Homosexuality in Judaism


Judaism is founded primarily on the Torah, which warns against behavior that blurs the distinction between men and women and prohibits most types of sexual behavior that does not lead to procreation. Homosexuality and homosexual acts are mentioned relatively rarely, but in those instances such as Leviticus 18:22, they are described as one of several abominations including incest and the eating of unclean animals. This label of “abomination” was reserved for acts that were so disgusting to the God of Israel that such an act committed by a person or persons could result in the punishment of the entire Jewish community. Sexual intercourse between two men was considered a capital crime, although there is no record in any Jewish source of the death penalty for this act actually being carried out.

The severity of the consequences for such acts may be reflected in the story of Lot in Sodom (Genesis: 19). In it, a gang of men demand that Lot turn over his two male visitors, so that this gang may “know” the visitors. Lot is so horrified that he offers his own daughters to the gang as a way to prevent this. The traditional interpretation is that Lot makes this decision because the consequences of allowing male homosexual rape and/or such a violation of his culture’s strict hospitality laws must have been greater than the consequences of allowing his own daughters to be raped.

Modern Judaism comprises several movements which differ in how they interpret the Torah. Orthodox Jews generally adhere to the laws and practices as set down in the Torah and interpreted by the rabbis; the Conservative movement attempts to preserve the tradition recognizing its historical development, whereas the Reform movement adheres to the “spirit” or ethical content of the Torah. There is considerable variation in how members in each of these branches view homosexuality, with conservative and liberal contingents present in each movement. However, some general statements can be made.

The Orthodox movement forbids homosexual acts and considers homosexual attraction unnatural, although not forbidden. As long as the homosexual remains celibate, no violation of Jewish law occurs. Although some adherents in the Orthodox movement interpret Leviticus 18:22 as specifying that only anal sex is to be considered an abomination, they are a minority. The documentary Trembling before G-d (2001) reflects the conflict between the Orthodox movement’s view of homosexuality and Orthodox homosexuals.

The Conservative movement considers homosexual acts a violation of Jewish law, but at the same level of seriousness as other violations like eating nonkosher food. In December 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), the chief lawmaking body of the Conservative movement, approved three rabbinic opinions relating to homosexuality. Two of those official opinions stressed traditional positions, such as the prohibition on anal sex between men and the supremacy of heterosexual marriage. The third opinion allowed for individual rabbis to sanction same-sex unions and for the rabbinical ordination of homosexuals. To protest that third opinion, four members of the twenty-five member CJLS resigned. Those opinions and the resulting protests illustrate the protracted controversy over homosexuality in the Conservative movement.

The Reform movement does not interpret Levitical laws as injunctions against specific acts. Instead, they are interpreted as being a means for the Jewish people of the time to maintain their identity. The Reform movement permits commitment ceremonies for homosexuals and the ordination of openly homosexual rabbis and cantors.

The controversy over homosexuality is strongly felt in Israel, where antidiscrimination laws were passed in 1992 and allowed for common-law marriage of same-sex couples in 2006. A gay-pride parade to be held in August of 2006 had to be rescheduled for November 2006 after many prominent rabbis declared their opposition to the event, warning that it could lead to violence. The November parade was held peacefully after negotiations with the police and the municipality of Jerusalem, with rabbis such as Steven  participating.

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