One of the most popular “West Wing” clips on YouTube is President Josiah Bartlet’s biblically-based takedown of a conservative radio talk-show host (a thinly veiled Dr. Laura), who confidently justifies her opposition to homosexuality by citing the Hebrew Bible. Specifically, she refers to a so-called “clobber verse,” Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” In response, the popular fictional president excoriates her by asking questions about other verses surrounding this passage. “Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? … Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?” His pointed questions leave his interlocutor speechless.
This rhetorical theme isn’t limited to television. In 2006, then-Senator Barack Obama addressed a conference hosted by the Christian social justice organization Sojourners. In addition to describing his own spiritual journey, Obama also questioned the biblical invocations of conservative leaders, asking, “Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination?”
Among current debates in the American public square, perhaps none are more contentious and biblically inflected than arguments over same-sex marriage and related civil rights. The Hebrew Bible book of Leviticus is central to these debates. Opponents of gay rights visibly couch their argument in biblical terms, and their picket signs commonly feature Leviticus 18:22 and other “clobber” passages, as well as broad theological statements on God’s behalf. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church—whose leader, the Reverend Fred Phelps, just died in March—are famous for their simple, memorable, and memorably hateful posters: “God hates fags.”
More recently, however, proponents of gay civil rights have been doing some biblical counter-citation of their own. In addition to theological statements like those made by President Obama, or the recent book or videos by Christian author and LGBT activist Matthew Vines, rejections of Leviticus are showing up at demonstrations as well. Rare is the public protest that doesn’t feature at least a few members of the public, including plenty of Christians, holding signs declaring what other abominations God hates: clothing made of mixed fibers (Leviticus 19:19), pork (Leviticus 11:7), and the aforementioned shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12). There’s a whole website devoted to this theme, with questions like, “Shrimp, crab, lobster, clams, mussels, all these are an abomination before the Lord, just as gays are an abomination. Why stop at protesting gay marriage?”
Let’s call this rhetorical move the “argument by shrimp.” It may be easy to see why this line of reasoning has become popular among both progressive Christians and non-religious people. It doesn’t require anyone to determine what is meant by “lying with a man as with a woman” or to parse the meaning of “abomination” in order to render it less ominous-sounding. In fact, it doesn’t require much engagement with the particulars of Leviticus 18:22 at all. Rather, the argument by shrimp works by attempting to undermine the significance of the “anti-gay” verse. The troubling verse is surrounded by other biblical commandments that, it is implied, are morally untenable (such as slavery), irrelevant (such as the prohibitions on touching pigskin or eating shellfish), or entirely arbitrary (such as the prohibition on wearing clothing comprised of multiple different fibers). What makes Leviticus 18:22 so special, when most Christians are going about their days blithely wearing mixed-fiber clothing and ordering sweet-and-sour shrimp? In the absence of this consistent observance, those calling upon Leviticus 18:22 for support are revealed to be hypocritical, ignorant of the text they purport to esteem, or highly selectively employing the Bible to affirm their own prejudices.
But despite the ostensible ability of the argument by shrimp to overcome the challenges of Leviticus 18:22, such a move may actually create more problems, particularly for liberal Christians, than it ever solves. The power of the rhetorical shift to some of the Hebrew Bible’s other commandments lies in the assumption that nearly everyone, regardless of their positions on LGBT civil rights, agrees that injunctions against shellfish and wool-linen blends are ludicrous. What kind of foolish person would believe in such a God?
But, of course, there are many people who do affirm the important of biblical commandments regarding questions like which foods may be eaten and which clothes may be worn: Jews. According to recent surveys, close to half of the world’s Jews understand themselves to be at least partially observant of the commandments regarding diet. Although this self-definition varies widely, such statistics testify to the continuing importance of dietary restrictions even among relatively non-observant Jews. Regarding the commandment prohibiting the use of shatnez, or clothing made of both wool and linen, far fewer contemporary Jews adhere to this commandment—but the prohibition is still followed by many traditionally observant Jews. And while some observant Jews may do so for reasons other than divine commandments, there are many others who certainly would affirm the divine origin of their many obligations. For these Jews, God may, in fact, hate shrimp.
The argument by shrimp, therefore, inadvertently functions as mockery of both Jews and Jewish law, whose origins lie in the verses humorously cited as refutations of Leviticus 18:22. But from the point of view of public discourse, what is perhaps more troubling is the erasure of Jews from the normative “we” imagined to comprise the public square. After all, the argument by shrimp works by appealing to the reasonable public, all of whom—with the exception of a few “fundies”—are understood to be in on the joke. The many Jews who value their commandments and the God who gave them have no voice in this conversation.
And for Christians making use of the shrimp trope, there’s another problem. The denigration of some of the Hebrew Bible’s commandments, as well as the assumption that no reasonable people observe such things any longer, comes uncomfortably close to a supersessionist theological claim—a theology in which the old covenantal relationship between God and the people Israel has been “superseded” by a new Christ-based covenant in which no outdated or immoral or ridiculous commandments are incumbent upon anyone. In this formulation, even if there are Jews still observing their commandments, they are simply doing so in the mistaken belief that the covenant in which the commandments were made is still operative when in fact it is not, Christ having done away with the law.
There’s no doubt that liberal American Christians, who have led the way in initiating interfaith dialogues with American Jews, do not mean to suggest this. But intentionally or not, the argument by shrimp effectively contains this rejection of Jews, Jewish obligation, and Jewish theology. If good interreligious engagement begins with mutual respect for the customs and convictions of the other, this public trope may be doing quite a bit more harm than good.
Even beyond its implications for Christian-Jewish relations, the shrimp argument poses a sticky theological quandary for Christians themselves. After all, the biblical texts being employed—and, indeed, ridiculed—by the argument are texts from the sacred scriptural canon of these very same Christians. In using these texts to call into question the biblically-based, anti-homosexuality argument into question, the Christians employing this strategy effectively undermine the sacrality and normativity of their own sacred scripture. While appealing to these texts as examples of the immoral, the irrelevant, or the absurd may have rhetorical value in public debate, it also requires these Christians to dismiss as immoral, irrelevant, or absurd parts of their own Old Testament and undermine its sacred status.
Importantly, this isn’t to suggest that the only “sacred” reading of Leviticus is a literal one. But the argument by shrimp doesn’t provide an alternative hermeneutic for the passage—it simply dismisses it as unimportant. Though the argument seeks to assert what the Old Testament is not—i.e. a text containing commandments which are both semantically literal and eternally binding—the response does not give any sense of what the Old Testament is, theologically. In what sense is it sacred? How does the text—even in its strangest or most troubling commandments—function as a purveyor of divine instruction for Christians? What is the value of its many injunctions? And insofar as some of the Old Testament’s commandments, even beyond the famous first ten, are frequently invoked as normative in their literal sense—for instance, those regarding the status of immigrants —how does the Christian determine which have these status and which are worthy of being dismissed when engaged in text-based, theo-political arguments? The charge of selective biblical citation, particularly from the Hebrew Bible, is just as pertinent to liberal Christians as to their more conservative counterparts, and may be just as difficult to resolve.
In the often heated and emotional debates about gay civil rights in the United States, it’s understandable that proponents would use whatever tools are available to them—and at first glance, the argument by shrimp may seem to have tantalizing rhetorical possibilities. But an argument that requires activists and allies to effectively mock Jews or Judaism, or requires Christians to undermine the significance of their own sacred scripture, is an argument that doesn’t stand up to critical analysis. Given its pitfalls, advocates for gay rights should lay this rhetorical trope to rest, lest they find themselves merely exchanging one set of problematic interpretations for another.
Emily A. Filler is a visiting assistant professor of Judaism at St. Olaf College