[Editorial Note:Giving you a glimpse of what lies between the hardcover of Rebecca Alpert’s new book Whose Torah? And check out this interview by Zeek editor Jo Ellen Green Kaiser of Rabbi Rebecca Alpert. And of course, give us your take on the issue. I’ll be posting a response in the next few days–CK.]

Forbidden Sexual Relationships

The ancient textual tradition forbids many sexual behaviors and relationships that are common and acceptable in today’s society while allowing some now forbidden. Although ancient Jews practiced polygamy and prostitution and accepted sexual encounters between unmarried men and women and oral and anal sex within marriage, they prohibited many other sexual practices that are commonly accepted today—such as masturbation, homosexual relations, sex before (and outside of) marriage, romantic love, and sexual relationships with non-Jews. These matters require Jews to rethink them. If we are interested in justice, then we need to support those whose sexuality is not considered “normal” by society’s standards.

In most Orthodox and Hasidic communities, arranged marriages are the norm, and young people who join these communities welcome them. In some instances, women join in order remove themselves from pressure to be sexual before marriage. More liberal Orthodox communities, on the other hand, have come to terms with sex before marriage, and the “tefillin date” is a common experience. Traditionally, young men must say morning prayers wearing a ritual object wrapped around their head and left arm known as tefillin. If they stay overnight with their dates, they need to be prepared to pray in the morning. The decision to carry tefillin along on a date acknowledges this possibility.

Liberal Judaism has come to terms more readily with the expansion of acceptable sexual relationships. Although remaining committed to marriage as the best option, liberal Jews have abandoned other prohibitions around sexuality. Divorce was always an acceptable practice in Jewish law, so it was not difficult to accept serial monogamy as a norm. Single adults having sex is considered appropriate and even desirable for their mental health. Masturbation is assumed to be a normal part of sexual experimentation. Teens are taught about and encouraged to participate in safe sexual activities, provided they treat the partners they choose with respect. The laws of family purity are no longer practiced, and so menstrual rules of intermittent abstinence do not govern sex within marriage. Gays and lesbians also are respected, and liberal Judaism has begun to tackle issues related to bisexual and transgender Jews. While all of these issues have required much thought and some anguish, dealing with the issue of gay rights has thus far been the greatest challenge to Jewish liberals and traditionalists alike, although, ironically, prohibitions against homosexuality are less severe than those against other sexual practices.

Homosexuality is mentioned only rarely in the canonical texts of Jewish tradition. The Hebrew Bible does not mention female same-sex relationships at all, although later commentaries suggest that the reference in Leviticus to forbidden “practices of Egypt” is about female-female marriage. Leviticus forbids male same-sex acts and describes them as toevah, an “abomination” (although the Hebrew word is difficult to translate, this is how most English versions render it). This prohibition occurs twice, and the second time it carries the penalty of death, although even contemporary Orthodox leaders reject the death penalty for this infraction. Recently, scholars have debated the meaning of this interdiction, although it received scant attention prior to the advent of gay liberation. Clearly, the prohibition does not refer to gay relationships as they exist today since such relationships were unknown in ancient times. It is more likely a reference to a particular sexual act—probably anal intercourse—that was prohibited along with other practices either to distinguish Israelite practices from those of their neighbors or to indicate an abhorrence of mixing together things that were perceived not to belong together—in this case, bodily fluids; in others, fabrics, animals, foods. In any case, it was one prohibition among many concerning sexual behaviors, and was not singled out as it is today.

The story of Sodom in the book of Genesis, which describes a group of men who demand homosexual sex from guests and strangers to the town, is the only other instance where a male homosexual act is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. While Christian commentators take this event as a condemnation of homosexuality (hence the term “sodomite”), Jewish tradition is more concerned about how rude and inhospitable such a request would be in the case of either gender. Contemporary commentators have seen love between men in the biblical friendship of David and Jonathan, and love between women in Ruth and Naomi’s relationship. No evidence exists to indicate that the authors of the stories intended such readings of the texts. However, the relationships are described in the biblical text in a way that leaves open the possibility of midrashic interpretations and elaborations that would allow gay men and lesbians to imagine that they might have had biblical progenitors.

Following Biblical law, the Talmud prohibits two men from sleeping under the same blanket. However, a minority opinion permits this, expressing the idea that Jewish men would not engage in homosexual acts, even if given the opportunity. The Talmud permits women, known to engage in female homoerotic acts, to marry priests (who could only marry virgins), because these acts are not considered sex,which requires penile penetration. It also assumes that these women, despite having relations with other women, are going to marry men as would likely have been the case in ancient times with arranged marriages. Similarly, medieval commentaries instruct husbands to punish their wives if they discover them to be engaging in homoerotic acts with other women, but this is considered a minor matter, not a cause for concern. The medieval period also produced male homoerotic poetry, but we do not know the extent to which this indicates widespread behavior or simply an interest in copying Arabic poetic conventions of the times. Together these written sources tell us that homosexual behavior was clearly known in Jewish societies throughout ancient times, but it was not considered a disruption to the social fabric. It was also not a justice concern.

In the modern period there are literary sources that mention homosexual relationships. Yiddish literature has a recurring theme of cross-dressing women who are thought to carry men’s souls in women’s bodies. But until the gay liberation movement, homosexuality was rarely discussed publicly in the Jewish world, and there was a commonly held notion, not unlike that expressed in the Talmud, that Jews simply were not susceptible to same-sex attractions. This idea was shattered in the 1970s and 1980s. Many Jews began to identify publicly as gay and lesbian, and the community had to face the reality of openly gay and lesbian people who wanted to join synagogues, raise children, and serve as teachers and rabbis.

The early reactions were primarily disbelief, resulting in the invisibility of gay and lesbian concerns for quite some time. In the 1970s, gay Jews developed new synagogues in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and they were actually welcomed by a few Jewish organizations in their early years, although most ignored them. The liberal Jewish community received Nice Jewish Girls,[i] < #_edn1> an anthology of coming-out stories of Jewish lesbians, with curiosity, while the Orthodox placed its editor and authors under a ban.

Gay men and lesbians demanded and began to find acceptance in the liberal Jewish community by the late 1980s. Gay synagogues applied to affiliate with religious movements, and rabbinical schools were challenged to ordain openly lesbian and gay clergy. A number of authors published books and articles demanding the attention of the organized Jewish community. Most recently, many rabbis have begun to perform same-sex marriages at the request of Jewish couples. Although Orthodox leaders are still unwilling to accept people who identify publicly as gay or lesbian, growing numbers of Jews who want to identify this way are challenging their positions. Given that there are no legal barriers to the acceptance of lesbian sex and only minimal barriers to gay male sex (some have argued that abstinence from anal sex should be the only criterion for Orthodox acceptance of gay men), it is quite possible that this situation will change over time.

The liberal Jewish community has been remarkably supportive and welcoming of gay men and lesbians who seek to be involved. Many rabbis perform commitment ceremonies, and many synagogues welcome gay and lesbian couples, provide a caring educational environment for their children, support families who are dealing with daughters and sons coming out, and allow gay men and lesbians to serve in leadership positions. Gay men and lesbians, in turn, accept the ideals of the Jewish community. They understand that being welcomed is predicated on a model of monogamous marriage, child rearing, and the nuclear family. (Of course, the same strictures apply to heterosexuals.) Other sexual life choices simply are not as welcome.

Bisexuality is another matter. The main factor in many Jews’ acceptance of gay men and lesbians is an understanding of same-sex attraction and behavior as not chosen, and therefore not amenable to change. As such, it must be accepted as a variation that is part of God’s plan for human nature. But there is still discomfort with the idea that people are choosing lives that do not conform to the heterosexual ideal. According to most official Jewish religious groups’ pronouncements, if choice is involved, the individual should choose the path that conforms to the majority’s standards—that is, heterosexuality. Bisexuals claim that they are sexually attracted to both men and women, and that gender is not a significant factor in selecting a sexual partner. This idea challenges fundamental assumptions about sexual choices in ways that strictly gay and lesbian sexuality does not.

Jewish communities are only beginning to support transgender rights. The first transgender rabbi was ordained by the Reform movement at the dawn of the twenty first century. Transgender Jews are using text and midrash to tell their stories and make their demands for acceptance in the Jewish community in vivid and creative ways. They also raise questions that challenge rigid assumptions about the existence of only two genders in Jewish communal settings. Transgender people experience Judaism differently when they transition, and that experience makes us ever more aware of how gender differences are expressed in Jewish settings. The simple act of not making assumptions about someone’s gender, providing unisex bathrooms in public Jewish spaces, and making sure we know what pronoun they prefer to be used in reference to them, make a big difference.

The State of Israel has been surprisingly open to the inclusion of gay men and lesbians as well. Although the Orthodox have complete authority in matters of marriage and other issues of personal status and have made gay pride parades occasions for screaming battles and threats of violence as well as celebrations, Israel is ultimately a secular state and has proven welcoming to gay men and lesbians. They serve openly in the army, are entitled to domestic partnership benefits in some cases, and in recent years, have developed a gay and lesbian subculture similar to that in the United States, including publications, media exposure, social and political groups, and public meeting places. As most non-Orthodox Jews in Israel are not religious, the question of gay rabbis, marriages, and synagogues is not important there. Gay synagogues do flourish around the world, however, and the World Congress of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Jewish Organizations has representation in Latin America, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia.

[i] < #_ednref1> Evelyn Torton Beck, ed., Nice Jewish Girls: a Lesbian Anthology (Watertown, MA: Persephone Press, 1982).