Female Homosexuality in Judaism

The Torah does not address lesbianism, but later rabbinic commentators frowned upon it.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Quarterly, Autumn 1993 (40:3).

Interestingly, sexual intimacy between women was not mentioned at all in Jewish texts until 1,500 years ago. When we turn to the first source of Jewish teaching, the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, redacted either as early as the tenth century or as late as the fifth century BCE, we find that the sections which outline prohibited sexual unions (Leviticus 18 and 20) do not include a single word about lesbianism. Leviticus 18:22, addressing the individual male, states clearly: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abhorrence” (to’evah). And Leviticus 20:13 adds: “And a man who lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abhorrence: They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” 

The context of each verse is a lengthy statement detailing prohibited sexual unions; the operating rationale is the separation of Israel from the peoples around them, and their consecration to God. And it is here, right at the beginning of the story of homosexuality and Judaism, that we find a clue to the assumptions underlying Jewish teaching on lesbianism which emerged centuries later: women are included in the texts of Leviticus 18 and 20, of course, but with the exception of the case of bestiality (Lev. 18:23), women are the objects, not the subjects, of the different types of sexual union, and there is no mention at all of women in relation to one another.

The first fleeting allusion to sexual contact between women is made by the rabbinic sages in Sifra (Acharei Mot 9:8), a work of halakhic midrash (that is, rabbinic exegesis of legal biblical material) which comments on the book of Leviticus and was edited no earlier than the end of the fourth century CE (when the Jerusalem Talmud was completed). Here, referring to the “laws” of Egypt and Canaan which the Israelites are prohibited from following (Lev. 18:3), the text cites as an example that “a man would marry [nosei] a man, and a woman a woman”—a clear reference not only to same-sex intimate acts, but also to on‑going relationships between same‑sex partners.

lesbianismThe next brief comments are found in the Babylonian Talmud—edited about 100 years later in two different tractates: Shabbat and Yevamot. Shabbat 65a/b refers to the father of Samuel (Samuel being the pre‑eminent authority among Babylonian Jewry in the middle of the third century) not permitting his daughters “to sleep together”. The text offers two explanations for his position: one view links it to a teaching of Rav Huna (a disciple of Samuel’s principal colleague and sparring partner Rav): “For R. Huna said: ‘Women that play around [hamesolelot] with one another are unfit [pesulot] for the priesthood [i.e. to marry a High Priest].’”  The majority of the sages, however, reached a different conclusion: “No: it was in order that they should not become accustomed to an alien body [gufa nuchra’ah].”

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Elizabeth Sarah

Rabbi Elizabeth Sarah is a writer, editor, and part-time lecturer in Hebrew and Spirituality at the Leo Baeck College (UK). She was appointed as part-time minister of the Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue in December 2000.