Until the late 20th century, lesbians were invisible in Jewish textual traditions and within Jewish societies. Only recently have Jewish scholars and communities faced the issue of how erotic love between women fits into a Jewish view of the world. While male homosexual behavior is prohibited in the book of Leviticus, same-sex sexuality between women is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Some commentators think that this difference exists because in ancient times only acts in which men emitted semen were defined as sexual. More traditional Jewish scholars assume that erotic attraction between women did not exist in the biblical world, or that rules that applied to men would automatically apply to women. Lacking any real evidence, it cannot be said with certainty why the Bible does not mention same-sex acts between women.
Female homoeroticism is mentioned in Sifra, an early rabbinic commentary on the book of Leviticus, in a comment about the prohibition against Egyptian practices (18:3). The author apparently understood lesbian marriage, a contemporary Roman practice, to be in this category and sought to prohibit it among Jews. The Talmud does not mention lesbian marriage, but does prohibit an activity it defines as mesolelot or tribadism (women rubbing genitals against each other). The main question asked in the Talmud regarding women who practice mesolelot (Yev. 76a) concerns such women's eligibility for priestly marriages or, in other words, whether such activity allows a woman to retain her status as a virgin. The gemara states majority and minority opinions; the majority assumes a woman who practices mesolelot is eligible to marry a priest and defines mesolelot as a minor infraction. In the 12th-century Mishneh Torah, legal scholar and philosopher Moses *Maimonides connected the talmudic references to mesolelot to the levitical prohibition against Egyptian practices in Sifra, but also suggested that this behavior should not disqualify a woman from marrying a priest. Maimonides did recommend that the courts administer floggings to women caught engaging in homoerotic behavior and also warns men to keep their wives from spending time with women who are known to practice mesolelot.
During the early modern period, there are infrequent references to lesbian sexuality in Jewish sources, but things began to change in the 20th century. The most notable example is found in a Yiddish play written in 1907 by Sholem *Asch entitled Got fun Nekome ("God of Vengeance"). It was performed all over Europe and America in the Yiddish theater and ultimately translated into English and produced on Broadway in 1923. This was the first play with a lesbian theme to be performed on the American stage. The lesbian subplot concerned a tender relationship between a prostitute and the daughter of a brothel owner, and the play included several explicit homoerotic scenes. During the Broadway performance a
Asch's play reflects a trend during the early part of the 20th century when women began to live openly as lesbians. Among Jewish women, the writer Gertrude *Stein is the best known. Another was Pauline *Newman, a Jewish labor movement activist. However, Newman, who lived openly and raised a child with her partner in Greenwich Village, was exceptional. Homosexual women during this time period generally did not refer to themselves as lesbians, and they did not live in marriage-like relationships with other women. The story of Lillian *Wald, the Jewish social reformer, was more typical. Wald's relationships with other women were central to her life and work, yet they were hidden from view. Despite significant historical evidence in support of the assertion that Wald had same-sex relationships, it remains controversial to label Wald a lesbian.
The first Jewish novel to have a lesbian as the main character was Wasteland (1946), written by Ruth Seid under the pseudonym Jo *Sinclair. The heroine discussed her sexual preferences with her Jewish family and the story focuses on her brother's effort to come to terms with his sister's lifestyle. Such a psychologically healthy portrait of a lesbian relationship was unusual for the time period.
As a result of the feminist and gay liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s, large numbers of women began to identify themselves as lesbians and some began to explore what it meant to be lesbian and Jewish. Evelyn Torton Beck collected the writings of some of these women whose poetry and prose spoke of their rejection as Jews in the lesbian community and as lesbians in the Jewish community in her groundbreaking Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (1982). In 1989, Christie Balka and Andy Rose edited Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish, highlighting the concerns of lesbians and gay men for inclusion in the Jewish community.
Another major development involved the religious community. In the 1980s, Reform and Reconstructionist women rabbis, among them Stacy Offner and Linda Holtzman, began to reveal their lesbian orientation. Initially many lost their jobs, but within a few years the Reform and Reconstructionist movements began to admit openly gay and lesbian students to their rabbinical training programs. Some lesbian rabbis also found a home in the gay and lesbian synagogue movement. Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation, edited by three rabbis who identify themselves as lesbian, Rebecca Alpert, Sue Levi Elwell, and Shirley Idelson, includes autobiographical essays by 18 Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist lesbian rabbis ordained in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s.
Beginning in the 1990s there was a serious interest in lesbian issues in the larger Jewish community. A group of Orthodox lesbians, who call themselves Orthodykes, is active in the United States and in Israel. There has been a movement within Conservative Judaism for acceptance of lesbians and gay men, and support in the Reconstructionist and Reform movements for gay marriage. Some synagogues make an effort to welcome lesbian and gay members, and these changes have made it possible for lesbian Jews to feel at home in the Jewish community. The next generation of Jewish lesbians at the beginning of the 21st century is involved in movements that self-identify as Queer and are raising questions about the status of bisexual and transgender Jews. Lesbian Jews continue to hope for recognition beyond mere acceptance and tolerance; they seek a reinterpretation of Jewish values, including the assumption that heterosexuality is normative. They desire inclusion of their visions and stories as part of a reconstructed Jewish textual tradition and they aim to create an environment of complete comfort in which to claim their identity and celebrate their lives.
R. Alpert, Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition (1997); R. Biale, Women and Jewish Law: An Exploration of Women's Issues in Halakhic Sources (1984); D. Shneer and K. Aviv (eds.), Queer Jews (2002).