History of Jewish Lesbianism

A chronological outline of Jewish views of lesbianism from biblical to modern times.

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Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

For most of its 3000 history, lesbianism has been a subject of little interest in Jewish texts and societies. Only in the late 20th century have Jewish scholars and communities faced the issue of erotic love between women.

Biblical Times (1000–165 B.C.E.)

Lesbianism is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, in contrast to male homosexual behavior, which is expressly forbidden as a capital crime. The absence of discussion of lesbianism in this context has raised scholarly interest. Biblical critics have suggested that this difference exists because female homoerotic behavior would not have been considered sexual behavior, which in ancient times was understood to require the emission of semen.

A related theory suggests that nothing women did without men would matter because women were not full persons by biblical standards. More traditional Jewish scholarship suggests that the writers of the Bible knew nothing of erotic attraction between women, and could not prohibit something about which there was no knowledge or awareness.

Another traditional interpretation is that the behavior was obviously prohibited because what applied to men applied to women. Feminist interpreters posit that biblical society accepted erotic love between women as a matter of course. Without further evidence, all arguments are inconclusive. We have no information about erotic love between women in this time period in Jewish history.

Rabbinic Times (165 B.C.E.–A.D. 900)

The first discussion of female homoeroticism in Jewish texts is found in Sifra, a postbiblical commentary on the book of Leviticus, edited in the second century a.d. The reference is to a passage in Leviticus 18, which prohibits Israelite participation in acts deemed “the doings of Egypt.” The commentator in Sifra suggests that lesbian marriage was one of the acts that would be included in this category. What we can infer from this text is that at the time of the writing of Sifra, Jewish communities were cognizant of the Roman practice of women marrying other women.

The Talmud, a compendium of Jewish law and practice compiled in the fifth century a.d., includes passages about mesolelot, female homoerotic behavior, not lesbian marriage. The word mesolelot is understood by later commentators to refer to the practice of tribadism, women rubbing genitals against each other. A passage in the Talmud (Yevamot 76a) questions whether women who practice mesolelot are eligible to marry priests. Virginity is the criterion upon which eligibility for priestly marriage is based: For example, a divorced woman or widow is not allowed to marry a priest.

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Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert

Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert is Co-Director of the Women's Studies Program and Assistant Professor of Religion and Women's Studies at Temple University.