That time I felt homo fomo
When I saw Hannah Gadsby’s brilliant Nanette last year, the above joke killed me.
First, of course, there’s the bizarre yet terrifying reality that legal codes from an ancient society are still being deployed as “God’s word” to harm my fellow queers all around the world. That isn’t a laughing matter.
But, I’ve often harbored a teeny-weeny itty-bitty ounce of homo fomo: does the devil not care about sex between women?
Gadsby’s humorous retort captures the philosophical structure of heterosexist patriarchy:
“What even are they?” Lesbians have no ontology in a heteronormative society. They are unintelligible and, on some level, do not exist. No ontological existence.
“What dothey do, though, really?” When the sex act is understood from a heterosexual male point of view, it can't be mapped onto lesbian sex and their actions remainunknown. No performative existence.
“Do they even exist if no one’s watching, really?” They only exist for the male gaze. No subjective existence.
“No, don’t worry about them. No harm in a cuddle.” Sex between women isn't 'sex' so it doesn't make the women unavailable to men. No existential threat to patriarchy.
I like to imagine that when the heterosexual contract negotiations were taking place, some many thousand millennia ago, thelesbians exited the circle and landed themselves in Themyscira, that beautiful island in Wonder Woman. (Alternative site for the Biblical tale of Ruth?) Because according to a certain kind of patriarchy, women who have sex with other women just don’t exist, or if they do, they don’t exist as independent, permanent subjects outside of the patriarchal heterosexual male gaze. In the eyes of the patriarchy, neither their sex act nor their existence are a threat to male domination.
Such is the case with Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. The violation here concerns a devaluation of one male by another, as executed by a particular sex act. Holiness sets the context for Leviticus 18 and 20; that is, how Israel will be holy or set apart, as the Hebrew qōḏeš connotes, from other nations. Of course, we’re also dealing with wholeness, the root of English holy. How is the patriarchal male kept whole in his bodily integrity, and if he cannot be kept holy wholly whole, then how can patriarchal society remain intact? Lesbians, well, they just don’t fit. Although since we’re dealing with sex acts, it might be crisper to say female-female sex act(s) don’t fit because they don’t compromise the male’s wholeness or holiness. Either way, women who lie with other women as a male lies with women do not threaten the patriarchy.
Or do they??
My homo fomo and nascent Jewish identity made me wonder, what did the rebbes think? Did any of them wonder about two women? Turns out it took almost a thousand years after Leviticus was codified for the rabbisto turn to the question of girl-on-girl action, but they got there in the Sifra and the Babylonian Talmud.
According toThe Jewish Quarterly,the first instance is in the Sifra of the 4th century CE. The rabbis comment that an example of the laws of Egypt and Canaan the Israelites are not to follow include, “that ‘a man would marry [nosei] a man, and a woman a woman”—a clear reference not only to same-sex intimate acts, but also to ongoing relationships between same‑sex partners.” Huzzah! Existence by negation! Not only were the rabbis imagining homosexual sex between women, they envisioned a Canaanite world with homosexual marriage for women and for men. (Of course, that was a bad world, but still!)
Next up, the Babylonian Talmud just about 100 years later. Here, one rabbi, Rav Huna, essentially sees women as acting subjects and threatening to the priestly patriarchy, aka, zonot! (Look, I’ll take threatening existence over non-existence any day.) In Shabbat 65a/b, Rav Huna suggests that “Women who rub against one another [motivated by sexual desire] are disqualified from [marrying into] the priesthood. [The act renders a woman a zona.It is prohibited for a priest to marry her.]” (Bracketed portions are Tosafot.) But he’s an outlier for his opinion that a woman who sleeps with another woman is rendered zona. As expounded in Yevamot 76a, most sages say only a man can render a woman a zona. Two women fooling around is “mere obscenity.”
As The Jewish Quarterlyputs it, “Rav Huna’s teaching is rejected because, unlike heterosexual cohabitation, sexual intimacy between women does not render the individual women concerned “unfit;” [same]it is peritzuta, “obscenity”, not zenut, “unchastity” or “harlotry.” And if the women’s behavior does not render them “unfit,” they are not thereby debarred from marrying a High Priest (who must only marry a virgin—that is, a woman who is “fit”).”
So where does that lead us? We see Rav Huna actually acknowledges lesbians, or at least women who rub against one another:
They have ontological existence: he can speak clearly of them.
They have performative existence: they rub against one another—and this action accrues consequences.
They have subjective existence: there’s no presumption someone has watched the women rubbing against one another.
They pose an existential threat to the patriarchy: marriage to them endangers the patriarchy.
Huzzah! Lesbians, or women who have sex with women, exist and threaten the patriarchy! No homo fomo no mo.
I should say, I do not mean to make light of the real and existential danger posed to queer Jews and Christians, and in particular these days, our beloved trans siblings. As much fun as it may be for me to sniff out ancient fears of lesbians, too few queers among us are lucky enough to occupy religious spaces that acknowledge our existence and right to exist. In this exercise I found a tiny bit of proofto say, even if they mighthaverejected me, at least they might have acknowledged me and my power to upset them.
From The Jewish Quarterly via My Jewish Learning: “Yevamot 76a, makes it clear why the law does not follow Rav Huna. After quoting his teaching the text adds: ‘And even according to Rav Eleazar, who stated that an unmarried man who cohabited with an unmarried woman with no matrimonial intention renders her therefore a prostitute [zona], this disqualification ensues only in the case of a man, but when [the case] is that of a woman [playing around with another woman] the action is regarded as mere obscenity.’”