The sources of Judaism’s traditional position on homosexuality and gay issues are well known. Two verses in Leviticus (Leviticus 18:23 and Leviticus 20:13) express unequivocal condemnation of male homosexual sex (although it is not clear whether what is referred to is intercourse or all sexual acts between men). According to Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”
As evident by its language, the biblical prohibition does not extend to female homosexual acts, though later commentators disapproved of lesbianism. One rabbinic source associates female homosexuality with the activities of the Egyptians and Canaanites, from which the Jews are supposed to abstain. Other authorities describe lesbianism as lewd or promiscuous, but do not consider it a capital offense. The Leviticus verses also imply that it is the act of homosexual sex, not the homosexual person, that is abhorred.
Much attention has been given to the word “abomination” (to’evah in Hebrew). Though the terminology seems callous, the same word is used in Deuteronomy 14:3 in reference to forbidden animals. Several traditional sources temper the harshness of the “abomination” by citing the lack of procreative potential as the reason for the abominable nature of the homosexual act. Interestingly, the medieval book Sefer HaHinuch compares homosexual sex to marrying a barren woman.
Nonetheless, the traditional Jewish position on homosexuality is still difficult for many liberal-minded Jews, and the liberal denominations have debated the extent to which gays and lesbians can be fully integrated into religious communities.
The first and least controversial step taken by the Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform movements was to endorse civil equality for gays and lesbians. The CCAR, the Reform movement‘s rabbinical council, took an early and active role in fighting for gay rights. In 1977 it drafted a call to decriminalize homosexual sex and to end all discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But how does one get around the apparently unambiguous biblical prohibition against homosexuality?
Many who seek to establish full religious rights for gays and lesbians employ the research that points to the involuntary nature of homosexuality. The halakhic (legal) term ahnoos refers to someone who, though commanded to do something, does not really have a choice in the matter. In Judaism, one is only responsible for religious obligations that one can freely choose to fulfill. Thus some Jewish authorities have argued that since homosexuality is not chosen, its expression cannot be forbidden.
Indeed, the Reform movement does not condemn homosexual sex, and openly gay people are eligible for admittance into Reform rabbinical schools. In addition, the Reform movement approves of rabbinic officiation at same-sex marriages and commitment ceremonies.
Daniel Siegel, the Rabbinic Director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, has endorsed same-sex marriage specifically because he believes that holiness should not be limited only to certain people and certain relationships. Similarly, in Reconstructionist Judaism same-sex marriage is considered a religious value. Using this as her starting point, Rebecca Alpert, a Reconstructionist rabbi, has argued that the government’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriage violates religious liberties.
Some rabbis within the Conservative movement also cite the concept of ones (in which an individual has no real choice) in permitting homosexual sex. In December 2006 the Conservative Movement’s Law Committee voted to accept two contradictory teshuvot (positions) on homosexuality in halakhah — one reaffirming the status quo, and one affirming change. The result of the vote is that rabbis, synagogues, and other Conservative institutions may choose to continue to not permit commitment ceremonies and not hire openly gay or lesbian rabbis and cantors, or may choose to do so. Both positions are considered valid. The decision also paved the way for the movement to ordain openly gay rabbis.
In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of the presence of gays and lesbians in more traditional Jewish communities as well. Numerous organizations and support groups exist for gay Jews who are interested in maintaining a traditional Jewish lifestyle. Steven Greenberg, a gay Jewish educator who was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, writes and lectures on the possibilities for gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community. Finally, Trembling Before G-d, a critically acclaimed 2009 documentary about gay Orthodox Jews, has made a significant impact in raising consciousness about homosexuality in the Orthodox world.
Another major development in the second decade of the 21st century has been growing acceptance of and support for transgender people, those who identify as a different gender than the one they were born into. The Jewish awareness of the transgender community has echoed larger discussions in American popular culture, spurred by the celebrity athlete Bruce Jenner’s very public gender transition and the popular Amazon series Transparent, about a Jewish family in which the father transitions to female.
The Reform movement in 2015 issued a resolution expressing support for transgender rights, and months later the Conservative movement issued a similar one. In addition, many Jewish institutions — including summer camps — have begun taking steps to accommodate and welcome transgender Jews.
As JTA reported in April 2016, “even in the Orthodox world, which presents the most barriers to transgender acceptance, both culturally and in Jewish law, some community figures are talking about the need to find a place for trans Jews.”