History of Jewish Lesbianism

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

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The Mishnah gives two opinions about the eligibility for priestly marriage of one who practices mesolelot. The accepted opinion is that such a woman is eligible, although the minority opinion is that she is not. In the majority opinion, lesbian behavior is considered a minor infraction.

This passage establishes the existence of female homoeroticism in Jewish communities in ancient times. It also suggests that this behavior was understood by rabbinic authorities as a specific practice, not as a person’s sexual orientation, as the question is raised in the context of marriage to a man. Some authorities place it in the category of sexual practice, and as such it disqualifies the practitioner from the category of virgin.

Middle Ages (900–1700)

There is one significant discussion of female homoerotic behavior in the medieval era. This is found in a compilation of laws known as the Mishneh Torah, written by legal scholar and philosopher Moses Maimonides in the twelfth century. Maimonides reiterates the connection to the Levitical prohibition against the “doings of Egypt,” but also suggests that this behavior should not disqualify a woman from marrying a priest because it is still only a minor infraction.

Maimonides then goes on to suggest that the courts administer a flogging to a woman who is caught engaging in homoerotic behavior. Finally, Maimonides warns men to keep their wives from visiting with women who are known to practice mesolelot with other women. This text views lesbian behavior as threatening to the institution of marriage and worthy of punishment.

Modern Era (1700–1945)

During the modern period, female homoeroticism is mentioned infrequently in Jewish sources. Most references are from fictional writings. An early example is found in a Yiddish play written by Sholem Asch entitled Got fun Nekome, God of Vengeance. It was translated into English and produced on Broadway in 1923. This play was the first with a lesbian theme to be performed on the American stage. The plot focused on a lesbian relationship between a prostitute and the daughter of a brothel owner, and included several explicit homoerotic scenes. Noted Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer also wrote several short stories about lesbian love.

Contemporary Times (1945–)

The first Jewish novel by a woman that explored lesbian themes was Wasteland (1946), written by Ruth Seid under the pseudonym of Jo Sinclair. The female protagonist was open about her sexuality to her family. The novel is about her brother’s effort to come to terms with her lesbianism. This frank discussion of lesbian themes and the portrayal of lesbianism as a psychologically healthy alternative was unusual for its time.

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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.