If there is anything distinctive about the Jewish way of doing theology, it is that there is no distinction between systematic and biblical theology, no distinction between dogmatic and narrative theology. Jews traditionally have done theology through reading narratives and producing narratives on narratives. There can be, I assert as a dogmatic claim, no Jewish theology without philology, no Jewish theology without close reading and textual reasoning. If the philology is not adequate, if the point of the talmudic text is being missed, there is no grounding for a Jewish theological claim. If the philology holds up here, then a Jewish theology of sexuality will have to operate without sexuality, without homo and hetero.
Neither the Bible, nor as I hope to have shown here, the Talmud, knows of such a typology - of that entity called by us "sexuality," whose "chief conceptual function," according to Halperin, "is to distinguish, once and for all, sexual identity from matters of gender - to decouple, as it were, kinds of sexual predilection from degrees of masculinity and femininity." And as Halperin further observes: "That is what makes sexuality alien to the spirit of ancient Mediterranean cultures" (Halperin 1990: 100, 25). This is as true for the biblical/talmudic Jewish culture of the ancient Mediterranean, as it is for the Greek. Both biblical and talmudic texts confirm rather than refute Foucault's general hypothesis of the "history of sexuality" Neither of them divide off sexual practices from the general categories of forbidden and permitted. Precisely because there is no separate realm of sexuality with all its definitional fraughtness for self-identification and that of others, there is also no separate realm of the sexually forbidden. Of course, I do not mean that forbidden genital practices do not form distinct corpora within either biblical or talmudic law codes. Where a man put his penis was categorized as a separate area of experience than what he put in his stomach, for instance. What I mean is that it does not have a separate ontologi-cal, axiological, or even moral status. As opposed to our culture where violating the rules against homoeroticism provokes an entirely different set of reactions from the violation of other moral taboos - including sexual ones such as adultery - there is no evidence in bibli-cal/talmudic culture that suggests that that was the case there. Tabooed practices may have been ranked according to severity, but they did not at any time constitute different "species" of human beings. Violating the Sabbath, for instance, produced precisely the same category of transgression (punishable by death) as did male intercourse.
The element common to both classical culture (with all of its variations) and biblical culture (with all of its variations), is that the taboos and tolerances of the culture vis-à-vis same-sex genital practice were tied precisely to structures of maleness and femaleness, to gender and not to a putative sexuality The absence of "sexuality" does not obviously preclude violence against those who engaged in male anal intercourse, although it should be emphasized that there is not the slightest bit of evidence to suggest that such violence was actually practiced in talmudic times.32 It does, however, seem to permit a much greater scope for other forms of male intimacy, eroticized and otherwise. "Who is a friend?" a midrash asks, "he that one eats with, drinks with, reads with, studies with, sleeps with, and reveals to him all of his secrets - the secrets of Torah and the secrets of the way of the world" (Shechter 1967). "Sleeps with" does not have the metaphorical value that it has in English or German, but the text is certainly reaching for a very intense and passionate level of male-male physical intimacy here. The "way of the world" is a somewhat ambiguous metaphorical term that can refer to several areas of worldly life, including business, but especially sex.33 Male intimacy, it seems, for the talmudic culture includes the physical contact of being in bed together, while sharing verbally the most intimate of experiences, a pattern not unknown in other cultures. The image of two men in bed together talking of their sexual experiences with women is reminiscent of ethnographic descriptions of Barasana (Columbian) tribesmen, lying in hammocks, fondling each other and talking about sex with women (D. Greenberg 1988: 71). Another way of saying this would be to claim that precisely because biblical and talmudic cultures did not have, according to my reading, a category of the homosexual, they therefore allowed for much greater normative possibilities for the homoerotic. The break in categorical continuity between anal intercourse, which did threaten gendered male identity in that culture as in ours, and other same-sex intimate practices, which did not, allowed for such practices to be engaged in, more or less normatively, without calling up the specter of a threatened masculinity34 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has perhaps best captured the oddness of our present system:
It is a rather amazing fact that, of the very many dimensions along which the genital activity of one person can be differentiated from that of another (dimensions that include preference for certain acts, certain zones or sensations, certain physical types, a certain frequency, certain symbolic investments, certain relations of age or power, a certain species, a certain number of participants, etc. etc. etc.), precisely one, the gender of object choice, emerged from the turn of the century, and has remained, as the dimension denoted by the now ubiquitous category of "sexual orientation." (Sedgwick 1990: 8)
It is only after the production of a category of sexuality per se, of a sexual identity determined by object choice, that any form of physical intimacy between men, and indeed almost any form of intimacy at all, becomes so problematic for our culture. In this sense the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean are more like each other - for all their differences - than any of them are like our own.
Although the theological work remains largely yet to be done, it seems to me that this recognition built on close textual work with the biblical and especially talmudic texts which are definitive for rabbinic Jewish thought has to be the basis for any modern Jewish theological reflection on sexuality. Wherever we begin, we cannot found theological reflection on the assumption that the Bible or the Rabbis have anything to say about "homosexuality."35
Was this article helpful?