Homosexuality and Judaism




The known history of homosexuality in Judaism begins in Leviticus, which describes intercourse between male homosexuals as a capital offence. The historically prevalent view among Jews was to regard homosexual intercourse as sinful, arguing that it was forbidden by the Torah. However, this has been a subject of contention between various Jewish groups and has led to both debate and division among modern Jews.

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Homosexuality in the Jewish Scriptures

The Torah is the primary source for Jewish views on homosexuality. It states that: "[A man] shall not lie with another man as [he would] with a woman, it is a to'eva" (Leviticus 18:22).

The term to'eva is usually translated as "abomination". However, because the word is used twice in regards to homosexuality, its second use has been understood by the Talmud to be a contraction of the words to'eh hu va, meaning "He is deviating from what is natural." (literally "He is wandering with it [from the natural way of the world]" since the Hebrew word to'e means "He is wandering", va "with it")

According to the rabbis, the prohibition is a part of the Noachide Laws, and thus applies to Gentiles as well as Jews. In both, very little is said about female homosexuality (known as mesoleloth). {1}





Homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism

Sexual intercourse between two men is forbidden by the Torah, as stated above, and is a capital offense. The Torah prohibition of Lo tikrevu legalot ervah ("You shall not come close to another person for the purpose of committing a sexual crime") forbids all other sexual acts which can lead to intercourse, and prescribes the punishment of lashes.

However, under Judaism, it is very difficult to get a conviction that would lead to this prescribed punishment (and, in any case, modern instances of this are not judged). The severity of the punishment indicates the seriousness with which the act is seen.

Homosexual acts between women (lesbianism) were forbidden by the rabbis on the basis of "Do not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, nor of Canaan, where I will be bringing you. Do not follow [any] of their customs." (Leviticus 18:3). The oral law (Sifra there, 8:8) explains that what is meant is sexual customs and that one of those was the marriage of women to each other, as well as a man to a woman and her daughter. The Talmud follows this view, forbidding lesbianism. Like all Rabbinical prohibitions, violation can incur lashes. Female homosexuality is regarded as less serious than male homosexuality.

The Orthodox Jewish position generally holds that homosexual attraction is not inherently sinful, though it is regarded as unnatural. However, someone who has had homosexual intercourse is seen to have allowed their "unnatural attractions" to get the better of them, and it is thus believed that they would be held accountable by God for their actions. If he does teshuva (repentance), i.e. he ceases his forbidden actions, regrets what he has done, apologizes to God, and makes a binding resolution never to repeat those actions, he is seen to be forgiven by God (in a similar manner to the other capital crimes, except murder).

Modern Orthodox Jewish View

In recent years a very small number of (mainly Modern Orthodox) rabbis and laypeople have begun re-evaluating homosexuality as a phenomenon, and the Orthodox community's response to homosexual Jews. Until recently it has been assumed that all homosexuals chose to engage in homosexual actions in order to spite God (le-hach'is), to be perverse, or due to mental illness. Familiarity with sociological and biological studies, as well as personal contact with Jewish homosexuals, has brought some Orthodox leaders to different viewpoints. This probably started as early as the 1970s. This view is described in the original entry on Homosexuality penned by Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits in the original release of the Encyclopedia Judaica (Keter Publishing). Jakobovits writes:

Jewish law [...] rejects the view that homosexuality is to be regarded merely as a disease or as morally neutral.... Jewish law holds that no hedonistic ethic, even if called "love", can justify the morality of homosexuality any more than it can legitimize adultery or incest, however genuinely such acts may be performed out of love and by mutual consent.

In the 1975 yearbook of the Encyclopedia, Rabbi Norman Lamm (of Yeshiva University, New York and a leader in Modern Orthodox Judaism), wrote something quite different. He was more familiar with the scientific and psychological research of the day (early 1970s) on homosexuality. As such, he invoked the principle of Jewish law termed ones, denoting an "accident" or event beyond one's control. In this way, homosexuality could be redefined as an act of perversion or heresy, and it would be wrong to persecute or judge homosexuals for their actions. The views represented in his 1975 article elaborated his views in earlier articles, mainly in the January/February edition of Jewish Life, 1968. Rabbi Lamm's views have, over the years, gained some foothold in Modern Orthodox Judaism, while being largely rejected by Haredi Orthodoxy. The Haredi community sees these recent reevaluations as manipulation of Jewish law for political purposes, and has not shown any signs of accepting homosexuality.

Other viewpoints are:

  • "Compassion, sympathy, empathy, understanding - these are essential elements of Judaism. They are what homosexual Jews who care about Judaism need from us today." Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth ( United Kingdom)
  • Chaim Rapoport has written Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View, he is Rabbi of London’s Ilford United Synagogue and a member of the cabinet of the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom.
  • Edah, a modern Orthodox advocacy group, has decided to hold public meetings on this topic for the Orthodox Jewish community.

Homosexuality and Conservative/Masorti Judaism

In the Conservative Jewish community, the scholars on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) make decisions concerning Jewish law. In 1992 the CJLS accepted four teshuvot (responsa) on homosexuality; these were used as backing sources for a unified consensus position. The consensus position is that given the current scientific, psychological and biological information on the origin and nature of homosexuality, homosexual relationships can not be judged to be in accord with Halakha (Jewish law). Some of the responsa note that future information on this subject may be sufficient to utilize lenient views and potential legal novellae; therefore the law committee holds the right to re-evaluate this area at a future date.

The "CJLS Consensus Statement of Policy Regarding Homosexual Jews in the Conservative Movement" approved March 25, 1992, reads as follows:

(A) We will not perform commitment ceremonies for gays and lesbians.

(B) We will not knowingly admit avowed homosexuals to our rabbinical and cantorial schools, or the Rabbinical Assembly or Cantors' Assembly. At the same time, we will not instigate witch-hunts against those who are already members or students.

(C) Whether homosexuals may function as teachers or youth leaders in our congregations and schools will be left to the Rabbi authorized to make halakhic decisions for a given institution in the Conservative movement. Presumably, in this as in all other matters, the rabbi will make such decisions taking into account the sensitivities of the people of his or her congregation or school. The rabbi's own reading of Jewish law on these issues, informed by the responsa written for the CJLS to date, will also be a determinative factor in these decisions.

(D) Similarly, the rabbi of each Conservative institution, in consultation with its lay leaders, will be entrusted to formulate policies regarding the eligibility of homosexuals for honors within worship and lay leadership positions.

(E) In any case, in accordance with the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue Resolutions we are hereby affirming gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps and schools.

However, a significant minority of Conservative Jews, including a growing number of its rabbis, believe that one may change the Jewish position on homosexuality within the halakhic process. Advocates of this view include Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Harold M. Schulweis, Jacob Neusner, Bradley Shavit Artson, Ayelet Cohen, J. Rolando Matalon, Marcelo R. Bronstein, Simchah Roth, Leonard Gordon and Joel Alter.

The Rabbinical Assembly has issued a position paper stating that the Divine image is reflected by every human being, of any sexual orientation, and admits that there is good reason to be concerned about the fact that gay and lesbian Jews have experienced not only the constant threats of physical violence and homophobic rejection, but also the pains of anti-Semitism. They note that homosexuals are members of all Jewish congregations, and that the AIDS crisis has exacerbated the anxiety and suffering of homosexual Jews. In conclusion, the Rabbinical Assembly states:

We, the Rabbinical Assembly, while affirming our tradition's prescription for heterosexuality,

1) Support full civil equality for gays and lesbians in our national life, and

2) Deplore the violence against gays and lesbians in our society, and

3) Reiterate that, as are all Jews, gay men and lesbians are welcome as members in our congregations, and

4) Call upon our synagogues and the arms of our movement to increase our awareness, understanding and concern for our fellow Jews who are gay and lesbian.

Although the official position of the Conservative movement is that homosexual relations are a violation of Jewish law, the movement generally views this violation as no less or more serious that other violations of Jewish law that most of its members may violate, such as spending money on Shabbat (the Sabbath) or eating non-kosher food. As such, there is no logical reason to view homosexuality as any different from the behavior of any other Jew that isn't fully observant of Jewish law and tradition. As such, the Rabbinical Assembly's Commission on Human Sexuality recommends discussed ways to mainstream homosexual Jews into congregations in the movement's pastoral letter on all aspects of human sexuality: "This Is My Beloved, This Is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate Relations". The Rabbinical Assembly recommends that:

1. Synagogue groups might meet with gay and lesbian Jews to put a face to this issue and to learn how the synagogue can be more welcoming. The goal would be to warm synagogue members to the fact that Jewish gays, lesbians and their families are not an outside group but are part of our own community and should be treated as such.

2. In those instances where synagogues have programs for special constituencies within the congregation, such programs might be created for gay and lesbian Jews and their families as well. So, for example, information about support groups such as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and gays (PFLAG) can be disseminated through the synagogue media, and the synagogue might host such a group. Gays and lesbians, though, should generally be integrated into the ongoing activities of the congregation.

3. Synagogue and school educators might include, as part of the curriculum, a section on sexuality, and within this, some material on homosexuality....In such courses it should be made clear that sexual activity, while an important part of everyone's life, is not the whole of it. One consequence of this is that Jewish homosexuals, like Jewish heterosexuals, should not be seen narrowly as people who engage in certain kinds of sexual practices, but rather as people and Jews, with the full range of interactions that people and Jews have with each other.

4. Conservative synagogues, individually, regionally and nationally, might organize social action programs to advance the civil protections of gays and lesbians.

It is believed that some Conservative synagogues in the San Francisco area (and perhaps elsewhere) have began performing same-sex marriages. In 2003 the CJLS decided to revisit the issue; no new definitive ruling has yet been forthcoming. [1] The CJLS did issue a statement on April 11, 2005 recognizing these divisions:

1. At the heart of the Torah is the concept of holiness (kedushah) expressed in its command, "Youshall be holy, for I the Lord am holy." Flowing from this declaration are policies regulating the spiritual, ritual, social and sexual lives of Jews. Kiddushin, the sanctification of love in heterosexual marriage, is a centerpiece of Jewish life.

2. For a variety of reasons, the Jewish ideal of heterosexual marriage is unrealistic for many Jews. We emphatically recognize the human dignity (k’vod habriot) of all such individuals, and invite them to participate within our religious communities.

3. Recalling the Torah’s command, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord," we rededicate our movement to making its congregations and educational institutions inclusive and welcoming of all Jews regardless of their marital status or sexual orientation.

4. The parameters of sexual conduct for gay and lesbian Jews, their eligibility for admission to rabbinical and cantorial school, and commitment ceremonies remain the subject of a lively debate within the ongoing deliberations of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. [1]

Homosexuality and Reform Judaism

The Reform Judaism movement, the largest branch of Judaism in North America, has rejected the traditional view in all areas relating to this issue. As such, they do not prohibit ordination of gays and lesbians as rabbis and cantors. They view Levitical laws as sometimes seen to be referring to prostitution, making it a stand against Jews adopting the idolatrous fertility cults and practices of the neighbouring Canaanite nations rather than a blanket condemnation of same-sex intercourse or homosexuality. Reform authorities consider that, in light of what is seen as current scientific evidence about the nature of homosexuality as a biological sexual orientation, a new interpretation of the law is required.

In the late 1980s the primary seminary of the Reform movement, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, changed its admission requirements to allow gays to join the student body. In 1990 Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) officially endorsed a report of their committee on homosexuality and rabbis. They concluded that "all rabbis, regardless of sexual orientation, be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation that they have chosen" and that "all Jews are religiously equal regardless of their sexual orientation."

In 1996 CCAR passed a resolution of civil marriage. However, this same resolution made a distinction between civil marriages and religious marriages; this resolution thus stated:

However we may understand homosexuality, whether as an illness, as a genetically based dysfunction or as a sexual preference and lifestyle - we cannot accommodate the relationship of two homosexuals as a "marriage" within the context of Judaism, for none of the elements of qiddushin (sanctification) normally associated with marriage can be invoked for this relationship. [2]

The Central Conference of American Rabbis support the right of gay and lesbian couples to share fully and equally in the rights of civil marriage, and

That the CCAR oppose governmental efforts to ban gay and lesbian marriage.

That this is a matter of civil law, and is separate from the question of rabbinic officiation at such marriages.

In 1998, an ad hoc CCAR committee on Human Sexuality issued its majority report (11 to 1, 1 abstention) which stated that the holiness within a Jewish marriage "may be present in committed same gender relationships between two Jews and that these relationships can serve as the foundation of stable Jewish families, thus adding strength to the Jewish community." The report called for CCAR to support rabbis in officiating at gay marriages. Also in 1998, the Responsa Committee of the CCAR issued a lengthy teshuvah (rabbinical opinion) that offered detailed argumentation in support of both sides of the question whether a rabbi may officiate at a commitment ceremony for a same-gender couple.

In March 2000 CCAR issued a new resolution stating that "We do hereby resolve that, that the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual, and further resolved, that we recognize the diversity of opinions within our ranks on this issue. We support the decision of those who choose to officiate at rituals of union for same-gender couples, and we support the decision of those who do not."

Homosexuality and Reconstructionist Judaism

The Reconstructionist movement has rejected the traditional view in all areas relating to this issue; they view all restrictions on homosexuality as null and void. As such, they ordain homosexual Jews as rabbis and cantors. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) permits Jewish homosexual marriages and homosexual intermarriages.

Source

This article is based on text from "Homosexuality and Judaism" at Wikipedia.org, and as such is available under the GFDL license.

References

  1. "Homosexuality," Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions
  2. Homosexuality (Word doc) - Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards
  3. Reform's Position on Homosexuality - Soc.Culture.Jewish Newsgroup FAQ

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