Copyright © 2012 by Gary Konecky

By Gary Konecky

Having just worked our way through several different viewpoints on the meaning of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, I noticed that there is a frequent recurrent theme to many of these viewpoints.  That theme is the recurring references to the Talmud.  As explained earlier in this series; for the Jewish people the Talmud is second only to the Hebrew Bible in importance.  The Talmud extensively discusses the Oral Torah that was given during the revelation at Mount Sinai, while the first five books of the Hebrew Bible record the written Torah that was given during the revelation at Mount Sinai.  It is typical in any discussion of Jewish religious practices and Jewish religious law to find frequent references to the Talmud.  Additionally, the Talmud is one of the key sources Jews turn to for matters of bible interpretation.  Therefore, if we are to understand these verses from Leviticus, we must also turn to the Talmud.  

Given the dominance of gay and lesbian issues (civil rights, same-sex marriage, hate crimes against LGTBI people, the bullying of LGBTI youth and the numerous resultant LGBTI suicides) in the media, one would think this must be the most frequently discussed issue in the bible and Talmud.  Given the numerous sermons and pronouncements by clergy, one would think that this “sin” must be so big that entire volumes of religious texts are devoted to the subject.  Strikingly, the Talmud devotes very little discussion to the subject, and much of that discussion is part of a larger discussion about a different topic.  In short, as far as the Jewish sages were concerned, there were things of far greater importance than gay sex.   As for lesbian sex, I did not find any discussion if it in the Talmud. 

It is also worth noting that any English translation of the Talmud that uses the words “homosexuality” and “homosexual” is mistranslating the Talmud.  The reason for this is incredibly simple.  Homosexuality is a modern construct (originating in the late 1800s).  Work on the Talmud ended in the year 475 (note 1), roughly 1400 years before homosexuality as we understand it was conceptualized.  It is inconceivable that the Talmud was using a word and discussing a concept, when both the word and concept had not been invented and would not be invented for roughly another 1400 years.  Furthermore, some of the context of the discussion clearly indicates that the topic was something very different than homosexuality that was being discussed.  It is important to note that many times what we think of as translations are in fact interpretations.  Additionally, we seem to be experiencing a phenomenon of scholars who are fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic, yet seemingly do not understand the significance of their word choices English.  We also have at least one major publisher of Jewish works translated into English who does not understand the difference between pederasty and homosexuality, the publisher either being homophobic or their thinking being as long as it is two males engaged in a sex act, than the words mean the same thing.  

The first time we encounter these verses from Leviticus in the Talmud is Yebamoth 54b.  To put this in some context, the Talmud is divided into six orders, or major subject groupings.  Yebamoth is the first tractate in the order dealing with women, and its principle concern is marriage.  The context for the passage (Yebamoth 54b) that concerns us is a discussion about forbidden heterosexual sexual relations (incest).  During the discussion of incest, the subject of Leviticus 18:22 is brought up.  In an effort to understand a forbidden sexual relation (incest), in effect the rabbis have raised the issue of another forbidden sexual relation, that which is prohibited by Leviticus 18:22.. 

Quoting the Talmud:

What is the law if a man passed the first stage in pederasty? [You ask,] ‘What is the law in pederasty’? Surely it is written, As with womankind!(26)

(26) Lev. XVIII, 22. Since pederasty is compared to natural intercourse it is obviously subject to the same restrictions and penalties, including that of the first stage!

(note 2)

Two things are noteworthy here.  The first is the Rabbis statement that Leviticus 18:22 is prohibiting pederasty.   The second is that this brief and passing mention of pederasty is in a far lengthier discussion about incest, heterosexual incest. 

The next mention of homosexuality in the Talmud is Sanhedrin 54a.  Sanhedrin is the tractate that deals with the court system in ancient Israel, and is part of the order concerned with Damages.  Once again, the subject of the discussion is incest.  The discussion concerns pederasty with a father or a paternal uncle. 

Later on (again in Sanhedrin 54a), we come to a new discussion concerning the method of execution:

Whence do I know that pederasty is punished by stoning? - Our Rabbis taught : [If a man lieth also with mankind, as the lyings of a woman, (29) both of them have committed on abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them,] (30) A man — excludes a minor; [that] lieth also with mankind — denotes whether an adult or a minor; as the lyings of a woman — this teaches that there are two modes of intimacy, (31) both of which are punished when committed incestuously. R. Ishmael said: This verse comes to throw light [upon pederasty] but receives illumination itself. (32) They shall surely be put to death: by stoning. You say, by stoning: but perhaps some other death decreed in the Torah is meant? — Their blood shall be upon them is stated here, and also in the case of one who has a familiar spirit or is a wizard: (33) just as there the reference is to stoning, so it is here too.

(29) Lit. rendering of … translated ‘as he lieth with a woman’.

(30) Ibid. XX, 13.

(31) Natural and unnatural.

(32) For the phrase, the lyings of a woman, is redundant in so far as it teaches that even unnatural pederasty is punishable, since all pederasty is such. Hence its teaching is thrown back upon itself, viz., that unnatural cohabitation is punishable when committed incestuously.

(33) Ibid. XX, 27.

(note 2)

The critical point the Talmud is making here is that Leviticus 20:13 is concerned with pederasty in an incestuous relationship. 

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 54b-55a) then continues with a discussion of Leviticus 18:22.  As part of that discussion, the Talmud cites Deuteronomy 23:18 (which will be discussed in a future installment of this series).  The gist of this discussion is the number of penalties to be imposed for violating Leviticus 18:22, and if the passive participant is also subject to the penalty.  In an effort to understand these issues, the rabbi turn to a verse that uses the same language, Leviticus 20:15, which states  “and if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast.”

The discussion then moves into what age a male becomes sexually mature. The purpose of this discussion being to establish at what age a male is subject to the prohibition of pederasty.  In an effort to figure this out, the discussion of bestiality resumes.  As the rabbis continue to explore the issue of the appropriate punishment, the subject of forbidden sexual relations (sexual intercourse with a woman who is menstruating and heterosexual incest) are discussed.  Masturbation is then raised in the context of this discussion.  The discussion then turns back to bestiality, the destruction of the animal and why. 

I find it striking that the issue discussed is at what age a male becomes sexually mature.  If the Talmud is discussing homosexuality, as is claimed in some translations, then this point is immaterial, as homosexual intercourse is an activity that occurs between consenting adults, which makes the issue of sexual maturity moot.  If we are discussing pederasty, then by definition one of the males must be sexually maturing (and not an adult), which is the point being discussed.   

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a) citing numerous scriptural references engages in a rapid-fire condemnation of harlotry, idolatry, pederasty and heterosexual sexual relations with a heathen.  Quoting the Talmud:

…R. Kahana was made to read in his dream, Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the Lord which he loved, and hath been intimate with the daughter of a strange god.(2) He then went and related to Rab, ’This was I made to read’. Thereupon he reminded Rab of it all: Judah hath dealt treacherously, — this refers to idolatry, even as it is said, [Surely as a wife departeth treacherously from her husband], so have ye dealt treacherously with me, O house of Israel, saith the Lord;(3) and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem, refers to pederasty, and thus it is written, Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is an abomination;(4) for Judah hath profaned the holiness [kodesh](5) of the Lord, — this refers to harlotry, and thus it is said, There shall be no consecrated harlot [kedeshah](6) of the daughters of Israel;(7) and hath been intimate with the daughter of a strange god, — this refers to intimacy with a heathen woman…

(2) Mal. II, 11.

(3) Jer. III, 20. The simile shews that the reference is to idolatry.

(4) Lev. XVIII, 22.

(5) …

(6) …

(7) Deut. XXIII, 18.


Emphasis added    Emphasis added  

(note 2)

The last discussion in the Talmud that concerns us is in Kerithoth 3a, Kerithoth being part of the order concerning Holy Things.  This time the issue the rabbis are discussing is the number of sin offerings to be brought for transgressing Leviticus 18:22 and Deuteronomy 23:18.  In an effort to figure out the answer to this question, the rabbis bring up the prohibitions of blasphemy and bestiality.

What is striking in all this is that the rabbis discuss a host of prohibited sexual acts (including forbidden heterosexual acts), yet no one act is treated as any graver a sin than the other sins that are discussed.  This raises the question; what is it about homosexuality that so drives clerics and politicians in our society to carry on as they do?    Is it not a graver sin to engage is widespread financial fraud (which is the cause of The Great Recession)?  Is it not a greater sin to engage in financial fraud and to cause millions of people significant suffering as they loose their jobs, their homes, and their medical insurance?  If two consenting adults choose to engage in a sex act in which no one is harmed, and they engage in that sex act in the privacy of their own home, how is that a greater sin than inflicting poverty and untold suffering on millions of people?  Earlier in this series, we learned that greed and theft were the cause of the destruction of both the generation of the flood and the destruction of Sodom.  Yet our clerics and politicians choose to endlessly condemn the so-called sin of homosexuality, and to not mention the sins of greed and theft, sins for which G-d executed divine judgment.  Why?

Note 1:  Page 158 of Codex Judaica, Chronological Index of Jewish History, by Rabbi Mattis Kantor, copyright 2005, Zichron Press.

Note 2:  The Soncino Talmud, Judaic Classics by David Kantrowitz, Version 3.0.8, Copyright 1991-2004, Davka Corporation 


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