How do you solve a problem like Leviticus?

This sourcesheet and text study offers a queer perspective on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Created by Rabbi Mychal Copeland, it includes an exploration of both traditional and contemporary responses to these bibilical texts.

March 19, 2014

By Rabbi Mychal Copeland

How do you solve a problem like Leviticus?
A queer perspective
Rabbi Mychal Copeland          [email protected]
Director of InterfaithFamily, Bay Area


כב  וְאֶת-זָכָר–לֹא תִשְׁכַּב, מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה:  תּוֹעֵבָה, הִוא. 22 Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is detestable. Lev.18:22 (NIV)


יג  וְאִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת-זָכָר מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה–תּוֹעֵבָה עָשׂוּ, שְׁנֵיהֶם; מוֹת יוּמָתוּ, דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם. 13 If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.Lev.20:13 (NIV)

Jewish Publication Society
Lev.18:22: Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.
Lev.20:13: If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death-their bloodguilt is upon them.

Rabbi Steve Greenberg (Wrestling with God & Men)
Lev.18:22: And with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman- it is a toevah.



  • Who is an actor, who a receiver? What are the implications?
  • Why do you think this is relevant-what could be the concern(s) behind the prohibition?
  • What exactly do you think is prohibited here? (clue: medieval Jewish commentator Rashi comments on Lev.20:13: “He inserts like an applicator into a tube of cosmetics”)
  • What do you think is meant by “abomination”?   What do you think was upsetting about this act?


  • There is never one Jewish reading-multiple opinions stand side by side in the commentary.
  • In traditional Jewish sources, one of the key questions to ask this text is, “Who is an actor, who a receiver?” The receiver overturns the binary system of gender roles by playing a woman’s sexual role. Yet in this prohibition, first the active, then both, are guilty. Why is the active partner somehow more culpable when surrounding custom problematized the receiver? Why are both eventually brought to punishment? Some ideas:
    1. Actor is the one wasting seed-oh no! No children!
    2. 20:13 was added later
    3. Both parties are implicated equally and both overturn social order in a framework in which women=receivers, ie. passive. Well-defined roles for men and women was and still is central to living a legally proscribed Jewish life.  It may be that the worst part about this scenario is that the social order regarding the relationship between men and women is overturned by men having sexual intercourse with one another.  And then we know that all hell would break loose….
  • For Jewish traditional interpreters, anal intercourse is clearly prohibited based on these verses, but no other sexual act is mentioned explicitly.
  • What does toevah mean? Where else is it used and does this help define it?
    1. Joseph invites his brothers to dine with him, and we are told that the Egyptians do not eat with the Hebrews because doing so is toevah.
    2. Idolatry, sexual offenses, magical practices, and food prohibitions are all described as toevah.
    3. One traditional Jewish commentary defines toevah as an acronym for “that which leads one astray.”
    4. Scholarly definitions:
      1. something that offends the accepted order, ritual or moral (Steve Greenberg Wrestling with God & Men)
      2. the violation of a socially constructed boundary (Saul Olyan “And With A Male”)
  • Women are barely mentioned in traditional responses as sex between women is considered “a mere indecency”, but not a prohibition. (Sexually speaking, nothing is really happening)
    1. Male-male sex has always posed more of a threat to men, the ones dictating society’s response
    2. Perhaps men found the idea of women-women sex titillating voyeuristically and not competitively, and therefore not threatening to their personal conception of manhood as men-on-men did.

 CONTEMPORARY RESPONSES (deconstructed…and reconstructed):

  1. Historical context #1: These prohibitions were perhaps a polemic concerned with distinguishing behavior from surrounding nations, alluding to cultic practices. Was same sex behavior wrong, or just not how Israelites were supposed to behave?  Or perhaps the text is concerned with a specific type of cultic sexual activity that was akin to a spiritual orgy?
  2. Historical context #2: The understanding of what it means to be gay has changed dramatically since the origin of this text, due to sociological and biological research. Is it fair to ask this ancient text to speak to the modern world about same sex love and intimacy, or perhaps are those categories anachronistic?
  3. Historical context #3: Our understanding of minority groups has changed over time. We have an expectation of equal treatment of all people under the law that did not exist in the biblical mindset.
  4. Perhaps the concern was not homosexual behavior itself, but rather a byproduct of it, such as the wasting of male seed, or mixing of bodily fluids (semen and excrement) within a system that praised separation of categories.
  5. The text could be telling us more about that society’s concern with overturning the existing order in terms of appropriate gender roles. Maintaining organizational structure of the universe was of utmost importance to the early rabbinic commentators. If a man playing the part of a woman in sex challenged the existing social order, we might argue that inclusion of LGBTQI people is in fact more of a feminist issue within Judaism than a queer one.
  6. Did this punishment ever actually happen? Most likely not. According to Jewish law, two non-familial witnesses are necessary to prosecute which makes it highly unlikely. And incredibly embarrassing.
  7. Selective reading of the text misses the holistic nature of the entire Biblical canon: Why does this get pulled out as the law to adhere to in the Hebrew Scriptures when most others are not observed by even the most observant people? (ie. We no longer follow laws about slavery, not touching a pig skin, stoning rebellious children to death) Halakhah, Jewish law, has always evolved (where there’s a halakhic will there is a way) so this law could evolve too.
  8. If we do put this law within its greater scriptural context, the following question emerges: How do we balance this prohibition against the foundational concept from Genesis that every person was created in the image of the divine? Which is more important and overarching? The crux of the Holiness Code in which these passages are imbedded is love, justice, holiness, respect—see below for a great contemporary expression of this idea.
  9. A comical contemporary response to Leviticus: No, a man should never lie with a man as if he were a woman! That would result in bad sex.
  10. A reality: Some gay men refrain from anal intercourse but express their sexuality in other ways so as to adhere to the letter of this law so they don’t have to choose between religion and sex.
  11. A sad reality: Many choose to remain closeted within religious life, making themselves and their families miserable or even putting them at risk for disease, etc.
  12. A happy reality: Many others are finding ways to be both authentically religious/spiritual and LGBTIQ, and more and more religious communities are finding ways to accommodate if not celebrate LGBTIQ individuals.

On Holiness [From Siddur Sha’ar Zahav]

We are your gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender children:

You must not seek vengeance, nor bear a grudge against the children of your people. (Leviticus19:18)

We are your bi, trans, lesbian, and gay parents:

Revere your mother and father, each one of you (Lev.19:3)

We are elderly lesbians, bisexuals, gay men and transgender people:
You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old. (Lev.19:32)

We are the stranger:

You must not oppress the stranger. You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Lev.19:34)

We are lesbian, gay trans and bi Jews:

You must not hate your brother or sister in your heart (Lev.19:17)

We are lesbian, gay, trans, and bi victims of gay-bashing and murder:

You may not stand idly when your neighbor’s blood is being shed (Lev.19:16)

We are your bi, gay, trans, and lesbian neighbors:

You must not oppress your neighbor (Lev.19:13)

You must judge your neighbor justly (Lev.19:15)

You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself (Lev.19:18)


Of the many movements in contemporary Judaism, all have made great strides in accepting and even celebrating LGBTQI people except Orthodoxy, where a more literal reading and interpretation of text reigns. Most follow the above readings of the texts, or preference other texts or Jewish values above those represented in the troubling texts.  The progressive denominations (comprising about 90% of American Judaism), Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative, all accept LGBTQI people into congregations and into the rabbinate (study towards becoming a Rabbi).  Within those denominations, the actual degree of welcoming is dependent on region.  Most urban centers boast at least one LGBTQI synagogue, specifically serving the needs of this population while welcoming allies as well.  Many non-Jewish LGBTQI people find the Jewish community a more than comfortable place to explore their spirituality because it has the reputation of being a gay friendly tradition in its modern incarnation.  In other words, while many communities and individuals struggle profoundly with the above texts, others haven gotten way, way past Leviticus.