Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Acharey Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30) and the most common haftarah is Ezekiel 22:1-19.
The Torah frowns on some actions because they are ra (רַע) = bad or immoral; some because they are tamei (טָמֵא) = not pure for religious purposes; and some because they are to-eivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = abominable, disgusting, offensive. This week’s Torah portion and haftarah reveal two different views of what should be to-eivah to the god of Israel.
The authors of both Leviticus and Ezekiel knew that societies in the ancient Near East had different opinions on what was abominable. The first two books of the Bible, Genesis/Bereishit and Exodus/Shemot, use the word to-eivah only to describe what the Egyptians abhor: eating at the same table with Canaanites (Genesis 43:32), and the slaughter of sheep (Genesis 26:34, Exodus 8:22).
This week’s portion in Leviticus/Vayikra declares that some of the practices that Canaanites permit are off-limits to Israelites.
You must keep My decrees and My rules, and you must not do any of these to-eivot, [neither] the native-born nor the resident alien among you. Because the men who were on the land before you did all these to-eivot, and they made the land tamei. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:26-27)
to-eivot (תּוֹעֵוֹת) = plural of to-eivah.
The passage leading up to this statement lists 17 acts that are both tamei and to-eivot for Israelite men: twelve kinds of sex involving relatives, sex with a menstruating woman, sex with your comrade’s wife, giving your child to the god Molekh, sex with another male, and sex with a beast.
Two of these acts are labelled tamei within the list, perhaps to emphasize that they cause religion impurity: sex with a comrade’s wife and sex with a beast. Another act is specifically labeled to-eivah:
And you must not lie down with a male as in lying down with a woman; it is to-eivah. (Leviticus 18:22)
The book of Leviticus might have emphasized that this homosexual act was to-eivah for the ancient Israelites because it was accepted as normal among other peoples in the region, including the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Philistines. These societies had laws against specific deeds such as father-son incest and homosexual rape, but treated sex between consenting males (and even boys) as a normal part of life.
But for the priests who wrote Leviticus, all sex between males was as abominable as raping your mother or giving your child to the foreign god Molekh.
The prophet Ezekiel was a priest deported to Babylon when Jerusalem fell, and he shared some of the opinions of the priests who wrote the book of Leviticus. But he took a broader view of what was to-eivah to the god of Israel. The haftarah from the book of Ezekiel denounces the residents of Jerusalem for recklessly committing deeds that are to-eivah. God asks Ezekiel:
And you, son of humankind, will you judge, will you judge the city of bloodshed and inform her of all her to-eivot? (Ezekiel 22:2)
Then God tells Ezekiel what to say. The first eight to-eivot God says the citizens of Jerusalem have committed are: making idols, belittling their own parents, practicing extortion on resident aliens, oppressing widows and orphans, despising God’s holy things, profaning the sabbath, speaking slander, and eating sacrifices on mountaintops (where there were altars to other gods).
Next God mentions a few of the sex acts men are also forbidden to do in this week’s Torah portion: sex with their fathers’ wives, with menstruating women, with their comrades’ wives, with their daughters-in-law, and with their own sisters. Neither sex with other males nor sex with beasts is mentioned in this haftarah.
In the haftarah it is sex with another man’s wife that is explicitly labeled to-eivah.
And a man does a to-eivah with the wife of his comrade, and another man makes his daughter-in-law outrageously tamei, and another man rapes his sister, his father’s daughter. (Ezekiel 22:11)
The list is wrapped up with three more non-sexual to-eivot: taking bribes, charging extra interest, and damaging friends through extortion.
Ezekiel’s point may be that we should feel the same knee-jerk, visceral disgust that we feel in the face of incest and rape when we see our fellow citizens worship other gods or injure people through extortion, slander, and perversion of justice.
Can we change our gut reactions? Yes, over time. When I had my first period it seemed like an abomination, but eventually I accepted menstruation as a mere nuisance. On the other hand, when I was very young it did not bother me at all to trade my little sister a penny for a dime. After a few years I developed enough empathy so that the idea of deliberately cheating anyone seemed repulsive.
The Bible is right that we must pay attention and choose what is truly to-eivah to our god. But we can do better than the priests who wrote Leviticus. Modern commentators suggest that the incest rules in that book were designed to protect girls and women from the men living in the same household compound. Today we take the idea of protection farther by considering all acts of rape and all sex with children as to-eivah.
On the other hand, more and more of us smile when we see two men fall in love and make a home together. Today many people are more kind and fair than the Israelite authorities were 2,500 years ago.
Yet alas, too many individuals today still deserve Ezekiel’s denunciations in this week’s haftarah. Human beings cannot all have perfect empathy. But what if we all had a gut reaction to slander, bribery, and extortion, finding these deeds to-eivot? How would the world change?