Homosexuality and Halakhah

Traditional sources on homosexuality.

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Various rabbis have tried to come up with other reasons for the biblical prohibition of mishkav zakhar. (Note, however, that a Torah prohibition always stands on its own even if no cogent rationale can be found for it.) Some rabbis have argued that homosexuality is forbidden because procreation is impossible. Others have defined the homosexual act as intrinsically unnatural and therefore opposed to the purposes of creation. There are difficulties, however, with both explanations. Judaism grants sexuality a purpose above and beyond procreation, and natural law, although influential in the Catholic Church, is not an authentic Jewish concept.

A Talmudic Interpretation

A more likely explanation for the ban against homosexual behavior is given in the Talmud by Bar Kapparah, who makes a play on the word to’evah (“abomination”), claiming that it means to’eh atah ba (“you go astray because of it”). Both Tosefot and the Asheri (medieval commentators) comment on this passage that a man will leave his wife and family to pursue a relationship with another man. In other words, homosexuality undermines and threatens the Jewish ideal of family life, of marriage and children, articulated in the Torah. Heterosexuality is the communal norm for Jews; homosexuality, a perversion of that norm.

The Assumption of Heterosexuality

Rabbinic literature assumes that Jews are not homosexual. For example, the Mishnah presents the following disagreement between Rabbi Judah and the Sages: “R. Judah said: A bachelor should not herd animals, nor should two bachelors share a single blanket. The Sages permit it.” The halakhah follows the Sages because the Talmud says, “Israel is not suspected of homosexuality.”

The Shulhan Arukh (a foundational work of Jewish law from the 16th century) never explicitly mentions the prohibition against homosexual acts but mentions the precaution that a male should not be alone with another male because of lewdness “in our times.” However, Rabbi Joel Sirkes ruled about one hundred years later that such precautions were unnecessary because of the rarity of such acts among Polish Jewry.

A more recent responsum was brought by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi in Palestine. A rumor that a certain shohet (ritual slaughterer) had committed a homosexual act provoked the question of whether he should be disqualified for the position. Rav Kook ruled that the shohet could be retained because, even if the rumor were true, the man might have since repented of his act. It is noteworthy that Rabbi Kook’s responsum considers homosexuality an act of volition for which one can repent.

Lesbianism

Lesbianism is never mentioned in the Torah. One talmudic passage refers to homosexual acts between women: “R. Huna taught, Women who have sex one with the other are forbidden to marry a Kohen (priest).” The halakhah rejects Rav Huna’s opinion and allows a lesbian to marry a Kohen. However, Maimonides ruled that lesbianism is still prohibited and should be punished by flagellation. The prohibition is not as stringent as that against male homosexuality because the Torah does not explicitly prohibit les­bianism, and because lesbianism does not involve the spilling of seed.

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Rabbi Michael Gold

Rabbi Michael Gold is the rabbi at Temple Beth Torah, Tamarac Jewish Center in Tamarac, Florida. He is the author of four books, and his articles have appeared in Moment, Judaism, Jewish Spectator, B'nai Brith International Jewish Monthly, and numerous other publications. He also served as co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly's committee on human sexuality.