Thanks, gay mafia. Just when I thought I was out… you pull me back in.

I managed to get through a whole post about the Yom Kippur afternoon reading of the arayot (Lev. 18) without mentioning good ol’ verse 22, which starts off the final aliya of the Day of Atonement. You know the one, along with the parallel verse two chapters later (20:13):

You shall not bed a male (zakhar) the beddings of a woman (mishkevei isha): it is an abomination.

And if a man beds a male the beddings of a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

I thought that I had dealt with this topic thoroughly in my first post for Times of Israel. But on Thursday, Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau (cousin of the new chief rabbi) made news by invoking Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s decades-old halakhic argument about the sexual orientation of gays being defined as oness, compulsion, employing the Talmudic principle “the Merciful does not hold liable those who are compelled” (Nedarim 27a, Bava Kamma 28a, Avoda Zara 54a). I won’t get into the analysis, since Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber already did a fantastically thorough job of that a year ago.

Instead, I would like to get back to the biblical analysis. Although, ironically, it is used in Mishnaic Hebrew to refer to sex between males, the term “mishkav zakhar” is not the biblical term for intercourse between men; it is the term for classic male-to-female genitalia sex, specifically the kind that puts an end to virginity. Consider Judges 21:12:

And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead four hundred virgin maidens, who had not known a man by bedding a male (mishkav zakhar), and they brought them to the camp in Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.

The term appears repeatedly in Numbers 31 as well. But what exactly is it supposed to mean here in Leviticus? The term here is mishkav zakhar mishkevei isha, a perplexing nomenclature. An ish (man) is bedding not another ish, but a zakhar–and not just bedding him, but bedding him “the beddings of isha.” Of course, isha means both woman and wife.

Some have suggested that it prohibits two men from having sex in a woman’s bed, which is profoundly bizarre, seeming to trade homophobia for misogyny. Others argue that it refers to a ménage à trois, which is intriguing but a bit hard to swallow: the verse mentions “both of them.” Still others argue that it refers to a social construct in which such relationships would involve pedophilia or rape, but if so, the fact that the Torah condemns both parties is horrific (and contradictory).

But what if, like standard-issue mishkav zakhar, mishkav zakhar mishkevei isha refers to a situation of permanent physical change? What if the ish is whole, but the zakhar only has his zakhrut (manhood) left, because he has been altered in the mishkevei isha manner? In the Ancient Near East, males were often castrated for the purpose of being sex slaves. Perhaps this is what the verse refers to. The Torah takes a dim view of castration, so it would be consistent with other verses. Were that the case, the great biblical proof-text used to bludgeon gays would fall. I’ve certainly heard no better explanation of mishkevei isha.

Now, this approach is certainly unconventional, but it is not wholly unprecedented to view mishkevei isha as defining not the what of this sexual union, but the who. The Talmud (Yevamot 83b) cites Bar Hamduri’s exegesis:

“You shall not bed a male the beddings of a woman” — what male is it that is capable of two manners of bedding? Obviously the hermaphrodite.

Undoubtedly, a hermaphrodite and a eunuch are different cases, but they share something of an intersex status, creating a hybrid of mishkav zakhar and mishkevei isha. This certainly opens the door to further analysis of this much-debated line.

Would reinterpreting the verse change the halakhic equation? Maybe not, but it’s a lot easier to embrace paths such as that of Rabbis Doctors Lamm, Farber and Lau if the verse lends itself to other readings.