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HOMOSEXUALITY AND ITS ROLE IN JUDAISM

An argument for acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews in leadership positions within observant congregations

Jonathan J. Oriole
Hebrew University
Rothberg School for Overseas Students
Foundations of Jewish Law
Rabbi Pesach Schindler
20 May, 1996

Arguably the most troubling question facing observant Jews today is to what extent openly gay and lesbian Jews can participate in their communities. The standard reason for rejecting gay and lesbian rabbis, cantors, and educators is that their homosexuality renders them "unfit" as role models for their congregations. Strict Orthodox and Conservative rabbis base their decisions against acceptance of homosexuality on a number of traditional argument: it is "unnatural," it destroys the family structure, it is spilling one's seed (hash'chatat zera l'vatalah), it undermines the mitzvah of procreation (pru v'urvu), and some go so far as to call homosexuality a sickness. At the heart of all the arguments, however lies a d'oreitah (Torah) prohibition which must be understood before tackling modern rabbis' interpretations of it.

Leviticus 18:22

"It is an abomination for a man to lie with a man as with a woman."

Numerous attempts have been made to explain this passage by rabbis since the time of the Talmud. The word to'evah is itself problematic, and almost all scholars would agree that the translation as "abomination" is inaccurate and inappropriate. Bar-Kapparah interpreted it to read "to'eh atah ba" – literally, "you're going astray because of it" – and not that the act itself is intrinsically abhorrent (Nedarim 51a). As Bar-Kapparah's statement itself is unclear, several attempts have been made to explain it. According to the Pesikta (Zatarta) and Sefer HaChinukh (209), mishkav zakhur (intercourse with another man) can't possibly result in procreation. Since traditional Judaism views pru v'urvu as the only acceptable motivation for sexual relations (Or does it?? We'll discuss this question later on.), homosexual acts clearly violate this positive mitzvah. The Tosafot and Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (in their commentaries to Nedarim 51a) apply this "going astray" to mean that the pursuit of homosexual acts will cause a man to abandon his family. Another possible explanation given by the contemporary Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein (in Torah T'mimah to Lev. 18:22) is that homosexuality itself is unnatural: "You are going astray from the foundations of creation."

While Norman Lamm, another contemporary Orthodox rabbi, claims interpretation to be unnecessary to explain the text, in fact he gives his own interpretation of it: "It may be that the very variety of interpretations of to'evah points to a far more fundamental meaning, namely, that an act characterized as an "abomination" is prima facie disgusting and cannot be further defined or explained." (204) This argument, however, is surprisingly negligent, especially from a Torah scholar. Conservative Rabbi Gordon Tucker challenges this attitude: "In classic rabbinic Judaism we have never taken ‘the Torah says so clearly' as a final, decisive and unchallengeable argument." (41) Indeed, if we accepted Rabbi Lamm's rationalization as the basis for all of our halachic decisions, Shabbat violators would be stoned to death and parents would be beating their wayward children.

All of these interpretations fail to look at the biblical context in which the word to'evah is used. Numerous contemporary sources have deduced from all of its uses in the Torah "that to'evah is actually a technical term used to refer to a forbidden idolatrous act. From this information, we may conclude that the references in Leviticus are specific to cultic practices of homosexuality, and not sexual relationships as we know them today." (Alpert 68) Rabbi Alpert points to the second prohibition against homosexuality, in Deuteronomy 23:18, which specifically refers to male temple prostitutes. Even Rabbi Lamm concurs with this clarification: "Scholars have identified the kadesh proscribed in the Torah as a ritualistic male prostitute." (201)

In light of the variety of interpretations displayed above, as responsible halachic scholars we can't rely on the Torah's statements alone in order to make a ruling, especially if we see these specific passages as referring to an entirely different act than that prohibited by rabbis throughout the ages. Therefore, we must now turn to each of these rabbinic arguments and examine its bearing on our own situation.

Family Life and Homosexuality

When traditional rabbis speak of the Torah's prohibition against homosexuality, they invariably argue that it destroys the family structure. Indeed, Judaism has survived for 4,000 years due to the strong emphasis placed on the family and its role in preserving tradition. Sa'adiah Gaon held that the rational basis for most of the Torah's moral legislation is the preservation of the family structure. (Emunot v'Da'ot 3:1, Yoma 9a) Chief Rabbi of Efrat Shlomo Riskin expands on this, saying "the most meaningful and lasting sensations of pleasure (nachat) derive from children and grandchildren, from the sense of continuity and immortality which succeeding generations bring . . . Not so with homosexuality. It uproots cultural continuity, nipping true self-transcendence in the bud."

Rabbi Riskin and many traditional rabbis fail to recognize something about their arguments – their major premise is false. The fact that "there are Jews who care about being Jewish . . . who identify with Jewish values, but who are attracted to people of the same sex" (Gordon 42) proves it wrong, as does a visit to Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York City, or Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco, or any of the other 30 gay synagogues in North America, where one can see numerous gay and lesbian couples WITH THEIR CHILDREN, all of whom are dedicated to preserving and continuing the Jewish faith and tradition. Furthermore, if Jewish continuity is the reason for such a strict denouncement of homosexuality, there are far more heterosexual Jews who should be condemned for failing to raise observant Jewish children.

This brings us right to the issue of procreation – pru v'urvu. If we follow the strict interpretation of this mitzvah, obviously a same-sex couple cannot fulfill it. Or can they? Artificial insemination, surrogate motherhood, and even co-parenting arrangements provide options for gay men to discharge of their halachic duty of pru v'urvu.

Another option for gay and lesbian couples to raise Jewish families is adoption. Granted, according to strict halachic interpretations, adoption doesn't fulfill the mitzvah of pru v'urvu. Returning to the words of Rabbi Riskin, "For humans, the sexual relationship is not just biology; it's a far more profound step toward transcending oneself in order to participate in eternity," we see that the connections between sex, biology, and familial relations are not as clearly delineated as we had thought. If Jewish continuity is so important to us, should it matter who a child's biological parents are as long as he or she is raised as an observant Jew? (Provided, of course, that the child fits the halachic definition of a Jew.)

The next issue to tackle is that of spilling seed – hash'chatat zera l'vatalah. If, indeed, the whole purpose of ejaculation were conception, there could be no arguments here. But is it? Having already argued that pru v'urvu need not be carried out literally in order to accomplish the mitzvah of raising a Jewish family, biological explanations for sexual intercourse become secondary to spiritual, or moral, reasons to sanctify sexual relations. Witness the case of a man whose wife can't possibly conceive (i.e., she's barren, post-menopausal, has had a hysterectomy, etc.). According to halachah, the husband is allowed, but by no means required, to divorce his wife. Why, then, is spilling seed no longer an issue? Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein explains that "as long as we are talking about ‘normative' sexual relations, a husband has an obligation (onah) to meet his wife's conjugal needs." (discussion 8 May, 1996) If the prohibition of spilling one's seed is so severe, how can it possibly be overruled by a wife's "right to have sex??" Either spilling seed really isn't that big of a deal, or there is some element to marriage that "transcends biology" (back to Rabbi Riskin's words). Perhaps, marriage is actually a spiritual and legal bond between two people who vow to raise a Jewish family together and (again) biology is only secondary to this union??

Is Homosexuality Unnatural, or a Sickness?

In 1969, both the National Institutes for Mental Health and the American Psychiatric Association ruled that homosexuality is not an illness –psychological or otherwise – and should not be treated as such. Even Rabbi Lamm acknowledges this milestone (198), but he later ignores it when he continues his argument that homosexuality really is a disease. This is most disturbing, since all poskim take medical discoveries into account when they form their t'shuvot. As medical knowledge of viability, physiology, and other issues has improved, halachah has been modified accordingly. That any rabbi could continue to call homosexuality an illness is not only repugnant, but halachically irresponsible.

As for homosexuality being unnatural, numerous studies have found that homosexuality occurs in nature among every species of mammal, as well as most other species within the animal kingdom. Many people, some distinguished scientists among them, incorrectly assume that heterosexuality is instinctual: "The sexually aroused animal will attempt to mate with the nearest partner. This indicates the absence of any ‘heterosexual instinct' and suggests that all that is innate is an undifferentiated drive toward the release of sexual tension." (Churchill 61) So this finding establishes the "naturalness" of homosexual acts, but a 1948 study of porpoises exhibiting homosexual behavior takes this idea even further to show the natural occurrences of homosexual preference and perhaps even identity: "McBride and Hebb noted that male porpoises repeatedly attempt to engage in sexual contacts with members of their own sex. Even in cases where male porpoises have been courted by a receptive female, they may avoid her in preference of another male. This is clear evidence that a definite preference for a like-sexed partner may occur spontaneously among mammals." (Churchill 62) The study further documents cases where male porpoises have even had "monogamous relationships" with other males! Any argument based on the "unnaturalness" of homosexuality clearly hasn't take any of these natural occurrences of homosexuality into account.

Homosexuals as Role Models

After all of this discussion about the nature of homosexuality and its place in Judaism, we come to the heart of the debate: Can openly gay and lesbian Jews serve as role models in leadership positions within their congregations? The usual argument against it is that "gays don't value the family structure and Jewish tradition." Obviously, someone who is dedicated and learned enough to become a rabbi, cantor, or educator is committed to Jewish faith and tradition! As far as valuing family is concerned, hopefully it is perfectly clear by now that gay and lesbian Jews value family just as much as straight Jews do; any unmarried heterosexual rabbi is just as "incomplete" a role model as a homosexual rabbi without a partner. In some ways, gay rabbis can serve as better role models because they know all too well how it feels to be persecuted, how to overcome adversity, and how to live in a world where you have to hide your true identity. They can even serve to show teens who are questioning their sexuality that they're not alone and that Judaism doesn't reject homosexuals or homosexuality. Wouldn't it be nice to know that young, gay Jews would remain committed to Judaism if they felt welcome in their own communities?

Closing Arguments

Why does Judaism even deal with the issue of homosexuality? Isn't it clear what the Torah says? "The very existence of the debate among halachically committed Jews," answers Rabbi Tucker, "gives eloquent testimony that this issue is one that is not deemed settled by the clarity of the text . . . Yes it is conceivable that Lev. 18:22 should be overturned; an argument for that is not yet fully in place, but it is beginning to emerge." (43) If indeed this is the case, no further stumbling blocks should be placed in front of gay and lesbian Jews to prevent them from fully serving their communities. It is time to see that it is no longer fair nor halachically justifiable to prevent gay and lesbian Jews from being positive role models for young Jews and acknowledge the great potential they can contribute to tikkun olam as leaders within the Jewish community.

G L O S S A R Y

d'oreita
A halachic code that is found in the Torah itself, as opposed to d'rabbanan, a code that was formulated by the rabbis in the post-biblical period.
hash'chatat zera l'vatalah
"Spilling seed for nothing," a.k.a. onanism; refers to any ejaculation that could not result in conception. This includes masturbation, use of contraceptive devices, and all non-vaginal intercourse.
kadesh
A male temple prostitute.
mishkav zakhur
"Laying with a man," i.e., homosexual relations.
mitzvah
One of the 613 "commandments" derived from the Torah. Of these, 365 are positive (obligatory) and 248 are negative (prohibitive).
onah
A husband's obligation to have sexual relations with his wife.
poskim (pl. of posek)
A halachic authority, i.e., a rabbi who writes a halachic decision.
pru v'urvu
The halachic obligation upon a man to "be fruitful and multiply;" in order to be fulfilled, he must father at least one son and one daughter. There is no halachic compulsion upon a woman, but if she is married she is expected to help her husband fulfill his obligation and refusal to do so would be grounds for divorcing her.
tikkun olam
"Repairing the world;" the idea that the world is in a constant state of creation, that we are all responsible for helping to perfect the world, and that salvation will not come until we have finished this task.
to'evah
Word used in Lev. 18:22 to proscribe homosexual relations, commonly (mis-) translated as "abomination." In all its other uses in the Torah, to'evah refers to ritual violations.
t'shuvot (pl. of t'shuvah)
Lit. "answer," i.e., responsa. A halachic decision.

B I B L I O G R A P H Y

Alexiou, Alice Sparberg. "Uncomfortably: The Jewish Community Confronts Homosexuality." Moment, June 1993.

Alpert, Rabbi Rebecca. "In G-d's Image." Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish. ed. Christie Balka and Andy Rose. Beacon Press, Boston: 1989.

Benkov, Laura, Ph.D. Reinventing the Family. Crown Publishers, New York: 1994.

Churchill, Wainwright. Homosexual Behavior Among Males: A Cross-Cultural and Cross-Species Investigation. Hawthorn, New York: 1967.

Lamm, Rabbi Norman. "Judaism and the Modern Attitude to Homosexuality." Encyclopśdia Judaica Yearbook 1974. Keter Publishing, Jerusalem.

Riskin, Rabbi Shlomo. "Gays Sacrifice Their Future." Jerusalem Post, date unknown.

Tucker, Rabbi Gordon. "Homosexuality and Halachic Judaism: A Conservative View." Moment, June 1993.

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