Parashat Kedoshim – On Homosexuality

Parashat Kedoshim – On Homosexuality


Howard Adelman

I will return to my series on corrupt history and the misinterpretation of the history of Israel on Sunday. Today is Friday and I return to my practice of commenting on the weekly portion of the Torah. My commentary on a wayward way of reading Israeli history was instigated by my reading of Gregory Baum’s memoir, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway. So is today’s commentary on the Torah. In reading Gregory’s account of his religious journey, I learned he was gay.

I was surprised. I did not know this, even though others evidently did. Further, when Gregory was forced to leave the priesthood because of his theological position, he eventually married an ex-nun whom I knew reasonably well since she was a member of the so-called Catholic group made up of priests and nuns (soon enough, ex-priests and ex-nuns), and I was the only Jew in the group. I had believed that he had left the priesthood, or was forced out, because he could no longer find an archbishop to be his “sponsor”. The last one in Mexico had been contacted by the Vatican, he told me, and had been ordered to end his formal life in the Church. (I capitalize the word “Church” only when referring to the Catholic Church.) I thought the reason arose because of his theological political writings on liberation theology. In reading the memoir, I learned that the reason was his writing on sexual ethics, a reason which he had offered in a Globe and Mail newspaper piece at the time which I had not read.

In chapter 13 of his theological memoir, Gregory wrote about sexual ethics in general. He had always agreed with the Church’s denunciation of sex separated from love, especially the transformation of sexual relations into a commodity. In 1976, he wrote and published a critique of the Catholic position on human sexuality. As a result, Archbishop Philip Peacock felt obliged to withdraw his permission to preach in churches, the beginning of the cascade of withdrawals of support that would lead to his leaving his role as a priest in the Church and a member of a religious order.

Gregory had disagreed with the Church because he did not accept the rigidity of the Church’s position which applied rules universally without taking into account either cultural attitudes or individual circumstances. (See his volume, Religion and Alienation.) He had been influential at the Second Vatican in changing the attitude of the Church towards Jews, but not its objections to birth control and its insistence that sexual intercourse must always be open to conception since that was its purpose. Sexual satisfaction was simply a means to that end, though Pius XII in 1951 had come to accept the “rhythm method” of birth control, married couples having sex only when the female was infertile in her monthly cycle, thereby introducing a fundamental contradiction into Catholic teaching.

Gregory’s contrarian view was based on his conviction that the essence of the Gospel was the teaching that spousal love had to be love between equals based on mutual respect and tenderness, and a rejection of one individual controlling the other versus the traditional teaching that marriage was based on the husband’s right to his wife’s “body” (jus in corpus). Eventually, he added two other criteria – concern for the good of the partner (did the relationship foster self-realization?)  and critical attention to the impact on the soul. In the Second Vatican Council, the doctrine of mutual love was raised to an aspiration on the same level as procreation. However, as long as procreation remained the prime goal of both sex and marriage, then homosexual love could receive no endorsement. But neither did the Church accept the majority recommendation of its own broadly-based commission that couples should be free to determine the number of children they wanted and the means to control that goal.

Even Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would eventually become Pope Benedict XVI, had accepted that a position based on a conception of “natural law” had to be abandoned because human nature could not be defined metaphysically as a basis for deriving ethical norms. Instead, Gregory had adopted the proposition pioneered by another dissident Catholic that the Church had historically defined sex in negative terms and that the premise had to be acceptance of sexuality as a means of striving for human happiness.

In his 1974 article, in addition to arguing that sexual norms are rooted in culture rather than in any universal understanding of human nature in which homosexual love is branded as “unnatural,” he also argued that the Church treated homosexuals the same way it treated Jews, despising and persecuting them based on a culture of contempt. Instead, homosexuality was no more sinister than being left-handed. Homosexual love is simply a different gift from God. Pope Francis in 2013 embraced that view: “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and his good will, who am I to judge that person.”

In this week’s portion in chapter 18 and 20, we read:

ויקרא יח:כב וְאֶת זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה הִוא. Lev 18:22 Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.
ויקרא כ:יג  וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת זָכָר מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה עָשׂוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם מוֹת יוּמָתוּ דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם. Lev 20:13 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 – their bloodguilt is upon them.

Note, there is no prohibition of lesbian love, only male homosexuality. Only male homosexuality is a toevah, an abhorrence. The passages are not excised. We read them with reverence. Yet the vast majority of Jews, including many ultraorthodox Jews, no longer regard homosexuality as an abhorrence and certainly do not punish gays by killing them. How is the shift justified?

It is not largely done by developing a more comprehensive philosophical ethical framework whereby homosexuality can be embraced and even accepted. The shift is accomplished through hermeneutics, through learning to read the text in a different way. (For two scholarly accounts that undertake this effort, see Rabbi David Frankel, “Male Homosexual Intercourse Is Prohibited – In One Part of the Torah,” and Dr. Shawna Dolansky, “Regarding Azazel and Homosexuals in the same Parasha.”) The principle that Gregory put forth, of cultural relativity, has been an integral part of hermeneutics in the tradition of interpreting Torah. Thus, one method is to read the text as one rooted in a society that had to protect the priority of reproduction, not because of a statement about sexual purposes, but in terms of the survival of the nation in its demographic battles with its enemies.

A second qualification is geographic – the prohibition only applied to those living in the Holy Land lest it be corrupted. This turns out to be a very unsatisfactory reading given that one of the most thriving homosexual communities in the world can be found in Tel Aviv.

A third does so by reading the text in context, in the wider concern still accepted of prohibiting incestual sexual relations. Since lying with a woman who is your sister or your mother is forbidden, so lying with a man who is your brother or your father is forbidden. That is, only those homosexual relations that imitate heterosexual relations that are forbidden are prohibited. It is merely an application of the prohibition against incest. This reading is certainly a stretch, but its importance is that these different methods of reading texts are ways of preserving Torah as a reference point without either surrendering to literalness or, on the other hand, abandoning Torah as a teaching tool.

For example, another way of reading the text in context is not to read it in terms of the circumstances that gave rise to the prohibitions against incest, but in the context of prohibitions against using sex as a vehicle for asserting a power relation, equivalent to Gregory’s insistence on the mutuality that must be inherent in sexual relations. Thus, as Rabbi Steven Greenberg has written, the phrase of a man “lying with a woman” is metaphorical. It means that sexual relations in which one partner is viewed as more powerful than the other and the sex is being used to demonstrate that power, that type of sexual behaviour is prohibited. Thus, homosexual love is only an abomination when it is used to demonstrate the power of one individual over another.

A third variation of reading the text in context that is even a greater stretch is to suggest that the text refers to sex with multiple partners whereby two men are lying with same woman. That is, do not lie with a man when lying with a woman. That is the abomination.

Since the nineteenth century, with the application of the critical reading of the whole Torah in a cultural context that recognized that the text is a compilation of readings developed at different times in the history of the Jewish people, a more critical reading insists that some of the above methods of textual interpretations are abominations in hermeneutics and simply exercises in sophistry. Instead, when it is recognized that biblical text is itself culturally rooted, when it is recognized that different parts of the Torah contradict other parts because they were developed in different historical periods and different contexts, then a search in the rest of the biblical narrative reveals a shocking absence of any other repetitions of this prohibition. Further, if it is accepted that one book, such as Deuteronomy, is more definitive than another, then the Deuteronomic code can be read as setting aside some prohibitions in Leviticus. Unfortunately, within Leviticus there is a similar claim to superiority. (26:46 and 27:34) So how do we adjudicate among competing texts?

One way is to accept what is common to them all – such as prohibitions on sexual congress with animals. Further, when there seems to be an implicit endorsement of homosexual love between, say David and Jonathan (Samuel 1:26), this would seem to acknowledge Gregory’s stress on the positive nature of a homosexual relationship when and only if it is based on mutual love and respect and a striving for self-realization. Any attempt to reconcile such irreconcilable positions, as when the Catholic Church tried to insist that “natural law” was the universal basis for determination, any effort to force the Torah text into a single coherent teaching in conduct, ends up in self-contradiction and stains textual reading rather than enhances it.

If we return to Gregory’s position that such prohibitions must be read as an expression of a culture at a specific time, why would this not lead to relativism and selective reading of Torah text in terms of our dominant culture in the present? On the other hand, why don’t we just say that the teaching in Leviticus is stupid? Both responses demonstrate a disrespect for the past. Instead, the contradictions must be read respectfully and with empathy without avoiding our responsibility to adjudicate among differences and make responsible choices. This is not “anything goes.” Further, text is elevated when it must be studied to ascertain its meaning and relevance and without producing a totally novel framework equivalent to the magic of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

An Ottawa scholar, Shawna Dolansky, makes that effort by using two texts on different but related matters rather than on the same issue. She reads the texts on scapegoating and prohibitions of homosexuality side-by-side to adjudicate between change and continuity and the conviction that any text is rooted in a specific culture. Thus, the ritual of scapegoating, referred to also in this week’s portion, was used by the Catholic Church for nefarious purposes to degrade Jews. The irony was the very text which used displacement as a healthy method of dealing with problems was used inversely to portray Jews in the imagery of a goat sucking the life out of Christianity.  It is one thing for a community to voluntarily and ritually assume responsibility for the transgressions of an individual. It is a very different matter for one community to transfer responsibility and blame to degrade another group.

The most famous example of this is the antisemitic pig (much more lowly than a goat in biblical terms) on the wall of the very same church in Wittenberg where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door, an action widely accepted as instigating the Protestant Reformation. The reproduction can be seen on: The relief shows a rabbi looking into the ass of a pig and Jewish children sucking on the pig’s teats. Antisemitism, especially as expressed by Martin Luther, depicted Jews as engaged in an abomination with a pig.

If one reads the prohibitions against bestiality or the positive ritual using two goats as a purification offering alongside those against homosexuality, both negative and positive portrayals presume that sin is like the spot in Act 5, Scene I of Macbeth when Lady Macbeth hysterically tries to wash her hands and insist, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” Sins either adhere to the sinner mercilessly or are only displaced by being shifted to a scapegoat; sins can never be exorcised. This was and, in part remains, a very deep-seated cultural belief.

This form of purgation (kippur) was excised from Jewish ritual, not the need to engage in purgation and the transfer of impurities, but the specific method. In the new theology, the issue became not simply the removal of contamination from the sanctuary, but the demonstration of remorse through contrition and self-denial, confession and abstinence from food.

If the prohibition of sexual congress between males is both understood in context, then one reading as described above is the injunction against a male treating another male as a female. The injunction opposed treating a superior or an equal as inferior, to “feminizing” another male. Therefore, as Gregory read the commandment, the problem was not sex but power, not mutual respect between two males engaged in sex, but the use of sex by one man to degrade another. In that sense, sexual congress with an inferior male was permitted in that culture, but no homosexual act should be prohibited in our egalitarian culture except when such acts entail exploiting another. Leviticus made the prohibition universal because there was no conception of equality of status between males. All male relationships were then hierarchical.

When relationships change, when, more importantly, the conception of relationship changes, so must the practices, both those encouraged and those that abhorred. The importance is not the discarding of prohibitions against sexual homosexual intercourse – an action I consider obvious – but the differences between the methods used to discard such prohibitions. Gregory proposed doing so by developing a “higher” moral code and conception of human relations rooted in the Gospel of love and revising prohibitions in terms of that, while Jewish commentators do it through hermeneutics, through different methods of reading text out of which new moral codes and practices are developed and reified.

Thus, Christians and Jews can reach the same place, but by following very different paths.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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