Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg: The “clobber verses” used against LGBTQ people are open to a diversity of interpretations

Views Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg / July 2, 2023 Print this:
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This essay has been reprinted from Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s newsletter, which can be found here. This version has been edited for style and content.

Clobber texts, for those who don’t know, are the verses used to beat people over the head and tell them, mostly, that they are bad and wrong for being gay, bi, queer, pan, trans, lesbian, or elsewise LGBT2QIA+. 

The biggest ones are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. I’ve discussed elsewhere, at length, why the sin of Sodom isn’t sodomy. And I will not address the New Testament clobber verses because that is not my lane, but I will send you to QueerTheology & QueerGrace (and NB QG’s great book list) for that particular set of, well, queries. 

All of the following translations are mine. Though I’m trying to be as literal as possible, I’m sure that other Hebrew readers will disagree with my choices—less literal in brackets. 

וְאֶת־זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה הִוא׃

A male—do not lie with the lyings of a woman; it is a toevah/terrible thing. (Leviticus 18:22)

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

If a man who lies with a male the lyings of a woman—both of them have committed a toevah/terrible thing: die, they will die [they will certainly die]; their blood is in them [upon them]. (Leviticus 20:13)

What does toevah really mean?

First, I made the choice not to translate toevah as “abomination” as a way of pulling you out of habituated ways of thinking and maybe pull off some of what you’ve decided “abomination” means without thinking about what toevah might mean in context. Second, what might it mean in context?

Well, let’s see what else is toevah, shall we?

  • The Egyptians might not eat bread with the Israelites; for that is a toevah to the Egyptians. (Genesis 43:32)
  • Every shepherd was toevah unto the Egyptians [presumably (?) because the ram was the sacred animal of two Egyptian gods, Amun and Khnum.] (Genesis 46:34).
  • Pharaoh was so moved by the fourth plague, that while he refused the demand of Moses, he offered a compromise, granting to the Israelites permission to hold their festival and offer their sacrifices in Egypt. This permission could not be accepted, because Moses said they would have to sacrifice “the toevah of the Egyptians” (Exodus 8:22). [1]

Yes, these things are toevah to the Egyptians. They’re fine for the Israelites, but toevah from the Egyptian point of view.

Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, NYC's Gay Synagogue.
Rabbi Ruttenberg describes this photo: “Folks from queer Jewish communities all over the country—you can see almost more signs than people holding them, here, suspect this was before the party really got started—at the 1982 NYC Gay Pride Parade.” 

Toevah is also used elsewhere in the Torah or more broadly in the Hebrew Bible to refer to:

  • idolatry or idols (Deuteronomy 7:25, Deuteronomy 13:14, Isaiah 44:19)
  • adultery (Ezekiel 22:11) 
  • illicit marriage (Deuteronomy 24:2-4)
  • cultic prostitution (1 Kings 14:24)
  • child sacrifice to Molech (Jeremiah 32:35)
  • cross-dressing, likely for the sake of confusing a person for illicit reasons (Rashi on Deuteronomy 22:5)
  • cheating in the market by using rigged weights (Deuteronomy 25:13-19, Proverbs 11:1)
  • dishonesty (Proverbs 12:22)
  • dietary violations (Deuteronomy 14:3)
  • stealing, murder, adultery, swearing falsely, committing idolatry (Jeremiah 7:9,10)
  • usury, violent robbery, murder, oppressing the poor and needy, etc. (Ezekiel 18:10-13)
  • Proverbs 6:16-19 lists seven things which are also toevah: “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are swift in running to mischief, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers.”

This is not to say “Hey, but they condemn a lot of things with this word” is a queer-positive read. I just want to start out by making it clear that this word is not used for “unique thing that only applies in this one case.” Because in the days when drag bans are getting passed and gun bans aren’t, knowing your text inside and out matters.

We have to fight against the encroaching theocracy in many ways at once. One of those ways includes disemboweling bad readings of sacred texts—especially the bad readings that are used to harm people—at every available opportunity. 

Leviticus 18:22

So, toevah notwithstanding, what do we really think is going on in this verse.

A male—do not lie with the lyings of a woman; it is a toevah/terrible thing. (Leviticus 18:22)

Of course, it very much depends on who you ask. There are a few possibilities. 

Most of Leviticus 18 forbids incest, beastiality, child sacrifice—horrible things that imply imbalanced power dynamics in some way. Again, when you juxtapose Genesis 19 and Judges 19 to see that what is of concern in those stories is clearly about sexual assault and domination, it seems probable to conclude that what is being forbidden is not a loving, consensual relationship.

Some suggest that it’s intended as a way to apply all the anti-incest stuff in Leviticus 18 and 20 to male relatives. All that stuff above about not engaging with your half-sister or your aunt? It applies to all the male relatives, too. And toevah applies to everything in this chapter (like not sacrificing kids to Moloch, etc).

If I understand correctly, David Tabb Stewart argued this in the Queer Bible Commentary, and his teacher Jacob Milgrom (known until his death in 2010 as one of the leading scholars on Leviticus) then became a proponent of this interpretation as well. 

Others suggest that the issue was that male-male sex was associated with idolatry. Some people have theorized that male-male sex happened in Canaanite temple cults—in which case, this could be a prohibition against idolatry, and the verse about not sacrificing your kids to Moloch that precedes it in Leviticus 18 makes a bit more sense. I’m not sure how accurate this was or wasn’t historically, but it does matter that this is how rabbis sometimes read it.

There are many ways to understand these biblical texts in ways that affirm and celebrate loving partnerships of all gender combinations.

This understanding certainly made sense in the rabbis’ world, when male homosexuality and Greco-Roman culture were so intertwined. (Alexander the Great conquered Israel in 329 B.C.E.; the Romans took over–with a little Hasmonean interlude in the middle–in 63 B.C.E. They knew what happened in the bathhouse to Aphrodite.) [2]

Whether or not that reflected what was truly going on in the Torah text does seem less clear, however. Idan Dershowitz has another compelling theory—that in the anti-incest section of Leviticus 18, later editorial additions to two verses that had initially applied to male relatives (or male and female relatives) served to obscure the fact that what was originally prohibited was male-male incest. 

Explicitly prohibiting, say, “revealing the nakedness” of one’s father and one’s mother would surely imply that other kinds of male same-sex relationships may have originally been permitted. He suggests, then, that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 might have been later additions. (You can see this argument in an old op-ed or in academic form.)

Another Rabbinic read:

Said Raba, Bar Hamduri explained to me as follows: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman [lit. the lyings of a woman]” — Who is a male who has two “lyings?” Conclude: this is an androginus. (Talmud Yevamot 83b)

Here, they read Leviticus as saying, “Don’t have vaginal sex with a intersex person.” [3] Again, is not going to win any major awards for queer positivity, but is a technique the rabbis often deploy: de-fanging a text by interpreting it into the narrowest possible corner. (“See? This verse only applies in the rarest of cases, barely impacts our lives.”) So, what you see here is a rabbinic choice to shrink the verse. It’s textual activism.

Some Jews who embrace Jewish law—which ultimately did read Leviticus as about male same-sex activity—read it as solely prohibiting anal sex. Just as it would be generally unthinkably rude to ask a couple where there’s at least one uterus-having person how their niddah/menstrual separation practice was going, so, too, is what happens in the bedroom of a same-sex couple also not anyone’s business. 

The “lived experience” in the Hebrew Bible

In contrast to the proscriptions of the Holiness Code, the “lived experience” found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible tells us tales of tender, tragic queer love.

When [David] finished speaking with Saul, Jonathan’s soul became bound up with the soul of David; Jonathan loved David as himself. (1 Samuel 18:1) … Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you want, I will do it for you.” (1 Samuel 20:4)

Right before they’re about to be separated for an unknown amount of time: 

David emerged from his concealment at the Negev. He flung himself face down on the ground and bowed low three times. They kissed each other and wept together; David wept the longer. (1 Samuel 20:41)

And after Yonatan/Jonathan dies in battle, David says:

I grieve for you, My brother Jonathan, You were most dear to me. Your love was wonderful to me—more than the love of women. (2 Samuel 1:26)

All this is to say: There are many ways to understand these biblical texts in ways that affirm and celebrate loving partnerships of all gender combinations. The people coming in to condemn and clobber have way more certainty than is warranted and not enough critical analysis engaged. 

Footnotes

1 As above—the ram was the sacred animal of two Egyptian gods, Amun and Khnum, as were bulls—which, though the latter was sacrificed by Egyptians, was done in a much stricter way than would have the Israelites. Israelite methods of bull sacrifice would have been regarded as cavalier and disrespectful, I guess one might say?

2 I don’t have the time or space to explain same-sex relationships in Greek and Roman culture, but suffice to say they were normalized, and/though “homosexuality” was not the primary social construct in either culture. 

3 Someone who is intersex in one particular way, that is. “Intersex” is an umbrella term that includes a range of conditions with which a person may be born that, biologically, situates them outside typical definitions of sex/gender. This might include someone with XXY chromosomes, for example, or differences in internal and/or external anatomy. The rabbis’ conception of androginos was only one of their sex-gender categories that existed outside the gender binary.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

Rabbi Ruttenberg serves as scholar-in-residence at the National Council of Jewish Women. She is the author of eight books, most recently "On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unrepentant World," which won the National Jewish Book Award.

All articles by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

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