‘Abomination’ is Hate Speech

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April 1, 2012
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Jay Michaelson

Most American Jews, according to polls and the official positions of the major religious movements, do not believe that there is anything wrong with homosexuality. Outside the Orthodox community, they understand that sexuality is a trait, not a “lifestyle” or a pathology, and that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people lead lives as complex, rich, and varied as everyone else. Many people inside the Orthodox world feel the same way, and wrestle with how best to understand their biblical and halakhic traditions.

Language, though, continues to trip us up. Even people who have put aside strict readings of the Bible believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality and labels it, in Leviticus 18:22, an “abomination.” Set aside the fact that this is a wild anachronism, since both the word and concept of homosexuality are of recent coinage. The continued use of the term “abomination” is part of the problem. Well-meaning folks who use the term innocently should stop doing so and regard it as hate speech.

“Abomination” is the translation of the Hebrew word “toevah” used in the King James version of the Bible. It is neither a Jewish word nor an accurate translation. Really, no one even knows what it means. As I’ve crisscrossed the country talking about my book God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, I’ve asked audiences about the term. The responses usually have something to do with unnaturalness and awfulness: An abomination is something that should not exist on the face of the earth.

“Toevah,” in contrast, basically means “taboo.” The word occurs 103 times in the Bible, and almost always has the connotation of a non-Israelite cultic practice: idolatry, or avodah zara (foreign worship). Other things that are toevah include fortunetelling (Deut. 18:10), statues (Deuteronomy 7:25), and child sacrifice (2 Kings 16:3, 2 Chronicles 28:3). The book of Ezekiel uses the term 39 times, almost always in connection with idolatry. There are isolated exceptions — most importantly, the book of Proverbs — but the overwhelming preponderance of the uses of the term connect the forbidden act with idolatry, and with the proper boundaries between Israelites and others. This meaning makes sense in context, since Leviticus 18:21 has to do with child sacrifice, and since Deuteronomy tells us that sex acts between men was part of Canaanite ritual practice. What is forbidden here is one sex act connected to idolatry — nothing more.

Toevah is also culturally relative. For example, Genesis 43:32 states that having a meal with Israelites is toevah for Egyptians. Obviously, eating with Jews is not an “abomination,” but it is a taboo for the Egyptians. Similarly, Exodus 8:22 states that Israelite sacrifices are toevah for Egyptians. Toevah is not some universal flaw, but a culturally relative taboo.

This is still, of course, a serious category of transgression. Avodah zara is among the most severely prohibited of acts. But it is not the same as “abomination.” For example, Deuteronomy 14:9 uses the term to refer to foods forbidden by the laws of kashrut. As the humorous website godhatesshrimp.com points out, participating in male homosexual intimacy is the same type of offense as eating a shrimp cocktail. So why don’t we see the religious right picketing the Red Lobster?

In part, I think, it’s because of language. Of course, issues of sexuality and religion have very deep roots, but the way in which we carelessly refer to them matters. “Abomination” is a word that tells gay people, particularly gay children, that they should not exist on the face of the earth. And even among Jews who have a liberal mindset, it suggests that one must choose between the Bible and sexual expression, between God and homosexuality. This false choice causes immense anguish. Religion is the leading factor in instances of parents disowning their LGBT children (LGBT youth homelessness is on the rise nationwide), and, in less severe cases, in people feeling torn between their religious tradition and their emotional health.

The only reason to use the term “abomination” is to perpetuate this harm. It’s inaccurate, it’s hurtful, and it should be banished from polite conversation.

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