This week’s Torah portion includes the verse: "Do not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22).
The subject is particularly at issue because the Conservative movement is now revisiting Jewish laws around homosexuality and the ordination of openly gay Jews.
The meaning and implications of this famous verse are disputed. A literal translation is: "Do not lie down the lying down of women." Some scholars interpret this as referring to penetration or specific cultic practices. The word to’evah (abomination) is undeniably negative (Lev. 20:13). However, the Bible uses to’evah to describe everything from eating nonkosher animals to withholding charity to practicing idolatry to committing adultery. Why should one particular to’evah of men who "lie down the lying down of women" become the measure of turpitude? Why should heterosexuality (or abstinence from homosexuality) be the litmus test for religious leadership, among and above other behaviors and values?
The verse is also significant for what it does not say. There is no biblical law against women partnering with women, and rabbinic prohibitions are both late and weak. Restrictions against lesbians are rooted primarily in social critique and emotional response, not halacha. Shall we therefore ordain lesbians, but not gay men? Some rabbis stiffen the prohibitions against lesbians to preserve sane and consistent mores. Others, like Bradley Shavit Artson, find halachic ways of softening prohibitions against male homosexual sex.
As I understand the peshat (simple, contextual meaning) of Lev. 18:22, it prohibits and condemns sexual contact between men. However, that is where rabbinic interpretation begins, not where it ends. We have ample rabbinic precedent for imposing restrictive definitions, or expansive requirements, in order to mitigate or effectively eliminate biblical punishments and judgments. Consider rabbinic limitations on the death penalty, compared to biblical law. Had the ancient Sages accepted the peshat of Deuteronomy 21, the stoning of rebellious children would pose quite a challenge to Jewish continuity. Within the Bible itself there are changes in law and morality (e.g., regarding the treatment of slaves).
Rabbinic decisionmakers readily admit that rulings and argumentation typically begin with the desired end in mind. That desired end, in turn, is based on rabbinic hierarchies of values, on privileging certain texts and ideas over others.
Rabbis Hillel and Akiva both taught, in different words, that loving one’s neighbor as oneself is the essential principle of Torah. Why should that principle hold any less true in a discussion of sexual behavior? Opponents of gay rabbis sometimes equate homosexuality with molestation, bestiality or promiscuity. Loving adult relationships should not be confused with the abuse of children or animals. Monogamous partnership is a Jewish standard we can and should prize, regardless of sexual orientation. Even if one regards both adultery and monogamous gay partnership as sexual sins, the former hurts people and breaks covenant; the latter increases love in the world.
It is hard to convey the pain and damage caused to our neighbors by excluding gays from Jewish communal acceptance on the one hand, and tolerating sexual abuse on the other. The movements — Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal — have not yet adequately addressed molestation, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by Jewish leaders. The challenge is to rigorously define and practice a comprehensive Jewish sex ethic in which "not doing what is hateful" takes priority.
Leviticus 18 suggests that one pillar of Jewish sexual ethics is maintaining appropriate boundaries. I oppose and would mitigate or uproot the prohibition against male homosexual sex, and the presumption that men own the sexuality of their women (Lev. 18:16). Still, I value the public reading and conversation about sexual boundaries that we hold now and on Yom Kippur. The Torah reading reminds us: Don’t abuse another. Your body is your vessel. Holiness requires distinctions. Sexuality can undermine or enhance holiness. Certain boundaries should not be crossed.
I acknowledge that the issue of boundaries is precisely why some Jews sincerely believe that homosexuality must continue to be characterized as abomination. If that is your position, I urge you nevertheless to welcome religious leadership from gays. Every human being — and therefore every rabbi — sins. Gay men and lesbians can serve the Jewish community nobly; as a class, they have no moral or religious failing.
If we accept that gay Jews can serve the Jewish community, can we ask our gay rabbis, cantors and educators not to find a life partner, not to celebrate when they do and not to raise Jewish children? Is that what it means to be a Jewish role model?
Several rabbis have been credited with saying: "I am not lenient regarding the laws of Shabbat; I am stringent on laws protecting life and health." (Thus, they defend and endorse violating Shabbat for the sake of obtaining medical care, even when the patient might have waited.) Without in any way comparing myself to these sages: I don’t consider myself lenient regarding laws of sexuality. I try to be stringent on "love your neighbor as yourself."
Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana and a frequent scholar-in-residence.