An important point to make from the outset is that Jewish law does not teach that it is forbidden to be a homosexual. On the contrary, Jewish law is concerned not with the source of a person’s erotic urges nor with inner feelings, but with acts. The Torah forbids the homosexual act, known as mishkav zakhar, but has nothing to say about homosexuality as a state of being or a personal inclination.
Note: Two claims made by Gold in this article are disputable. First, is the assertion that Judaism is not concerned with inner feelings. Certain manifestations of Judaism, including Hasidism and Mussar (a 19th-century movement that focused on the study of Jewish ethics and values), do stress the importance of inner feelings. Second, is Gold’s assertion that natural law is a concept foreign to Judaism. While some scholars have assumed this to be true, others disagree.
In other words, traditionally, a person with a homosexual inclination can be an entirely observant Jew as long as he or she does not act out that inclination.
The Biblical Sources
The basis of the prohibition against homosexual acts derives from two biblical verses in Leviticus: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence” (Leviticus 18:22) and “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them” (Leviticus 20:13). The Torah considers a homosexual act between two men to be an abhorrent thing (to’evah), punishable by death — a strong prohibition.
The Torah gives no reason for this commandment. Some commentators have looked for a rationale in the story of Sodom, in which the men in the town attempt to rape the visitors to Lot’s house. (See Genesis 19; the word “sodomy” comes from this incident.) However, the occurrence in the story was a case of homosexual rape, hardly a legitimate precedent for the kind of consensual homosexual acts we are considering. Others see the root of the prohibition in the verse “No Israelite woman shall be a cult prostitute, nor shall any Israelite man be a cult prostitute” (Deuteronomy 23:18). Cultic prostitution, both hetero‑ and homosexual, was a common feature of idolatrous worship in the ancient Near East, but, like the story of Sodom, it is no longer a relevant precedent for modern homosexuality.
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 halacha (Jewish law) follows the Sages because the Talmud says, “Israel is not suspected of homosexuality.”
The Shulchan Aruch (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 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.
We can now summarize the classical halachic position:
- Judaism is concerned with explicit acts, not inner feelings.
- A homosexual act between two men is explicitly forbidden in the Torah.
- A homosexual act between two women is forbidden by the rabbis (i.e. it was not forbidden by the Torah, but was in later times forbidden; this type of prohibition is less severe).
- Homosexuality is considered an act of volition for which one can repent.
- The reason for the prohibitions seems to be that such behavior undermines the Jewish family ideal of marriage and children as set out in the Torah.
- Rabbinic thinkers in the past did not consider homosexuality a Jewish behavior problem.
Reprinted with permission from Does God Belong in the Bedroom?
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: hah-lah-KHAH or huh-LUKH-uh, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish law.
Pronounced: huh-LAKH-ic, Origin: Hebrew, according to Jewish law, complying with Jewish law.