A main feature of Shabbat morning services is the reading of a portion of the Torah (Five Books of Moses - first five books of the Bible - in scroll form). It's followed by a haftarah reading - a companion portion from the other books of the bible. Haftarah is chanted in a lovely minor key cantillation. My youngest daughter's bat mitzvah tutor chanted haftarah at our shul yesterday, beautifully, and it was my favorite one.
Usually the haftarah is coordinated with the Torah reading, having a similar theme or plot point or something else in common. When Shabbat falls on the day before the New Moon, though, there's a special haftarah reading chosen because it tells a story where some of the action takes place on the day before the New Moon. It's a tender and dramatic point in the story of the love between David and Jonathan.
The story of David and Jonathan and their love for each other is told in Samuel, Book 1, particularly in chapters 18 and 20. Jonathan is the crown prince of Israel, the son of King Saul. David is a shepherd boy brought into the royal household who eventually becomes king.
That David and Jonathan loved each other deeply is not in dispute, but there is some question about the nature of their love. Personally, I think it takes a lot of denial to view it as other than sexual. When their relationship is first introduced the narrative says that David loved Jonathan “as he loved his own soul.” Jonathan, for his part, is so taken with David that he strips naked and gives him all his clothes. They are often kissing each other. When Saul offers David his daughter in marriage he seems to say that if David accepts he will be twice his son-in-law. Later on, when Saul turns on David and wishes to have him killed and Jonathan protects him, Saul berates his son for making a fool of himself over this man. On Jonathan's death, David tearfully says that Jonathan's love was greater to him than the love of women. And in yesterday's haftarah - at a point when Saul is trying to kill David and Jonathan wants to help him escape - they are seen kissing and it says “they kissed each other and they cried with each other until David made [something unspecified] big.” What does that mean? We really can’t know, and different people have different interpretations.
It’s always difficult to try to interpret something from a different time and place and in a different language (what I gave above is a literal translation – some translations have it as “David wept more” or “David exerted himself” or “David exceeded”). We need to be careful not to impose our cultural assumptions on a different culture. It’s pretty easy to jump to the conclusion that they were lovers in a sexual sense based on the above and we do need to recognize that standards of behavior between men were likely different then.
On the other hand we also need to be careful not to impose our cultural taboos on a different culture – in this case our internalized homophobia - and assume that they could not be lovers because David is a hero. Certainly the totality of the above - even with the idea that men kissing each other was not viewed as sexual - tends to suggest a relationship that is at least romantic, if not explicitly sexual. It's not a leap at all to think that this deep love was expressed in a physical form.
But what about those verses in Leviticus that forbid men from engaging in "mishkevay isha" with one another? David is one of the great heroes of the Bible and the Messiah will be his descendant? Is it likely that someone portrayed so admired would have engaged in forbidden sexual acts?
I think that’s a complicated question. For one thing it’s unclear exactly what is meant by “Mishkevay Isha” – the sexual acts forbidden between men that men engage in with women. Traditionally it has been interpreted as anal sex between men specifically (in a convoluted logical argument that can only be deemed Talmudic, in both the literal and figurative senses).
Still, for argument’s sake, let’s say that all sexual activity between men is forbidden in Leviticus and deemed “toevah” - abomination. The simple fact is that many things are forbidden in one part of the Tanakh yet shown engaged in by highly admirable people in other parts. Sex with one’s half-sister is similarly marked “toevah” – yet Abraham and Sarah are half-siblings and their marriage is admired. Similarly, sex with a woman and then with her sister is forbidden as an abomination in Leviticus, but our patriarch Jacob married Leah and then her sister Rachel. And when the three divine messengers come to visit Abraham and he wants to offer them hospitality what does he serve them? Milk and meat together, forbidden multiple times later in the Torah. So, it’s not at all unusual to see these seeming contradictions, leading some to believe that “toevah” is not a general category, but particular to time and place.
We also need to allow for the likelihood that the Bible is not a unitary composition but a compilation of writings from different times and by different people. So contradictions abound between different parts and forbidding something in one place does not necessarily mean that all the writers of the Bible at all times viewed an act as forbidden.
The text certainly does not seem to condemn David for his relationship with Jonathan, whatever its character. David is not an unambiguously heroic figure. He is shown to have some very human failings and is criticized in the text for them. In particular, his sexual irregularities are condemned (e.g. the whole episode with Bathsheva). But his love for Jonathan is not presented as anything but wholly wonderful, except in the eyes of Saul, who seems to be depicted suffering from severe mental illness. So, we would have to conclude either that their relationship was sexual and approved of by the author of the book, or that it was not sexual at all and was approved of. Different people come to different conclusions.
Read the story yourself and see what you think. It’s easily available in both Jewish and Christian bibles (but only the Jewish ones will give you the original text as well as a translation). Taken in its entirety, I think it takes a huge effort of denial to not see David and Jonathan as in love and their love expressed physically. But there are still some people who think Will and the Fair Youth weren’t lovers, either.
Fanfic connection: Adam Greenfield's first lover was an Orthodox Jewish boy he met in high school, who used the story of David and Jonathan to rationalize his indulging in (some) sexual acts with Adam. Adam tells Jean-Paul all about it in my story As He Loved His Own Soul.