Leviticus 18:22/20:13 in Context: The Prohibition of Using Sex to Humiliate

No verses in the Torah have caused as much pain to LGBTQ people as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on what these verses might mean and how they fit into our modern (and ancient) interpretations of Judaism (and many of them on this blog). 

In 2014 we wrote about translation, interpretation, and misogyny:  12345.

In 2015 we wrote about the mistranslation of the Hebrew word תועבה / to'evah, usually understood (incorrectly) to mean "abomination:" 1, 2, 3.

This year we offer yet another interpretation of these verses, this time focusing on the possibility that what Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 really prohibit is sexual conquest of one's fellow in order to demean him, embarrass him, or take revenge on him. 

To begin, we must deconstruct the verses, as written in the Hebrew. (For translation, check out this post from 2014.)


Leviticus 18:22

וְאֶת זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה הִוא


Leviticus 20:13

וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת זָכָר מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה עָשׂוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם מוֹת יוּמָתוּ דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם



The challenge of interpreting and translating the Torah lies in the fact that there is no dictionary for the text. Much like a seventh grade English class, we're forced to use context clues when we come across a word or a concept with which we're not familiar. In this case, the word that has created confusion over the centuries is "miskhaveh / מִשְׁכְּבֵי" ("lyings"). So, let's take a look at all of the times this word appears in the Torah and in what contexts it's used. 

The first two are the verses above, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. There's only one other use in the Torah of the word miskhaveh / מִשְׁכְּבֵי:


Genesis 49:4

פַּ֤חַז כַּמַּ֙יִם֙ אַל־תֹּותַ֔ר כִּ֥י עָלִ֖יתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אָ֥ז חִלַּ֖לְתָּ יְצוּעִ֥י עָלָֽה׃



At this point of the Torah, Jacob is on his death bed giving final blessings to each of his children. Rather than bless Reuben, though, he says that Reuben is "unstable like water" and "without excellency" because "you went up to your father's bed [mishkaveh] and defiled it."

This is a reference back to a story at Genesis 35:22:

When Jacob's wife Rachel died, Jacob should have moved in with his first wife, Leah. Instead, Jacob elevated his concubine, Bilhah. Reuben, Leah's oldest son, was very upset and slept with Bilhah in order to humiliate his father and get revenge. The story used the verb "va-yishkav / וַיִּשְׁכַּב" [and he laid], but, long after this event, Jacob uses the noun form of the word, "miskhaveh / מִשְׁכְּבֵי." 

With this use of the word "miskhaveh / מִשְׁכְּבֵי," it's clear that Jacob is rebuking Reuben's attempt at revenge in order to humiliate and embarrass him. The idea that the word "miskhaveh / מִשְׁכְּבֵי" is used as a signifier for revenge/dehumanizing/humiliation is not new.


Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser wrote in 2013:

Throughout the Bible, sexuality between people of the same gender, especially between two men, is understood in one of two ways: 1) A form of violence and domination exerted by one man over another to humiliate him, and 2) A form of sexual excess that is so unbridled that it does not discriminate between male and female. 


And in his book Wrestling with God and Men, Rabbi Steve Greenberg points out:

We have seen that homoeroticism in the Book of Genesis never appears outside of violent contexts...What Leviticus prohibits, then, may be the humiliation of one's fellow by sexual penetration, and the willingness to humiliate one's self by allowing such a violation of one's male body. 


Jay Michaelson asserts in his essay:

In the misogynistic culture to which the Torah was given ("The Torah speaks in the language of man"), to be sexually penetrated was a form of degradation. Leviticus 18 demands that this degradation never be visited upon another man. This explains the use of the word et and the strange locution mishkevei ishah: it refers to doing something humiliating to a man. If the prohibition meant something other than degradation, it would have said im adam - "with" a man, rather than et adam, which means, roughly, "to" or "at" a man.  


For many, this line of reasoning is the most rational: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 don't speak to consensual, loving, supportive same-gender relationships (even sexual relationships). Instead, these verses  prohibit the use of sex to humiliate, demean, or embarrass one's fellow man, which is never acceptable under any circumstance.


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]