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Homosexuality and Judaism | 2001

Written by Rabbi Barry Freundel


Homosexuality, once a word whispered only with revulsion or derision, is now out in the open for all to see and hear. In fact, homosexuality and its attendant issues have become big news.

Whether it is the rapidly spreading, and ever-more frightening AIDS epidemic, or the increase in sympathetic "gay" characters in the theater and in literature, or the widening legal battles over the status of homosexuals, one cannot go very far in contemporary society with out confronting this once extremely closet-bound topic.

Traditional Judaism, too, has been forced to confront the issue as "gay" individuals and "synagogues" have appeared on the Jewish landscape, often appealing for support from the liberal segments of the Jewish community.

Certainly, an authentic Jewish response must begin with the biblical prohibition against homosexuality. The Bible unequivocally states that a homosexual act between two consenting adult males is a capital crime(1). Therefore, homosexuality is an activity that no traditional Jew can engage in, endorse, accept, or approve of (recent televised statements to the contrary notwithstanding)(2).

Despite this initial biblical negative, there is much to discuss regarding our attitude to the homosexual, the issue of the homosexual's place in the community, the question of approach and the treatment of the homosexual, and the problem of the homosexual's rights and acceptance in society. In addition, we must consider why the Bible and Jewish thought reject homosexuality keeping in mind as we do that female homosexuality, though forbidden, is not nearly as serious a crime as is its male counterpart(3).

Drawing the Right Picture

Our analysis of Judaism's approach to homosexuality begins with the question, "What is Judaism's view of the Jewish homosexual?" It is this author's contention that the only appropriate answer to this question is "there is no such individual

To explain this rather radical statement, one must go back to the structure that halacha places upon Jewish society. In this structure there are certain legal personalities who constitute the dramatis personae of the Jewish community. A Cohen is such a personality, as is a Levi. A woman is such a personality, as is a slave or a king. Other "characters" populate the Jewish landscape. The mamzer and the Cohen Gadol, the Katan and the gadol, the cheresh and the shoteh each has his place in the scheme of things(5). Lacking from this list is the homosexual. So much is he missing from the cast of characters of Jewish society that one is hard put to find a halachic term used specifically for him(6).

If one were, in fact, to apply a halachic category to this individual, it would be the general category of mumar l'teiavon (one whose desires put him in opposition to Torah law), specifically mumar l'mishkav zachor (one who because of his repeated involvement in homosexual activity is in opposition to Torah law). Such a category exists in halachic literature(7), is clearly defined, and places the homosexual on a equal footing with other mumarim who violate other laws.

It seems clear from this that halacha never viewed the homosexual as a member of a unique category or as different from the non-homosexual. He has no greater or lesser rights or obligations. He deserves no special treatment or concessions nor any special vilification. In fact, the term "homosexual" is an essentially inappropriate description for him. We should, rather, refer to this individual as a person engaged in homosexual activity. "Homosexual" is therefore not a noun that identifies and categorizes the individual but an adjective that describes his activity.

This approach has great intuitive appeal. It is hard to imagine Jewish thought accepting the premise the sexual desires and activities provide grounds by which to define an individual's place in the community. In addition, there are vast and important ramifications that emerge from this picture of the individual as a person involved in homosexual activity and not as a homosexual.

The first effect of this changed conceptualization is to alter and improve the individual's perception of himself. If one is labeled and defined by the term "homosexual", he is consequently different than the heterosexual. As such, he will struggle for minority status and for his rights as a member of that minority. He is, and should be, portrayed as a unique character type in movies, theater, and on television, and he should command an appropriate number of participants in any institution that constitutes itself along racial, ethnic, and religious lines. He agitates for gay pride and gay power, and if he is Jewish, he creates gay synagogues and other gay institutions.

On the other hand, If "homosexual" is a term that is limited to the description of an activity, then the individual practicing this activity remains an undifferentiated member of society, and if Jewish he is part of Jewish society. He need not feel excluded from the community. In the same way that the adulterer, the practitioner of pre-marital sex, the mechallel Shabbat(8) or the speaker of lashon harah all enter the synagogue and feel at home while individually dealing with whatever guilt they carry as a result of their sinful activities, so, too, the individual involved in homosexual activity can and should enter the synagogue and feel himself to be part of the community. He is still a human being and a Jew. He is most assuredly not part of a separate homosexual society or sub-society. (See below for a discussion of the Gentile homosexual.) Obviously, the adulterer, mechallel Shabbat, et al are duty-bound to change their ways - to do teshuva - and the mumar l'mishkav zachor has the same obligation(9).

The second implication of this approach concerns the community's dealings with the individual involved in homosexual activity. If the practitioner of homosexuality is considered a full fledged Jew (albeit a mummar), the community should welcome him as such. This is particularly true in our post-holocaust era, wherein our heightened awareness of the value of each Jewish soul has motivated many communities to make kiruv rechokim (attempts to bring non-observant Jews into the fold of Torah-observance) a hallmark of their activities. This Kiruv work should not and cannot be limited only to violators of halacha in ritual matters. Deviance from halachic norms in sexual matters is as much an area for concern, outreach, and proper education as anything else. Particularly in an area that is as difficult to control as sexual desire(10), the support of the community for one who might want to bring his lifestyle in line with halacha may be crucial to success.

At this point something should be said about the term "toeivah(11)" as used by the Torah in connection with homosexuality. Some may feel that its appearance in this context precludes treating the practitioner of homosexuality in the same way that one would treat an individual who is guilty of a different sin. The problem with this suggestion is that to be consistent we would require similarly negative treatment of the persons who eats non-Kosher food(12) the idolator(13), the unethical business man(14) and the individual who remarries a woman who, since her divorce from him, has entered and left (by death or divorce) another marriage to another man(15). All of these individuals are guilty of committing a toeivah, according to the respective verses that prohibit the particular activity. If we are going to ostracize the individual who commits homosexual acts, then we must ostracize these individuals as well. Since we do not take this approach in the other cases, we should not do so in dealing with the individual involved in homosexual activity.

How then to understand the toeivah designation? In an article in the Encyclopedia Judaica Yearbook, Dr Norman Lamm(16) defines toeivah in aesthetic terms. These actions are repulsive in and of themselves; no rationale or explanation is necessary. Rather, the divine aspect within the human being is automatically and instinctively repelled by these activities. The fact that any number of individuals are possessed of a deadened spiritual sensitivity that allows them to accept or even participate in the acts in question, does not mean that the spiritually sensitive individual allows his revulsion to be diminished nor does he apologize for that revulsion.

Further, it is important to note that the wording of the act in question indicates that this revulsion is directed only at the act and not at its perpetrator. The perpetrator is not to be ostracized. One who commits a toeivah is halachically and societally no different than one who commits a transgression of a non-toeivah law of equal severity.

Although it may be true that a leopard cannot change its sports, Judaism holds that a human being can change or control his activities(17). While we certainly recognize that many individuals have personality factors that would tend to promote certain sinful activities, our expectation is that these individuals will control these tendencies. We no more would accept the act of murder as legitimate because the perpetrator is prone to violence, then we should accept the act of homosexuality as inevitable because of the existence of biological, genetic, or environmental factors that may contribute to an individual's preference for homosexual acts. A rational individual can control himself, and no amount of apologetics, explanations, or rationalizations can change this fundamental fact. Simply put, the individual engaged in homosexual activity is wrong in what he is doing and is held responsible for having done it.

It is on this issue that the approach presented here parts company most completely with Dr.Lamm's view. Whereas Dr. Lamm(18) sees the homosexual as an anuss (an individual forced into heredity and/or environment into activity that the Bible forbids) this author sees him as mumar. Whereas Dr. Lamm effectively removes culpability from him (anuss rachma patrie(19)), this author insists that creating a sense of culpability is an integral part of the approach that Judaism should take in confronting the individual involved in homosexual activity. This sense of culpability may be just the push necessary for the individual to begin the teshuva process.

The view presented here seems more in keeping with biblical(20), talmudic(21) and other halachic sources(22). The consistent position taken by these sources is that the homosexual is ultimately subject to punishment for his actions. The halachic system fully expects that an individual properly warned, witnessed, and brought to trial for this act be killed. There is no indication anywhere in the literature that such individuals have a prima facie defense as anussim.

Dr. Lamm(23) supports his approach by arguing that present public policy and social reality preclude punishment of all offenders. We must, therefore, maintain our condemnation of the act while refraining from dealing punitively with the offender. In his view, this can best be done by treating the offender as an anuss.

However, there is nothing in his argument that prevents our labeling the individual as a mumar. We do not punish Sabbath violators, or those who eat treif. Environment/heredity is not enough to label the individual involved in homosexual activity an anuss. Rather label him a mumar, indicating that he is responsible for his actions.

Further, a stance such as Dr. Lamm's seems to carry with it the possibility of pushing the individual presently questioning his own sexual orientation over the wrong edge.

After all, if biology/upbringing is the cause, and the participant is only the victim of irresistible forces, he has a handy excuse and less of a reason not to succumb to his desires.

Labeling one a mumar does not necessarily mean that the community should respond with public condemnation and rejection or the individual. In an era which lacks a Sanhedrin and adequate Jewish communal structures we have long tolerated, worked with, and even welcomed and accepted violators of many halachot within our community. It is necessary, therefore, to couple our tolerance of the individual with disapproval of the activity. This must then be combined with an expectation and hope that the individual will change his behavior. Calling him a mumar, if handled correctly, strengthens the chances for change.

The subject of change brings us to our next point. Jewish thought would argue that homosexually oriented individuals can change their sexual orientation and can ultimately develop an interest in and derive pleasure from heterosexual activity. This conclusion is an obvious consequence of our discussion thus far. If a homosexual act is punishable, and if we expect he individual who has homosexual desires to avoid giving in to them, what then is the life situation of such and individual? There seem to be two possibilities. One: such and individual cannot change his feelings. If this is the case he is a prisoner trapped in a body which, while commanded to marry an procreate, has an emotional structures that finds such a concept at best unfulfilling and at worst a living purgatory. Two: change - and a normal, happy, fulfilled life marriage and heterosexual union are possible.

We are told by the Talmud(24) that G-d does not play tricks on His creations. Particularly as the area of sexuality is an area of such deeply personal implications to any individual, it is difficult imagine G-d creating a situation wherein those who feel themselves to possess a homosexual orientation cannot change and are consequently locked in a living prison with no exit and no key. Therefore, some method or methods must exist to successfully change the sexual orientation of motivated individuals. It's heartening to note that a recent study (25),indicates a 70% success rate among such individuals. It is unfortunate that the mass media and most mental health professionals publicly portray the goal "acceptance of one's orientation" as the optimum, while downplaying or denying the possibility of change. Our task must be to publicize the possibility of change, and the relevant statistics that now become statistics of hope. We also should encourage the mental health community to develop new and even more effective methods to alter the sexual orientation of those striving to live Torah-true lifestyle.

Perhaps one further support for the idea that homosexual orientation is at least preventable, if not totally changeable, is the anomalous fact that one community in which the percentage of homosexual preference is significantly lower than in the general population is the Orthodox Jewish community(26). 

It is almost as if halacha rejects the notion of an individual called a homosexual, rejects the necessity of the homosexual act for any individual, rejects the idea of an irrevocable homosexual orientation, and then creates a society in which these ideals can, apparently quite successfully, be lived.

Judaism rejects the suggestions that homosexuality is either a form of mental illness or an "acceptable alternate lifestyle." Judaism's positions would be a third and as yet unconsidered option. Homosexuality is an activity entered into volitionally by individuals, who may be psychologically healthy, which is maladaptive and inappropriate. Depending on one's theory, it may indicate arrested development, poor family structure, early trauma, frustration of the purpose of creation, disruption of the basic family structure, unnatural behavior, etc.

But whatever the case it constitutes activity that will diminish an individual's capacity to fulfill, in his own life, G-d's expressed plan for creation. As such, this individual cannot achieve his full potential as a human being(27). Therefore, our task is to treat and redirect this individual to more appropriate and fulfilling activity.

Gentile Homosexuals

One question not addressed directly in the previous section is, "Why does Judaism not recognize the existence of a homosexual sub-group within the Jewish community?"

Of course, one might answer that as the act of homosexuality is forbidden, Judaism would no more grant official status to those who practice it than it would grant such status to murderers, thieves, or adulterers. This answer may, in fact, be sufficient and perhaps we should simply turn to the next section and the discussion of the rationale for Judaism's negative approach to the entire issue of homosexuality.

However, there may be another more profound and far-reaching answer to this question. The Sifra states(28) 

"I did not say this except for those laws inscribed for them [the Gentiles] their fathers' father. What did they [the Gentiles, as opposed to the Jews] do? Men would marry men, and women would marry women".

This seems to indicate a difference between homosexuality when it makes its appearance in the Jewish community. For the Gentile, homosexuality is a reality that is part of his heritage. For a Jew, homosexuality is a foreign incursion.

Additional support for this division along national lines can be adduced from the prohibition against female homosexuality. This prohibition, though not explicitly stated in the Bible, is derived from the same verse, Leviticus 18:2, that elicits the comment of the Sifra quoted above. The verse reads: "After the doings of the land Egypt wherein you lived you shall not do, and after the doings of the land of Canaan where I am bringing you, you shall not do, nor shall you walk in the statutes." This source provides a further indication that homosexuality is viewed as a foreign element in Jewish society. It may well be that this factor contributes to halacha's unwillingness to recognize a homosexual subgroup within Jewish society.

Statistics show significantly reduced levels of homosexual men in Orthodox Jewish circles as compared to all other segments of society. Further indication of this anomaly is provided by the dearth of questions relating to homosexuality and individuals involved in homosexual activity in halachic and responsa literature(29). 

One obvious question remains. Does halacha recognize a homosexual individual who cannot change, and therefore a homosexual sub-community in the Gentile world?

The answer to this question seems unclear. On the one hand the Sifra quoted above indicates a belief that at least some Gentile homosexuals develop their sexual orientation because of a traditional cultural heritage. This would tend to support the idea the halacha acknowledges the possibility of a homosexual subgroup in Gentile society.

On the other hand, none of the stories from the Bible, such as the sin of Ham, the men of Sodom, or the Potiphar's true purpose in purchasing Joseph as his slave, portray any of the individuals as totally homosexual. All are either married (in the normal fashion) or are said to father children in the course of their lives. This would seem to indicate that pure homosexuality was considered an aberration even if found in Gentile circles.

Further, halacha prescribes the death penalty for homosexual acts committed between Gentile men(30). Our tendency would therefore be to deny that halacha recognizes a homosexual community among Gentiles. If we, in fact, did recognize such a community would we not be advocating genocide towards it? Such a position is obviously troubling.

Condemnation of Homosexuality - Why?

In discussions of the Jewish view of homosexuality, the question "Why does Judaism condemn a pleasurable, victimless act that tales place between two consenting adults?" often takes center stage. Although explanations are not lacking in the literature a truly consistent approach should also shed some light on why female homosexuality, though forbidden, is far less heinous a crime than male homosexuality

In fact, a number of suggested answers suffer from a failure to adequately explain this last point.

One such approach centers around the primacy of family and children in our system of values. The practice of male homosexuality obviously frustrates the implementation of these values(32). But so does the practice of female homosexuality. Yet the two are not treated with equal severity.

A second approach argues that homosexuality is somehow unnatural. Our bodies are constructed to act in certain ways, and the practice of male homosexuality prevents these ways(33). Once again, female homosexuality seems to be every bit as unnatural as the male variety, yet we do not react to it in the same way.

Often, those who advocate these two approaches resort to the "hashchatat zera" (destruction of seed) argument(34). Since male homosexuality involves hashchatat zera and female homosexuality does not, the prohibition as violated by the man is more stringent.

There are two problems with the treatment of the male participant. Hashchatat xera in other contexts does not entail the death penalty(35).

However, males involved in homosexual activity (as opposed to females) are subject to capital punishment. Hashchatat zera, therefore, does not appear to be a significant enough factor to explain this severe reaction of the part of Torah law.

Second, the biblical prohibition concerns the homosexual act and not hashchatat zera. In Jewish law, homosexual activity, if consummated, is a capital crime even if there is not hotzaat zera, yet male physical contact, even if it results in hotzaata zera, is not punishable in this way unless actual sexual consummation occurs(36). For these reasons, the approaches cited seem unable to serve as complete explanations for the Torah view of this issue.

However, one variation of the "unnatural"theme seems to fare better in dealing with our question. This position takes its definition of natural, not from physiology and nature as studied in the laboratory, but from nature as defined in the Torah. The Torah says:

"Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife and they shall be as one flesh(37)".

The Torah has, in the verse, defined "natural" as man and women united in heterosexual union. Any person engaged in homosexual activity acts against G-d's natural order of things, and is therefore culpable. However, women involved in homosexuality are less in violation of the "natural" then men as it says: "He shall cleave…..and they shall be as one flesh", can be accomplished by males in homosexual union but not by females. This explanation seems to deal neatly with the various facets of the problem(38).

One other approach to the question of why Judaism has such antipathy to homosexuality deserves mention(39). This approach expands on the argument "And he shall cleave and they shall be as one flesh...", reintroduces the centality of the family in Judaism to the discussion of homosexuality, and treats the halachic differences between male and female homosexuality in a rather interesting way. This explanation argues that homosexuality, when it did occur at all in the Jewish community, usually occurred in a bisexual context and not as an exclusively homosexual orientation on the part of the individual. Individuals raised in the Jewish community usually possessed a strong sense of family as part of their tradition and heritage. This, coupled with the desire to find personal continuity into the next generation and with communal pressure to marry, would naturally lead almost everyone to establish a marriage relationship. Unfortunately, some individuals might seek additional companionship elsewhere. This outside companionship could possibly be homosexual in nature. Such an outside relationship might then be devastating to the special intimacy between husband and wife and to the family, the fundamental building block and most important religious institution in Jewish society

Many rabbinic discussions allude to homosexuality in a strongly negative tone(40). The Talmud(41) discusses the meaning of the term "toeivah" as used the context of homosexuality. Says Bar Kapparah, "toeivah" means "to'eh ata ba", "your have strayed from her." This phrase is explained by Tosafot as meaning:

"That they leave their wives to follow homosexuality."

This statement seems to embody the essence of the proposed explanation.

Whether because of different emotional needs on the part of women, their status in society, or because of the physiological impossibility of "He shall cleave ...and they shall be as one flesh", on the part of women, male homosexuality is considered a far more serious danger in this context and is, therefore, treated with greater severity.

Our discussion to this point leads to the following conclusions:

  1. Homosexuality is an activity, not a state of being. Put another way, "homosexual" is an adjective, not a noun.
  2. Homosexual activity is wrong.
  3. Homosexuality may be a foreign incursion into Judaism.
  4. The perpetrator of homosexual activity is held responsible for the activity.
  5. We expect individuals involved in such activity to make every attempt to stop the activity and to alter their sexual orientation.
  6. No greater halachic stigma attaches to the practitioner of homosexuality than the Sabbath violator or the violator of many other divine commandments.

In light of these conclusions the traditional Jewish community should agree on the following goals:
  1. The primary goal should be to create an environment that is most conducive to motivating the practitioner of homosexuality to want to change his orientation.
  2. In the absence of this motivation or during a period when initial attempts to change are unsuccessful, our task is to keep this individual within the Torah community. We must create a situation which offers a positive alternative to the "gay synagogue" and to the even worse choice of complete abandonment and assimilation.
It would seem that these goals can best be realized by implementing the following agenda:

All unnecessary negative stigma must be removed from the individual involved in homosexual activity. Such an individual must be encouraged to see himself as someone with a problem that he is responsible to overcome, and not as a person who has been defined by his sexual orientation.

At the same time that the individual is told of his responsibility to change, he must also be told, with great compassion, that we recognize the difficulty of his task and that we are willing to help in any way possible.

This is similar, in general terms, to the way in which we treat others such as the alcoholic.

Specific programs of outreach to those participating in homosexual activities should be implemented so that those best able to respond to the questions of these individuals will have a chance to work with them. Contemporary Jewish organizations do Kiruv (outreach) work with individuals who violate many commandments. We must do the same with those whose failures are sexual areas. This is particularly true because of the all-pervasive nature of sexual desire and because of the constant encounter with sexual imagery that pervades our society.

Mental health professionals must be encouraged to develop new and better therapeutic techniques to alter sexual orientation. Methods that are even partly successful must be highlighted and publicized to offer hope to those who would want to change.

The issue of homosexuality is an extremely sensitive, difficult, and emotional one. It is a topic that creates a sense of discomfort and even revulsion not only in those who may have been personally involved in such activity, but also in many who have never had any personal contact with it at all. Stereotyping and personal doubts about one's sexuality tend to maintain and reinforce these reactions and the AIDS scare has given them new impetus. Our response as Torah-true Jews must be to reject these prejudical and counter-productive reactions. On the other hand, we cannot equivocate in our opposition to homosexual activity. This is particularly true in light of the media's continuing portrayal of homosexuals as positive role models and the increasing acceptance of the homosexual as a minority group with "legitimate" civil rights.

The program described above entails walking a difficult tightrope between condemnation of an act and acceptance of the perpetrator as a Jew worth saving. We cannot close our eyes and pretend that a problem of this magnitude will go away. It is our task to present a legitimate Jewish response, balancing our opposition to homosexual activity with our concern for the human beings involved.

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