The Fear of Being Like A Woman

In Part 1 we looked at the inherent problems in translations - no matter how faithful one thinks they are to the text, there will always be a bit of their personal interpretations and inferences mixed in.  But when we get beyond the context of just a text-based translation, how do these interpretations reflect the ideologies of the various movements and streams of Judaism?

In Part 2 we explored how today's mainstream Jewish movements interpret and implement Leviticus 18:22.

In Part 3 we discussed the conspicuous absence of lesbianism/female-female sexual relations in the Torah, and how the laws surrounding its supposed prohibition are all purely rabbinic, and even debatable. 

In Part 4 we took a look at all of the other prohibited sexual relationships in Parshat Kedoshim, as we discovered that there are other relationships that are condemned far greater than those of two males.

This post, part 5, is the last post in this series.



The Torah is a book that loves its defined roles. That is to say, every character in the Torah has its archetype and typically sticks to it. Rarely do we see the long, transformational journey of a single person as one might  see in, say, The Odyssey. The closest we get is the journey of the Israelites as a nation. It's possible to argue that theirs is a story of transition, learning, and growth, but in the context of the traditional interpretation, I would argue that their presence is less about the story and more about the individual moments that make up the story. 

There's a familiar refrain in throughout the Hebrew Bible: God tells the Israelites to do (or not do) something specific. The Israelites comply, they are rewarded with proper rain, abundant crops, food, and safety. Then they get complacent, and they start diverging from God's directions. In turn, God warns, then punishes, and then forgives, as the cycle continues. In traditional interpretation, I think these are the moments that are the main focus.

It matters less in traditional interpretation that over the course of  over 60 generations we evolved into the multi-faceted nation we were supposed become; what seems to matter more is that we were obedient and we were rewarded. It is in that spirit that I think the verses prohibiting certain sexual relationships in Kedoshim derive their greatest power.

These are verses that keep everyone in their defined roles. There are no (few) variations. No one was outside of the mainstream, ensuring that no one can start a divergent faction, dangerously leading the rest of the nation into a perilous situation. Of course we know that this was not a foolproof method of protecting the Israelites - if it were, the Bible would be a lot shorter.

We could stop there and have an interesting discussion based solely on the tribal/self-preservation mentality, but that would be ignoring one of the most important implications of some of these laws: the inherent misogyny they contain. 

[In relations between God, men, and women,] God is on top and men on bottom; men are on top and women are on bottom. In relation to God humans are receptive; in relation to men women are receptive. As God rules men, men rule women. The order is meant to be beneficient, but its potential for violence is implicit....How does one humiliate a male? By sexual penetration. And why is this humiliating? Because this is what a man does to a woman.
— Rabbi Steven Greenberg, "Wresting With God & Men, Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition"

The actual fear of two men having sexual relations is that it upsets the "natural order". Not "natural order" of what attraction should and should not be, but, the "natural order" of power. In the Torah, sex is an act of power, inherently between unequals. It is how a traditional marriage (an acquisition, not an equal union) is consummated. After a war, men are allowed to take the conquered nation's women. Sex is a form of physical (and emotional and cultural) dominance over another. When two men - two people who, according to all of society's rules are equals - that is when the "natural order" is upset, the world is thrown into chaos.

In ancient Rome and Greece, where male-male sexual relationships were commonplace, the biggest fear a man could have was losing his citizenship. To lose one's citizenship was to be demoted to a place in society nearly equal to that of children (below women, to be sure). 

And what were the qualifications for being a citizen?

1) not being a woman (שלא עשני אשה)

2) not being a foreigner  (שלא עשני גוי)

3) not being the passive recipient of penetrative sex (a slave) (שלא עשני עבד).

This idea that one must remain at the top of the power chain in order to be considered a full citizen was so pervasive that Orthodox Judaism holds onto these standards to this day and are referenced in daily morning prayers.  (The progressive movements have since changed these three blessings to "who has made me in God's image," "who has made me a Jew,"  and "who has made me a free person.")

The fear that one may become "less of a man" - that is to say, "like a woman" was (is) so pervasive that it has lasted for literally thousands of years. That is astounding! In a world where the greatest dangers are all around - when war is not an occasional act but so common a theme that we have entire chapters devoted to the laws surrounding it; when hunger and disease were so present - that with all of these things, one of the greatest fears that the Bible had for the Israelite men was that they would become like women - it's almost too absurd to imagine. Almost.


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 [email protected]