Parshat Achrei Mot
Each year when we come to this week’s Torah portion, Achrei Mot I think about the violence that has been done to gay people reading from Chapter 18, verse 22. “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is a toevah.” This verse has been used as the justification to do great violence especially to gay men throughout history. And this verse continues to be used by so-called Biblical literalists to justify discrimination and hatred of gay people everywhere. So often the word toevah is translated as abomination. Thisof course conjures up terrible and frightful and menacing images as in the Abominable Snowman. Or Boogeyman. All these images of terror: of the lurking monster in the shadows have been applied at different times to gay men. The horrible lies and myths that somehow gay men lurk and prowl and prey on innocent straight people was further reinforced by the mis-translation of the word toevah.
The word toevah does not mean abomination. But this is how it has all too often been translated. The word Toevah is a kind of blasphemy; a transgression of some sort of the worship of YHVH. It is often associated with avodah zarah, or idolatry. The word toevah appears 103 times in our Bible. And the word toevah is applied very often with the practices of other nations. Something becomes toevah when it is a behavior that the other nations engage in.
This is interesting because in Leviticus 18:3 this idea is made explicit. “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.” So something becomes toevah when it imitates the ways of the other nations and is associated with the worship practices of their gods and goddesses.
So let’s be clear. The torah is not condemning gay people in this verse. It is taking aim idolatry that might creep into ancient Israelite religion. That is the major concern of the Biblical world view. And in the ancient world certain sexual behaviors were used to worship ancient foreign gods. The worship of YHVH as the one God is the main idea of the Torah. And anything that smacks of idol worship or pagan religion is an anathema.
As gay Jewish author Jay Michaelson writes, “Progressive religionists must stop using the word “abomination” to refer to toevah. The word plays into the hands of fundamentalists on the one hand, and anti-religious zealots on the other, both of whom want to depict the Bible as virulently and centrally concerned with the “unnatural” acts of gays and lesbians. In fact, toevah is mostly about idolatry, and male homosexual behavior is only as abominable as remarriage or not keeping kosher. Whenever we use the word “abomination” we are perpetuating the misunderstanding of biblical text and the religious persecution of LGBT people.” (Religion Dispatches).
I think Michaelson hits the nail on the head. This verse isn’t talking about loving same gender relationships that we know and talk about today. This verse isn’t talking about those who identify their sexual and affectional natures as gay or lesbian. It is talking about idol worship.
And as a Jew, Gay or straight or transgendered we should keep far from idol worship.