Saturday, September 14, 2013

Gay-mar tov

A guest post by Y. Bloch

Thanks, gay mafia. Just when I thought I was out... you pull me back in. I managed to get through a whole post about the Yom Kippur afternoon reading of the arayot (Lev. 18) without mentioning good ol' verse 22.

But on Wednesday, Jewish Insurgent concluded his post here by writing:

You might be anti-gay because the Torah says so and all you are doing is making someone else’s life miserable with no payoff for you, or you could simply be looking past the truth because you are too busy dealing with the thing you think might be right.

And then on Thursday, Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau made news by invoking Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm's decades-old halakhic argument about gays being defined as "oness," operating under compulsion. I won't get into the analysis, since Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber already did a fantastically thorough job of that a year ago. 

Instead, I would like to get back to the biblical analysis. As I wrote a few months ago, the term "mishkav zakhar" is not the biblical term for sex between men; it is the term for classic male-to-female genitalia sex, specifically the kind that makes the hymen go bye-bye (Numbers 31, Judges 21).

The term which shows up in Lev. 18 and 20 is mishkav zakhar mishkevei isha, a perplexing nomenclature. An ish (man) is bedding not another ish, but a zakhar--and not just bedding him, but bedding him "the beddings of an isha." Of course, isha means both woman and wife.

Some have suggested that it prohibits two men having sex in a woman's bed, which is profoundly bizarre. Others argue that it refers to a ménage à trois, which is intriguing but a bit hard to swallow. Still others argue that it refers to a social construct in which such relationships would involve pedophilia or rape, but if so, the fact that the Torah condemns both parties is horrific (and contradictory).

But what if, like standard-issue mishkav zakhar, mishkav zakhar mishkevei isha refers to a situation of permanent physical change? What if the ish is whole, but the zakhar only has his zakhrut (manhood) left, because he has been altered in the mishkevei isha manner? In the Ancient Near East, males were often castrated for the purpose of being sex slaves. Perhaps this is what the verse refers to. The Torah takes a dim view of castration, so it would be consistent with other verses. Were that the case, the great biblical proof-text used to bludgeon gays would fall. I've certainly heard no better explanation of mishkevei isha.

Now, this approach is certainly unconventional, but it is not wholly unprecedented to view mishkevei isha as defining not the what of this sexual union, but the who. The Talmud (Yevamot 83b) cites Bar Hamduri's exegesis:
"You shall not bed a male the beddings of a woman" -- what male is it that is capable of two manners of bedding? Obviously the hermaphrodite.
Undoubtedly, a hermaphrodite and a eunuch are different cases, but they share something of an intersex status, creating a hybrid of mishkav zakhar and mishkevei isha. This certainly opens the door to further analysis of this much-debated line.

Would reinterpreting the verse change the halakhic equation? Maybe not, but it's a lot easier to embrace paths such as that of Rabbis Doctors Lamm, Farber and Lau if the verse lends itself to other readings.       

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