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Paul Halsall : Judaism and Homosexuality

[5 Aug 1993 ]


There are some aspects of Jewish tradition which oppose homosexuality.

All of these must of course be understood against the background that Jews needed to have children to survive the centuries of [variable in degree but constant] anti-semitism of the Christian and Muslim societies in which they lived.

But Jewish tradition is mixed. Just as Catholics have had St. Peter Damian and his "Book of Gomorrah" and St. Bernardino of Siena with his interesting teaching that wives should divorce homosexual husbands - before they were burnt, but have also had gay sympathetic writers such as St Aelred, Ausonius, St. Anselm, so too with Judaism.

The middle ages saw a flourishing Jewish homoerotic literature in Spain, see Norman Roth, "`Deal gently with the young man': Love of Boys in Medieval Hebrew Poetry of Spain", Speculum 57 (1982) 20-51 and idem. "`Fawn of my delights': Boy-Love in Hebrew and Arabic Verse", in Joyce E. Salisbury, Sex in the Middle Ages, (New York: Garland, 1991), 157-171. ["Boy" here means what we would call adolescent. Sometimes the poet adopts the role of the boy].

Similarly, Modern Israel, which long ignored the British anti-gay laws on its books, has now no anti-gay legislation and allows openly gay men to serve in the army [the sine qua non of participation in Israeli society].

Finally, Jewish legal authorities today are divided on the topic.

  • Most Orthodox synagogues will accept gay members but not give them bimah privileges if they are open. But other Orthodox scholars regard homosexual behavour as "anoos" [Hebrew for compelled] and hence not morally culpable, even though the objective sexual activity is condemned.
  • In Conservative Judaism, which preserves a tradition of halachic authority, there is a huge current debate on the meaning of the law. Of particular note is that Conservatives recognize that "to'evah" [abominations] refer to Jewish ritual practices, so a homosexual is not worse that a sabbath breaker. Since the Talmud (Hullin 4a and 5a) clearly teaches that one who repeatedly violates a particular commandment out of inner compulsion rather than to flout the tradition is to be considered a functioning member of the community. Rambam [Maimonides] accepts this (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:9) by excluding such violaters from his list of apostates.
  • Reform and reconstructionist synagogues are now at the forefront of accepting and helping there gay members. Rather oddly the lesbian and gay synagogue in Manhattan - Beth Simchat Torah - refused a reform rabbi because its members were more conservative. It is one of the largest synagogues in New York.

There is a very interesting discussion of all these issues in the Manhattan Jewish Sentinel [Aug 4-10, 1993], 13A-15A, by both a Conservative and an Orthodox Rabbi. It provided some of the information I used here.

Jews and Gays have a long history of being persecuted in common. This has not stopped some gays being anti-semitic or some Jews from being homophobic. Neither group can be stereotyped, or summed up by outsiders, or insiders come to that.