Another Issue of Concern
We have thus far determined that the TaNaKH is particularly biased against the raping of a man. It is a great sin in the eyes of the ancient Jews and in the eyes of G!D. What else does the TaNaKH have to say about men having sexual intercourse with other men? In book one of the book of Kings (14.22-24) we read:
“Judah did what was displeasing to the Lord, and angered Him more than their fathers had done by the sins that they committed. They too built for themselves shrines, pillars, and sacred posts on every high hill and under every leafy tree; there were also male prostitutes in the land. [Judah] imitated all the abhorrent practices of the nations that the Lord had dispossessed before the Israelites.”
Though there is no mentioning of a specific singular type of sex in this passage, there is a clear pretense that the men of Judah were having sexual relations with male prostitutes – males dedicated to sacred sexuality, wherein they offer their bodies sexually and the men of Judah engaged in sex with these prostitutes to acquire blessing through pagan deities. In the Etz Hayim Chumash, commentary on the use of prostitution for sacred ritual is expressed in the following way:
“The Israelites were a young, impressionable nation, and the Torah is concerned that the highly sexualized, orgiastic fertility cult of the Canaanites would be irresistibly seductive for them…. Even decent people can be vulnerable to sexual temptation, which is why the Torah speaks out in such extreme, uncompromising terms against the Canaanite cult.”
In chapters 15 (11-13) and 22 (46-47) of book one of the book of Kings, we see further emphasis towards a Jewish bias of prostitution in general and male prostitution in particular:
“Asa did what was pleasing to the Lord, as his father David had done. He expelled the male prostitutes from the land, and he removed all the idols that his ancestors had made. He also deposed his mother Maacah from the rank of queen mother, because she had made an abominable thing for [the goddess] Asherah. Asa cut down her abominable thing and burnt it in the Wadi Kidron.”
“As for the other events of Jehoshaphat’s reign and the valor he displayed in battle, they are recorded in the Annals of the Kings of Judah. He also stamped out the remaining male prostitutes who had survived in the land from the time of his father Asa.”
And, as if this wasn’t making the point clear enough, the second book of Kings (23.5-7) only exemplifies further the TaNaKH’s strong disapproval of male prostitution:
“He [King Josiah] suppressed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had appointed to make offerings at the shrines in the towns of Judah and in the environs of Jerusalem, and those who made offerings to Baal, to the sun and moon and constellations — all the host of heaven. He brought out the [image of] Asherah from the House of the Lord to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem, and burned it in the Kidron Valley; he beat it to dust and scattered its dust over the burial ground of the common people. He tore down the cubicles of the male prostitutes in the House of the Lord, at the place where the women wove coverings for Asherah.”
Beyond this and the three mitzvot we are about to explore next, the TaNaKH has nothing more to say on the issue of homo-genital sex. Thus far, the TaNaKH’s only concerns are with the sexual raping of a male and the use of a male for sacred prostitution. It is at this point that I believe Rabbi Bradley Artson best expresses the next point to made:
“There is not a single case in the Tanakh which deals with homosexual acts in the context of homosexual love. Every biblical case treats heterosexuals who engage in homosexual acts as an expression of idolatry, of power (such as rape), or, presumably, for fun….The Torah was not speaking about the constitutional homosexual because it had no awareness of the possibility of such a person.”
Based on what we’ve studied above, we can take this further to demonstrate that the Torah is not even “aware” of the existence of heterosexuals. Hetero- and homo- are words that have been derived through our modern scientific exploration into the inner workings of human beings, and express the inner nature or orientation that draws individuals to want intimacy with members of a particular sex. Or, in the case of bisexuals, with members of both sexes. The TaNaKH is only looking at the outwardly manifested physical activities and only concerns itself with these activities under very specific conditions. Beyond this, the Torah is not any more concerned with gay sex than it is with lesbian sex – it is simply not an issue. And, this is understandable when we note the TaNaKH’s general attitude that the average man will “do it” with whatever is available – woman, man, child, beast, father, mother, sister, etc. Which is an ancient awareness of male nature that to this very day is still being proven as accurate and true. Hence, the need for clearly spelled out sexual laws in the Torah, to guide the average Jewish male to living a life where sexuality is acted out only in ways that encourage social responsibility to the Jewish people.
Putting the Mitzvot into Perspective
In light of the TaNaKH’s concerns regarding male rape and male prostitution, is it any wonder that there are prohibitions in the Torah’s laws on sex that concerns males having sex with males? Let’s now take a look at the specific prohibitions themselves, and ask the all-important question of what is the intent of these prohibitions: Are they, as the halakhic Rabbis have said, a clear and unquestionable prohibition against sexual contact between males? In Vayikra (Leviticus) 18.22 we read:
“With a male you are not to lie (after the manner of) lying with a woman, it is an abomination!”
This prohibition is echoed once again two chapters down (20.13), this time with penalty attached:
“A man who lies with a male (as one) lies with a woman — abomination have the two of them done, they are to be put-to-death, yes, death, they have done perversion, their bloodguilt is upon them!”
When approaching these strong words with an attitude of mishpat, it seems pretty clear – no sexual intercourse with a man. But there are two issues that need to be raised here, issues that are specific to the way these passages are expressed in the Hebrew. Both passages contain an important phrase, mishk’vei isha, which when literally translated means lyings-of woman. To help in understanding the point about to be made here, it is best to render a more literal English translation of the two mitzvot.
Vayikra 18.22 reads, “Ve’et zachar lo tishkav mishkevey ishah to’evah hee. And, male no lie-down-with, lyings-of woman, abhorrent he.”
Vayikra 20.13 reads, “Ve’ish asher yishkav et-zacher mishkevey ishah to’evah asu shneyhem mot yumatu dmeyhem bam. And, male that lie-down-with male, lyings-of woman, abhorrent to-do, two-of-them death by-execution, extreme-guilt in-them.”
A rabbi once told me, “ha’torah lo shee’ool/the Torah does not cough.” In the Talmud (Mas. Sanhedrin 54a, 28-32) is a discussion of these two mitzvot (specifically Vayikra 20.13). Wherein the rabbis teach that this verse is not only a prohibition on being sexual with a man, but that it refers to two ways of being sexual with a woman. It reads:
“Where is the prohibition of a male? Because it says, `if a man,’ a man and not a minor. And it says, `lie with a man,’ whether the passive partner be an adult or a minor. And it says, `as with a woman,’ from which we learn that there are two modes of lying with a woman.”
This teaching is derived from the fact that the Hebrew for “lying” is in the plural within these verses. Some have raised the point that a common feature in the ancient Hebrew way of writing was to pluralize a verb, abstraction, or object to give the word emphasis – to make it stand out, though it is meant to be understood in the singular. In his book The Jew and the Christian Missionary, Gerald Sigal explains this view in the following way when addressing the use of elohim in the TaNaKH:
“In biblical Hebrew, many singular abstractions are expressed in the plural form, e.g., rahamim, “compassion” (Genesis 43:14, Dueteronomy 13:18); zequnim, “old age” (Genesis 21:2, 37:3, 44:20); n’urim, “youth” (Isaiah 54:6, Psalms 127:4)….The underlying reason for the grammatically plural form ‘Elohim is to indicate the all-inclusiveness of G-d’s authority as possessing every conceivable attribute and power. The use of the plural for such a purpose is not limited merely to ‘Elohim, but also applies to other words of profound significance. For instance, Isaiah 19:4 uses ‘adonim (“lords”) instead of ‘adon (“lord”): “Into the hand of a cruel lord” (literally “lords,” even though referring to one person)….the words of the woman to Saul when, upon seeing Samuel, she exclaimed: “I see ‘elohim coming up out of the earth” (1 Samuel 28:13)? Here, ‘elohim is followed by the verb in the plural. Yet only a single individual is referred to….”
And, here we have in Vayikra 18.22 and 20.13 a singular object, isha, with pluralized verb, mishk’vei/lyings-of; thus leaving us with literally “male no lie-down-with, lyings-of woman, abhorrent he.” When read on its own, separated from the rest of the Torah, no further context is immediately available within this law to explain what is meant by lyings-of woman or the reason lyings is in the plural here. Is the use of the plural form of lying in relation to woman meant to be taken as an emphasis, which conditions the act of lying with a male to a singular way specific to lying with a woman? The Talmud seems to clearly disagree with this grammatical observation when addressing Vayikra 18.22 and 20.13. In not only the Talmud passage quoted above, which raises the issue for the sole purpose of bringing “illumination” to the problem of pederasty (of raping a male child), there are other Talmudic passages that make it very clear the Rabbis see this verb as being pluralized for a reason.
For example; in addressing bestiality, the Talmud says,
“R. Nahman, son of R. Hisda stated in an exposition: In the case of a woman, there are two modes of intimacy, but in the case of a beast, only one. R. Papa objected: On the contrary, since sexual intercourse with a woman is a natural thing, guilt should be incurred only for a natural connection, but for nothing else, whilst, since a connection with a beast is an unnatural thing, one should be punished for every such act, however it be done.” (Mas. Sanhedrin 55a, 1-2)
[It is important, as well, to realize here the meaning of ‘unnatural’ acts as it was understood in ancient times. In our times, unnatural is assumed to mean something that occurs as an aberration of nature (the laws of the universe). Meaning that it occurs in contrast to or somehow through but outside the naturally structured fabric of life (a highly questionable concept to begin with, and not a Jewish view of life). In the BCE and early CE eras, the ancients understood ‘unnatural’ as simply meaning something that occurs that is not customary to the normal nature of the group or the majority. This difference in understanding is very significant, in that it does not mean that the ancients ever viewed ‘unnatural’ acts as an act done in defiance of the very fabric of nature itself or occurring outside the physical natural order of things. Rather, the ancient view of life is anything occurring in nature is a physically possible act (and thus is a natural act), it just isn’t in certain social groups the natural behaviors of this group. Hence, such acts being an ‘unnatural thing.’]
The Talmud also addresses prostitution with these specific mitzvot in mind. All in all, like the TaNaKH, the act of forming a loving, committed sexual relationship between men is not even brought into thought within the Talmud. This is a key point being made here. Modern halakhah (religious-civil law) among the more traditional movements of Judaism employ this Torah-Talmudic understanding, and take it one step further by saying that homogenital behavior is prohibited under all circumstances (rather than the questionable situations raised by the Torah and Talmud). This is a common halakhic practice – to make a fence of space between the core legal obligation specified by Torah and the cultural-religious expectation on what is acceptable behavior. This approach is taken to protect us from the chance of violating the mitzvah in its literal sense. What is clear in both the Torah and the Talmud passages is that the act of a man having sex with a man is being made an issue conditionally, under specific conditions where the act of homogenital behavior between men becomes clearly morally and physically questionable.
It is here that we must address one additional and very important interpretation used to explain this prohibition. Many within the Traditional Jewish community would point out that the above Talmud passages (along with all the many statements within the Talmud regarding sodomy) only validates their stance that the Torah prohibition clearly prohibits male-male sexual contact. This argument seems to be a logical conclusion, but only when you take the prohibition out of its context within the greater Torah. It is possible to say the following: There are three ways to engage in sexual intercourse with a woman, and the Talmud identifies only two of them within this prohibition. Since a man, by obvious design, does not possess a vagina, the Talmud must be referring to oral intercourse and anal intercourse – both of which are halakhically permissible with a woman. Makes sense, but there is a catch when looking at the prohibition within its proper context. Nowhere within the Torah and the Talmud is there any explicit example raised about a man or men engaging in oral intercourse with another man, but there is plenty examples for sodomy. So, this conclusion that the other mode, oral intercourse, since it is not coming from the Torah, where is it coming from? The simple truth is that the Torah’s prohibition with its pluralized verb for being sexually intimate is not referring to specific sex acts between two individuals, it is referring to a social condition which leads men to two specific abominable sexual behaviors involving other males.
Now that we’ve clarified our understanding on the use of this verb, mishk’vei, we must now ask the ultimate question: What are the two concerns over homo-genital behavior raised by the TaNaKH itself? Is it now clearly possible to demonstrate that there are specifically two forms of sex being referred to in the Torah that is common between male-female sexual partners and male-male sexual partners? From our earlier study into the TaNaKH’s views on same-sex sexual encounters, which have revealed an utter disdain for two forms of homo-genital sex – male prostitution and the raping of a male – the answer is a clear and emphatic yes! “Lyings-of” is pluralized for a reason, folks. And, like the rest of the TaNaKH, the issue of gay sex in and of itself is not an issue within the Torah. And, it is only an issue in the Talmud outside the context of a meaningful life-affirming relationship between two committed individuals. Even the Talmud’s statement on sodomites knowing better than to write a ketubah (marriage contract) for themselves so that they can legally engage in anal intercourse is stated with a clear precedence that this is the only reason for these sodomites to even consider such a thought. The issue of committed same-sex relationships is simply not addressed. Let’s move on.
The final prohibitive mitzvah in the Torah is specifically addressing the issue of cultic male and female prostitution. Wherein, the use of sex rituals in temple rites is directly forbidden. For these kind of rites limit the most sacred example of spiritual union – eroticism – strictly to the world of sex acts and, thus, undermines its holy presence in all facets of human interaction. In D’varim (Dueteronomy) 23.18-19 we read:
“There is to be no holy-prostitute of the daughters of Israel, there is to be no holy-prostitute of the sons of Israel. You are not to bring the fee of a whore or the price of a dog (pagan priest) to the house of YHWH your G-d, for any vow; for an abomination to YHWH your G-d are the two-of-them!”
And, to make our study here thorough and complete, we must address the issue of spilling seed. Yes, the Torah states that G-d punished Onan for choosing to spill his orgasm upon the ground, rather than continue the name of his brother by inseminating his brother’s wife with a child from his loins after his brother’s untimely death. But, this does not mean, as Talmud concluded, that the Torah prohibits male orgasms that result in semen being spilled on the outside of the partner’s body. It honestly never addresses the subject of masturbation. It is the Talmud that looks upon this prohibition as a stand against masturbation and many forms of illicit sexual activities outside of marriage. This prohibition is commonly used by modern traditional Jews as additional validation to the belief that homosexual forms of intercourse are strictly prohibited. But, if the Oral Law does accept a man having other-than-vaginal forms of sex with his wife (which it does) and does not classify this as spilling seed, then how can we honestly apply this prohibition to the discussion of sexual contact between men who are in a committed relationship with each other and receive within them the semen of their partner? So,…
The Search Has Just Begun
Where does this leave us in regards to the desire of homosexuals and bisexuals to have their relationships recognized as an act of kedusha? Is there any reference within the TaNaKH that would have us reconsider even further the TaNaKH’s view concerning same-sex relationships? To answer this we must briefly look into the books of Samuel. Here we will find a story about a very special relationship between two men, David and Jonathan (beginning with book one, chapter 18.1-4).
“When [David] finished speaking with Saul, Jonathan’s soul became bound up with the soul of David; Jonathan loved David as himself. Saul took him [into his service] that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Jonathan and David made a pact, because [Jonathan] loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the cloak and tunic he was wearing and gave them to David, together with his sword, bow, and belt.”
There is clearly a special out-of-the-ordinary kind of love between these two men. The text makes this very clear. And, even though there is no specific mentioning that their love for one another was acted out physically, the possibility that this type of relationship was occurring is not necessarily ruled out. When looking at the text, we first notice the conflicting feelings within King Saul concerning the shepherd boy David, the intimate friend of Saul’s son. He originally accepts David into his house, and then he puts considerable effort in trying to kill the shepherd boy (19.9-10).
“Then an evil spirit of the Lord came upon Saul while he was sitting in his house with his spear in hand, and David was playing [the lyre]. Saul tried to pin David to the wall with the spear, but he eluded Saul, so that he drove the spear into the wall. David fled and got away.”
The feelings of the King grew more and more hateful as he began to realize David as a threat to his very throne. His attitude towards his own son grew hateful over the relationship between his son and David (20.30-33).
“Saul flew into a rage against Jonathan. `You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!’ he shouted. `I know that you side with the son of Jesse — to your shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness.'”
The intentional use of wording in this passage suggests that Saul’s intent here is to make it clear to Jonathan that he knows it’s sexual between them. First he insults Jonathan’s mother, then he expresses an awareness of sexuality occurring between the two men that, in his opinion, brings shame directly upon Jonathan’s mother’s sexual nakedness. It is important to note here that this does not mean that the TaNaKH shares King Saul’s viewpoint, as we shall see.
“`For as long as the son of Jesse lives on earth, neither you nor your kingship will be secure. Now then, have him brought to me, for he is marked for death.’ But Jonathan spoke up and said to his father, `Why should he be put to death? What has he done?’ At that, Saul threw his spear at him to strike him down; and Jonathan realized that his father was determined to do away with David.”
King Saul did his best to break up the relationship between Jonathan and David, to trick David into getting himself killed in battle, and eventually went so far as attempting a direct `hunt-him-down’ assault upon the warrior David. The ultimate casualty between the three turns out to be Jonathan, to David’s great remorse (ending with book two, chapter 1.25-26).
“How have the mighty fallen in the thick of battle – Jonathan, slain on your heights! I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan, you were most dear to me. Your love was wonderful to me, more than the love of women.”
Even if one can argue away all possibility of an actual sexual relationship having occurred between the two, still yet the point is served. The TaNaKH is not only very specific in its mentioning of homogenital sex but, as we can see, is rather open-minded in its sharing about a relationship between males that is intimately close. When read on its own terms, from the Hebrew worldview of the 5th Century BCE, the Torah assumes that all males are potentially fluid in their sexual attractions. The Torah also recognizes that some sexual activities are not conducive to the stability of Jewish family/society life, thus mitzvot addressing sexual issues have been established to achieve a level of kedusha in the community of (primarily) male Jewish life.