I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means (Part 2)

The Hebrew word תועבה (to'evah) is often translated as "abomination." In the last post we looked at the (very few) times the word was used in the Torah. We should be clear that we're looking at the occurrences of the Hebrew word תועבה (to'evah) and NOT any appearance of the word "abomination." Many translated versions of the Torah use the word "abomination" without regard to context, comparison, or, most importantly, a true Hebrew equivalent, which means that aside from the 13 situations in which the Hebrew word תועבה (to'evah) is used and translated as "abomination," any other use of the word in English is NOT the same Hebrew word.

With all of that in mind, let's take a look at the only times the word תועבה (to'evah) is used, and how we can use that to figure out what it may actually mean.  This is the second part of two posts that go in-depth and analyze the texts. Here's the first part.  (And here's our original list of what is and is not a תועבה (to'evah). 

 

Idolatry

This one seems pretty straight forward: Jews are very much anti-idolatry, because God really hates it, and God as we know, is a super jealous God. Except, in modern times, we don't interpret this nearly as literally as others might. Some folks say that any sculpture or work of art is problematic. Some folks say that the decorative Buddha statue you have sitting on your shelf is what's really the problem. Each of those is a very valid interpretation and reading of these verses, but they show us very clearly: Not every work of art or statue (or even statue of another religion's God) is problematic today. Yes, many are, but not all. Obviously, these verses can and have been interpreted in many different ways, showing that this particular תועבה (to'evah) is very much dependent on time, place, and context.

 

Cultural Customs/Sorcery

This section's a big one and there are a number of issues to get to. First, let's look at the intention common to both - the idea that "the practices of the nations there" are an issue:

What were "the practices of the nations there?" Well, all kinds of things. Men would sleep with men, women with women, they would lie, cheat, steal, and basically do all kinds of things that we're not supposed to do. But the sections where those are listed? Don't go into too much explicit detail. We're left with a lot of rabbinic commentary and backpedaling, trying to insert meaning into a place where it wasn't before. 

Making your son or daughter walk through fire: This could be read on multiple levels, starting with the most basic: In the ancient Near East, there were people who were fire-walkers. We can't force our kids to do that. On a deeper level, though? Parents forcing children to undertake something that could potentially harm them is extremely problematic. With multiple possibilities of interpretation, it's clear that context, time, and place very much matter here.

Being a magician, snake charmer, or seeking guidance from the dead/spirits messes with God's place in our world, and we can't emphasize enough that God's a very jealous God. But, we have plenty of examples of magicians in Judaism  and who hasn't played a game of Ouija? Again, we see that this is a case of a law being very specific to time, place, and context.

As for romancing the dead? Well, apparently, that was a thing that we used to do, way, way, way, way, back when... (But, even if we didn't, it clearly was something that was occurring at the time that some folks said was ok, which means that there was, indeed, a context, time, and place that this was considered OK.)

 

Vows/Business Practices

A prostitute's fee or the price of a dog: The simple way to read this is that it's forbidden to place stipulations on vows that we take before God. But, "the price of a dog" is a strange biblical euphemism for male cult prostitution.  As in, you cannot use fees gained from prostitution to buy animals to be sacrificed in the Temple. In other words, the end doesn't always justify the means, or, there are types of sex (rape, cultic, etc) that are just never ok. 

Not using perfect weights and measures: As Jay Michaelson points out, this is the only time the word תועבה (to'evah) is used in a moral context in the Torah. And, if we look at this through the lens of time, context, and place, we can say that this is the exception that proves the rule: There simply isn't a time, context, or place that we can justify cheating someone in business. And, by using the word תועבה (to'evah), the bible connects it back to idolatry and cult practices: To cheat someone is to turn money into an idol - into a God - and that's unacceptable.

So where do we go from here? There are many instances of the use of the word תועבה (to'evah) in post-Torah writings. Most (but not all) are used surrounding the idea of idolatry or cultic practices.  Some are moral (in psalms), but most aren't.  There's still quite a lot to talk about. 

Some folks say that the word תועבה (to'evah) should be translated as "taboo," because, as we've shown, cultural context matters. That's certainly another possibility. 

Above all else, though, I think we've shown that it's simply impossible to figure out what one or two verses mean without looking at them through the entire context of culture, time, related writings, and where they appear - and it's foolish for anyone to claim that they can.

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Robbie Medwed

Robbie Medwed began working with SOJOURN when it was known as The Rainbow Center as a volunteer in 2008. He served as chair of the TRC Advisory Board and as co-chair of Purim off Ponce (2010, 2011) before moving into his current role as Assistant Director, where he oversees SOJOURN's educational programming and outreach, including our award-winning workshops and training seminars. Robbie holds a master's degree in Jewish education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has written curricula and nationally-recognized inclusive programs for the Marcus JCC of Atlanta, BBYO, USY, Camp Ramah, the Jewish Teen Funders Network, Babaganewz, and JewishGPS. Robbie is also a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and cyclist. Robbie can be reached at robbie@sojourngsd.org.