertility rate today is a paltry 0.83 per woman, the lowest in Europe.
But fertility rates well below the replacement level characterize the entire continent. The UN projects, for instance, a Russian population of 115 million in 2050, an astounding 30 million fewer people than inhabited Russia in 2000. (In Scotland, the number of births per year is half of what it was in 1950, and the number of babies born to married couples one-fifth.) Meanwhile, Muslim birthrates remain high across Europe. Native Europeans, then, can already smell the death scent of their own self-extinction. And those intimations of their own national mortality put them in a foul mood towards the Jews.
Goldman quotes the German-Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig on the fear of impending death at the national level: “Just as every individual must reckon with his eventual death, the peoples of the world foresee their eventual extinction… Indeed the love of the peoples for their own peoplehood is sweet and pregnant with presentiment of death… Thus the peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books; and their laws and customs have lost their living power.”
But why should those “presentiments” be taken out on the Jews or the Jewish state? Because the Jews are the exception to the otherwise universal rule of civilizational rise and fall. As Michael Wyschograd observes, “Israel is beyond the ‘laws’ of history. It is not subject to the rise and fall of other peoples and empires, a fact which causes angry philosophers of history (i.e. Arnold Toynbee) whose schemes Israel undermines to refer to it as a fossil.”
Only one people has shown itself immortal: the Jews. As Mark Twain observed in his famous essay “Concerning the Jews”: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” To see the Jews return to their ancient land, once more speaking their ancient tongue, and still observing their ancient law must be particularly grating to Europeans who can already foresee another people dwelling in their land, speaking a different language, and having sacked a once proud culture.
THE TWO Western countries most consistently supportive of Israel in the world today are the United States and Canada. The US is by far the most religious of the developed countries.
Two-fifths of Americans attend services weekly, and only 18% never worship. By contrast, more than half of Britons never attend church, and only one in eight does so weekly. That religiosity correlates highly with attitudes to Israel. Americans favor Israel over the Palestinians by nearly five to one, while Britons view Israel negatively by a ratio of nearly four to one.
The ruling Conservative Party in Canada has its political base in the country’s West, which is also the most religious section.
Birthrates and religion are closely linked, as Mary Eberstadt details in her new book, How the West Really Lost God. (Contrary to popular impression, religious affiliation also correlates positively with educational levels.) In the more religiously oriented urban complexes of America, the likelihood of a woman having children, measured in terms of the number of children under five to women of childbearing age, is 15%-30% higher. Those who believe in a beneficent deity, who created the world with a purpose and is bringing it towards that purpose, it would seem, want to be connected to that future through future generations.
Those who remain optimistic about the future have less cause to envy the people of Israel their eternity. Compared to Europeans, Americans have always been an optimistic people. As an old Russian adage has it, “A person who smiles a lot is either a fool or an American.” And it does not hurt that the most vital segment of the American and Canadian religious communities are those groups who see in Israel’s existence not a cause for envy but proof, as Goldman puts it, that the “God of the Bible is a God of kept promises.”
TWAIN ASKED: What is the secret of the Jews’ immortality? The Talmud likens our miraculous survival to that of a solitary sheep existing among 70 wolves.
Moses told Pharaoh, in the name of God, at their first meeting, “Beni bechori Yisrael – Israel is my son, my firstborn son.” The Talmud attributes those terms of endearment to the fact that Israel would in the future stand on Mount Sinai and utter the words “Na’aseh v’nishma – We will do, and [then] we will understand.” The Children of Israel were taken out of Egypt on account of their future acceptance of the Torah, and they are protected to this day by virtue of their connection to the Torah.
In that light we can understand our sages’ comment that Sinai is from the language of sina (hatred). Sinai is the source of our immortality, and that immortality causes the hatred of us.
“Na’aseh v’nishma” denotes not just the acceptance of Torah, but a particular form of acceptance – one made oblivious to all the rational calculations of the world. The Talmud relates that a Sadduccee once saw Rava learning Torah with such intensity that he did not even notice that he was sitting on his hands, which were dripping blood. The Sadducee charged Rava with being the member of an ama peziza – a heedless, uncalculating people – just like his ancestors, who accepted God’s commandments without first knowing what they were.
Rava acknowledged the charge, for in that reckless passion for Torah lies the secret of Jewish eternity. No Jewish community that has cut itself off from Torah observance and study has ever survived for long.
Passion for Torah learning is not a birthright.
It is not an automatic consequence of being born into a haredi home or of attending yeshiva.
But I think most would concede that the haredi world is the largest repository of a heedless attachment to Torah, far removed from any worldly calculation.
Can there be a greater national service – guaranteeing our national survival – than that performed by those who attain that level? ■
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.
some comments on the above article:
  • Stewart Cutler That tweet shows an amazing lack of understanding of the complexity of Israel’s political and religious situation and its ‘relationship’ with both itself, its neighbours and the rest of the world.

  • Irene Munro: I find it hard that the author holds up America as a moral paradigm. Obama supports abortion and this author gives fertility rates as a sign of blessing. Israel’s abortion record is not admirable  89% of third trimester abortion requests are approved in Israel – in many countries such late term abortions are totally illegal. in Israel a minor can legally have an abortion without having to notify the parents. There are better arguments to support the land issue and supporting Israel’s right to the land.
  • Maureen Jack What do I think?  It’s nonsense.  Desmond Tutu is just one Christian who is very critical of the actions of the state of Israel.

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The ‘Broad’ Living

Posted: 05/29/2013 2:55 pm


When Moses sent 12 scouts across the Jordan to tour the land (in Hebrew, “latur“), 10 of them came back scared by the “giants” they found there (Numbers 13:28-33). The spies’ panic spread among the Israelite people, resulting in 38 more years of desert wandering (Numbers 14).

The bilingual Hebrew-English pun of latur and “tour” helps us to understand the failure of the 10 spies: they acted as “tourists,” glancing here and there, making surface observations, but never gazing deeply, never connecting intimately with the land at which they glanced. Ironically, to this very day, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism uses as its symbol the picture of two ancient Israelites — from among the scouts Moses sent to the land of Canaan — carrying between them a gigantic cluster of grapes (based on the description in Numbers 13:23).

A version of this same word latur is also used in the final verses of this week’s reading in reference to the tzitzit (fringes) we are to tie on the edges of our four-cornered garments (Numbers 15:37-41). Here, too, the verb taturu is used to describe the danger of glancing or casting about and not seeing deeply — and thereby whoring (zonim) ourselves after trifles that we erect into false gods. Gazing at these fringes is supposed to teach us to look deeply into the world and to walk in God’s ways.

The rabbis assigned as the haftarah (prophetic selection) to be read with this Torah portion a report on the scouts whom Joshua sent into the land 38 years later, as the Israelites approach the city of Jericho, a high-walled Canaanite redoubt.

These scouts find themselves in the house of a woman named Rachav. Her name means “broad.” Think of Psalm 118:5: “From the narrow place I called out to God; God answered me with a broad, open space” (merchav, from the same root as rachav). And note that the Hebrew word maitzar (narrow) sounds like Mitzraim (Egypt), the narrow place of slavery from which the Israelites in our story have just recently been redeemed. It is a broad and open woman who opens the land to the scouts.

Rachav is specifically called a whore (zonah) in the opening line of this episode (Joshua 2:1). She lives on the edge, both figuratively and literally: for she entertains her guests in her home at the edge of the walled city of Jericho (Joshua 2:15). But there is something different about this zonah, different from the whoring (zonim) our Torah portion warns us against, when it tells us to gaze upon the fringes on the edges of our garments.

Rachav, the “Broad,” has heard of the great redemptive acts of the God of Israel, who turned a pariah people living on the edges of Egyptian society into a force for transforming history. She has opened her heart to YHWH and to the Israelite nation. Not only does she welcome the two spies into her home, but she also hides them from the king of Jericho and helps them escape to safety. This band of runaway slaves is now bringing their revolutionary vision to Canaan, facing a city famous for its walls. She expects the world to be turned upside down — or right-side up — again.

I do not think that in introducing Rahav as a key figure in Israelite history, the Torah is affirming sexual promiscuity or prostitution. What it is affirming is that this woman has learned from her experience living on the edge. Rachav knew this wisdom because she lived on the edge like the tzitzit — not only geographically, but socially. Open to visitors, open to a people living on the edge, open to the God of new possibilities.

In a surprising twist of events, it is this zonah who teaches us how to see the deep truth embodied in the practice of tzitzit: Do not go about life touring and whoring (zonim) after the false gods of giants, imposing walled structures or anything else that skews our vision of ultimate reality.

Rahav stands among various “outsider” and “transgressive” women in the Hebrew Bible who play a decisive, if unexpected, role in bringing healing and redemption to their people (Lot’s daughter, Tamar, Ruth, etc.). Most of biblical tradition is dominated by men and is strongly committed to “insiders” and boundaries.

Can we lift up the stories of these women in new ways? What can we learn from these “fringe” figures about the possibility of transformation and the different types of people who can act as agents of change?

The scouts brought calamity upon the people through their surface vision. Rahav offers us a counter-model. Can we follow her lead and learn to see more broadly and deeply? Are we still committed to the God of “fringiness,” the God who lives on edges? Can we peer through the walls of self-aggrandizement, the idols of distraction and the towers of fear to behold a God ready to turn the world upside down on behalf of a band of runaway slaves?

ON Scripture — The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.


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May 31, 2013 · 11:52