Exult! Rejoice! Wait, Who’s Bedding Whom? Listening to Leviticus post-DOMA

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June 28, 2013

Zeh hayom asah Adonai! Nagilah v’nismecha vo!

This phrase, taken from Psalm 118, commonly shows up on wedding and b’nei mitzvah invitations. It means, “This is the day that Adonai has made! Let us exult and rejoice in it!”

It seems completely appropriate for this week. As I write, pundits are dissecting the US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down DOMA.

My partner, Anthony, and I hugged and said brachos when we heard the news. A congregant called me on my cellphone, declaring through his tears, simply, “Love over Ignorance!”

And, of course, my mother called to ask when we’re getting married.

But in the midst of the joy, I was left with a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach.

A Crisis for Torah

Before I ever fell in love with a man, I fell in love with Torah. It was a wild, sprawling document that seemed to have one unifying theme: there’s a Power hidden in all that happens in the world, and that Power is concerned with holiness and justice. Readers from Moses to Martin have found a text that demands an accounting on behalf of the immigrant, the worker, the widow. In a world of unfettered commerce, it’s a conversation that we need now more than ever.

But now that the Supreme Court recognizes the right of all couples to marry, the remaining voices of bias and hate in this conversation are primarily religious ones. This is nothing less than a crisis for anyone who believes that religion remains a prophetic voice for justice.

Simply put: Torah cannot change the world if modern, thoughtful folks think it’s an irrelevant relic.

It would seem to me that now, more than ever, religious progressives must address, head on, the supposed Torah prohibition of gay sex. Here’s my take on the matter.

No Extra Words

The text most often quoted by in defense of biblical homophobia is Leviticus 18:22. In Hebrew, it reads, V’et-zachar lo tishkav mish’k’vei ishah. It is usually translated as, “Do not lay with a male as you would lay with women” — an apparent universal condemnation of sex between men.

The words et-zachar lo tishkav clearly mean “don’t lay with a male,” or “don’t bed a male.” In a chapter that’s seemingly addressed to men, that directive would make perfect sense all by itself. But Jewish tradition teaches that there are no superfluous words in Torah. Why would the Torah add the peculiar phrase mish’k’vei ishah?

That mish’k’vei ishah means “as you would lay with women” is far from obvious. The word mish’k’vei itself appears only three times in all of scripture: the two supposed prohibitions of gay sex in Leviticus, plus once, at the end of the book of Genesis.

Whose Bed Is Whose?

The scene is Jacob’s deathbed. As the patriarch prepares to die, Jacob gathers his sons around him to tell them what will happen in the days after his death. First-born son Reuben, perhaps expecting a blessing from his father, is nevertheless condemned by Jacob with the charge of “instability.” And then, Jacob directly scolds his son: Alita mish’k’vei avicha! reads Genesis 49:4. “You went up on your father’s beds!”

What’s all this about beds? Back in Genesis 35, we learn that “Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine.” In addition to being wed to sisters Leah and Rachel (“biblical marriage,” in case anyone’s asking), Jacob has sexual access to two concubines: Bilhah and Zilpah.

In context, then, Jacob’s condemnation is not literal. Jacob is not angry that Reuben was in his bed, but rather with the sexual relationship that Reuben had there. Bilhah, as Jacob’s concubine, is permitted to be with Jacob. Reuben violated that boundary. Read this way, the term mish’k’vei avicha — the “beds of your father” — is a metaphor for Jacob’s sexual domain. Reuben is in trouble because he interfered with — violated — his father’s sexual space.

How Genesis Solves Leviticus

Taking the meaning from Genesis, and applying to Leviticus 18:22, the result is this translation: “Don’t bed a male in the beds of woman.” Or, perhaps, “Don’t bed a male in the sexual domain of a woman.”

This is not a text prohibiting homosexuality. It is a text about respecting our relationships.

Recall the earlier incident in Genesis. Jacob has just lost his Rachel, his beloved. Having just set the monument upon her grave, Torah tells us that Jacob immediately hears the mortifying news that Reuben has slept with his concubine.

How do we begin to understand Reuben’s behavior? Perhaps Reuben feels his own pain and humiliation. It has been suggested that Jacob, following the death of favored wife Rachel, established his primary sleeping space with Bilhah, rather than Reuben’s mother, Leah. And so now, in the absence of Rachel, his father Jacob chooses not Leah, but a concubine. It is not hard to imagine Reuben “acting out.”

What, then, was the sex act about? Who was it about? Probably not Bilhah, who is object, not subject, in this text. Was it to “despoil” Bilhah so that Jacob could no longer have relations with her, and would have to sleep with Leah? Was it to exact revenge against his father? Control? Dominance? To cast guilt, doubt, shame over all the sexual relations of his father? Over all the mish’k’vei avicha, “the beds of his father”?

This sex act, then, was not a loving act. It was an act of anger and vengeance. These are both possible reasons to have sex. And they’re both the wrong reasons to have sex.

Seen in this light, the condemnation we read in Leviticus seems to shift.

V’et-zachar lo tishkav mish’k’vei ishah. “Don’t bed a male in the sexual space of a woman.” Who is this woman? A wife of one of the men involved? A woman who expects integrity and honesty in her marriage, but instead is betrayed? And who are the men? Men who long for a full relationship, but are denied such by society, and who must resort to deceit, tortured by guilt and self-loathing? Who have sex with women not as an act of love, but as a grueling burden? Who bring that torment upon all the mish’k’vei ishah, “the beds of woman”?

What Leviticus is Trying to Teach Us

It is an abomination to bring this shame and guilt upon a marital bed. And, all the more so, it is an abomination for a society to demand us to do so.

The Torah, always a revolutionary document, asks us to take the revolutionary step of seeing sex not as merely a mechanical, procreative act. Instead, we are called to honor the profound physical, emotional and spiritual power of sexual intimacy.

Creating a holy, intimate space demands trust and respect. To bring another person into that space, in fear of who we are or what we desire, compromises that trust. Leviticus invites us to be open and honest, with ourselves and our partners — to reject deception, to come out of hiding, and to create relationships that are loving, honest, and sacred.

And when we support those relationships, that day truly — finally — will be one that God has made.

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum serves as rabbi/educator at Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, CA, and lives in Oakland with his partner, Yiddish singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell. Rabbi Mike has received accolades for his efforts in religious school, b’nai mitzvah, youth group, and camp settings. He has worked extensively with faith-based social justice organizations, including (Bend the Arc)[http:/bit.ly/17r97gQ ] and JFREJ, and joined AJWS’s rabbinic delegation to Ghana last summer. He’s appeared on WAMC, CNN and WABC-TV, and one of his sermons is included in the anthology “Peace, Justice, and Jews: Reclaiming Our Tradition.” His interests include fair wages, Bob Dylan, and manual transmission.

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