Prejudices and reality – a reflection about homosexuality in Judaism

Prejudices and reality – a reflection about homosexuality in Judaism

The dilemmas modern Judaism deals with are exciting and uncountable. These dilemmas call for a thorough study of the Jewish Sources and the Jewish jurisprudence, to try to discover how these could be understood nowadays, in times of permanent changes. Unfortunately, not all the leaders of Judaism are versed in facing the current dilemmas or have the courage to be able to innovate or to confess that they don’t know what to do when answers to these questions have to face with a real specific conflict. That is the case of the issue of homosexuality in Jewish communities and more specifically in the midst of the Halakhah-Observant Jews.

We will not be able to develop in this article the whole complexity of the subject, but only to present a general approach.

We should clearly say: in addition to the prejudices that still surround this issue, in the case of the Jews who live according to the rules of the Halakhah, the situation is even more complex due to the biblical prohibition: “Do not lie down with a man as the ones who sleep with women; it is  abomination” (Leviticus 6:22) and “If there is someone who  lies with a man as the one  who sleeps with women, both of them have committed abomination and they certainly have to die. The fault of blood is on them” (Leviticus 8:13).

However, it is important to have an accurate understanding of the verses, since the ban refers only to the sexual act, defined as “the ones who sleep with women” and excludes all kind of contact that could be considered sexual or erotic. It prohibits “sexual act”, but not the loving relationship or the attraction between people of the same sex, which would be so hard to prohibit. From here we learn also the divergence of the treatment in the Halakhah towards lesbianism, item that will not be treated in this article.

The term homosexuality refers both to men and women and derives from the greek μο, “homo”, “equal” and the latin “sexus” – “sex”, is considered a sexual orientation and is defined as the interaction or sexual attraction, emotional, sentimental and emotional toward individuals of the same sex. Etymologically, the word homosexual is a hybrid of greek “homós” (which in reality means “equal” and not, as might be thought, derived from the latin noun “homo”, which means “man”) and the adjective latino “sexualis”, suggesting a sexual and sentimental relationship between persons of the same sex, including lesbianism. This is a linguistics definition. The psychological, philosophical, and biological statements are debatable.

This subject is not only about the orthodox normative dilemmas, but also about the prejudices of completely secular Jewish which require changes and adjustments in some points associated to the Halakhah despite of their declared secularity. It’s easier getting angry with the Torah and the religious “retrogrades” rather than with themselves because of their hatred and prejudice toward the “other”. Unfortunately, in the heart of the religious Jewish community, there are also those ones who knowing the rule, choose to be guided more by their own personal bias rather than by the interpretation of the Torah. As said, we will not be able to fully analyze this issue, which is definitely not limited to the place that Jewish Gays should occupy in Jewish society.

The Torah prohibits sexual intercourse between two men. Any attempt to rationalization or search for the meaning of the ban falls into a pathetic apologetic. It is easier to think that many of us feel discomfort and pain with this law, than to rationalize it or justify it.

The believer bases his/her belief on the premise that the will of G-d is inscrutable, and so are His standards. Even if we try to understand and explain through the exegesis, it is an expression of our human conceptions that vary according to time and space. The Torah is eternal. The exegesis is human, even for those that are convinced that also the exegesis were received on Mount Sinai, it still depends on what each person who was present there heard and its main objective is to come to help man to reflect and scrutinize the Divine message.

The question then is what should we do with rules that seem contradictory to human rights as they are understood in postmodernism?

If we want to be entirely sincere and consistent, we should ask ourselves what is our personal attitude toward homosexuality and what Judaism teaches us about coexistence / living together, with homosexuals beyond the prohibition of the act? Why the members of our communities are more willing to accept adulterers, men or women, whose penalty in HALAKHAH is the same as in the case of homosexual? Why can people accused of family violence remain a member of the institutions?

OR even more: According to the Torah, the homosexual act implies a violation which the Biblical text calls “Toevah” that could be translated as abomination, which is the exact same term the Torah refers to people who eat food that is not Kosher1, or to the idolatrous2, the prostitute3, the non-ethical businessman4 and the man that marries his former wife who, after their divorce5, has entered and left (for death or divorce), another marriage with another man. All these people are guilty of having committed abomination in the eyes of G-d and yet we have not heard that those who do not eat kosher cannot be l part of the community or that the non-ethical one who is allowed- a place of honor in his synagogue…

Perhaps we should divide this analysis in two parts: one, the own confrontation of the Jewish homosexual who wishes to live under the rules of the Halakhah and who has the the problem of   the violation of a biblical law. And two: the public attitude of the Jewish communities and their different sectors about the inclusion of homosexuals Jews in the life of the community

The topic is not new, but, since in recent decades homosexuals began to assume their condition publicly, presenting their sexual preference not only to their families – which not always tolerate it- but to their environment -social, educational, religious and military-, it is necessary to give proper answers that could have been postponed before.

“Going out of the closet” implies a revision of the religious life,  first for the person in question, and second for educators and leaders of this generation, who do not show, most of the time the  needed sensibility or empathy  and  insist, in some cases, on the possibility of a “voluntary” change of this sexual preference. Any Sex Therapist could explain that it is not a matter of voluntary choices but  a sexual identity and try  to change through exercises, “conversions” or any kind of subterfuge is like asking a man to become a woman, or to a woman to become a man or to a heterosexual to become homosexual.

Many times there is an analogy between this battle and the old time fight for the inclusion of women in the religious creative life and in the spaces which traditionally were reserved for men in the Jewish religion. In the very early stages of the women fight, many women chose the easiest way which was to depart from the group in the search for their own assertion. It is always easier, more convenient and less exhausting to exit the framework, than to fight for a change. However, in the case of homosexual Jews, they can be presented as such in the community or can create their own communities, but any of these choices carries a greater risk than in the case of women; because they  could be left completely isolated from their framework of belonging family and community.

Despite the biblical prohibition, there is no legal figure defined as “homosexual”, in Judaism and there are no limits of any kind associated with the participation of such a person in the life of the community, nor in the minyan, or in the reading of the Torah, or related to his capacity to become witnesses in a trial, compared to, for example, the cases of women, the mamzer, the child, etc (which have restrictions). There was no reference to homosexuality as identity but only as sexuality itself; therefore it cannot be subject to public debate. No one can, according to the basic norms of coexistence, enter the chamber of the other and know what exactly he or she is doing in bed.

If the sexual act between men is considered a violation as is the adultery or incest, legally (in Judaism), guilt is possible only in the presence of witnesses, as in the case of adultery, murder, robbery and others. This make us return again to the social scope and not the regulatory scope of the Halakhah.

It is worth recalling in this context, that from the legal stand point, a person cannot incriminate himself, according to the Talmudic rule brought by the jurists, including the Shulchan Aruch. “Man cannot be blamed for an offense only by his own word, but through witnesses who testify, as man cannot be done itself an evil” Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 34 rule 25.

In my humble opinion, the discussion should not be exclusively referred at the level of attempting to define in a Halakhaic way what exactly homosexuality is, as some rabbis have to diagnose, or prescribe treatments. There are Rabbis who believe that homosexuality is a voluntary choice and therefore reprehensible and modified through repentance –Teshuvah-, while others, have defined homosexuality as a basic part of the identity of an individual and therefore it doesn’t t implies a choice, entering in the halakhah as a category defined as “anoos” – forced, to which would apply the rule of “anoos rachmana patrei” or, G-d will not blame who performs an act because it is forced to do so. (Rule learned off the case of rape brought in Deuteronomy 10:25).

The challenge is in the inclusion of Jews which are homosexuals in the community, but it seems to be clear that the Halakhah rule does not relate to it. It does not consider the homosexual as a member of a specific category or different from other members of the community The Halakhah does not award or exempts any kind of rights and obligations. The homosexual does not deserve special treatment, has no right to special concessions or to be treated with inconvenience or insults.

We repeat that the basic design of the Jewish belief stands on the basis that men can not fully understand the will of G-d and that each of the creatures was created in the image and likeness of G-d and therefore, every man has a role and a mission in life. There is no individual that his or her presence in the world is meaningless. Then, where does the arrogance of censorship and persecution come from? It is certainly not from the Torah.

There are parents, teachers, leaders and rabbis who prefer not to talk about this issue. There are families who run away, in horror when they find out that a member of the family is gay. There are communities that make campaigns denying that one of their leaders is gay. The attitude of concealment, there is no doubt, generates more problems, pain and anguish that the possibility of openness and dialogue.

The homosexual that “comes out of closet” is misunderstood as a sample of exhibitionism, while in reality is part of an internal and external fight for acceptance and self-affirmation. He fights t to live a life free of the torture of secrecy and concealment.

As the founder of the Association of Orthodox Homosexuals of Israel, Rabbi Ron Iosef has said… “coming out” is in the sense that raises Job in the Bible: “Let me talk to find relief, let me open my lips and respond” (Job 32:29).

  1. Prior to describe the animals permitted and prohibited the biblical text says “Do not eat anything abhorrent”. See Deuteronomy 2:3.
  2. Deuteronomy 7:25-26 “Burn to fire the sculptures of their G-ds; not covet the silver or gold that the lining, nor does it take for you, is not that that is why faultfinding a loop, because it is abomination to H’, your G-d”. “Not bring abomination to your house, because you will be destroyed as it; certainly the abhor and abhor, because it is anathema” or Deut, 12:21, 5:15, 27:15.
  3. Deuteronomy 11:18 “Does not bring the pay of a whore, or the salary of a dog (of a sodomite) to the house of the Lord your G-d, for any offering votive (vote), because the two are abomination unto the Lord your G-d”. 4. Ezekiel 6:10-13
  4. Deuteronomy 12:4 “the first husband who fired it is not allowed again taken as a woman, because it has been ‘despised’; because that is an abomination unto the Lord”




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Ethel Barylka

About Ethel Barylka

Ethel completed her studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Hebrew Literature and Philosophy and a Masters Degree at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the same university. She graduated from Rabbinical Lawyer at Tora Stone Institute in Jerusalem. Creator and director of "Women and Judaism" - Coordinator of the Department of Jewish Studies of the College Ibn Gabirol, Jewish school in Madrid.

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