by Matthew Gindin
(This is an edited version. The full piece can be found here.)
Vayikra 20:13: “And a man who will lie with with a male like laying with a woman: the two of them have done an offensive thing. They shall be put to death.”
What made “laying with a man like laying with a woman” fatally unholy?
One possibility presents itself: laws like these were intended to differentiate the Israelites from their neighbors. Ancient Egyptians had a custom of sibling marriage and anthropologists claim that some tribes in Canaan practiced ritual homosexual rape. Rabbi Gershon Winkler has argued that these laws were intended to outlaw homosexual rape specifically because it was widely practiced in Canaanite temples.
This is possible, but doesn’t seem that strong an explanation. It does seem reasonable that the phrase “laying with a man like a woman” does refer to anal sex. This is the interpretation that Conservative Jews have adopted and they have ruled that homosexual romance and marriage are permissible but not anal sex between men.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg (an openly gay Orthodox rabbi) has suggested that the problem is not anal sex but the use of other men not for their own sake but as a mere replacement for a woman. In his reading one should lay with a man like one is laying with a man, not like one is laying with a woman.
Richard Elliott Friedman has suggested that homosexual anal sex is outlawed here not because it is offensive to God but because it is offensive to Israelites. The verse says, “Do not do X. It is an offensive thing.” Friedman suggests that the Torah is in effect saying “Do not have homosexual intercourse. It is something people generally find offensive and you are trying to be a refined, disciplined, holy people. Therefore abandon it.”
One other possibility is that homosexual intercourse was outlawed because it was perceived as against the way of nature. The Tanakh is filled with praise for the divine wisdom inherent in nature. Some of the laws, like those limiting breeding hybrid crops or mixing certain types of fabric, seem to reflect this.
This presents two problems for us today. The first problem is that we now know that homosexual desires are not a perverse inclination of the human heart but a natural inclination grounded in genetic predisposition. We also know that it is impossible for homosexual men to be “cured” of their desires. The evidence suggest that homosexual desire is in fact natural. This seems to conflict with the rationale we perceived above.
I am reminded of the words of orthodox Rabbi Simon Rappaport. He pointed out that to fail to observe this mitzvah is no worse than failing to observe any other. To judge those born with desire for other men, or to (has v’shalom) publicly condemn or persecute them, is as unacceptable as publicly shaming and assaulting those who talk during prayer or smoke on shabbat. Sadly some fundamentalist thugs might advocate doing that these days, but it is clearly against traditional Jewish law.