Life as an Extreme Sport

a sponge must have substance to absorb

I’m reading Barrington Moore’s Moral Purity and Persecution in History, having started it as a bit of “light” nighttime reading a few evening’s back. (Yes, I know, I need to work on my ideas of what constitutes good before bed reading, especially since I find myself getting up to grab copies of various Bibles to check references far too often for this to succeed in being relaxing reading.) It’s been an interesting read, in part because Moore appears to rely relatively heavily on Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger. My exposure to Douglas’s work is second-hand, through Elizabeth Grosz, but even then, I feel like I understand enough of Douglas’s theory to be able to answer a question posed by Moore early on in his work. In Chapter One (page eight, so yes, very early), he discusses rules about nakedness in Leviticus. He says

Mixed in with the rules about nakedness are two prohibitions on perversions. One prohibits homosexuality in the strict sense of the word: sexual relations between males. This is an abomination (Lev. 18:22). There is no mention of lesbianism. Two possible explanations for this odd omission come to mind. Conceivably the male religious authorities who created this legislation didn’t even know about its existence. OR else they were so terrified at the prospects of female joys without the male contribution that they did not even call attention to lesbianism by passing ordinance against it. Some variant of the first explanation seems more likely.

Does it really seem likely to anyone that men in the Biblical era had no notion of lesbianism? That while male homosexuality was known of enough to call an abomination, absolutely no male religious authority ever saw or heard of lesbians? Perhaps there was a rampant lack of mental creativity?

I propose a third option: that it wasn’t mentioned because the pollutions of a woman’s body are dealt with in other Jewish rituals, and because a woman cannot be further polluted by a woman; that is, the “dirt” that she absorbs is from a male (semen) rather than any contagion from another woman. As Grosz notes in Volatile Bodies, the female body is coded as “a body which leaks, which bleeds” (203); these environment-polluting contagions that are expressed from the woman’s body are already controlled by Jewish rituals and laws – specifically the mikveh. There are a whole host of regulations surrounding the mikveh, and not being a religious scholar to any degree, I won’t go into them. Suffice that they exist as a way to ritually purify after contagion, and that most feminine fluids, such as menstruation, are covered under this. But, as Grosz goes on to explain, “Women are the guardians of the sexual fluids of both men and women; …she is in fact regarded as a kind of sponge or conduit of other men’s ‘dirt’” (197). (This is where the notion of a woman being impure or defiled for sex outside of marriage comes from; as a sponge or conduit of other men’s impurities, she can collect and cross-transmit the contagions.)

But if a woman is not absorbing the “dirt” of men, but instead merely contaminated by that which she already has and is, which is already addressed by the mikveh, then why set up additional legislation? Women and their purity and how to maintain it has already been covered by existing purity laws, therefore there was no need to specifically address lesbianism. This was no oversight on the scholars and writers of Leviticus; it is, instead, an oversight on our part. We modern folks see the rules in Leviticus as being about controlling behaviour or social mores; we’re not looking at them in the “right” light, where that light is about symbolic boundary maintenance and maintaining Jewish cultural identity in hostile lands. That laws governing sex and clothing and food are all discussed together is not some weird coincidence, if you look at them as being laws governing purity and boundaries.