HOMOSEXUALITY AND ITS ROLE IN JUDAISM
An argument for acceptance of gay and lesbian
Jews in leadership positions within observant congregations
Jonathan J. Oriole
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.
"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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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.
- A male temple prostitute.
- mishkav zakhur
- "Laying with a man," i.e., homosexual relations.
- One of the 613 "commandments" derived from the Torah. Of these, 365 are
positive (obligatory) and 248 are negative (prohibitive).
- 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.
- 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
- 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
Tucker, Rabbi Gordon. "Homosexuality and Halachic Judaism: A Conservative
View." Moment, June 1993.