Attraction to or intercourse with someone of the same sex.
Judaism is a religion that has tended to hold to a worldview of strong bipolarities – kosher and unkosher, holy and profane, man and woman. Where Jewish literature has tended to voice its largest concern is when those boundaries are either questioned or threatened. There is much discussion in Rabbinic literature about the status of women in order to create a firm distinction between the roles and status of men and women. Homosexuality has in the mind of many Jewish thinkers subconsciously threatened the boundary between men and women and thus the overwhelming tendency in early Jewish writings was to condemn it absolutely.
Scriptural justification for this condemnation is starts with Lev. 18:22, which states that “a man shall not lie with another man as with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” This was usually taken to mean that homosexual intercourse is abhorrent. The other frequently stated Biblical proof-text for condemnation of homosexual intercourse is in the story of Sodom (Gen. 19), a city which is to be destroyed because of its wicked inhabitants. The narrative describes how the townspeople gather around Lot’s house demanding that his guests be brought out to be raped. When Lot offers his two daughters instead, the townspeople refuse.
Rabbinic literature up to the modern era generally understood the Leviticus text as a prohibition against homosexual intercourse and, while it was for a long time assumed that homosexuality was not present in the Jewish community, some suggested that precautions should be taken just in case. For example, Moses Maimonides rules that two bachelors should not sleep in the same bed, although other Rabbis said that this was an unnecessary prohibition. Interestingly, Rabbinic tradition generally does not hold the sin of Sodom to be homosexuality, rather the sin is assumed to be that of being unwelcoming to guests – an entire page of Talmud (Sanhedrin 109a-b) recounts their sins, all of which relate to lacking derekh eretz (proper behaviour) and none of which relate to homosexuality.
From the sixteenth century onwards, it became clear that homosexuality did exist in the Jewish community and in the last hundred years especially so. Some Orthodox authorities rule that having homosexual inclinations is not forbidden although acting on them is. Modern Jewish authors have revisited the Leviticus text and ask why the text mentions that one should not lie with a man “as with a woman.” If it is to be assumed that the Torah does not waste words, the authors ask why the Torah includes this extra clause. Most suggest that since intercourse involved possession (one of the ways in which a man ‘acquired’ a wife was to have intercourse with her), it was abhorrent that a man might acquire another man – it is not the act of homosexual intercourse itself which is abhorrent, but using this act to acquire another man and therefore confuse the gender boundary.
It should be noted that most of the discussions of homosexuality originally focused on male homosexuality and only included female homosexuality in an associated prohibition to not follow the customs of the Canaanites (Sifra 9:8).
In the modern era, homosexuality provides a profound challenge to those who continue to maintain a strict dualism in most aspects of the world. However, with increased awareness of literally hundreds of animal species that engage in homosexual intercourse (thereby questioning the previously assumed bipolar boundary) and of the predisposition towards homosexuality in some people, it is becoming apparent to many Jews today that Jewish responses to homosexuality in the past may have been based more in the interpreters’ own emotions than in the text. Certainly a growing number of people now ask whether it is pure homophobia that has allowed many Jews to interpret out of existence strict passages such as the stoning of a rebellious child (Deut. 21:18-21) or the trial of a suspected adulteress (Num. 5:12-31) and not interpret out of existence anything which condemns the love between one person and another.
It should be noted that this introduction only addresses some of the issues relating to homosexuality and if you would like to explore these further or discuss your own feelings on homosexuality, please do always feel free to contact a rabbi.
Written by Rabbi Neil Amswych
- The Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 8, Keter Publishing House (1972), 961
- Unheroic Conduct – The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, Daniel Boyarin, University of California Press, California, 1997
- Purity and Danger, An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo, Mary Douglas, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1966
- Wrestling With God & Men – Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004
The Movement for Reform Judaism does not consider this text to constitute the definitive answer on this subject. We believe that Judaism is a living, evolving faith and, as such, there is no 'final word' on Jewish texts, traditions and thought.