Old scripture, new world: The homosexual ban in Torah portion Acharei Mot

by Bob Schwartz

This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot, the second part of which is Leviticus 18. It contains very specific laws for sexual conduct, prohibiting practices that Jews must avoid on penalty of death.

Some of the prohibitions are still commonly accepted by most (though not all) in modern times and societies, including bans on incest within extended families and on bestiality. But among them is one that increasingly requires explanation in the face of changing norms–a ban on male homosexual relations. (Lesbian relations are not covered, as Robert Alter notes: “Lesbianism, which surely must have been known in the ancient Near East, is nowhere mentioned, perhaps because no wasting of seed is involved, although the reason for the omission remains unclear.”)

This demands some attention from people of faith who nevertheless believe that homosexual relations are as godly and natural as relations between men and women. The squaring of this circle is actually not that complex, though for some it remains difficult.

It is entirely possible to regard scripture as special, elevated and inspired without treating it as immutable and eternal law. That of course creates its own set of challenges, that is, which of the laws are we to embrace and which do we set aside? The ten commandments contain some valuable guidance we would like generally followed. Not lying, for example, comes immediately to mind.

Here’s the good news. We can do this, we can study and discern what is good and healthy for us individually and as communities. Here’s the inconvenient news. Study and discernment are hard, though rewarding. In my experience, discarding the Bible, or religion for that matter, because of its most pernicious elements and outcomes, is self-defeating and self-denying.

There are people who don’t eat vegetables because, to be honest, some vegetables are pretty terrible or are abysmally prepared. But vegetables are truly wondrous, as taste treats and as part of a healthful diet. You just have to be open to it and work at it a little. And not be put off by the stuff you don’t like and can’t accept.