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.
Before we get into part 3, let's take a look again at the verse in question:
ואת זכר לא תשכב משכבי אשה תועבה הוא
V'ET ZAKHAR, LO TISHKAV MISH-KA-VEH ISHA, TO-EH-VAH HEE.
And you shall not lie with a male like lying with a woman. It is an offensive thing.
(Translation: Richard Elliott Friedman)
When you read the verse above (and Leviticus 20:13, which is very similar), you'll notice something pretty blatantly absent: women. In fact, you won't find any mention of female same-sex relations or relationships anywhere in the Torah. Not even once.
Naturally, you'd assume that no mention means there's no prohibition, right? If there's no law saying you can't do something, it's usually a pretty good indication that you CAN do something, usually. Well, sort of.
ולא תלכו בחוקת הגוי אשר אני מפניכם את כל אלה עשו ואקץ בם
And you shall not go by the laws of the nation that I am expelling before you, they have done all of these and I am disgusted with them.
The ancient rabbis were incredibly uncomfortable by the idea of two women together. If two women could find sexual satisfaction with each other, why would they need to stay married to their husbands? They assumed that any woman, if given the opportunity, would leave her husband to enter into a (sexual) lesbian relationship. But, the rabbis also knew that they couldn't just make up a new law that didn't exist before, so they twisted the text and their experience to quash their fears.
The rabbis had found their way out: You can't do it because THEY did it! Who were THEY? Anyone else who wasn't Jewish, apparently.
Maimonides makes an interesting revelation here. Sexual intercourse, according to traditional Judaism, is defined by penetration. According to Maimonides, because there is no (male-female) penetration, lesbian sex isn't actually sex at all. Therefore, even if there are two women who have engaged in sexual activity together, there is no real punishment because no real sexual intercourse took place.
There's one other reason as to why female-female sexual relations were prohibited in traditional Judaism, and one which we'll explore in the coming posts: misogyny. Having sexual relations with a woman was the purview of men, and when a woman has sex with another woman, she is attempting to take on the privilege and authority of men. She is knocking the system off balance and threatening the "natural" hierarchy of power (see: patriarchy).
In our modern world, where the ancient systems of power are less and less relevant, the prohibition on female same-sex relations is clearly unnecessary and offensive. (Really, it was always unnecessary and offensive.)
In the next few posts, we'll start to put Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 in the context of the other verses in the same chapters, and explore how that affects historical and modern interpretations.