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Leviticus 18:22

This is the most significant verse from the Jewish scriptures with relevance to homosexuality. Below are a wide variety of discussions, with some arguing it does not address homosexuality at all, others that it only applies to Jews, and others till that it is part of a purity code, not a moral code. The last two articles here, both by a traditional rabbi, is especially interesting.

The Background to Leviticus

Paul Halsall, based on Gary David Comstock, Gay Theology Without Apology

Most ancient Jews, as part of a patriarchal society, would have seen homosexuality in negative terms. Why deny this? Leviticus is the best example. The book was largely compiled after the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon. It shows how an elite which had been dethroned [perhaps 5% of the pop. had been deported] sought once it lost political power to establish its power in the only arenas it could - religion and family life. This is the book which lists the death penalty for more offenses than any other [homosexuality, cursing parents, adultery, incest, marrying a mother and her daughter, bestiality, wizardry, harlotry, working on the sabbath, cursing the name of Yahweh, and murder]. Compare the one death penalty in Exodus [for bestiality] and three in Deut. [for deception by a virgin, adultery, and adultery with a virgin]. The Rabbis had to work hard in the Talmudic period to void all these penalties. Leviticus is a book which is concerned only with Israel and which rejects foreigners. Since the elite had lost power in politics, they expressed it by issuing detailed and obsessive laws about religious practice. It elevates the priesthood of unblemished married heterosexual males, the inferiority of women in sacrifices and ceremonies, and measures protecting the sexual ownership of women by men [Lev 1:3, 10; 4:3, 23, 28,; 5:15, 18: 6:6: 12:1-5, 27:1-7]. It does all this in very bombastic and absolute language: the term "I am Yahweh" occurs twice in Exodus, twice in Deuteronomy, and *52* times in Leviticus. Half of these in chaps. 18-20. Later projections of married love and equal partnerships and all the flummery of modern marriage in an industrial society are quite inapposite with ref. to Leviticus.

It is also worth pointing out that there is a dispute in the Bible itself over the Levitical code. While the post-exilic laws, also reflected in Nehemiah, were nationalistic and somewhat xenophobic, the writer of the book of Ruth attacked such laws by making it clear that King David, a hero to all, would have been excluded from the Temple because his grandmother was Ruth, a Moabite woman. Even in its lawgiving the Bible is not monolithic.

Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society. But is was also one in which God-in-history operated. We need to look to it for what we need, but recognize that it and its attitudes have little bearing on our own lives as Christians.

The Jewish Testament Text on Homosexuality

from Fr. Daniel Helminiak, Dignity/Houston BBS

Leviticus 18:22: "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." (Leviticus 20:13 adds the punishment "they shall be put to death." Cursing one's parents, adultery, incest, and bestiality merit the same punishment.) The literary context is the Holiness Code for Israel. Its intent is religious. The practices it stipulates are to keep the Jews distinct from pagan neighbors, keep them `clean.' Forbidden practices, including homosexual acts, were part of Canaanite religious rituals; to do them was to identify with the Gentiles, to obscure Jewish identity, to be idolatrous. There is no concern for sexual ethics per se behind this text. The term `abomination' occurs throughout the Code and means `uncleanness, impurity.' The Hebrew term, `toevah' (=taboo, "dirty") instead of `zimah' (a wrong, a violation of justice) and, in the 300-150 B.C.E. Greek translation, the term `bdelygma' (ritual impurity) instead of `anomia' (violation of law, wrong, sin) confirm this interpretation. For the Jewish Testament, homosexual acts are a matter of ritual impurity, not a matter of sexual ethics.

Purity in the Christian Testament

Jesus and the Christian Testament abrogate all purity concerns. What matters is "purity of the heart:" justice, honesty, compassion, and peace-making. See Matthew 5:8; 15:11, 18-20; 1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians 5:6; Romans 2:29, 14:14.

Leviticus 18:22 does not concern homosexuality

from Dignity/Houston BBS (author not indicated)

Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: It is abomination. -- Leviticus 18:22

Careless readers of the Bible view this verse from the King James version as a condemnation of the gay lifestyle . Even modern translations render Lv 18:22 in a homophobic manner which is not justified by closed inspection of the text.

Together, let's discover that

(1) 'abominations' are not so bad

(2) Lv chapter 18 deals with idolatry and

(3) 'mankind' does not refer to men.

The Big Picture

Leviticus is a collection of laws dealing with all aspects of Jewish life. The name refers to the Levite priests for whom many of the laws were written. Although the final version of Leviticus appeared four centuries after Moses' death, many sections begin with "Yahweh said to Moses" to add authority. Ironically, modern scholarship discloses that many of these laws were formulated by the gentiles, non-Jewish inhabitants of the Middle East, long before the days of Moses.

The book can be divided into four sections. Verse 18:22 occurs in the Code of Ritual Purity and Holiness (from Lv 19:2). These topics give us the first clue to the meaning of verse 18:22. The Code maintained the cultural and religious identity of the Israelites. Ritual purity could be lost by acts which, harmless in themselves, were practiced by the pagans. Such practices were called impure, unclean, or abominable (Hebrew: to'evah). Eating shrimp, oysters, pork, or a rare steak is to'evah! Thus, we can't allow bigots to condemn anything just because the Bible uses "abomination." On the other hand, as biblical scholars we are immediately alerted to gentile, and probably idolatrous, practices when we chance upon these words. "Abomination" is the second clue to interpreting verse 18:22. Let's consider the other verses.

The Finer Details

What can we learn from inspecting all of chapter 18? Quite a lot!

Lv 18 is built on the sandwich principle: verses 1-5 and 24-30 are the bread slices, fluff warning Israelites in a general way not to imitate the gentiles, and verses 6-23 are the meat of Thou-Shalt-Nots. This construction affords us another clue.

Verses 6-23 contain Hebrew idioms found elsewhere in the Bible, but translations usually obscure the similiarities and shared meanings. For instance, some translations of verses 6-18 suggest sexual intercourse; this idea may be incorrect. A literal translation would be "You shall not unveil the nakedness of ..." The story of drunken and naked Noah and his son Ham (Gn 9:18-10:19) uses similar words. Both Gn 9:25, 10:6 and Lv 18:3 attribute more casual customs regarding decency to the gentiles. Even today, thousands of years later, we can see such cultural differences. Americans view the standards of "decent" attire for man in Arab countries as outmoded and repressive. The gentiles may have felt the same about the prudish ways of the Israelites. Thus, the message in verses 18:6-18 is likely don't copy your neighbors. A biblical scholar also warns against a too literal interpretation of Lv 18:12, because Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were born of a union (Ex 6:20) forbidden by this verse. Likewise, verse 18:19 is an archaic prohibition considering normal female physiology as "unclean." Only at verse 20 do we encounter a clear reference to sexual conduct.

Let's not prejudice ourselves and insert some of the Hebrew in verse 18:22. "Ish shall not recline with zakar as with ishah. This is to'evah." Our fifth clue is the use of these four Hebrew words. First, ish and ishah are related like the pair "actor" and "actress" in English. These two Hebrew words are used hundreds oof times and denote man (husband) and woman (wife). The masculine word zakar is not common. Now we can make an important conclusion. Verse 18:22 is not a simple, direct statement forbidding male homosexuality. That would have been: Ish shall not recline with ish as with ishah. We become suspicious of the English quotation. We sense a translation scam. The appearance of to'evah is a warning: Caution -- Idolatry!

As biblical scholars we conclude chapter 18 is concerned a great deal with idolatrous or foreign practices, and very little wiuth sexual orientation.

The English Quotation

We felt there was a problem with the translation. Let's see if we can get to the bottom of it!

Go to your Bible and look up Lv 1:3, Lv 3:1, and Is 57:8. Use several translations. What do these verses have in common with Lv 18:22? If you went to the Hebrew text, you would see that all these verses contain zakar. Let's look at them.

Lv 1:3 and 3:1 relate to animal sacrifices; zakar means animal here. Is 57:3-13 scolds the Israelites for practicing idolatry. Verse 57:8 contains the expressions: remembrance, indecent symbol, pagan symbol, or domestic gods. These are all translations for zakar! This troublesome word appears elsewhere in the Old Testament; the shared meaning is probably "male and sexually potent," which could be applied to humans, animals or images. Lv 18:23 suggests we are dealing with animals and images. This verse contains the femine word for animal and a reference to idolatry. Verses 22 and 23 form parallel thoughts, once in masculine and once in feminine terms. This is the context for understanding zakar.

Lev 18:22 Well Versed

A proper translation is:

You shall not serve animals or images representing strange gods; this is detestable.

An Abominable Article

by Tobias S. Haller

Mark Ambrose writes:

My friend Tobias Haller, a monk with the Order of St. Gregory, offers this response to the bible discussion which I shared from soc.religion.christian:

Tobias S Haller

An Abominable article

I have a few comments in response to your astounding epistle on the Bible and homosexuality. It may well be that some people feel the Bible has little relevance today; and people who use (or misuse) the Bible as have done are doubtless part of the cause.

I consider myself a biblically orthodox christian. As such, I affirm that, as you say,

...everyone accepts that some things in the Bible are cultural and not binding on us today....

But you do not wish homosexual acts to come under this particular heading, and suggest that those who do are in some way trying to throw the whole Bible out the window. I'm not trying to "throw out" any of the Bible. I'm trying to understand it.

Are the levitical condemnations of homosexual acts cultural baggage or not? A closer look at the text indicates that they are. I will comment briefly on your claims.

Specifically with respect to homosexual acts, it is not possible to extract from the Bible any passages which indicate that they are to be accepted as a normal expression of human sexuality.

Such exegesis is impossible only for those who are beforehand convinced that it is impossible. It is clear to many scholars (e.g., Robin Scroggs) that apart from the levitical proscriptions (about which more below) there is no condemnation of "committed, lifelong, homosexual relationships" but only of homosexual acts connected with prostitution or idolatry.

It can also be maintained that the relationship between David and Jonathan was an instance of adolescent homoerotic behavior. Unfortunately, the redactor and subsequent editors of the Hebrew text have rendered some of the most crucial verses "obscure" (as the footnotes in our translations so helpfully inform us). Certainly if one were to discover this story with the names and locales changed, one would find no difficulty in reading it as a lost chapter of the Iliad. It is complete with armor-bearers, intrigue, romance, pledges of love, arranged and unwanted marriages, threats to the continuation of the royal house, dynastic warfare, and an elegy to fallen heroes / lovers.

I'm perfectly aware that much of the traditional scholarly community rejects such an interpretation of the story of David and Jonathan; and I maintain this to be just another instance of heterosexist inability to see what is there.

I am willing to stand corrected on this but it is the only expression of sexuality which is described as an abomination. Not even sexual relations with an animal attracts this description.

I am glad that you are willing to be corrected on this point, since you are mistaken. This is what comes of taking verses of Scripture out of context. If you will look at the whole of Leviticus 18, rather than just verse 22 in isolation, you will find a long list of sexual acts, including various types of incest, bestiality, homosexuality, and sleeping with a woman during her period. (Chapter 20 is similarly inclusive.) It is true that the word tow'evah (=abomination) occurs in verse 22; however, the closing verses of the chapter read:

"But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations, either the citizen or the alien who resides among you (for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled)... For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people. So keep my charge not to commit any of these abominations that were done before you, and not to defile yourselves by them: I am the LORD your God." -- Lev 18:26-27, 29-30 (emphasis mine)

Clearly, then, all of the acts in the chapter are meant to fall under the heading of tow'evah. Ezekiel adds adultery to this list, and also mentions yet again the prohibition on intercourse during menses. (Ezek 18:10-13, 22:10-11) To violate any of these laws is to violate all of them. There is no provision in levitical judaism to obey "part" of the Law. Unless one is willing to hold men who have intercourse with their wives during menses to be guilty of a crime against God, then one should not resort to the levitical texts to find a condemnation of homosexual acts.

But there is more. The whole concept of tow'evah goes far beyond matters sexual. It designates "that which makes ritually impure." It is a matter of cult and rite, not necessarily of morals. Some acts under the biblical category of tow'evah are still considered morally defective; but many are not. Some external basis has been sought to determine which acts called tow'evah in the Scripture are truly part of the moral, as opposed to the ritual law.

Look at some of the other acts described as tow'evah in the Bible, that are not held to be immoral by most persons today. These include the eating of non-kosher foods (Deu 14:3), the wearing of clothing "proper" to the opposite sex (Deu 22:5), the divorce and subsequent remarriage of a woman who has married another in the interim (Deu 24:1-4), and lending money at interest (Ezek 18:10- 13).

Just as the church overturned the prohibitions on these matters (in the last--lending at interest--only after considerable debate for nearly 1900 years) by applying reason, not by looking for prooftexts, the church must deal with homosexuality today in the same way. On this issue, as with many other dilemmas (such as abortion), the Bible will not help us with easy answers. It's not that we're "throwing the Bible out," but that it simply does not apply to the issue under discussion.

So for us within the mainstream of Christianity, we cannot find a Biblical basis for the claims made by homosexual Christians. This is different from saying that God doesn't love them, and different from saying they can't be Christians. But it does seem to be part and parcel of the break down of sexual ethics which has followed the decline of Christianity and its influence in our nation. The movement for the acceptance of homosexual Christians seems to be part of the rebellion of the secular world against Christian ethical standards.

I hope you are comfortable in your "mainstream." I suppose anyone who disagrees with you is outside the covenant. Well, I beg to differ. I consider myself as a biblical scholar and Christian well within the "mainstream," and if I'm not, then I suppose Jesus must have been right when he said that the road to hell is broad and popular. This section of your diatribe is nothing but a tautology, since you have made the a priori decision that homosexuality is unacceptable.

Moreover, the church is constantly "giving in" to secular standards; in fact, many secular standards are quite moral. Marriage, for example, was imported into the church from the Roman civic culture. Early Christianity was hostile to it, but eventually gave in, and adopted this civic virtue, to such an extent that we now have the strange phrase "Christian family values."

You end your argument by setting up and then attacking the straw man of "But I was born that way." The fact that homosexuality is probably genetic has been raised by some in the debate on the issue. And any who hinge their position in defense of homosexual relationships on this are no doubt presenting a flawed argument. But the same flawed argument is used when the "natural law" tradition tries to prove that heterosexuality is good by virtue of its being natural. To paraphrase Mae West, Nature has nothing to do with it. Natural law and the natural law tradition are hopeless dead ends for resolving moral issues. (Sorry Justice Thomas...)

Instead, Christ gave us a very simple test for morality: the Golden Rule (Matt 7:12). He loved us so much that he became tow'evah, an object of revulsion and scorn, for us (Psalm 88:14, Gal 3:13).

In doing so he freed us from the Law, and left us only that rule of conduct: Love others as yourself, and do as you would be done by. Homosexual relationships that are loving, faithful, and mutually supportive appear to meet this test. If that is enough for Jesus, it is enough for me. If that is enough for Jesus, it should be enough for you too.

Tobias S Haller, BSG

President, The Catholic Fellowship of the Episcopal Church


by Bill Sklar <86730@LAWRENCE.BITNET>

"References on Homosexuality and the Bible"

According to "The New Testament and Homosexuality", by Robin Scroggs (pp 72-73):

"The prohibition in Leviticus 18:22 is terse: 'With a male you shall not lie (shakov) the lyings of a woman; it is an abomination' (au. trans). The awkwardness of the sentence is caused by the fact that there is no technical term for homosexuality in Hebrew. Nevertheless the meaning is clear. 'Shakov' is frequently used to denote sexual intercourse; thus, the sentence is a general prohibition of male homosexuality.

"Two things must be noted. The first is that female homosexuality is not prohibited. The second is the wording of the verse... There is more to note than the lack of a technical term and the use of a euphemism (shakov) for intercourse. What is crucial is that the general word for 'male' is used, without any qualification of age. This lack of qualification will determine the language of all future Jewish discussions, no matter what forms of homosexuality are being attacked...

"Leviticus 20 gives... penalties... The penalty for male homosexuality is death [Lev 20:13]... Male homosexuality is but one of several crimes listed as punishable by death in this chapter; that is, it is not singled out as a uniquely henious sin...

"These two verses are the only legal traditions about homosexuality in the Hebrew Bible... no other biblical passage refers to this prohibition... All that can be said is that late in Israelite history a single law appears... prohibiting male homosexuality. No rationale is given for its appearance as an 'abomination.' One might conjecture that originally it was linked to pagan religious culture or with the thwarting of the intended use of semen for purposes of procreation, but it is probably best not to speculate..."

And, according to "Is the Homosexual my Neighbor," by Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott (pp 60-61):

"...consistency and fairness would seem to dictate that if the Israelite Holiness Code is to be invoked against twentieth-century homosexuals, it should likewise be invoked against such common practices as eating rare steak, wearing mixed fabrics, and having marital intercourse during the menstrual period..."


by Wilfrid R. Koponen, Ph.D., M.B.A., M.A.R., M.A.)

Leviticus 18:22, 20:13-14. "You shall not lie with a man as a woman: that is abomination" (New English Bible). This part of the "Holiness Code" of the Old Testament, which also condemns the practice of eating rare meat or wearing a fabric from more than one material - anyone eating a rare steak while wearing a cotton/polyester is doubly violating this holiness code! (Funny: these things don't seem to bother Fundamentalists.) Leviticus also states that any man or woman caught in adultery ' must be put to death' (Lev. 20:10). Preachers quick to call homosexual acts an 'abomination' are not insisting that Jim Bakker *must* be "put to death"! And for good reason: the New Testament repeatedly declares the Hebrew Holiness Code or "Law" has been replaced by the new dispensation in Christ. Jesus said of the woman caught in adultery: "If any one of you is without sin, let him to be the first to throw a stone at her" (New International Version; John 8:3-11). Furthermore, the "detestable" nature of lying "as a woman" refers to a male's assuming the *passive role in anal intercourse*, which was held as an abomination because of taking on the inferior status of women. Apparently it does not view the "active" role in anal intercourse as an abomination, nor other homosexual acts, e.g., fellatio.

from Homosexuality and Christianity---do the right thing

by John P. Refling

John Refling is a Ph.D. candidate in Electrical Engineering at the University of California, Irvine. He may be reached through e-mail at refling@sloth.eng.uci.edu. This article appeared in the "Phoenix", Fall 1991, UC Irvine's gay/lesbian/bisexual newspaper, ISSN 1055-095X. Copyright (c) 1991 by John P. Refling. All rights reserved.

Leviticus 18:22

Moving on to Leviticus 18:22: "you shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination". This most likely is a prohibition of male homosexuality. But it is important to understand what the Old Testament book of Leviticus is all about. The character and function of Leviticus is the revelation of a divine order of society in the commonwealth of Israel. Thus, the themes of the book are worship, sacrifice, temple priesthood and ritual, purification of Israel, atonement, holiness of God and Israel, religious dedication of time life, and property.

Let's look at some of the many other prohibitions of Leviticus: you may not eat pork (ham, most hot dogs, bacon, lard), sea animals which do not have fins or scales (lobster, shrimp, crabs, clams, oyster, etc.), swarming animals (mice, lizards), dead animals; you must break any earthen (clay, ceramic) vessel which touches these creatures. Proper use of blood splashing rites and incense-smoke in tabernacles is covered. Sacrifices and burnt animal offerings are described.

Finally, in chapter 18, we read of avoiding incest (except for marrying one's daughter which is not mentioned), marrying a woman and her sister at once, sex with neighbor's wife, male homosexuality, and sex with animals. In ancient times Abraham married his half-sister, and Jacob was married to two sisters simultaneously. This chapter deals with Israelite sexual morality, by defining which sexual unions are not compatible with Yahwistic principles.

Many American customs violate those ancient Hebrew "laws," and many of the ancient Hebrew religious requirements are not respected by Christians today[5]. For example, the Levitical prohibitions against wearing clothing of mixed fabric, having tattoos, eating particular foods, and oppressing resident aliens are ignored by most Christians today. The killing of unruly children has also been rejected by modern society. So why do Christians continue to cite the Levitical prohibitions against homosexuality?

Christians customarily divide the Old Testament law in three parts: the moral (ten commandments), the civil (legislation for ancient Hebrew society), and ceremonial (sacrifices and rituals for Hebrew religion.) Instead of distinguishing between these laws, it is better to say that some injunctions are broad and generally applicable to most societies, while others are specifically directed at particular social problems of ancient Israel [6].

It is important to note that an important purpose of the levitical laws was to remind the Israelites who they were by keeping them ritualistically separate from the surrounding societies. These laws are for the ancient Israelites and cannot be automatically be transplanted in our society. As one can see by reading Leviticus, Christians and American society have rejected these Jewish laws.

Further evidence that the prohibition against male homosexuality is strictly for the Hebrews comes in the translation of "abomination" which comes from the Hebrew word "toevah." This word signifies something ritualistically unclean for Jews, like eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation [7].

Remember that Jesus was in opposition to the Jewish religious leaders. Does this also mean that he was opposed to their religious laws? One may argue that there are two periods which revolve around Christ's life and the law: the period before his death which is the final culmination of the old order, in which the law is not annulled by him, but "signs" that it is passing are given. Only after his death has sealed the new covenant and fully inaugurated the new order, does the Levitical law cease to govern relations between God and man for Christians. This may explain why Paul connects the death of Christ so closely with the end of the law.

The atonement achieved on Calvary meant that the strict levitical prescriptions for sacrifice and holiness have been superseded for the Christian [8].

In summary, Leviticus is the only condemnation of male homosexuality (lesbianism is never mentioned). However, that law is only applicable to Jews---Christians believe the old law was superseded by Christ. The fact that one does not see Christians protesting outside of butcher shops, barber shops, tattoo shops, or in the cotton/polyester section of clothing stores attests to the fact that modern Christians realize that the levitical laws do not hold for them. That modern Christians do not perform the rituals required of Jews in Leviticus shows that the Jewish rituals are irrelevant for Christians.

Even the Hebrew word for "abomination" comes from a distinctly Jewish ritualistic context. It is thus ridiculous for modern Christians to believe that the Jewish prohibition against male homosexuality is relevant to them.

[5] Patai, Raphael, Sex and Family in the Middle East. 1959.

[6] Wenham, Gordon, The Book of Leviticus: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. 1979.

[7] Boswell, John, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. 1980.

[8] Harrison, R. K., Leviticus: an Introduction and Commentary. 1980.


An anonymous friend posted to me (without permission) Rabbi Milgrom's article from the Bible Review (that Jessea mentioned). Its basic points are:

1. Levitical prohibitions were never meant to apply to nonJews;

2. The non-existence of anti-lesbian strictures is not an accident; theTorah never intended to prohibit lesbian sex;

3. Gay Jewish men should adopt children, to fulfill the mitzvah of p:ru urbu (be fruitful and multiply).

An important point to note is that Rabbi Milgrom is NOT a Reform rabbi, and isgenerally respected and considered quite mainstream. Here is the article:

Does the Bible Prohibit Homosexuality?

by Jacob Milgrom

Washington, D.C.: Bible Review [Vol. 9, No. 6. December, 1993. Page 11]

This past Yom Kippur, September 25, 1993, my synagogue invited me to explain the afternoon scriptural reading: the list of forbidden sexual liaisons in Leviticus 18. I chose to focus on what is today one of the most frequently quoted passages in the entire Bible, "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22).

What I said may be both good news and bad news to my Christian friends, depending on their position on gay and lesbian rights: This biblical prohibition is addressed only to Jews. Non-Jews are affected only if they reside in the Holy Land, but not elsewhere (see the closing exhortation in Leviticus 18, verses 24-30). Thus, it is incorrect to apply this prohibition on a universal scale.[1]

But I spoke to my fellow Jews, who are required to observe this prohibition. What is the rationale for this prohibition? In a previous column,[2] I noted that the Bible's impurity rules are part of a symbol system representing the forces of life and death. Israel is required to avoid these impurities and adhere to the laws commanded by God, who promotes the forces of life. Thus in the same chapter we read, "You shall heed my statues and my rules, by doing them one shall live" (Leviticus 18:5). A man who discharges semen, whether intentionally or otherwise, is declared impure and must purify himself by bathing (a sort of re-baptism) before he is permitted to enter the Temple or touch sacred (sacrificial) food (Leviticus 15:16-18). Why? Because semen stands for life, and the loss of semen symbolizes the loss of life. Note also that in the entire list of forbidden sexual unions, there is no prohibition against lesbianism. Can it be that lesbianism did not exist in ancient times or that Scripture was unaware of its existence? Lesbians existed and flourished, as attested in an old (pre-Israelite) Babylonian text and in the work of the lesbian poet Sappho (born c.612 B.C.E., during the time of the First Temple), who came from the island of Lesbos (hence lesbianism). But there is a fundamental difference between the homosexual acts of men and women. In lesbianism there is no spilling of seed. Thus life is not symbolically lost, and therefore lesbianism is not prohibited in the Bible.

My argument ostensibly can be countered by a more comprehensive biblical injunction. The very first commandment, given to Adam and repeated to Noah, is "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 9:1, 7). The descendants of Noah -- the entire human race -- are duty-bound to fulfill this commandment. But the truth is that we have not only filled the earth, we have over-filled it. This does not mean, however, that the commandment should be thought of as no longer in force -- especially among Jews, ho have lost a third of their numbers in our lifetime. I recall an incident during a premarital interview from the early years of my rabbinate. The starry-eyed bride declared her noble intention to have twelve children to compensate for the tragic loss of six million killed in the Holocaust. I gasped, "Must you do it all by yourself? "I have since come to regret my flippant reply. This couple regarded their forthcoming marriage as a sacrament not just between themselves, but with the Jewish people. The problem has worsened for American Jews. Because intermarriage is rife and the Jewish birth rate is low, American Jewry, once at zero population growth, has dipped into the minus column. Were it not for a steady stream of converts, the extinction of American Jewry would be even more imminent. For us the divine command, "Be fruitful and multiply" is truly in force.

To Jewish homosexuals I offer an unoriginal solution. As compensation for your loss of seed, adopt children. Although adoption was practiced in the ancient world (as attested in Babylonian law), there is no biblical procedure or institution of adoption. As a result the institution of adoption is absent from rabbinic jurisprudence. Yet there are isolated cases of a kind of pseudo-adoption in the Bible. For example, Abraham, long childless, complains to God that Eliezer of Damascus, his steward, will inherit him (Genesis 15:2). And barren Rachel beseeches her husband Jacob, "Here is my maid Bilhah--go into her that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children" (Genesis 30:3). Adoption is certainly a possibility today. Lesbian couples have an additional advantage. Not only do they not violate biblical law, but through artificial insemination each can become the natural mother of her children.

Thus from the Bible we can infer the following: Lesbians, presumably half of the world's homosexual population, are not mentioned. More than ninety-nine percent of the gays, namely non-Jews, are not addressed. This leaves the small number of male Jewish gays subject to this prohibition. If they are biologically or psychologically incapable of procreation, adoption provides a solution. I hope the Eternal, in love and compassion, will then reckon their spilled seed as producing fruit.

[1] It is true that some rabbis would include homosexuality under the Noachide Laws, binding on all humanity (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 58a; Maimonides, Kings 9:5), but this is a later interpretation, not the plain meaning of the biblical text.

[2] "Seeing the Ethical Within the Ritual," Bible Review, August 1992.

Bible Review; Volume IX, Number 6, December 1993. Page 11.

Published by the Biblical Archaeology Society, 3000 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20008. ISBN-8755-6316.88



"A Blessing over Differences: We need a new look at Jewish texts that appear to exclude homosexuals

The Jerusalem Report, April 6, 1995, p. 51

DEBATE over the religious significance of unconventional sexual identity has raged in Israel since last fall's Supreme Court ruling that El Al must give free flights to an employee's homosexual partner, as it would to any employee's common-law spouse. As usual, attacks on accepting homosexuals have been based on the Biblical proscriptions against a man "lying with a man as with a woman deeming this "an abomination" and "punishable by death" (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13).

Indeed. such arguments have long been used. Rabbi Moshe Tendler. for instance, once cited Leviticus on these pages, and urged us "express shame and indignation" in response to homosexuality.

No matter how categorical scripture seems to be, though, one never assume that a subject is closed. The classic example is the "stubborn and rebellious son" of Deuteronomy 2 1, to be stoned at the initiative of his parents. the Talmud, in Tractate Sanhedrin, creates such unlikely rules for convicting such a child that it concludes that a real one "never was and never will be."

In a matter closer to the question of sexual "deviation," the Bible excludes eunuchs from "entering the assembly of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 23:2) - that is, from marrying. Tractate Sotah, however, explains that the prohibition applies only to one made a eunuch by human action, but not to a congenital eunuch apparently distinguishing between culturally chosen and physically determined deviation. There's also a subtext of divergent rabbinic views on unconventional sexual identity in Tractate Bekhorot. There the sages discuss the Torah's requirement (Exodus 34:19) that first-born animals be consecrated unless thev are phvsicallv blemished. An animal with both male arid female genitals is seen bv Rabbi Ishmael as haviryi a "blemish of which none is greater." But others. as Rashi comments, consider it neither male nor female "but a creature in its own right"! In the latter view, a biological deviation is to be appreciated, not deprecated.

Defining sexual identity is made an issue in the opening verse of Tazria: 'When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be rituallv impure seven davs ... arid if she bears a female, she shall be impure two weeks" (Leviticus 12:2, 5). But what of a child that is both male and female, or neither (androginus and tumtum respectively in Talmudic terminology? Rather than exclude them from the law and the community because of their unusual sexual identity, the sages in Tractate Nidah set requirements for them between those for a male and those for a female - and so recognize such sexual identity as a category in itself.

This invites the further question, not pursued by the early sages, of how to regard a child who is conventionally ale or female in some ways but not others - that is, a homosexual. While this characteristic is obviously not discernible in infancy, the long-term question is about legitimacy.

Can the Jewish communitv be categorical in excluding those whose differences put them outside standard sexual identity. What if those differences are a product of genes, not choice? A direction toward an answer, I suggest, can be derived from Tractate Brakhot, which teaches that one who sees a physically unusual person should recite: "Blessed-are You. Lord, who makes creatures differently." In the 13th century, the Meiri - Rabbi Menahem Meir of Perpignan - explains the blessing as a response to "experincing of new things, without necessarily enjoying or being troubled by them." What it expresses is blessed wonderment at the different forms of divinely created life.

This isn't necessarily approval. It does imply acceptance, and a willingness to include in our society those destined to be different. It is consonant with the fundamental Jewish teaching that each individual is entitled to say "for me was the world created," as stated in Tractate Sanhedrin.

Appreciating God's creation means appreciating variations along a continuum not neatlv divided. Reciting a benediction over human variety translates into creating a society in which differences are respected rather than attacked. The sacred texts, Biblical or rabbinic, which appear to block such inclusion invite creative reinterpretation under the impact of new insights.

Tzui Marx is an Orthodox rabbi, director of applied education at the Shalom Hartmari Institute and author of "Halakha and Handicap: Jewish Law and Ethics on Disability."