Homosexuality, Judaism, and Hypocrisy – by Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb

Gay.

This is a word that seems to unite religious people of all backgrounds around the world.

It also drives a knee jerk reaction, causing them to panic, babble incoherently, or simply pretend the word doesn’t exist.

I’ve been asked to explain the Orthodox Jewish response to homosexuality, and while I’m not going to panic or babble, I am going to have to ignore the word for a couple of  paragraphs, to give the necessary background.

The first and fundamental principle of Judaism is love for your fellow human.

In the Talmud (the foundational text for Jewish law) there is a story: the great sage, Hillel the Elder, tells a potential convert that the essence of the Torah is simply, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. The rest is commentary.”

This single teaching shows us clearly that our key religious duty demands that when we look at other people, our first reaction must not be, “is this person Jewish, not Jewish, white, or black… or gay?” Why? Because we’d hate it if we were looked at in such a way.

According to the Hillel principle, our first reaction should be to see something that is so often forgotten, yet is so obvious, it seems like a cliché:

Any person standing before us is human, before he or she is anything else. Our humanity is surely the first thing we’d all like others to see in us.

How does all this relate to the Orthodox Jewish response to homosexuality?

Homosexual sex is not permitted by Orthodox Jewish law, and there are no ways to get around this.

This has led some rabbis to write that it is fine to live in a gay relationship so long as the couple does not engage in sex. This, however, is grossly insulting to both the couple and the intelligence of the readers of this religious response.

This post will not enter inito a debate over whether homosexuality is the result of nature or nurture. Regardless of anyone’s opinion on the matter, what is clear is that a person’s sexuality is not an aspect of a person’s life that can be wished away through “de-programming,” a two week retreat, or any other measure beloved of certain religious groups.

The Talmud tells us that to change one aspect in our personalities takes 7 years. One could only imagine the sort of effort to reorient our sexuality – if indeed such a thing were possible at all.

This entire line of thinking, in fact, is emblematic of the irrationality that has tainted this debate.

What has been missing from the discussion so far is one very obvious point that makes questions of nature or nurture irrelevant: when homosexuals have sex, they only violate one Jewish law.

It is a serious one, but it is only one.

How did this particular violation become so taboo among religious Jews, while non-religious Jews desecrating the Sabbath became so easily accepted?

It is exactly this irrationality that allows the Orthodox community to view Reform Judaism (which systematically violates many laws in the eyes of Orthodoxy) or secular Jews (who do not live religiously at all) as more problematic than homosexuality.

This is not in any way a suggestion that I condemn secular or Reform Jews; rather, that in order to be intellectually honest, Orthodox Jews should not refuse to admit a gay group as members of Melbourne’s Jewish roof body as they did with gay rights group, Aleph, while they have no issue sharing that same body with Reform or secular Jewish organisations whose entire worldviews would seem to undermine the very fabric of Orthodoxy.

So what is the answer?

I believe that there is a fundamental disagreement between Orthodoxy and modernity when it comes to the rights of the individual.

Sometimes, it is impossible to fit certain ideas from one framework into the other. This may prove uncomfortable – even difficult – at times.

This is the nature of any belief structure: in order to believe in something, there will be ideas and actions that are not acceptable.

The bottom line, however, is that if we want to adhere to the most fundamental principles of Judaism – do unto others – we must understand the difference between theory and practice.

While certain theoretical elements of Judaism can never be reconciled with modernity, practical accommodation of those elements will often be vital in order not to violate the first principle.

If we shun people, treat them as less than human, or even patronise them, we violate our most sacred belief, and anything else is commentary.

We are therefore compelled to see people as more than a sexual identity: we are compelled to see them – and treat them – as human beings – just as God created them.

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26 Responses to “Homosexuality, Judaism, and Hypocrisy – by Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb”

  1. benji says:

    I agree with your conclusion regarding the inclusion of the gay rights group to a larger forum of Jewish organizations. Excluding gay Jews while including reform Jews is not logical.

    But where do you draw the line as an educator? Show our compassion and care for others with beliefs different than ours, while the Torah desgnates the act of gay sex as a toeeva, a strong word for abomination?

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    • Yaron Gottlieb says:

      Benji,

      Just as you would not attack a violator of Shabbat nor ostracize them from your world so too gay people should not be cut off.

      In our current state of Galut (exile) from Israel and the Temple it is not upon us to pull the Baptist preacher stunt, threatening hellfire and brimstone.

      We have to accept everyone for who they are, human beings. When we come to educate, especially our children, we may educate for which ever philosophy we wish.

      But we must avoid educating towards hatred, especially as Jews as it is rejecting one of our main precepts

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  2. The issue being discussed is how to skirt around the prohibition of two men having some sort of sex together (remember, gay men have only one less option with sex than heterosexual couples), rather than to take the prohibition to task, which you say in absolute terms is not an option. Judaism is capable of reinventing itself to accomodate societal norms. It’s been done before. What is everyone really so scared of? I know the answer. ;)

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    • Shanna says:

      never gonna happen …. you know that ….
      interestingly its OK for the girls!

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    • Yaron Gottlieb says:

      Michael,

      There are a number of issues that you raise, each of which are a whole post, but I will try to answer briefly and possibly get around to them if time permits.

      1. There are limits to how far the religion can reinvent itself. The oral nature of the law grants the rabbis a great amount of leeway, but there are points beyond which even they cannot manipulate things

      2. I would be interested to find out which topics the rabbis fundamentally changed the law to accommodate the norms of the society around them. I know I could present dozens of instances that go the other way.

      3. You are possibly missing the main point. You seem to suggest that Judaism must comply to societal norms – why?
      The philosophical basis for Judaism is similar to that of Western civilization, but not identical. There are differences, and in this post-modern world (or are we up to the post-post-modernists now?) who is to say which one is correct or better.
      I know that I am right, just as you know that you are right with just as much conviction.
      The main point of my article is that there should be a live and let live way of dealing with each other.
      If you do not agree with Orthodox Judaism that is fine, but opt out quietly. I would never prevent you from living as you wish, and I would expect you to extend me the same courtesy.

      4. What is the answer you allude to… I’m dying to know.

      Shanna;

      The reason for the difference in severity for the male and female (it is not permitted for both), comes from a technicality.

      One elements of sex within the religious definition is for there to be penetration by the penis.

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  3. Malki Rose says:

    On the surface the Jewish community’s stance on Homosexuality may SEEM to be a halachic issue. However Shanna’s second point seems to suggest something quite different.

    Halacha has only an issue with Male Homosexuality, for the reasons mentioned by Rav Yaron which have much to do with the nature of the sex itself. Lesbianism, on the other hand, is something which the Talmud discusses in very different terms indeed and those who bother to study Talmud will find that there is no prohibition on Lesbianism.

    However, both Gays and Lesbians are subject to the equal persecution and exclusion within the orthodox Jewish community. (As in other orthodox communities. Jews are really not that unique, they persecute their minorities too. Wow, what kind of persecution do Jews have to withstand to figure out that they shouldn’t do it to other people.)

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  4. Malki Rose says:

    So it would seem that the issue Orthodoxy takes with Homosexuality is more a social and moral one.

    It is about fear, social deviance, a failure to comply with ‘normal’ behaviour, going against nature and most importantly an obvious reflection of peoples personal discomfort of all the notions associated with Homosexuality. (There is also a lack of understanding about what being gay actually means.)

    Then there are those who are busy trying to mask their own homosexuality with public displays of homophobia, loud statements to the effect that they find it abhorrent, hurrying into dishonest marriages to ensure their true selves remain hidden and then of course spend the rest of their married life avoiding intimacy with their spouses out of sheer disgust. (Sheesh, how many years can someone pretend to have a headache?)

    The foundation of Rav Yaron’s article is Ahavas Yisroel or the ‘‘Do unto others’’ principle, and at its core is compassion.

    Even if we disagree with a persons personal choices about the way they live their own life, are they not entitled to the same respect and compassion as any other man/woman?

    A friend asked me, ‘Does this mean I have to be nice and forgiving and compassionate to murderers, thieves and rapists too? Do I have to accept their behaviour if I think it violates the very essence of Judaism?”’ Well to a small extent yes, and there are programs set up by all sorts of religious organisations who visit prisons to offer words or compassion to its inmates, in the spirit of compassion and rehabilitation.

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    • Yaron Gottlieb says:

      Malki,

      You raise an interesting question regarding the nature of punishment and forgiveness. Too often we see the relatives in a murder case announce to cameras that they are glad that the perpetrator of the crime ‘got what was coming to him’, and that there is no forgiveness in their hearts.

      Are punishments merely a way of getting back at people, or is it to restore balance within society, in which case it would mean that we are forgiving the criminal even as they are receiving their punishment.

      If anything it would seem the latter is the Jewish way of looking at things.

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  5. Malki Rose says:

    However to be gay, is not to be a criminal, although some may argue that both are violations of Torah Law and therefore there is no distinction.

    But there are people who speak Lashon Hara (slander), steal from one another, do fraudulent business transactions, bear false witness, commit adultery, lie and abuse women and children.

    These acts are what the Torah refers to as sins ‘Bein adom L’chaveiroh’ (Between Man and his fellow man). And it is the responsibility of individuals and leaders to protect one another from these sorts of acts, acts committed against others people.

    To break Shabbat, to eat non-kosher, to marry outside the faith
    and to be gay these are all what the Torah considers to be ‘Bein adom l’makom’ – Between Man and God.
    Let God be the judge of how best to deal with ‘violations’ of this nature, if and where they exist. Our job is to find a way to have compassion on one another and to avoid judging until we have walked in another’s shoes.

    A Jewish Heretic once said ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’.
    Each person is given his/her own lot in life, whether it is to overcome or to become, and that is between them and their God.

    This is not a halachic issue. This is a social one. An issue based on fear more than anything else.

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    • shaun says:

      Hear hear! I agree with you in every aspect Malki. For sins between man to man, obviously, it should be punishable by man. For sins between man to God, let God to the punishing. And feel compassion for such people, rather than hatred and disgust.

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  6. Malki Rose says:

    Gay Jews are still Jews and still people, and judging them, shunning them or making them feel that their God and their own people reject them only pushes them further from Judaism and further from the Torah.

    It is one thing to be part of a persecuted minority, and an entirely different thing to be part of two persecuted minorities.

    If anything they should be brought closer to the community and to Judaism, to be welcomed into the fold.. for only their in the heart of tolerance can Chinuch (education) transpire and discussions take place to resolve these differences.

    So far it looks as though the orthodox are too easily scared or threatened to have these discussions.

    Perhaps people from the orthodox community raise their hands and say,
    ‘We don’t understand this, but we’re ready to have the discussion in a mature, compassionate and pro-ahavas yisroel fashion. Even if we cant allow the ‘acts’, we will find a way to accept the ‘people’ warts and all. Just as we expect them to accept us for ours”.

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  7. meika says:

    Of course, from a modernist more Darwinian perspective the clash between two outcomes of evolution, religiosity and sexuality, it all looks insane, but unavoidable, and it looks like the clash will never go away.

    [Especially where the human love of the straight line, & enforcing consistency (platonic ideals via Mainmonides more recently) over the plasticity of the real world is regarded as the be all and end all of piety.]

    Two outcomes of human evolution are in conflict. Big deal. Why fight to join something that refuses to accept it’s evolutionary heritage, even though it (orthodoxy) is completely and utterly powered by that biological heritage. Orthodoxy is the new kid on the block, desperately pretending to be otherwise. This is why fundamentalists of all stripes deny the real age of the world, so they can claim to be ancient and original (but not in a new way, let alone gay).

    Why join a community with that pretence in it, that’s what I don’t get. I agree, slip away quietly. Quickly. In quantum leaps. Allow the orthodox to live on in reservations of the mind.

    Some will never accept the evolutionary history of the genetic biases underpinning their expressed preferences, sexual or religious. They are biologically determined to believe, they cannot help it, and so a bronze age view of the world is the be all and end all.

    Of course if you’re both biologically determined to be gay and religious but don’t admit an evolutionary history of these your preferences, (because of one of those determinations – the religios), those bronze age certaintudes are seriously gonna f.. you up

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  8. Pete Koval says:

    Dear Alex,

    In your post, you said that “the first and fundamental principle of Judaism is love for your fellow human”, on the basis of a story in the Talmud, which you say is “the foundational text for Jewish law”.

    I’m confused. I thought that the Torah was the foundational text for Jewish law.

    I apologise in advance if, through my own ignorance of orthodox Jewish beliefs, the following comes accross as insolent or offensive…

    Is not true that according to orthodox Jewish tradition, the Torah is the eternal and sacred Word of God, revealed to Moses on Mt Sinai?
    If this is the case, how can Orthodox Jews accept people who engage in homosexual acts (which are strictly prohibited in the Torah) into their communities?

    I agree with you that it is irrational for orthodox Jews to ostricize gay members of the Jewish community, while tolerating reform or secular Jewish groups (if indeed they do tolerate these groups).
    But as long as orthodox Jews believe that the Torah is the revealed word of God, how can they willingly go against it?

    Orthodox Jews would either have to denounce their belief in the eternal sacredness of the Torah as the revealed Word of God, or they cannot willingly accept people who break the rules set out in the Torah into the Jewish community.

    Perhaps it’s very pessimistic of me to say, but this seems like an almost insoluble problem.

    What are your thoughts?

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    • Alex Fein says:

      Hi Pete.

      I love your question, but it’s not for me to answer. The post was written by Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb, and he’ll have a go at getting back to you on this one.

    • Yaron Gottlieb says:

      Pete,

      Let’s start at the beginning.

      While it is true that the Torah is the basis for Jewish law, there is also an oral tradition that has been preserved in the Talmud.

      While the Rabbis have the power to interpret the law with a certain amount of leeway (an eye for an eye never led to the gouging out of someones eye), there are restrictions.

      Therefore you are correct in your assumption that there is no way to twist the words of the Torah to allow homosexual sex…

      BUT
      The acceptance of a gay person is the same as the acceptance of a person who breaks any of the laws. It is important to focus on the person and treating them as a human.

      There is no need to ostracise them, or to prevent their involvement in any communal affairs.

      There is a difference between the community and the individual, and at this point in history there is only the individual in the Jewish world. This implies that it is up to us to focus on our own deeds and accept others for who they are.

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  9. Miriam Roth says:

    What fascinating food for thought!

    Further to this – I have a question about homosexuality and the Torah.

    As I understand it, the exact wording of the text in this instance is roughly (and allowing for translation, so bear with me), “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman”. As I believe Malki pointed out, no such distinction is made about women. However, the next verse goes on to be quite specific about prohibiting ‘carnal relations’ between animals and both men and women. In contrast, the message here seems to be quite unequivocal.

    Therefore, I suppose my question is this – and while I am extremely loath to be the person mindlessly quoting the Bible – I am nonetheless interested in exploring the ostensible vagueness in these two passages. To me, there is a vast difference between the rather poetic ‘lie’ with and the contrastingly workman-like “carnal relations”.

    Is it to do with notions of what constitutes a sexual act, as we’ve discussed previously? Assumptions made by scholars? Could there actually even be other ways to interpret this text?

    Similarly, could it be to do with the world view of the ‘Founding Fathers’ (in the sense that they were ‘fathers’ and not ‘mothers’, so to speak?

    Or, is my Hebrew really really bad and I’ve completely missed the point?

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    • Alex Fein says:

      Hi Miriam.

      Yaron’s having technical difficulties with our spam filter so he sent me his response to you to post here:

      “Miriam,

      You have picked up on a very interesting anomaly in the words of the Bible.

      The usual words that the Bible uses for illicit sex are ‘uncovering nakedness’, yet here, as you pointed out we have the words ‘as one lies with a woman’ for gay people.

      The simple answer for this is that according to Jewish law, the act of sex is identified as the penis penetrating the vagina.

      Due to this definition, lesbian sex is not classified as a union that can be outlawed as illicit sex since the sexual organ of one of the partners cannot achieve penetration. Even though the act is not forbidden Biblically, the rabbis forbade the union.

      It is for this reason that male homosexual sex can only be comparable to heterosexual sex, as opposed to lesbian sex, since there is no penetration perpetrated by genitalia.

      Yaron.”

  10. Malki Rose says:

    “even though the act is not forbidden, Biblically the rabbis forbade the union”
    were you referring to women here?

    If so, please demonstrate a source for this.

    Also your definition of illicit sex, seems to allow a fair amount of remaining permitted activities between two men? This has been the argument of a small handful of rabbis. That only certainly acts are forbidden between men. Those which fall outside of Rashi’s explaination of the Leviticus pasuk.

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  11. Yaron Gottlieb says:

    Malki,

    The rabbinic prohibition appears in the Rambam, in the laws of Issurei Bia chapter 21 law 8 and in the Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer Chapter 20, law 2. These two sources present lesbianism as being a quasi-Biblical issue.

    As to your second point this could have been the easy way to answer the question. The Bible explicitly forbids only one act, the rabbis have told us to distance ourselves from the others, but since it is not explicit in the Bible limit yourselves to that.

    The problem I see with this answer is that it is incredibly patronising and simply sweeping the real issues under the carpet to be dealt with… hopefully never

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  12. Malki Rose says:

    Firstly your term ‘rabbinic prohibition’ is misrepresentative. There is NO ‘rabbinic prohibition’.
    Although there certainly is rabbinic discussion. With very little in the way of decisive conclusions.

    The sources you mention, as well as the Rambam and the Gemara, take issue with women specifically “marrying” other women, or take issue with married women who dedicate their sexual energy to other women INSTEAD of to their husbands.

    These discussions revolve around the notion of how Lesbianism ‘interrupts’ the ‘natural order of things’. As it can stand in the way of the ‘job men and women have to do’.

    Ultimately the only REAL conclusion (as presented in the Gemara Yevamot) is that a woman who has been mesolelet with another woman is forbidden to marry a High Priest.

    But I am sure that most lesbians have no problem not marrying a Cohen. And the fact that this point is made suggests that Chazal had very little concept of Lesbianism as anything more than something that straight women do before they are married to alleviate boredom.

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    • Yaron Gottlieb says:

      Malki,

      The Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch (two of the key texts of Jewish law) forbid female-female unions.

      As you point out the word used is ‘mesalselot’ without giving a description of what this entails.

      The question is then what is and is not permitted under the terms of ‘mesalselot’

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  13. Malki Rose says:

    please re-address the terms “forbid” and “unions”. This is extremely important.

    Both of your mentioned sources take issue with female sexual unions in an extremely specific context and in your capacity as a Rabbi you must be extremely careful to only present such statements within the framework of these specific contexts.

    Neither I nor 17 orthodox sources believe that your conclusion is in fact the case (including those sitting with Rav Huna during the Yevamot discussion). I am more than happy to demonstrate in enormous detail the full discussions held between various sources, the contemporary theses written on the subject by modern rabbinic scholars and ultimately suggest a rethinking of your preferred sources the Rambam and the Even Ha-Ezer.

    Please remember the ‘Shivim Panim LaTorah’ principle, and consider that it is perhaps possible that your view on this issue, and the way you view these sources may not be universal.

    And following that, yes, we should return to the real issue of treating all peoples with kindness and compassion. Regardless of their limitations in being able to serve God.

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  14. Malki Rose says:

    … and no .. nobody is asking questions about what is and is not permitted under the term ‘mesolelet’.

    Being mesolelet is not being forbidden. Merely the woman who is mesolelet is being forbidden from a High Priest. Or rather the question is how to deal with a woman who is mesolelet with another woman.. or if there is a need to ‘deal’ with them at all.

    That is the nature of the Rabbinic discussion.

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  15. Fredi says:

    Allow me to go on a “goy” tangent:

    Yaron Gottlieb says on March 15, 2010 at 6:32 am: It is not upon us to pull the Baptist preacher stunt, threatening hellfire and brimstone. And on March 15, 2010 at 9:56 am Malki Rose adds:
    A Jewish Heretic once said ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’.

    Hey guys: You can’t have it both ways. I believe the “hellfire and brimstone” thing was the doing of misguided followers. I prefer by far the second reference, said to the woman adulterer. You will note that in this instance there is no mention of the man, he is not even bothered. To go back to the subject at hand, in our “goyim” world there is also too much obsession with sex and sin as opposed to a strong emphasis on a loving and merciful God.

    The Carpenter from Nazareth was a strong proponent of the Golden Rule: Do unto others etc…

    Fredi

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  16. Malki Rose says:

    Correct Fredi. And despite an excellent marketing team, Douglas Adams described the ole J-Man best.. “nailed to a tree for saying how good it would be to be nice to each other for a change”.

    It seems that promoting kindness only lands us in hot water. Such a shame. Maybe thats why so few engage in it.

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  17. Religious oppression of homosexual expression has been conclusively proven to lead to increased rates of mental health issues, self-harm and suicide.

    The strong and clear message that I am getting is that it is acceptable to let young people suffer and kill themselves just because people believe homosexual behaviour is a sin.

    Michael.

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