The Holiness Code (Parashat Kedoshim)

The author explores the complicated verses in Leviticus traditionally interpreted as forbidding gay sex, surveying several interpretations that stray from the traditional approach to these verses.

April 30, 2011

By Amy Soule

Torah Queeries logo
Parashat Kedoshim
The Holiness Code
by Amy Soule on Saturday April 30, 2011
26 Nisan 5711
Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27


According to the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 24:5) Kedoshim, specifically Chapter 19, is equal in weight to the Ten Commandments and people are supposed to rise for its recitation. Why? Perhaps because some of its verses can be combined to read as a third repetition of the Aseret HaDibrot, as indicated by Rav Levi [note 1], in addition to the fact that it was spoken to everyone rather than simply an élite group of representatives. I want to add a third possible rationalization for its importance.

No matter whether you want to look at it in a metaphorical or literal light, Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, is at the heart of our religious tradition. If you scroll to the exact centre of a Sefer Torah, you will come to Kedoshim; if you refer to many of our core sacred principles, as disparate as the Golden Rule to giving unbiased judgments or avoiding exploitation of anyone’s physical difference, let alone many more, you’re making reference to verses within the Holiness Code.

Furthermore, as GLBT Jews, we realize that people always seem to turn to Parashat Kedoshim if they want to get to the heart of the matter concerning gay relationships and sex, no matter their perspective on the topic, since it’s like a statistic, capable of proving anything and everything.

Looking at the very first verse of our parshah gives an example of this. Most translations render it as: Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, you shall be holy; for I the Eternal your God am holy. According to this beginning statement we are supposed to emulate God as best we can through living as ethically as possible.

It can have a second, more complicated, meaning also. If translated differently, it can be rendered into English as: you will be holy when, rather than as, your God is holy. God, according to this understanding, is only holy when people are.

If God is only as holy as we are, it’s easy to deduce that God shouldn’t be abused in any manner, since being treated like this renders God less holy than Ze is capable of being.

Then again, in our modern society, it’s not that simple. Many people enjoy stating they are speaking on God’s behalf when they judge others.

Anyone seeking to denigrate sexual relationships between men (and often extrapolating to include relationships between women although Scripture is totally silent in this regard) is prone to turning to a(n) (in)famous verse in the second half of our parashah, 20:13: Men won’t lie with men as they lie with women; it is an abomination and they will be put to death.

One Orthodox leader, some months ago, interpreted 20:13 as meaning that it’s a mitzvah for anyone GLBT to commit suicide since if they did it they would be, in effect, casting the first stone and acknowledging that they are, according to Orthodoxy, an abomination to humankind.

Hearing this, obviously, stunned me. No, it didn’t stun me simply because I’m a liberal, gay woman. It stunned me also because time and time again, our sacred Scripture asks us to choose life rather than death and blessing as opposed to curse. According to this, choosing life, as opposed to any kind of death (physical or metaphorical), is a mitzvah. Suicide is never described in our Scripture, let alone as a mitzvah, so I’m not completely sure where the anonymous Orthodox leader was basing his conclusion (though his basis obviously wasn’t completely scriptural in nature).

If our Torah portion simply read that men won’t lie with men, religious homophobia and heterosexism would be completely logical, frustrating as they are. However, it goes on. It states men aren’t to lie with men as they lie with women. How can men lie with women and why isn’t this supposed to be repeated if men have sex with other men?

Sex between men and women involves penetration, no questions asked. Only a single party can “dominate”. If a man, no matter his sexual orientation, is in a relationship with a woman, he needs to remember his anatomy gives him a certain kind of privilege and he shouldn’t abuse that privilege to control or dominate his partner in any way during sex.

Looking at it in this light, if a pair of men are in a relationship, neither partner should always “dominate” or be “on top”; both people should have a chance to experience that position (if they so choose). It seems simple enough: If both parties are comfortable with everything and they respect each other during sex, then their relationship is holy.

Other people view 20:13 as forbidding different kinds of sexual dominance.

David Greenstein proposes an alternative understanding of Leviticus 20:13 that reads like this:

V’et zakhar

And along with another male

lo tishkav

you shall not lie

mishkeve ishah

in sexual intercourse with a woman

toevah hi

it is an abomination.

According to this different translation, it is gang-rape of women (perhaps akin to the incident in Judges 19), rather than loving gay sex, that is toevah (an abomination) within our sacred scripture.

A second different translation of 20:13, proposed by Steven Greenberg, reads like this: “And a male you shall not sexually penetrate to humiliate; it is abhorrent.” According to this, the Torah is trying to prevent same-sex rape rather than an expression of love and commitment between a pair of men (something that makes total sense due to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 and references to rape during war in Deuteronomy).

Sex is sacred. If it wasn’t such a holy action the Torah wouldn’t dedicate whole chapters (Leviticus 18 and 20) outlining rules to ensure it remains like that. Sex that has potential to humiliate anyone, to abuse others, or involve extra people, no matter their gender identity or sex, is forbidden by God, as many people, including myself, are happy and willing to argue it should be.

Sex that isn’t blessed by God (some might perceive this as a kind of love triangle, a ménage à God, so to speak) has no place in our tradition, but an act of love between a pair of completely consenting people deserves a place of honour.

Antonie de St. Exupéry wrote that “On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur” (people can only see well with their hearts). His maxim needs to be taken seriously if we want to come to terms with certain Torah verses that can, at first glance, seem judgmental if not outright offensive. Those verses are at the centre of our tradition and we are responsible to get to the heart of the matter, even if it seems daunting.

God created and loves everyone. God also gave all of humankind a great potential: potential to be as holy as God is. As far as sex goes, all God appears to ask is that we respect our partner. Sex isn’t supposed to be an act of dominance; it was intended to be an act of love.

  1. Exodus 20:2 says, “I’m the Eternal your God,” and Leviticus 19:3 says, “I’m the Eternal your God”;
  2. Exodus 20:2–3 says, “You shall have no other gods,” and Leviticus 19:4 says, “Nor make to yourselves molten gods”;
  3. Exodus 20:6 (says, “You shall not take the name of the Eternal your God in vain,” and Leviticus 19:12 says, “And you shall not swear falsely by My name”;
  4. Exodus 20:7 says, “Remember the Sabbath day,” and Leviticus 19:3 says, “And you shall keep My Sabbaths”;
  5. Exodus 20:11 says, “Honour your father and your mother,” and Leviticus 19:3 says, “You shall fear your mother and father”;
  6. Exodus 20:12 says, “You shall not murder,” and Leviticus 19:16 says, “Neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbour”;
  7. Exodus 20:12 says, “You shall not commit adultery,” and Leviticus 20:10 says, “Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death;
  8. Exodus 20:12 says, “You shall not steal,” and Leviticus 19:11 says, “You shall not steal”; (9) Exodus 20:12 says, “You shall not bear false witness,” and Leviticus 19:16 says, “You shall
  9. not go up and down as a talebearer”; and
  10. Exodus 20:13 says, “You shall not covet . . . anything that is your neighbour’s,” and Leviticus 19:18 says, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”