In Jewish thought, sexuality has both a positive and negative potential, depending on the context in which it is expressed. The commandment to procreate is the first mitzvah in the Torah. Yet aside from procreation, Judiasm recognizes that sexual need (Yitzra De’arayot) are essential.

LGBT Homosexuality Intersex Transgender

Traditional understanding

The Bible seems to explicitly prohibit homosexuality in the strongest terms. See Leviticus ch. 18, v. 22: Do not mishkevei ‘ishshah (“lie with a male as one lies with a woman”) it is an abomination.” However, this applies only to men, not to women, and arguably, like the laws against getting a tattoo or eating shellfish, may indeed apply only to Israelite/Jewish men.  As such, the Torah isn’t prohibiting all homosexuality in terms of feelings and actions; it is restricting a specific act between Jewish men.

Understanding the verse in context

The JPS Torah Commentary – Leviticus. Commentary by Dr. Rabbi Baruch Levine.

Leviticus 18:22 – Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman.

Hebrew mishkevei ‘ishshah means literally “after the manner of lying with a woman” by the introduction of the male member. Male homosexuality is associated with the ancient Canaanites, if we are to judge from biblical literature. Two biblical narratives highlight this theme, one about the men of Sodom in Genesis 19, and the other concerning the fate of the concubine at Gibeah in Judges 19. Although Gibeah was an Israelite town, the story clearly implies that Gibeah’s Israelite residents had descended to the abominable ways of the surrounding Canaanites.

Both of these accounts place the phenomenon of male homosexuality in a particular context: xenophobia. This extreme fear of strangers induces a community to attack visitors. In both of the stories cited here, the form of attack was homosexual assault. It is also thought that the pagan priests, called kedeshim, regularly engaged in homosexual acts (cf. Deut 23:18; I Kings 14:24; and Job 38:14). The term mehir kelev, “the pay of a dog,” mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:18-19, refers to the wages of a male prostitute, who usually serviced men, not women, in ancient societies.

Male homosexuality is called to’evah, “abhorrence, abomination,” a term that occurs frequently in the admonitions of Deuteromony. It occurs no fewer than four times in this concluding section of our chapter. In Genesis 46:34 and Exodus 8:22, it serves to characterize what Egyptians considered abhorrent, principally pastoral pursuits (This was suggested by W. F. Albright in From the Stone Age to Christianity, 423f).

There has been considerable speculation as to why lesbianism is not explicity forbidden in the Torah. In due course, rabbinic interpretation added this prohibition, as well (See The Code of Maimonides: The Book of Holiness (Book V), trans. L. I. Rabinowitz and P. Grossman, 135).

Non-halakhic bigotry towards homosexual women and men

(section to be written)

Nothing shows the hypocrisy and illiteracy shown by some religious believers towards homosexuality better than this photo.



Conservative Jewish responses

Homosexuality, Human Dignity and halakhah: A Combined responsum for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. By Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Daniel S. Nevins and Avram I. Reisner

Homosexuality, Human dignity, and Halakhah

Homosexuality, Choice, and Jewish Law: If homosexuality is not chosen, then there is precedent in Jewish law for condoning it. By Rabbi Elliot Dorff, from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, Jewish Publication Society

Homosexuality, Choice, and Jewish Law:

“Dear David – Homosexual Relationships: A Halakhic Investigation” by Rabbi Simchah Roth.  http://www.bmv.org.il/ab/dd.asp

Orthodox Jewish responses

I. Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community

Recently a number of Orthodox rabbis and educators have been preparing a statement of principles on the place of our brothers and sisters in our community who have a homosexual orientation. The original draft was prepared by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot. It was then commented upon by and revised based on the input from dozens of talmidei chachamim, educators, communal rabbis, mental health professionals and a number of individuals in our community who are homosexual in orientation. Significant revisions were made based upon the input of Rabbi Aryeh Klapper and Rabbi Yitzchak Blau …

Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community

We, the undersigned Orthodox rabbis, rashei yeshiva, ramim, Jewish educators and communal leaders affirm the following principles with regard to the place of Jews with a homosexual orientation in our community ….

Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community

II. Hakirah, Metzitzah, and More.
By Marc B. Shapiro, Modern Orthodox rabbi and historian of Judaism


Hakirah has performed a valuable service in dealing forthrightly with the matter of homosexuality. Issue no. 13 (2012) contains R. Chaim Rapoport’s “Judaism and Homosexuality: An Alternative Rabbinic View,” which I think is an outstanding presentation of the alternative to what has seemingly become the “official” haredi position in this matter. This “official” position is, in my opinion, so misguided that I would like to say a few words on the topic, since R. Rapoport did not go far enough in his criticism.

To remind readers, Hakirah no. 12 had a discussion on homosexuality with R. Shmuel Kamenetsky. This was followed by the publication of a document signed by many rabbis which follows R. Kamenetsky’s approach. It is available here. (The document is also signed by an assortment of mental health professionals,  rebbitzens and “community organizers”.)

There are so many problems with the approach found in this document (called a “Torah Declaration”), some already noted by R. Rapoport in his response to R. Kamenetsky, that it would take a lengthy piece to go through them all. Let me just call attention to a few points that I don’t think have been made yet. To begin with, while many rabbis have signed this document, including a number that I know personally, I have yet to speak to someone who actually believes what the document says, and this includes the people who have signed it!

Many will regard what I have just said as pretty shocking, in that I have declared that people who signed the document do not believe what it says. Yet I know this to be true, at least with regard to some of the signatories (those that I know personally), and I suspect that other than R. Kamenetsky, it might be that no one who signed the document really believes what it says (and it wouldn’t be the first time that people sign declarations that they really don’t believe in).

Let me explain what I mean. According to the document,

Same-Sex Attractions Can Be Modified And Healed. From a Torah perspective, the question whether homosexual inclinations and behaviors are changeable is extremely relevant. . . . We emphatically reject the notion that a homosexually inclined person cannot overcome his or her inclination and desire. . . . The only viable course of action that is consistent with the Torah is therapy and teshuvah. The therapy consists of reinforcing the natural gender-identity of the individual by helping him or her understand and repair the emotional wounds that led to its disorientation and weakening, thus enabling the resumption and completion of the individual’s emotional development.

The ideas just quoted are the very foundation of the Torah Declaration, and as we see in his Hakirah interview, R. Kamenetsky has been convinced by the dubious proposition that homosexuals can change their sexual orientation. He goes so far as to say that “no one is born gay with an inability to change” (p. 34 [emphasis added]. Not long after the appearance of the interview and the Torah Declaration, the man most prominently identified with the notion that gays can change publicly rejected his earlier viewpoint.)

Whether people can change their sexual orientation is a scientific or psychological issue, no more and no less. The first objectionable point of R. Kamenetsky’s approach is turning this into a matter of theology. Indeed, R. Kamenetsky has created a new dogma in Orthodoxy. According to him, believing that a homosexual can change his orientation is a basic Torah value. The reason for this is stated in the document: “The Torah does not forbid something which is impossible to avoid. Abandoning people to lifelong loneliness and despair by denying all hope of overcoming and healing their same-sex attraction is heartlessly cruel. Such an attitude also violates the biblical prohibition in Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:14 “and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”[1]

There you have it. Human beings are deciding what God can and cannot do and declaring that it is impossible for someone to be created with an inalterable homosexual nature. That this is completely incorrect is acknowledged by none other than the most extreme advocates of reparative therapy. They themselves acknowledge that there is a significant percentage of people who cannot change their orientation. They have never claimed that everyone can change. What the document gives us, therefore, is a theological statement that is rejected by all scientists and psychologists, including the ones who provide the very basis for reparative therapy. That itself should be reason enough to reject it. (On Nov. 29, 2012 the RCA acknowledged “the lack of scientifically rigorous studies that support the effectiveness of therapies to change sexual orientation.” See here.)


III. Homosexuality: Another Orthodox Perspective

Rabbi Gil Student presented without debate this guest post by Dr. Alan Jotkowitz

A modern scientific approach to homosexuality maintains that for most (if not all) homosexuals, change therapy is at best useless and can be harmful. In addition, there is a strong biological and genetic component to the same sex attraction. Psychoanalytical theories of homosexual tendencies due to family conflicts or arrested development have not held up to scientific scrutiny. If this is the case, can halakhah then relate to the homosexual in a different way? Clearly, Rabbi Feinstein’s approach of homosexuality as a willful rebellion against God does not ring true to modern sentiments and while Rabbi Lamm’s view of acting under duress eliminates the punitive aspect, it still maintains that homosexuality is at best a mental illness.

The Noda Bi-Yehudah has suggested that there is a halakhic category called “Shoteh Li-Dvar Echad,” someone mentally incompetent on a single issue. He writes in the context of a responsum on the famous Get of Kleiv case:

A Shoteh Li-Dvar Echad, even if it is not one of the things mentioned in Chagigah, and is not considered a shoteh because he has no signs of those things [mentioned in Chagigah], is not considered a shoteh in general. However, for that thing that disturbs his mind and with which he is obsessed, it is clear that for everything related to that thing he is considered a shoteh. Therefore, mitzvoth related to that thing are not relevant to him, even though for all other mitzvoth he is considered a wise man [and obligated in them] [6]

Rabbi Moshe Farbenstein explains, “the Noda Bi-Yehudah has originated a new idea, and writes that a Shoteh Li-Dvar Echad is exempt from individual mitzvoth that relate to his specific condition and is obligated in all other mitzvoth.” [7]

Can one extend this idea of the Noda Bi-Yehudah to other areas which are biologically driven but not necessarily considered mental illness (and just to be absolutely clear I am in no way suggesting that homosexuality is a mental illness)?

If the basis of the Noda Bi-Yehudah is that someone who cannot prevent his behavior in a specific area is not obligated in mitzvoth related to that area, can one then apply that principle to biologically driven homosexuality? I am aware that this is an enormous intellectual leap but it might play a role in relating halakhically to any rabbinically prohibited acts that might occur in private between homosexuals.
Can one perhaps use this approach (or others along these lines) in adapting an inclusivist Orthodox approach towards homosexuality?


Traditional Talmud and Responsa solutions

Masorti Rabbi Simchah Roth (זכר צדיק לברכה) gives us a halakhic solution, straight from the Talmud, Tosafists, and other major rabbinic commentators.

Seemingly, the Torah is quite adamant about male homosexuality. In two verses in Leviticus it makes categorical statements:

You shall not lie with a male as with a women: it is an atrocity [18:22]. Any man who lies with a male as with a woman – both of them have committed an atrocity; they shall dies and their blood is upon them [20:13].

Some of the terms used in these verses are not as clear in the Hebrew as they appear to be in their English rendition. However, I am not going to expatiate on these difficulties since they are not germane to my present purpose. However, one term which seems to be perfectly clear presents a difficulty to the sages, and that word is the one I have rendered as “atrocity”.

The Gemara [Nedarim 51a] brings the following discussion between Shim’on bar-Kappara and Rabbi [Judah, the president of the Sanhedrin]. (A reminder: Rabbi Judah was one of the greatest of the sages of all time, and he is the editor of the Mishnah that we are studying. The Mishnah was published at the very beginning of the third century CE.) The scene is at the wedding celebration of one of Rabbi’s sons.

During the celebration the two sages, who were also very good friends, got to discussing Torah. Bar-Kappara asked Rabbi how he understood the word To’evah, “atrocity”. (I shall return later to my guess as to why Bar-Kappara suddenly referred to this word: the continuation of the passage makes it quite clear that the question was asked in the context of Leviticus 18.)

Every interpretation of To’evah offered by Rabbi was shot down by Bar-Kappara. Finally Rabbi said, “So you interpret it!” He replied … “This is what God says [in the Torah]: To’evah – ‘You go astray in respect of her'”. [Nedarim 51a]

It is quite clear from the Hebrew original that Bar-Kappara’s interpretation is a play on words, since the Hebrew phrase that I have translated “You go astray in respect of her” sounds like the Hebrew term To’evah, ‘atrocity’.

But what does Bar-Kappara mean? Rashi [Rabbi Shelomo Yitzĥaki, Western Europe 11th century CE] gives an explanation that does not seem to make any sense in the context:
“‘You go astray’ in that you forsake your legal spouse and take this [female] prostitute instead” – unless his words should be understood (somewhat forcedly) as “that you forsake your legal spouse and take this road of fornication instead”.

The Tosafists [a school of West European sages that was active during more than 200 years from about 1150 to about 1350 CE] are much clearer:
“‘You go astray’ – in that you forsake your wife for male homosexuality”.

Their words are repeated verbatim by the Rosh [Rabbi Asher ben-Yeĥiel, Germany and Spain, 1250-1327 CE]. Ran [Rabbi Nissim Gerondi, Spain, 14th century CE] also understands Bar-Kappara as forsaking a spouse for male homosexuality.

What is interesting about all these interpretations of the words of Bar-Kappara is that they understand him to be referring to a man married to a woman. I suspect that they were influenced in this by another aspect of the original account in the Gemara (which might also explain why Bar-Kappara asked Rabbi about this Biblical term in particular during the wedding feast). The Gemara tells us that Rabbi, himself a millionaire, had married off his daughter to another millionaire. His son-in-law, Ben-El’assa, seems to have been an effeminate fop, who spent an enormous sum of money on a special hair-do. Ben-El’assa was party to this conversation between Rabbi and Bar-Kappara, and it made him so angry that he left the celebration in a huff, dragging his wife in his wake. Surely, it does not require too great a stretch of imagination to see that Bar-Kappara deliberately asked his friend to explain this term in order to gently berate him at having married off his daughter to money in an unhappy marriage because her husband had obvious preferences.

Be all this as it may, one thing is clear. And that is that Bar-Kappara, Rashi, the Tosafists, the Rosh and the Ran all see that the “You” of the Biblical verse [You shall not lie with a male as with a women: it is an atrocity] as referring to a man married to a woman.

Here is the means by which latter-day sages could (if they wished to) remove most forms of male homosexuality from the list of capital crimes. It has all the outer forms used by the Tannaïm: most important of all, it leaves the text of the Torah untouched and unchanged and still valid. It simply restricts in drastic manner the possible application of the text. This is a maneuver that we have seen practiced many a time and oft – and we shall see it practiced again and again in the near future as regards other aspects of our present Mishnah.

Commentary on Talmud Sanhedrin, with proposed halakhic solution.


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