Tikkun Olam at Temple Beth Am

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What does the Torah really say about homosexual acts?


We’ve all heard it too many times, with varying degrees of sincerity and textual analysis: homosexual acts are an abomination; the Bible says so. Period. End of discussion.

Fortunately, Judaism thrives on discussion. In furtherance of that, I wanted to share with everyone the d’var that was presented by a bat mitzvah on our very own bima at Temple Beth Am just a couple weeks ago:

My particular Torah portion, Achre Mot – Kedoshim, includes a multitude of rules that many people follow to the letter, word for word. Many people, scholars and lay people alike, have asked, “Should every rule of the Torah be followed to the letter?” My question is this: “Are we really reading them carefully enough? Or are we just depending upon one narrow interpretation about what they mean?”

Some of the rules in my Torah portion seem extremely outdated, which makes sense, seeing as the Torah itself is thousands of years old. Since those times, what is and isn’t socially acceptable has changed a lot. I’m going to focus specifically on one command of the Torah as was brought up today in Leviticus Chapter 18, Verse 22: which states that “A man should not lie with a man as one lies with a woman, it is to’ebah.” The word “to’ebah” translates to mean “an offensive thing,” not “abomination” as I believe conservatives have mis-translated it.

This particular command is extremely controversial in the eyes of the public right now, and there are many different opinions on it. In fact I want to share with you one I found fascinating. Professor Richard Elliott Friedman, author of “The Bible Now”, reminds us that this one line in the Torah, is just one point in a larger treatment of a very controversial subject, and there’s much more to what they might have thought back then than meets the eye. “There are several points here that call for treatment: Why does the text prohibit only male homosexual acts and not female? Which acts does it forbid: only intercourse, or all acts?” Unlike other Torah issues, this one is only briefly touched upon, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

The passage in Leviticus tells us that the act, even if it were to mean a homosexual act, is to’ebah, “an offensive thing.” Not a “sin,” but merely “an offensive thing.” In the entirety of the Torah, the word “to’ebah” is never used to define acts that are biblically forbidden, as Friedman reminds us. So the decision that homosexuality is either right or wrong is not what the Torah dictates and certainly is not speaking to our present concerns. It only dictates that someone might interpret that the person who wrote English translation… of the Aramaic translation… of the Hebrew transcription… of that particular section seems to find it offensive, but that you may not.

In fact, rather than condemning it as sin, one could determine that the Torah actually accepts homosexuality as a special relationship by dictating in this rule that homosexual sex should not be merely a mimicking of the heterosexual procedure, as that would be “offensive” in the eyes of God.

My second point is this: why are we applying the rules of poor translation to one command, but not another? There is an American passion for narrow-mindedness that forces bigots to translate rules purposefully poorly even when they do not apply the same dogma to other rules in the Torah. In the television show, “The West Wing,” author Aaron Sorkin tears away at the conservative, dogmatic interpretations of the Bible in his episode, “Chapter and Verse,” when the president dresses down a religious conservative radio host with the following questions:

“My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35, Verse 2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important cause we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean in Leviticus 11, Verse 7. If they promise to wear gloves can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother, John, for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you?”

In my honest opinion, Leviticus 18:22 does not imply that homosexuality is a sin any more than the passage from Exodus 21, Verse 7, “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go free as male slaves do.” sanctions my dad here to sell me into slavery. Much as he would probably like to sometimes.

And even if it defines male homosexuality as performed in a heterosexual manner as “offensive,” that leaves the question open: offensive to whom? Heterosexuals, homosexuals, or God? And with that, to everyone in this room, no matter who you are or whom you love, Shabbat Shalom.

3 thoughts on “What does the Torah really say about homosexual acts?

  1. Shelly,
    Thanks for sharing this. Certainly one of the most thoughtful, relevant and coherent d’vars that I have read!

  2. Shelly,
    Thank you for posting this excellent examination of “fundamental words” of our Torah. The opportunity to discuss points of Torah is what makes Judaism a living and human religion. And, what an amazing d’var!

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