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Homosexuality in Jewish Law

Among the sexual perversions proscribed as criminal offenses in the moral code of the Torah are homosexual relations between males (Lev. 18:22). Both offending parties are threatened with capital punishment (Lev. 20:13), though minors under 13 years of age are exempt from this as from any other penalty (Sanh. 54a). Talmudic law extends the prohibition, but not the penalty, which is limited to flagellation, also to lesbianism, i.e., homosexual intimacies between women, based on the general warning not to indulge in the abhorrent practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Sifra 9:8). While the laws on both offenses are codified by Maimonides (Yad, Issurei Bi’ah, 1:14; and 21:8), the prohibition of homosexuality proper is omitted from R. Joseph Caro’s Shulhan Arukh. This omission reflects the perceived absence of homosexuality among Jews rather than any difference of views on the criminality of these acts.

The Bible refers to actual incidents involving homosexuality only in describing the abominations of the sinful city of Sodom, where the entire population demanded of Lot the surrender of his visitors that we may know them (Gen. 19:5), i.e., have carnal knowledge of them (hence the common use of the term sodomy for homosexuality), and again in the story of similar conduct by a group of Benjamites in Gibeah, leading to a disastrous civil war (Judg. 19–20). In addition to these isolated cases, the Talmud records that the Egyptian Potiphar purchased Joseph “for himself “ (Sot. 13b), that is, for homosexual purposes (Rashi).

For the Talmudic period, too, the records know of very few such incidents (see TJ, Sanh. 6:6, 23c; Jos., Ant. 15:25–30). An instructive indication of the rare incidence of homosexuality among Jews may also be found in the interesting history of a legal enactment designed to prevent it. To this end, R. Judah forbade two bachelors to sleep together under one blanket (Kid. 4:14); but the view of the sages prevailed that there was no need for such a safeguard against homosexuality (Kid. 82a). Maimonides (Yad, Issurei Bi’ah 22:2) still followed the Talmud in holding that “Jews are not suspect to practice homosexuality,” and therefore permitted two males to be closeted together.

By the 16th century, conditions had evidently changed to induce Caro, after recording this view, to add: “Nevertheless, in our times, when lewdness is rampant, one should abstain from being alone with another male” (Sh. Ar., EH 24). Yet, a century later, R. Joel Sirkes again suspended the restriction, except as a praiseworthy act of piety, on the ground that “in our lands [Poland] such lewdness is unheard of “ (Bayit Hadash to Tur, EH 24). Rabbinic sources advance various reasons for the strict ban on homosexuality, which, incidentally, is regarded as a universal law included among “the Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah” (Sanh. 57b–58a). It is an unnatural perversion, debasing the dignity of man (Sefer ha-Ḥinnukh, no. 209). Moreover, such acts frustrate the procreative purpose of sex, just as do any other forms of “spilling the seed in vain” (ibid.).

A third objection is seen in the damage to family life, by the homosexual abandoning his wife (Tos. and R. Asher to Ned. 51a). Jewish law, then, rejected the view that homosexuality was to be regarded merely as a disease or as morally neutral, categorically rejecting the view that homosexual acts “between two consenting adults” were to be judged by the same criterion as heterosexual marriage – that is, whether they were intended to foster a permanent relation of love. 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.


Oẓar ha-Posekim, 9 (1965), 236–8; L.M. Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism, (1948), 64f., 134–8; N. Lamm, in: Jewish Life, 35 (1967–68), no. 3, 11ff.; no. 5, 53ff. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: D. Shneer and K. Aviv (eds.), Queer Jews (2002); D. Boyarin et al. (eds.), Queer Theory and the Jewish Question (2003).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.