Penetrating Leviticus

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"Do not lie with a man a woman's lyings [misksbei 'issa]; that is to ceba" (Leviticus 18.22).1 This verse is usually taken in both scholarly and popular parlance to prohibit "homosexuality" tout court. What I would like to show is that the rabbinic culture of late antiquity did not understand this verse in terms of sexuality at all, although it did, of course, in terms of sex.2 I begin with the assumption that there is no more reason a priori to assume that ancient Jewish culture - biblical or talmudic - does have a system of sexuality than to assume the opposite. Given Michel Foucault's work and the work of historians who have shown how "sexuality" develops at a particular moment in history (Halperin 1990; Davidson 2002), it becomes at least equally plausible - indeed much more so - to begin by assuming that the Jewish culture of the biblical and talmudic periods was not organized around a system of sexual orientations defined by object choice (or in any other way for that matter). I know of no evidence that would support the claim for a system of sexual orientations (there is no talmudic equivalent even for the cinaedus).3 Any positive evidence, therefore, that militates against the assumption of the production of a category of sexuality in the rabbinic discourse becomes highly significant.

There is a further methodological point that must be made.4 The base of data on which I describe late antique Jewish culture is highly skewed in that it includes the expression of one, very limited social group within the culture, a learned, hegemonic, male rabbinic elite (and even within that I am almost exclusively concentrating on its Babylonian variety). In fact, I

know almost nothing, aside from what I can read between the lines or against the grain of the Talmud, of what the rest of the (Jewish) world was doing or thinking. This is particularly significant, because from the much more variegated remains of Greek culture we learn of a heterogeneous cultural situation, wherein certain types of texts - medical texts, for example - have an entirely different ideology of sex than do the high cultural literary artifacts of, for example, Hesiod. This is even more the case in the later Greek and Hellenistic worlds than in the archaic period. There might very well have been an analogous cultural situation in late antique Jewish culture. Precisely what I am investigating then are particular discursive practices, not whole cultures - whatever that might even mean - and claiming that these discursive practices are fully comprehensible without assuming a cultural sub-system of sexuality.5 Since this discursive practice - rabbinic halakhic discourse - is the normative base for Jewish religious practice, it is at least plausible to argue that it is this which must be the basis for a rabbinic Jewish theology of sex. I wish to argue that such a theology must base itself on a radical rejection of the discourse of sexuality, in order to be faithful precisely to the tradition that any "orthodox" Judaism must claim for itself.

My first argument in demonstrating the lack of a binary opposition of hetero/ homosexuality in talmudic textual practice will be a text that shows that the Talmud did not read such a category into the biblical prohibitions on male intercourse, understanding that only anal intercourse and no other male-male sexual practices were interdicted in the Torah. In the Babylonian Talmud Niddah 13b, we find the following colloquy:

Our Rabbis have taught: Converts and those who sport with children, delay the Messiah. I understand "converts", for Rabbi Helbo has said that converts are as difficult for Israel as sappahat [a skin disease]! But what is this about those who sport with children? If I will say it refers to male intercourse [miskab zakor, a technical term referring to male-male anal penetration], they are subject to stoning! Rather, [shall we say] it refers to intercrural [between the thighs, (Heb.) derek 'ebarim, (Gk.) diamerizein] intercourse? But that is like the children of the flood [i.e., masturbation - Rashi]. Rather it refers to those who marry minor girls who are not of child-bearing age, for Rabbi Yossi has said that the son of David will not come until all of the souls in the "body" are finished [i.e. until all of the souls that were created at the Beginning of the universe have been born into bodies, the Messiah will not arrive].

The Talmud quotes an earlier text (tannaitic, that is Palestinian and prior to the third century of the Christian era) that condemns converts to Judaism and pedophiles in what seems to be rather extreme language. The Talmud (Babylonian and post third century) asks what is meant by sporting with children. From the answer that the Talmud suggests to its question, it is quite clear that the Talmud sharply distinguishes male-male anal intercourse from other same-sex practices, arguing that only the former is comprehended by the biblical prohibition on male intercourse. This point already establishes the claim that this culture, insofar as we can know it, does not know of a general category of the homosexual (as a typology of human beings) or even of homosexuality (as a bounded set of same-sex practices).

It is important, however, to understand the intricate cultural coding of this passage. Rabbinic discourse frequently uses exaggerated language to inculcate prohibitions and inhibitions which are not forbidden in the Torah. There is, accordingly, an inner-cultural recognition that such prohibitions, precisely because they are expressed in extreme language, are not as "serious" as those that are forbidden in the Book. It is as if there is a tacit cultural understanding that the more extreme the rhetoric, the less authoritative the prohibition. Thus, just as in the case of masturbation, where there is no biblical text indicating that it is forbidden, and it is therefore designated hyperbolically as being like "the children of the flood," so also for "sporting with children," the text finds highly hyperbolic language with which to express itself.6 "Preventing the Messiah" has about the same status of hyperbole as being one "of the children of the flood," and neither of them are taken as seriously as those prohibitions for which the Torah explicitly marks out an interdiction and a punishment.

Thus, since male anal intercourse is forbidden explicitly by the Torah and a punishment marked out for it, there is no need to utilize obviously hyperbolic language like that of delaying the coming of the Messiah. Far from strengthening the case, it only would weaken it. As the canonical commentary of Rashi has it: "Only delaying the Messiah? But it is forbidden by the Torah and punishable by stoning!" [emphasis added]. Therefore, claims the Talmud, this cannot be what is meant by "sporting with children" in the commented upon text. The Talmud then suggests that what is being spoken of here is the practice of intercrural intercourse between men and boys, according to some authorities the standard sexual practice of Greek pederasty (Dover 1989: 98, 106). This, however, is merely a type of masturbation, for which another axiological category exists. Masturbators are not Messiah-delayers but Children of the Flood.7 All that is left, therefore, for our category of delaying the Messiah is intergender pedophilia, forbidden because it is anti-natalist.

The tannaitic text itself will bear, however, some further analysis. The term I have translated "sport with" means variously "to play" and "to laugh," but frequently is used as an explicit term for sexual interaction, as it undoubtedly is meant here. The term for "children" here is a gender-indeterminate word that refers to anyone from infancy to puberty The first question to be asked of the original statement is: What is the association between converts and those who sport with children? I would suggest that at least a plausible answer is that Greco-Roman converts are taken to be those who sport with children or even tempt other Jews into such sport. If that be granted, it would seem clear that it is pederasty that is being spoken of. The third interpretation that the Talmud offers, then, for the earlier text, namely that intergender pedophilia is referred to, seems highly implausible. On the other hand, the Talmud's refusal to understand here anal intercourse as being the intention of the original text seems well founded, for it would be, as I have indicated above, highly unusual to use hyperbolic language such as that of Messiah-prevention to refer to that for which an explicit biblical reference could be cited. It seems, therefore, that some other pederastic sexual practice is connoted by "sporting with children," and intercrural intercourse seems as good a candidate as any. In other words, my hypothesis is that the second suggestion that the Talmud makes in order to interpret the original source seems the most likely one, namely that "those who sport with children" refers to pederasts who practice forms of sexual behavior that do not include anal intercourse. If this reading is accepted, it would follow that both levels of the talmudic discourse, that is the original Palestinian tannaitic statement and its later Babylonian talmudic interpretations, understood the Torah's interdiction to be limited only to the practice of male anal intercourse, of use of the male as a female. If this interpretation is deemed finally implausible, then the tannaitic evidence falls by the wayside. Whether or not my reading of the tannaitic text be accepted, in any case, it is clear that this is how the Babylonian Talmud understood the Torah, as we see, I repeat, from the explicit distinction made between anal intercourse, forbidden by the Torah, and intercrural intercourse which the Torah has permitted. At the very least, then, we have here positive evidence that late antique Babylonian Jewish culture did not operate with a category of the "homosexual" corresponding to "ours." As the Talmud understood it, male-male sexual practices other than anal intercourse are not prohibited by the Torah and only fall under the category of masturbation which is the same, whether solo or in concert.8 This provides, then, strong evidence within the Talmud for the absence of a category of homosexuals or even of homosexual practices isomorphic with that of modern Euroamerican culture.

Further evidence for the absence of a category of the "homosexual" in talmudic culture may be found in (the admittedly very rare) discussions of female same-sex genital practices, for instance Babylonian Talmud Yevamoth 76a:

Rav Huna said: "Women who rub each other may not marry priests", but even Rabbi Eliezer who said that "an unmarried man who has intercourse with an unmarried woman without intending to marry her makes her a zona9 [and thus unfit to marry a high priest]", his words only apply to a man [who lies with a woman] but as for a woman [who lies with a woman], it is mere lasciviousness.

Also Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 65a-b:

Shmuel's father did not allow his daughters to lie with each other. . . . Shall we say that this supports the view of Rav Huna, for Rav Huna said: "Women who rub each other may not marry priests"? No, he forbad it in order that they should not learn [the feel] of another body [and they would then lust to lie with men (Rashi)].

The only reason, according to this text, that unmarried women should not excite each other sexually is because it might lead to immorality - that is, sex with men!10 Female samesex practices just do not belong to the same category as male anal intercourse any more than other forms of male same-sex stimulation. We see from here, moreover, that the notion that the Talmud, like Queen Victoria, just didn't believe in the possibility of female homo-eroticism, is not a true assumption. It was understood that women could pleasure each other, but this did not form a single category with male intercourse. Male anal intercourse is sui generis, and its genus is clearly not, then, in any way identical to "our" category of homosexuality.

This provides us then with further evidence that not only is there no category, no "species of human being," of the homosexual, there is, in fact, no category formed by same-sex acts per se either. Neither people nor acts are taxonomized merely by the gender of the object of genital activity. Male-male anal intercourse belongs to a category known as "male intercourse," while other same-sex genital acts - male and female - are subsumed under the category of masturbation, apparently without the presence of another male actor introducing any other diacritic factor into the equation.11

A thousand years (and in the case of the Babylonian Talmud, several thousand kilometers) separate between the Torah-sources and their talmudic interpreters. While it is impossible, therefore, to use the Talmud as direct evidence for biblical culture, it nevertheless provides highly significant indirect evidence, since it is counter-intuitive to assume that in the biblical period, the category of homosexuality existed and later disappeared in the same Kulturgebiet. Still, such an assumption, while implausible, is not impossible. In any case, however, at the very least the talmudic testimony suggests that the "homosexuality" interpretation of the biblical material is not ineluctable and that other options should be considered.12 If it is not same-sex eroticism per se that worries Leviticus, what cultural force is it that could have produced the powerful interdiction on male anal intercourse? Cross-cultural comparison points us in a promising direction here. David Halperin contends that for the Romans (the contemporaries roughly speaking of the Rabbis), as for the earlier Greeks, the relevant distinction between sexual practices was not between same-sex and other-sex desire but between status positions.13 Adult free males penetrated. Some preferred boys and some women, and many liked both. There was something pathological and depraved, however, in the spectacle of an adult male allowing his body to be used as if it were the body of a person of penetrable status, whether the man did so for pleasure or for profit (Halperin 1990: 22-4, 88-112; Winkler 1989: 45-70; and Richlin 1993). "It is sex-role reversal, or gender-deviance, that is problematized here" (Halperin 1990: 23). In other words, the fulfillment of the pleasure of the penetrating male involved either an appropriate ascription of lower status to the passive partner or an inappropriate degradation to that status. I would like to suggest that in the biblical culture also - at least as received by the Talmud -"sexuality" rather than being the controlling figure of other subsidiary discourses is rather subsumed under larger cultural structures. If in the Greco-Roman formation sexual pat-ternings were subordinated to larger structures having to do with power and status, in biblical culture also I will claim sexual taboos were subsidiary to another cultural structure. Here, I suggest, also penetration of a male constituted a consignment of him to the class of females, but rather than a degradation of status, this constituted a sort of a mixing of kinds, a generally taboo occurrence in Hebrew culture. Just as in Greece, then, the prohibited forms of sexual practice were parts of entire cultural systems. Their violating the body of the free, adult male sexually constituted one offence within a category of many against such a body. As Halperin has demonstrated, other such offences included even placing a hand on his body without his consent. "It was an act of hybris, or 'outrage', which signified the violation of a status distinction, the attempted reduction of a person to a status below the one he actually occupied ('using free men as slaves', Demosthenes loosely but vividly defined it)" (Halperin 1990: 96; see also Dover 1989 and D. Cohen 1991).

I would like to suggest the following hypothesis: In biblical culture as well the sexual taboo enters into an entire system of forbidden practices, but one of a completely different nature - not of hybris, but of hybrids. In that system, one may not hybridize or even plant two species together, mate a horse to a donkey, weave linen and wool into linsey-woolsey, etc. God-given categories must be kept separate. Anthropologist Mary Douglas already made this point with regard to sexual prohibitions in general in ancient Israel:14

Other precepts extend holiness to species and categories. Hybrids and other confusions are abominated. "And you shall not lie with any beast and defile yourself with it, neither shall any woman give herself to a beast to lie with it; it is perversion" (Leviticus 18). The word "perversion" is a significant mistranslation of the rare Hebrew word tebhel, which has as its meaning mixing or confusion (Douglas 2002: 66; emphasis added).

I suggest that the interdiction on male-male anal intercourse enters, in the biblical cultural system, into the sub-system of such violations of the symbolic realm. In its immediate literary context, the verse just cited that prohibits male anal intercourse follows immediately on the verse that prohibits "bestiality" within which the word "confusion" [of kinds] is emphasized, hinting that there may be a connection between the two prohibitions on this level as well. A much stronger argument for this point is derived from the parallelism in language and form to the taboo on cross-dressing. This prohibition is phrased in the following fashion: "The woman shall not wear that which pertains unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment [simlat 'issa], for all that do so are to ceba unto the Lord thy God" (Deuteronomy 22.5). The latter appears as: "Do not lie with a man a woman's lyings [misksbei'issa]; that is to ceba" (Leviticus 18.22).15 Both the usage of the term "to ceba" and the semantic/syntactic parallelism of "a woman's garment || a woman's lyings" are common to the two prohibitions, suggesting a cultural relation between them. (The seeming lack of parallelism in that the first verse is gender symmetrical while the second only mentions men forms a key argument for my thesis below.)

Thus when one man "uses" another man as a female, he causes a transgression of the borders between male and female, much as by planting two species together he causes a transgression of the borders of species. Now at first glance this explanation seems somewhat paradoxical, because the other cases of levitically prohibited category crossing involve the keeping apart of things that are different. Thus, one does not mix wool with linen in a garment. One might have thought, therefore, that if anything, homoerotic relations would be more consistent with the idea of keeping the different separate. This paradox is, however, only apparent. What we must think of, in order to understand the levitical system, is the "metaphysics" underlying it. These prohibitions belong to the Priestly Torah that emphasizes over and over in its account of the Creation in Genesis 1 that God has created from the beginning the separate kinds of creatures.16 Male and female are among the kinds that were created at the very beginning (Genesis 1.27). Now if we understand that it is the kinds that have to be kept separate, that is, the categories or types, because confusing their borders (tebhel) is an abomination - as opposed to a mere necessity to keep physically separate the tokens of the categories - then we can understand the specifics of the Torah's interdiction of male anal intercourse. The Torah's language is very explicit; it is the "use" of a male as a female that is "to eba," the crossing of a body from one God-given category to another, analogous to the wearing of clothes that belong to the other sex, by nature as it were. Moving a male body across the border into "female" metaphysical space transgresses the categories in the same way as putting on a female garment, for both parties, since both participate (presumably willingly) in the transgressive act.

Now it is clear why only male anal intercourse and not other homoerotic practices are forbidden by the Torah. The issue is gender (as the verse of the Bible explicitly suggests) and not "homosexuality," and gender is conceived around penetration and being penetrated. The lack of a prohibition on female homoerotic behavior, a fact about which "there has been considerable speculation" according to the latest interpretations of biblical law, now receives a fresh explanation (Levine 1989: 123). Up until now, this omission has generally been explained as the sign of a general lack of interest in what women do when it does not lead to possible illicit pregnancy and thus confusion in the realm of the Name-of-the-Father.17 However, as we have seen from the above-quoted verse from Deuteronomy, it is simply not the case that female behavior is not controlled by this system, nor that the Torah is uninterested in what women do. For cross-dressing, the male and female are equally controlled. The same point holds for intercourse with animals as in the verse quoted above. We see, therefore, that female sexual behavior is every bit as much of interest to the Torah as male sexual behavior, even in situations where illicit pregnancy could not possibly result. Were there a category of the homosexual whose activities are condemned per se, there is no reason that only the males would be included in it, nor any reason that only one male-male genital practice would be forbidden. It follows, then, that there was no such category in either biblical or talmudic culture and that some other explanation than a horror of "homosexuality" must be advanced for the taboo on male anal intercourse. The explanation for this taboo generally accepted among biblical scholars is that "homosexuality," being allegedly a regular practice of the Canaanites, or even part of their cult, the Bible abjected it as part of its project of differential production of Israelite culture. There is very little (or no) evidence that I know of to support such a view; indeed, virtually none that the Canaanites were especially given to homosexual practices. I submit that it is a reasonable hypothesis to subordinate the sexual practice under the category of gender-crossing, and conclude that only male anal intercourse was considered as a kind of cross-dressing owing to the penetration of one body by another. The Rabbis (in contrast apparently to the Romans)18 did not imagine female-female sexual contact as involving any form of penetration that they recognized as such.19

The very word for female, naqeba in both biblical and talmudic Hebrew, as well as talmudic Aramaic, means "orifice-bearer," as if male bodies did not possess orifices. A talmudic text emphasizes to what extent gender was constituted by penetration and being penetrated within this cultural system. The Talmud is trying to determine what sorts of jealousy on the part of a husband will invoke the ceremony of the Waters of Curse - that is, the biblical ritual whereby a wife suspected of adultery drinks water in which a passage from a Torah scroll has been dissolved. If she is "guilty" God causes certain bodily diseases, and if "innocent," God leaves her alone (and promises her progeny):20

We have learned, "sexual intercourse" - excluding something else.

The verse says that the husband suspects his wife of having had sexual intercourse with another man, and the midrashic passage quoted indicates that this is to exclude a situation in which he suspects her of "something else":

What is "something else"? Rav Sheshet said: "It excludes anal intercourse [literally not according to her manner]."

For Rav Sheshet, anal intercourse does not constitute intercourse at all and therefore it is not adultery, so if a husband suspects his wife of this, she does not undergo the "test" for adulteresses, but Rava dissents:

Rava said to him: "But with reference to anal intercourse, it is written 'a woman's lyings'!" Rather Rava said: "It excludes a case where he suspected her of intercrural intercourse."21

Rava argues from the verse that treats of male anal intercourse. His argument is that since that practice is defined, as we have seen, as "a woman's lyings," it follows that anal intercourse with women is indeed defined as intercourse. Crucial in the context of the present inquiry is Rava's proof that male-female anal intercourse counts as full intercourse for the purpose of definitions of adultery from the fact that male-male anal intercourse is defined by the Torah as "a woman's lyings (i.e. as intercourse in the fashion of lying with women)." From the verse prohibiting this behavior between men, we learn that it is appropriate when practiced between a man and a woman. The exact talmudic term for male-female anal intercourse is "penetration not according to her way," which we might be tempted to gloss as penetration that is not natural to her, but this is precisely the interpretation which the Talmud denies us by assuming that such intercourse is natural to women, indeed can be defined by the Torah as "a woman's lyings." (Compare Herodotus i.61.1f., cited in Dover 1989: 100.) Moreover, in a further passage (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 54a), the Talmud argues explicitly that with reference to women there are two kinds of intercourse, that is, vaginal and anal, because the verse that deals with male-male anal intercourse indicts it as "a woman's lyings [plural misksbei]," thus two kinds of lying with women exist. "According to her way" means, then, simply something like in the more common or usual fashion and a discourse of natural/unnatural is not being mobilized here. It follows, then, that the manner of lying with women is penetration simpliciter and no distinction of anal/vaginal is intended by the Torah but only a distinction between penetrative and non-penetrative sex.22 Men penetrate; women are penetrated, so for a man to be penetrated constitutes a "mixing of kinds" analogous to cross-dressing.

A contemporary temptation would be to reverse the relation that I have suggested and propose that the reason that cross-dressing is forbidden is because it leads to, simulates, or somehow is associated with "homosexuality" Indeed, some have gone so far as to suggest that the entire system of forbidden "mixtures" - and especially, of course, the taboo on cross-dressing - is to support the prohibition on so-called homosexuality As Terry Castle has remarked, "The implication . . . that sodomy follows from transvestism - became a standard notion in the eighteenth century" (Castle 1986: 46, 47; cited in Garber 1992: 381). I am, as it were, turning this notion upside-down - leaving it for the eighteenth century and ours - and interpreting that male anal intercourse is for the biblical culture not the result of cross-dressing, nor is transvestism an index of deviant sexual practice, but rather anal intercourse with a man is an instance of cross-dressing!23

Note, then, both the similarity and the enormous difference between this explanation of the biblical culture and the interpretations of Greek culture of the Foucauldian school. In both, that separate realm that we identify as sexuality is subsumed under larger cultural structures and discourses.24 In the latter, since the issues involved are social status and power, there is no shame in (or taboo against) an appropriately higher status male penetrating a lower status male.25 In the biblical culture, on the other hand, where the issue does not seem to have been status so much as an insistence on the absolute inviolability of gender dimorphism - since such violation would constitute a mixing of categories - any penetration of a male by another male constitutes a transgression of this boundary for both parties. In either case, we now understand why other male-male sexual practices are not mentioned in the Torah at all and need to be subsumed by the Talmud under the rubric of masturbation. We also understand why female-female sexual practices are not spoken of by the Torah and treated very lightly indeed by the Talmud. It is because they are not perceived as simulacra of male-female intercourse. They do not confuse the dimorphism of the genders, because they are not conceptualized in this culture around penetration.26

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