“Who is Sleeping in the Bed of Sodom?”

In April CLAGS hosted a groundbreaking conference, “Whose Millennium? Religion, Sexuality, and the Values of Citizenship.” Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, it brought together scholars, clergy, and activists from all over the country. Excerpts from remarks from the final panel made by the two conference reporters, Nancy Levene and Elizabeth Castelli are printed below.

The question that I am left with from the extraordinary presentations over the conference’s two days borrows from Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s and Ludger Viefhues’s discussion of the multiple images of the biblical “Sodom”. Conventionally Sodom has signified a place of sexual deviance or, conversely, sexual censorship. But as Greenberg pointed out, in many traditional commentaries on the story of the condemnation of Sodom, the issue was not that the townspeople were engaged in forbidden sexual practices, but that they were violent and hostile to those in need of shelter and food. From this angle, the heinous crimes of the Sodomites were the crimes of greed and indifference, crimes which, from the standpoint of some rabbis, far outweighed the “sin” of sex between men with which the town’s name was often associated. Viefhues argued that, while the bed of Sodom can be seen as a place of religious regulation and order, it is also a place where assumed notions of ordered and disordered bodies may be subverted and made liberatory.

Who exactly is sleeping in the bed of Sodom? On the one hand, it seems fruitfully crowded in there–we saw over the conference’s two days many examples of traditional ways of identifying and policing bodies utterly turned on their heads, and traditional languages of rebuke and classification turned against themselves for politically progressive ends. It is hard to see this as anything but a good thing. On the other hand, perhaps it is not crowded enough. For, if Greenberg is right that Sodom was to have been (and failed in being) a place of kindness and hospitality, we have seen just as many examples of the ways in which Sodom itself as an ideal has not yet been (maybe cannot be) achieved–that religion is more than double-edged and that its sources seem to provoke strife, conflict, unkindness, and indifference.

I identified three main themes that emerged from the conference as a whole:

1) The complexity of texts and rituals: how they are used and abused and what their relationships are to the histories and genealogies that claim them as foundational. The conference began with Daniel Boyarin’s discussion of the notorious verses from Leviticus ostensibly banning sex between men, and his claim that these verses bear no obvious relationship to the ways they are currently used to name and prohibit homosexuality. His point was that it is not only the case that what is now identified as homosexuality constitutes a cluster of claims, discourses, ways of thinking, and living that are inexorably modern, but also that when we uncouple such texts from their political deployment, we can more fully attend to their historical specificity and, by implication, even find ways of employing those same texts that are more life- enhancing. theme was repeated throughout the conference: reclaiming by re-understanding and reinterpreting, and critiquing right-wing politics with the tools of scholarship (the texts “don’t really” say what they are made to say, the ritu als need not reinscribe what they often reinscribe). The question, of course, is, once one hasengaged in this kind of disassociative practice, what then? So Leviticus didn’t mean x, or can be used otherwise than y. Will this claim alone prevent entrenched ideologies from continuing to use it as a proof text? What exactly can and should scholars do after they make a case for tendentious uses of texts, laws, and rituals? To what might they appeal in a politically contested arena where the terms are manipulated by all parties to an issue?

2) The significance of the language of historical, social, and cultural construction of sexual identities, the very notion of a “norm” from which practices and behaviors deviate, and of religious and national identities. Geeta Patel’s discussion of the contemporary Muslim male poet who took on the identity of a medieval Hindu female poet-saint and Indian nationalist icon was perhaps the most vivid illustration of how national and religious identities can be employed utterly to confound reigning ideologies, while Karma Lochrie’s treatment of the concept of a norm made the very notion of subversion and deviance relative to historically specific practices of measurement and statistical analysis. But if such cases exemplified the interlocking identities and contextual relativity that make categories like religion, sex, and nation fruitfully elastic, they surely just as vividly displayed the ways in which, as Rev. Dr. Emily Townes put it, oppressions, too, are interlocking, and that “religion” and “nation” can be queered precisely because of their rigidity, coerciveness, and power over individuals both materially and spiritually. Religions especially lend themselves to queer politics because, for all their historical and cultural differences and specificities, they tend to divide, order, and separate—this god not that, my community and not yours, this sex and not that, and so on. Whatever complexity we can wring from such systems, the left is surely right that they are part of the problem. If they may in some circumstances also be part of the solution, this seems best left as a tentative hypothesis, and one extremely mindful of the fact that the locus of subversion is the fragile and finite human body.

3) The power and import of cultural borrowings, as both liberating and reinforcing. We saw in many instances the impact of cultures bumping up against each other, and the utility as well as futility of attempting to identify one culture’s practices from those that are borrowed. As the home shrines Peter Savastano documented in Newark New Jersey testified, when it comes to making meaning systems with the power to support and enable marginalized ways of life, the materials, figures, and rituals drawn on can be traced to a stunning array of traditions both local and global. There is a poignancy to the ways in which such materials are borrowed for the purposes of constituting intentional communities with the weight of tradition, but as we were also reminded, the borrowing itself requires further scrutiny, as does the very notion of community (usually cast in the singular and thus always rife for exclusion and homogeneity). How do borrowings connect up to what they borrow from? Why might, say, a Hasidic community in Brooklyn “borrow” homophobia from the wider culture? Why this feature and not the civil tradition of tolerance in this country? We were forced to re-think the ways in which we demonize “traditional” societies, but then forced again to avoid romanticizing them and passing off the blame for intolerance on “modernity” or the “west” or some such non-existent entity.

Nancy Levene
Williams College