If there were one verse I could remove from the Torah, it would be this: “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death” (Levitcus 20:13).
These words are misused and overused by Jews and Christians alike. Just this year, nearly 200 anti-LGBT bills have been proposed around the country under the guise of religious freedom.
Whether or not this verse and its counterpart from last week’s Torah reading (Lev. 18:22) are quoted directly, these shared biblical prohibitions are the basis for many attempts at curtailing freedom for lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
As much as I may wish that this verse would disappear from our canon, in Judaism we never remove a text or even ignore it. We struggle and argue with it. And these Levitical texts are still called upon as guides to sexual practice.
How can we make sense of this problematic verse through a contemporary lens and better understand the context in which it was formulated?
First and foremost, Leviticus 20:13 should be rejected as a teaching with any real-world application on the grounds that our contemporary sexual ethics are not congruent with those of the Torah.
The biblical and early rabbinic worldview did not envision women and men with personal autonomy over their sexual lives. Sex before marriage was off-limits. Rape was not considered a crime, and young women were married off to their rapists. Wasted seed (including masturbation) was a lost opportunity for procreation.
The understanding of same-sex acts and the formation of LGBT identities have changed dramatically since the origin of this prohibition; it is anachronistic to expect this ancient text to offer wisdom to the modern world about same-sex love and intimacy.
Placed in historical context, this text is thought to recall a polemic distinguishing Israelite behavior from surrounding nations and cultic practices, perhaps not forbidding same-sex intimacy but rather an ancient ritual akin to a spiritual orgy.
Viewed from a different angle, the text arguably tells us more about a concern in ancient Israel with overturning rigid gender roles than about same-sex attraction. In the historical context of male-male sex at that time, when one man assumed the role of a woman by taking on a perceived subjugated role as passive receiver, the existing gender hierarchy was upset, and the power structure was threatened. From this historical perspective, the verse isn’t just homophobic; it is also misogynistic.
Myopically selecting only this text overlooks the overarching messages of love and human dignity in the Torah. Any individual prohibition should not violate our foundational concepts — that every person was created in the image of the Divine and that we were once strangers. Other teachings even within the Holiness Code in which these verses are embedded emphasize loving our neighbors as ourselves and not hating our brothers or sisters in our hearts.
Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, wrote, “Most people would tell you that religions are the keepers and preservers of unchanging, eternal truths. They would be wrong.”
Leviticus 20:13 is continuously plucked out of Scriptures by both Jews and Christians who claim that these are the timeless words of God. Yet every religious tradition evolves over time. We no longer subscribe to laws about slavery or stoning rebellious children to death, yet we refuse to allow this one to evolve as well.
In Judaism we do not erase Torah verses, but we struggle. We need to argue with this text. We need to present a counter-teaching each and every time it arises in our annual cycle of readings, each time we hear these words chanted on Yom Kippur.
Something must be said about these verses so that no adult, child or teenager who is sitting in our pews hears these prohibitions without also hearing them placed in their proper historical context and challenged by the people around them.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.