Female Homosexuality in Judaism

The Torah does not address lesbianism, but later rabbinic commentators frowned upon it.

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Yevamot 76a makes it clear why the law does not follow Rav Huna. After quoting his teaching the text adds:

“And even according to Rav Eleazar, who stated that an unmarried man who cohabited with an unmarried woman with no matrimonial intention renders her therefore a prostitute [zona], this disqualification ensues only in the case of a man, but when [the case] is that of a woman [playing around with another woman] the action is regarded as mere obscenity.”

Rav Huna’s teaching is rejected because, unlike heterosexual cohabitation, sexual intimacy between women does not render the individual women concerned “unfit”; it is peritzuta, “obscenity”, not zenut, “unchastity” or “harlotry”. And if the women’s behavior does not render them “unfit”, they are not thereby debarred from marrying a High Priest (who must only marry a virgin—that is, a woman who is “fit”). Interestingly, the expression “play[ing] around”, hamesolelot, is a rabbinic euphemism for sexual behavior (sometimes translated as “making sport” or “committing lewdness”) and is only used of women who engage in intimate acts with each other or with their “little sons”. While the term is very dismissive (in its simple form, the root letters, Samech Lamed Lamed, means to “swing”, to “be light”), it is not at all ambiguous.

After the completion of the Babylonian Talmud at the beginning of the sixth century, there were no further textual references to lesbian behavior until Moses ben Maimon (1135‑1204) (known as Maimonides or Rambam) clarified the halakhic position in his code, the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 21:8). He wrote:

“For women to play around with one another is forbidden and belongs to ‘the practices of the Egyptians’ concerning which we have been warned, ‘You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt’…But though such conduct is forbidden, it is not punishable by lashing since there is no specific prohibition against it and in any case no sexual intercourse takes place at all. Consequently, such women are not forbidden to the priesthood on account of unchastity, nor is a woman prohibited to her husband because of it, since this does not constitute unchastity. But it is appropriate to flog such women since they have done a forbidden thing. A man should be particularly strict with his wife in this matter, and should prevent women known to indulge in such practices from visiting her, and her from going to visit them.”

Maimonides’ formulation of the halakha was upheld by Jacob ben Asher (1270?‑1340) in his Arba’ah Turim a century later (Even haEzer 24), and by Joseph Caro (1488‑1575), whose Shulchan Arukh (Even ha‑Ezer 24), published in 1563, became the authoritative guide to halakha throughout the Jewish world—a status it still occupies within Orthodox Jewry today. The Shulchan Arukh was the “final word” on the subject for 400 years.

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Elizabeth Sarah

Rabbi Elizabeth Sarah is a writer, editor, and part-time lecturer in Hebrew and Spirituality at the Leo Baeck College (UK). She was appointed as part-time minister of the Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue in December 2000.