By Jeremy Wood
On August 1 2009, a gunman entered the “Aguda” building in Tel Aviv where an Israeli Gay Youth event was being held and opened fire on the crowd, killing two LGBT activists, one of them just 17 years old. The gunman has been suspected to be ultra orthodox; regardless the ultra orthodox press in Israel was quick to blame the victim, calling them depraved and stating that any blame for the murders lay solely with the owners of the club who put minors in danger of incurring the wrath of G-d.
And yet half the time we give these guys our Torah. We assume they’re right about the Pasuks they use to hate. We assume that to reject the interpretation requires that we reject the text.
However, my tradition teaches that every word of the Tanakh, has value and I believe this—so if you’ll allow me I’d rather deconstruct than reject. I don’t have the Christian privilege to simply say “and then Jesus came and it was all better.” Judaism teaches that we need to weed through the garbage, including homophobic manipulations of scripture and pull out the light for there is light in everything. Here’s an example: Vayikra 18:22 reads “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” Many of us have let ourselves be convinced by bigots that this simply refers to sex between men (the Bible never references sex between women, silencing female sexuality but not forbidding its queer expression) whether in a pagan temple or anywhere else as a crime. But if we read it carefully, there is more going on here. What does “as one lies with a woman” mean? In a heteronormative society that placed a high priority on fertility the central act of heterosexual sex, the way in which one “lay with a woman” was vaginal penetration, taken here to extend to anal penetration. To the biblical writer penetration was a show of dominance. In the patriarchal context of the bible, vaginal penetration is a show of men’s dominance over women. To penetrate a man is to dominate him, just as the people of Sodom threatened to penetrate the guests of Lot.
Penetration only becomes domination in a context that conceives of sex as a field of power relations. If we recognize that no sex act is inherently dominant or submissive then we are forced to read the line from Leviticus as referring not to the sexual act so much as to a context of domination. The official position of my own denomination, Conservative Judaism, does not make this inference. It supports marriage equality elsewhere, gay ordination elsewhere but insists that this verse must be taken to forbid one act, that of anal penetration between men. Yet the Bible states that “a man shall cleave unto his wife and become one flesh [through penetrative contact].” My tradition recognizes that penetration is not simply an act of pleasure and is not an act inherently of dominance but rather one that strives to unite two bodies into one. I refuse to deny such union to same sex couples.
To forbid a man to dominate a man as they would a woman still relies of course on a deeply misogynist assumption that women are to be sexually subservient, below men. If we come to the verse rather with an understanding that women and men are entitled to the same sexual respect, we can understand it to command that you shall not have sex with anyone (men, women or intersex persons) with an intent to dominate.
There are real scraps of queer love that made it into the texts and these texts are of course empowering but as long as we let the homophobes monopolize other passages like the line in Vayikra we will be saying to queer Jews that they cannot have this line. They will have to bite their tongue and leave it alone. We will be inferring that in their community they will have to stay in the closet or leave the community.
A Judaism that intends to remain meaningful to all Jews requires that Jewish communities, queer, ally and otherwise reform the way they treat sexual and gender diversity. It is incumbent upon all Jews that we make new space for queer people, their partners and the families they form rather than compelling them to inhabit tired closets. At its truest heart Judaism teaches that humanity is made to love, including in bed, in whatever way G-d has led them to see fit and that such love, straight or queer and the families that such love creates are the most important foundation of Jewish peoplehood.