1 The word to 'eba, usually translated "abomination" or "detestable," means something like "transgression of borders." It is used biblically for many types of ritual transgressions that are not sexual. In any case, there is no warrant whatever for the accepted renderings which are obviously loaded with later cultural meanings and would quite beg the current question.
2 I hasten to add this, because I am not claiming that some forbidden cultic practice is being referred to.
3 See Richlin (1993). Although the Talmud does abjure the use of perfumes for men "in places where male intercourse is common," because this would lead people to suspect them of such behavior. Generally, as in this instance, when the Talmud speaks of a predilection for anal intercourse, it attributes such tastes to geographical or ethnic groups - not to individual proclivities.
4 Initially brought to my attention by Marion Bodian when I presented an early version of this chapter at the University of Michigan.
5 By using the term "culture," then, I mean to be asserting that the textual practices that I analyze are not mere language but are a significant cultural practice, however widespread their acceptance or not.
6 The Onan story in the Bible itself has, of course, nothing to do with masturbation at all. Onan's "sin" was coitus interruptus for the purpose of preventing the mandated conception of a child by his brother's widow. "Onanism" for masturbation is thus, as Amy Richlin points out to me just as much a misnomer as "sodomy" for homosexual intercourse is (for the latter see below).
7 Because the flood was caused by those who "destroyed their way upon the ground," taken by the rabbinic commentaries to refer to spilling of the seed.
8 To be sure, the text does not mention other types of homoerotic practice so it is impossible to determine even normative, let alone actual and popular, dispositions towards them.
9 The term refers to a category of women forbidden to priests because of past sexual practices. I am leaving it untranslated here, because it is precisely its definition that is at stake here.
10 I will argue below that this does not reflect a general lack of interest in what women do as long as they don't do it with men. The prohibition on female cross-dressing is every bit as severe as that on male cross-dressing, just to take one highly salient example. Further, there is little reason to assume that the point here is that they will turn to men because sex with women is an inadequate substitute as modern male chauvinists would have it, but simply that once acquainted with the joys of sexual stimulation, they might very well seek it with men also, and that is forbidden.
11 It nevertheless remains the case that having intercourse with a non-fertile girl or woman or having anal, intercrural, or oral intercourse with a woman does not constitute masturbation, while having oral or intercrural intercourse with a man does.
12 Olyan (1994) has also argued on inner-biblical philological grounds alone that "male intercourse" comprises solely anal penetration.
13 For studies critical of Halperin's position (and of the Foucauldian stance generally), see Thornton (1991) and Richlin (1991). I continue to find the evidence for the thesis compelling in spite of some difficulties and occasional seeming counter-evidence.
14 It has been brought to my attention that Thomas Thurston (1990) has already suggested the possible pertinence of Mary Douglas's work to our question.
15 I have somewhat tortured English syntax to reproduce the parallelism which is obvious in the Hebrew. To be sure, Deuteronomy and the "Holiness" Code of this portion of Leviticus are generally considered different documents according to modern biblical criticism. However, Deuteronomy also interdicts "mixtures of kinds." Whatever its subcultures, biblical culture certainly showed degrees of coherence as well.
16 This connection was realized by the Rabbis. In the Palestinian Talmud, Tractate Kil'aim [Forbidden Mixtures] 27a, Rabbi Shim'on ben Lakish remarks: Everywhere that it says "according to its kind," the laws of forbidden mixtures apply. The phrase, "according to its kind" appears no less than five times in the verse immediately preceding the verse that describes the creation of humankind in separate sexes, called also in Hebrew "kinds." Technically, biblical critics assign the laws of forbidden mixtures to a source known as the Holiness Code (H), produced, as was the Priestly Code (P) according to them in temple circles. According to the latest scholarly opinion, H is a secondary elaboration of P, and the "authors" of H were the redactors of P in its current form (Knohl  1994, whose conclusions have been accepted by Milgrom 1992). Even, however, according to older critical views according to which H is older than P, there has never been a doubt as to their common provenance in priestly circles such as those that produced Genesis 1 as well and no reason to assume, therefore, major cultural differences between them.
17 Compare the opposite but structurally similar explanation that Foucault gives for the differential treatment of male-male sex and female-female sex in Artemidorus, where only the latter is considered as "contrary to nature" (Foucault 1990-2: III, 24-5).
18 See Hallett (1989). Some of Hallett's evidence is, however, questionable, especially her interpretation of Phaedrus's Fable in which he accounts for "tribadic females and effeminate males" by recounting that Prometheus got drunk when making human beings and attached some male genitals to female people and some female genitals to male people by mistake. Hallett interprets this to mean that lesbians are women with male genitalia (1989: 210), a contradiction of biological reality that she understandably finds quite unsettling. To me it seems quite patent that the purport of the fable is that tribades are the men who got female genitals by mistake, and the molles are the women with male genitals attached to them. This actually provides beautiful evidence for Halperin's definition of sexuality as that modern cultural entity whose chief conceptual function "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" (Halperin 1990: 100). For Phaedrus it was impossible to imagine a woman loving women, so a lesbian must "really" be a man in a woman's body "by mistake," and this was, in one version or another, the most common way in Euroamerica of accounting for same-sex eroticism until the early twentieth century. Even a Krafft-Ebing, towards the end of the nineteenth century still conceived of lesbians as men with female bodies, i.e. as male souls in bodies with female genitalia (Mosse 1985: 106). For "us," the situation is precisely reversed. Monique Wittig's (1992) intervention notwithstanding, lesbians are in our contemporary culture clearly women, thus explaining Hallet's misreading - if I am correct. The best (in fact, for me, the only cogent) evidence that Hallett cites for her claim that tribadism was understood as involving penetration is the text by
Martial that describes a tribad who penetrates boys (anally) as well as women (1989: 215-16). In any case, the very etymology of the Greek loan word tribas suggests that at least at one time female same-sex eroticism was understood to involve only rubbing and not penetration, just as in the Talmud.
19 This can be demonstrated philologically. The term that is used, and which I have translated as "rubbing" is used in another sexual context as well: "Our Rabbis have taught: One who is rubbing with her son and he enters her, Bet Shammai says that he has rendered her unfit to marry a priest, and Bet Hillel says that she is fit to marry a priest" (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 69b). From this context we learn clearly two things: "Rubbing" involves contact of external genital with external genital, and it does not include penetration, for the rubbing here is contrasted with the entering. We also learn, by the way, of a fascinating sexual practice that, as long as it did not include penetration, was apparently hardly even disapproved of to judge from the tone of this passage.
20 Surprisingly little work has been done on this important site for understanding both biblical and talmudic gender politics. I hope to do much more with this. Certainly by the time of the Talmud - if not actually much earlier - the practice itself had fallen into complete desuetude.
21 Interestingly enough, according to Dover, representations of male-female intercrural intercourse are unknown from the vase paintings (1989: 99).
23 Note that this is entirely different from the (false) association between cross-dressing (transvestism) and homosexuality in contemporary folk culture, on which see Garber (1992: 130). I avoid the term "sodomy" as anachronistic for the biblical culture, although not, of course, for the culture of the eighteenth century.
24 Indeed, it is highly symptomatic that in the talmudic analogue of Artemidorus, sexual dreams are taken as symbolic of other activities, just as in the Greek text; while, of course, in "our" formation the opposite is the case.
25 There was, paradoxically enough, some shame attached to the status of the eromenos if he grants his favors to the erastes. See Dover (1989: 42 and especially 81-4). See also his simple comparison between this situation and the discourse of heterosexual "seduction" in twentieth-century English society (1989: 88-9). Although it has been said before, it is worth once more remarking Dover's exemplary quiet good sense and taste.
26 There is even a slight bit of evidence but very inconclusive that might indicate that solo masturbation with a dildo was more blamable for women than mutual non-penetrative rubbing (Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zara 44a), where a certain female ruler is disparaged for having had made for herself an imitation penis which she used every day. Since this is, however, in a nonlegal discursive context, it is impossible to determine what the normative status of such activity would have been. Were this evidence more conclusive, it would provide strong confirmation for my interpretation.
27 Cantarella (1992: 200-1). In the New Testament, as in first century Jewish literature and not in the Bible nor the Rabbis, the Sodomites' sin is identified as homosexual (contrast Jude 1.7, where the sin of Sodom is identified as sexual immorality and perversion to Ezekiel 16.49-50, where it is referred to as arrogance and lack of concern for the poor and the needy). See Boyarin (1995b) for other examples in which the New Testament's discourse of sex is closest to that of such texts as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and different from that of the Rabbis.
28 The Rabbis themselves, as I have argued at length in Boyarin (1993) and elsewhere, resisted and rejected Hellenistic philosophy, although they were heavily influenced in other ways by Hellenistic culture.
29 As Phyllis Trible has remarked, "These two stories show that the rules of hospitality in Israel protect only males. Though Lot entertained men alone, the old man also has a female guest, and no hospitality safeguards her. She is chosen as the victim for male lust. Further, in neither of these stories does the male host offer himself in place of his guests" (Trible 1984: 75). Trible's further suggestion, however, that the woman was not dead, and the husband's dismemberment of her to call for revenge was a sacrifice of a living victim is totally unsupportable. Her claim (pressed at least as a question) that, "the cowardly betrayer [is] also the murderer" and that "no mourning becomes the man" (1984: 80) seems to me just plain wrong. She is certainly already dead; this is what the Bible tells us when it says that she did not answer him, and the dismemberment is pursued in a sort of extravagance of mourning and desire for revenge for the violence done to her - to be sure engendered by his cowardice and callous domination of her. He was willing for her to be sexually abused; the violence done to her that causes her death appalls even him.
30 Dover (1989: 105). A more modern analogue can be found in John Boorman's Deliverance (USA 1972), where a group of "hillbillies" attack and rape one of a party of middle-class canoers who have "invaded" their territory. For anal rape described as formalized or official aggression, see also Mekilta derabbi Ishmael Amaleq 1, where a foreign conqueror punishes the king of Israel by "standing before him ruffians who had never known woman in their lives and they tortured him with anal intercourse." (Incidentally this does not mean that they were "homosexuals" but that they were virgins and very randy.) See also Richlin (1992: passim).
31 Contra Cantarella (1992: 198) who is still speaking of "homosexuality" as a transhistorical category, ten years after Foucault's work (which she cites but neither accepts nor contests). My point is not, of course, that Foucault has become some sort of received doctrine that must be acknowledged but that he has opened questions that must be addressed whenever we speak of "sexuality." Whether or not he is explicitly brought in, we simply cannot assume a category of homosexuality for any and every cultural formation and text; it must be argued for.
32 In the Mishna, Makkot ch. 1, the point is explicitly made that the death penalties of the Bible are no longer operative, except possibly for murder.
33 As indicated by the following text among others: "When his wife died, Rabbi Tarfon said to her sister during the mourning period: Marry me and raise your sister's children. And even though he married her, he did not behave with her according to the way of the world until after thirty days" (Kohellet Rabba 9; see also Bereshit Rabba 22). Now, although the sexual meaning is not the most frequent one for this collocation it is certainly a readily available one. Thus while it is a meaningless claim (because unfalsifiable) that this is what the author of this text "intended," it is hard to escape concluding that the sexual association would have been present for any recipient of this text.
34 Of course, I do not know and cannot speculate precisely what expressions of intimacy the actual talmudic rabbis permitted themselves. Precisely one point of this study is, however, to suggest that the borders of erotic experience were not nearly as sharply defined then as now.
35 For important resources towards a Jewish theology of sexuality see Steven Greenberg (2003) and Simcha Dubowski's very important documentary film, Trembling Before G-d (2001).
Was this article helpful?