Homosexuality and Halakhah

Traditional sources on homosexuality.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from Does God Belong in the Bedroom? Two claims made by Gold in this article are disputable and should be noted. First, is the assertion that Judaism is not concerned with inner feelings. While it is true that in Judaism actions are more often than not privileged over thoughts and feelings, certain manifestations of Judaism, including hasidism and musar (a 19th century movement that focused on the study of Jewish ethics and values), do stress the importance of inner feelings. Second, is Gold’s assertion that natural law is a concept foreign to Judaism. While some scholars have assumed this to be true, others disagree.

An important point to make from the outset is that Jewish law does not teach that it is forbidden to be a homosexual. On the contrary, Jewish law is concerned not with the source of a person’s erotic urges nor with inner feelings, but with acts. The Torah forbids the homosexual act, known as mishkav zakhar, but has nothing to say about homosexuality as a state of being or a personal inclination. 

In other words, traditionally, a person with a homosexual inclination can be an entirely observant Jew as long as he or she does not act out that inclination.gay pride parade

The Biblical Sources

The basis of the prohibition against homosexual acts derives from two biblical verses in Leviticus: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence” (Leviticus 18:22) and “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them” (Leviticus 20:13). The Torah considers a homosexual act between two men to be an abhorrent thing (to’evah), punishable by death—a strong prohibition.

The Torah gives no reason for this commandment. Some commentators have looked for a rationale in the story of Sodom, in which the men in the town attempt to rape the visitors to Lot’s house. (See Genesis 19; the word “sodomy” comes from this incident.) However, the occurrence in the story was a case of homosex­ual rape, hardly a legitimate precedent for the kind of consensual homosexual acts we are considering. Others see the root of the prohibition in the verse “No Israelite woman shall be a cult prostitute, nor shall any Israelite man be a cult prostitute” (Deuteronomy 23:18). Cultic prostitution, both hetero‑ and homosexual, was a common feature of idolatrous worship in the ancient Near East, but, like the story of Sodom, it is no longer a relevant precedent for modern homosexuality.

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Rabbi Michael Gold

Rabbi Michael Gold is the rabbi at Temple Beth Torah, Tamarac Jewish Center in Tamarac, Florida. He is the author of four books, and his articles have appeared in Moment, Judaism, Jewish Spectator, B'nai Brith International Jewish Monthly, and numerous other publications. He also served as co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly's committee on human sexuality.