Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Homosexuality in Halakhah XIV

I. Introduction

Yes, the title of this blog post is correct. There have been 13 prior posts on this subject. But since some of those posts are almost six years old, it might be appropriate to review them for the many new readers. At the end of this post, I will include links to the prior posts as well as some external references.

Because of the recent controversy over homosexuality, there has been some confusion about exactly what halakhah prohibits and what it permits. I have been asked by a few different people to write about this. What follows is a fairly frank discussion with some explicit (but not too explicit) terms. Be forewarned that this is not for children and not for those who prefer to avoid this topic. Also, as always, please ask your rabbi about any halakhic issues and do not rely on internet rulings.

Click here to read moreLet me also add that the law is only the starting point. Real people have to find their own place within the law, determining how to deal with their desires in a way that satisfies their religious requirements. This is no easy task but people were born to struggle (Job 5:7). One of the most enlightening things that mv"r R. Mayer Twersky said last week is that we have to be careful not to describe the struggle of a frum homosexual in such heroic terms that it becomes clear we do not expect anyone to live up to it. We all have our "inner demons" and we must all struggle to deal with them, each in his own way. There is certainly more to say about the need for sensitivity towards people struggling with their sexuality but, despite its importance, that is not our topic in this post. See earlier posts for some discussion of that important issue.

II. Male Homosexual Activity

The Torah prohibits a man from having intercourse with another man, calling it an abomination (Lev. 18:22). While the concept of an abomination to God or people occurs multiple times in the Torah (e.g. regarding remarrying your divorced wife who slept with someone else - Deut. 24:4; unjust weights and measures - Deut. 25:16; eating with Jews was an abomination to Egyptians - Gen. 43:32), the term abomination on its own is rare.

What is the forbidden type of intercourse? Anal penetration, even minimal. Prof. Joel Roth, a prominent Conservative scholar, has argued that oral is also included in this prohibition ("Homosexuality Revisited", p. 7ff). I'm not convinced and have not seen anyone else propose such a theory. The prohibition applies to both participants.

Homosexual intercourse is forbidden as one of the arayos, which means that there are additional prohibitions beyond the act. A man and a woman who is a niddah may not have any romantic contact. Elsewhere, we have argued that shaking hands is permitted because there is nothing romantic about it. However, minimal petting, including but not limited to stroking and kissing, is forbidden. The same applies to two men.

The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Issurei Bi'ah 21:1; Sefer Ha-Mitzvos prohibition 353; Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7:4) believes that this is a biblical prohibition. The Ramban (Glosses to Sefer Ha-Mitzvos) argues that it is rabbinically prohibited. Either way, homosexuals are absolutely forbidden to touch each other romantically.

Additionally, "willfully engaging oneself in homosexual fantasy, self-stimulation and masturbation, or voluntary exposure to provocative material would be a violation of Jewish law" (R. Chaim Rapoport, Judaism and Homosexuality, p. 2).

It is not prohibited to have homosexual feelings because, among other things, they are largely uncontrollable. To my knowledge, only R. Moshe Halevi Spero ("Homosexuality", p. 57) has suggested that a homosexual orientation is forbidden and he has been roundly criticized for it.

III. Female Homosexual Activity

The Gemara (Yevamos 76a) states that women who fool around (nashim mesolelos) are considered licentious. The authorities debate whether this means that it is prohibited rabbinically (Perishah, Even Ha-Ezer 20:2) or biblically (Levush, Even Ha-Ezer 20:2). All, however, agree that it is forbidden.

R. Chaim Rapoport (Judaism and Homosexuality, p. 144 n. 17) proves that this forbids "all forms of lesbian activity", i.e. even fooling around and not just simulating intercourse.

IV. Yichud

Shulchan Arukh (Even Ha-Ezer 24:1) writes that it is praiseworthy for individual men not to be alone together in a locked room (yichud), just like a man and a woman may not be alone. The Bach (ad loc.) writes that this is unnecessary because homosexual activity was so rare in his time. The question remains, though, whether people with homosexual feelings are allowed to be alone in a locked room with another man. Perhaps there is a prohibition of yichud for them.

Note that this is not because we suspect that they are rapists. A prohibition of yichud with regard to women applies to every single man, regardless of the likelihood of his raping her. It is a function of sexual desire rather than violence. Perhaps the prohibition only applies to two homosexuals in a locked room (unless they have romantic feelings for each other, which would be comparable to libo gas bah and have stricter rules like a man with feelings for a woman). I don't know.

Note that this issue would have particular relevance to dormitories. The laws of yichud are stricter when people are sleeping. I leave this all to authorities much greater than I to determine.

V. Synagogue Honors

Can a practicing homosexual be given synagogue honors? Can he be counted for a minyan or called to the Torah? The Seridei Esh (2:6) rules that anyone who is guilty of a sin for which he would in the past be excommunicated, he may not be counted for a minyan (or, presumably, be called to the Torah or given other synagogue honors). Violating the laws of homosexuality is sufficient reason for excommunication. The only issue remaining is whether, given the current environment, homosexuals are considered tinokos she-nishbu who would not be excommunicated. R. Chaim Rapoport (Judaism and Homosexuality, ch. 6) argues that they are considered tinokos she-nishbu, although I'm not sure that I am convinced.

VI. Sources

Here are a list of some available online material:

  • R. Moshe Halevi Spero, "Homosexuality: Clinical and Ethical Challenges" in Tradition 17:4 (Spring 1979): link
  • Dr. Joel B. Wolowelsky and R. Bernard L. Weinstein, "Initial Religious Counselling for a Male Orthodox Adolescent Homosexual" in Tradition 29:2 (Winter 1995): link
  • Dr. Nathaniel S. Lehrman, "Homosexuality: A Political Mask for Promiscuity: A Psychiatrist Reviews the Data" in Tradition 34:1 (Spring 200): link
  • R. Uri Cohen, "Review Essay: Relating to Orthodox Homosexuals: The Case for Compassion" in Tradition 40:3 (Fall 2007): link
  • R. Uri Cohen, "Bibliography of Contemporary Orthodox Responses to Homosexuality": link
  • R. Chaim Rapoport, Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View: link
  • R. Herschel Schachter, "Crossing the Line: Halachic Standards for Inclusion or Exclusion from Communal Life and the Tzibbur": link (audio)
  • R. Mayer Twersky, "Absolute Truth and Alternate Life Styles: The Torah's Position on Homosexuality": link (audio)
  • R. Mayer Twersky, "A Response to the Recent 'Orthodox' Gay Forum": link (audio)
  • Prior Hirhurim posts: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, Post Orthodoxy

  • Two articles from the Conservative movement that I found helpful, even if I think the writer is too strict regarding oral and too lenient regarding fantasizing:
  • Prof. Joel Roth, "Homosexuality" (1992): link
  • Prof. Joel Roth, "Homosexuality Revisited" (2006): link

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