A Second Look at Homosexuality
by Harold M. Schulweis
The rabbis in the Talmudic era declared that two bachelors are permitted to
sleep beneath the same blanket because Jews are not suspect of homosexuality
(Kiddushin 82a). Were the rabbis treating homosexuality in the first centuries
the way we once dealt with drug addiction, alcoholism, wife abuse, declaring,
"This is not a Jewish problem"?
We can pretend that it is not a Jewish concern, though a number of scholars
have speculated that homosexuality exists in 10% of the population, and by
extrapolation likely pertains to 10% of the Jewish population. There are none
so blind as those who will not see.
Many years ago, the issue of homosexuality was for me a matter of
theoretical interest. Intellectually, I knew there were homosexuals, but
personally I knew none. Whoever they were, they were well closeted, out of
sight, out of mind. These last years they have lost their anonymity. Blood and
flesh persons come into my study, visible and audible with faces, eyes, lips
who have come to see me. Out of desperation, they have left their cloistered
lives to reveal themselves.
Why have they come to me? I am not their parents. But parents are the last
ones they would speak to. They are too ashamed and too frightened. They have
come because I am a rabbi and because I represent Jewish ethics and Jewish law.
They have come because some I have confirmed and some have heard me speak about
God, love, compassion and justice in class and from the pulpit. They have heard
me teach that a root principle in Judaism is our belief that God has created
each of us in His divine image.
They do not feel that they were created in God's image. Quite the contrary,
they feel that no one regards them as human, normal, or recognizes their personhood.
They have come carrying a terrible knowledge, one they discovered early in
their lives. They are attracted to persons of their own gender. Theirs is a
fateful knowledge. As they grew up they heard whispers grown into roars,
stories about gays who are unnatural, perverse, pathological, sinful. They
dress differently, molest children, and are wildly permissive, hedonistic,
outrageous. They have seen them portrayed on the stage, on television, gay men
who lisp and are swishy, effeminate wimps whom others call
"feigele-boychik," who live in wretched places, hang out in dark bars
and dark bath houses. And they have heard of lesbian women called "dykes,”
"butches,” angry, unattractive, emasculating, man-haters.
And those who come to me know that they are hated, rejected, mocked,
scorned, reviled. They are frightened.
The hatred they know is not confined to the inner city or to people of
different ethnicities, faiths, or races. At Calabasas
High School in Woodland
Hills California, on the night
of his high school graduation, Robert Rosenkrantz shot his school mate Steve
Redman ten times with an Uzi semi-automatic rifle. What turns a white middle
class teenager, Robert, into a murderer? It was fear, rage, desperate
loneliness. The friend, Steve, and his brother Joey had spied on Robert in an
attempt to prove that he was gay. When they caught him in a homosexual
encounter, they told his parents. At the trial, Robert disclosed that he had
hidden his homosexuality from his family for years in fear of their rejection.
Wendy Bell, aged sixteen, a student at Calabasas High said, "If people
found out you were gay at this school, you would be verbally tortured."
What greater humiliation than to discover that in the eyes of your society
you are really not human. What makes a human being human more than his ability
to love and be loved? But they are not lovable and are not allowed to love.
They live in silent shame, fearful of the revelation that will shake the
foundations of their being.
Theirs is a monstrous burden to carry. Even the most innocent question is
fraught with emotional terror. Just to hear, once more, well-meaning aunts and
uncles say, "Do you have a boyfriend?” or to hear someone plan to set up a
date, sets up a panic in their hearts. Do others not know? How long can I bite
They have come to see me because I am a rabbi and they are Jews. Every Yom
Kippur, they hear the same selection read from the Torah which sanctifies
homophobia. It is chanted in the afternoon of Yom Kippur, when some report
headaches and the discomforts which come with fasting the entire day. But this
young man, who ironically reads from the Torah, has more than a migraine and
not from fasting. It is written, "If a man lies with a male as one lies
with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing. They shall surely
be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them." It is a capital crime
punishable by stoning – sekilah (Leviticus
18:22 and Leviticus 20:13). This aliyah is no elevation. It casts
him into despair.
What do they want of me? Absolution? Assurance? Protection? A Jewish voice? What does the law
state? What does Judaism say?
I am faced not only with a text of a few verses, but with human beings I
know and whose families I know. I look from the law into the eyes of those
before me. Without them, it might be an easier matter to judge. But the Talmud
says: "You have to judge according to that which you see with your own
eyes" (Baba Bathra 43a).
What do I see with my own eyes? Honest, decent God-fearing, loving men and
women. And what do I hear but the penetrating words of Micah, the prophet who
tells me what God requires: "It has
been told you O man what is good and what the Lord demands of you -- to do
justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with the Lord thy God."
What is just and merciful here? The persons who have come to me carry their
own testimony. They have not chosen a lifestyle. Theirs is not a matter of
sexual preference. They have chosen nothing except to bury the terror. "It
has been for me a living hell. I no more chose my attachments to another of my
own gender than you, Rabbi, chose the love of a woman. It was not something
taught or modeled or revered in my home or in my circle. But I sensed it early
in my childhood. I denied it, fought it, but it would not be denied."
I read that most psychologists maintain that sexual orientation is
determined by the time the child is five years old.
I am told by the wisdom of halachah to listen to the heart of the one who stands
before me. As the Talmud (Yoma 83) cites the verse (Book of Proverbs 14:10), "The heart knows its own
bitterness and a stranger cannot share in its joy." The verse is cited by
the Rabbis in the context of declaring with people who are ill on Yom Kippur.
"If a sick person says he must eat and a hundred physicians say he does
not need to eat, we must listen to him. For the heart knows its own
Those I speak to in the privacy of my study have not chosen their sexual
orientation. Their testimony of the heart is important in the mind of halachah .
According to Jewish law, activities that are under compulsion or constraint,
even if they are prohibited, are free of liability. "Patur aval asur." Say I have vowed to do X, and can't
fulfill it because of a flood or because of sickness, is not punishable. The
halacha recognizes that an act must be free if it is punishable, and behind
this ruling reigns a religious statement from the Mishnah: "The Merciful One frees from punishment
one who is coerced (Mishnah Nadarim 33).
Scholars agree that the authors of the Bible and Talmud took their position
on the issue of homosexuality on the assumption that homosexual behavior was an
act of freedom of choice, that the homosexual acted either to defy God, or to
oppose the law, or as a holy prostitute using his or her body, to serve a pagan
cult. The assumption of the ancients
about the motivation of the homosexual was based on factual error. One cannot
blame the rabbis of the first centuries for not knowing the etiology of
homosexuality, or the character of constitutional homosexuals. They judged acts
with the knowledge of their time. But it does not exonerate rabbis living on
the edge of the twenty-first century. One cannot blame the ancient rabbis for
their position on the matter of homosexuality any more than they could be
blamed for the Talmudic position on the deaf mute, the "cheresh.” In the Talmud a "cheresh" fell into the category of a "shoteh" and a "katan,” a person who was "non compos mentis" -- someone
who was mentally incompetent. Therefore until the 19th century halachists held
that the deaf mute cannot serve as a witness, dispose of property, be counted
into the minyan, effect a marriage or divorce. The assumption was clear. Since
the "cheresh" cannot
communicate, cannot speak or hear, he was considered to be "dumb,” a word
which originally meant mute and was turned into a colloquial expression meaning
But traditional law is not frozen. When Rabbi Simchah Bunem Sofer of Hungary,
on a visit to the Vienna Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, observed the
accomplishments of its students, he recognized that the "cheresh" is far from mentally
incompetent. And in our times, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog maintained that the
laws prohibiting the deaf-mute from ritual and commercial acts are now void,
and that the " cheresh "
today can indeed participate fully in religious life.
It is a calumny against halachah to
treat it as so much dead weight. Those who know its history know that halachah changes with new knowledge and with new moral
sensibilities. Consider only the cases in which the rabbis nullified or
circumvented the biblical law as in the case of the "ben sorer v'moreh" – the rebellious delinquent son who
could be brought to the elders and be stoned for his abominable acts
(Deuteronomy 21:18) or the case of the "sotah,” the wife suspected of adultery to whom the “Ordeal of Jealousy”
was given (Numbers 5:12), or the case of the "ir nidachat" -- the heretical city tainted with idolatry
which was to be destroyed (Deuteronomy 13:13). All these biblical laws were
dismissed by the rabbis of the Talmud as purely theoretical but having no
application to life. "Lo hayah v'lo
atid lihyot." The same Talmudic courage and sensitivity should be
applied to the homosexual who testify that their sexual orientation is not an
act of will.
Moreover, we are dealing with mounting evidence that there are genetic
factors which play a large role, perhaps a determining role, in this behavior.
On both moral and Halachic grounds, it is wrong to take one or two verses in
the Bible, stripped of their historic context and devoid of medical knowledge,
and apply them to punish innocent people who cannot deny their basic instincts,
impulses and sexual attractions. To inflict punishment upon the innocent
violates the spirit and intent of Jewish law.
There are questions from people, far from homophobic, that deserve answers.
I have heard it said that if this inclusiveness toward homosexuality is
accepted, why not extend that same kind of tolerance toward the non-converted
mixed married? But when we speak of homosexuals and gays, we are speaking about
Jewish homosexuals and Jewish gays upon whom we make the same demands of
loyalty to people and to Jewish faith. We make Jewish religious and moral
demands upon Jewish homosexuals and Jewish gays in the same manner that we do
for Jewish heterosexuals. Faith and religion are matters of choice. The non-Jew
can freely become a Jew by choice. The non-Jew can convert, but the homosexual
cannot convert his/her sexual orientation.
For those who are constitutional homosexuals, there is no option except
denial of their sexual life. It means for me to deny them the deepest
expression of love. What else can be said to the Jewish gay person? Their
options are "either closet or cloister." For them, there is no
alternative but celibacy and sexual abstinence. That counsel is contrary to the
affirmation of life and of sexuality that is so basic in Judaism and in its
opposition to sexual askesis. Contrary to Stoic, Christian and Buddhist
philosophies, even medieval Jewish pietistic mysticism did not encourage the
denial of sexual expression. To the contrary, the joys of sexuality were lauded
as manifestations of God's beneficent creation. Shall I respond to the
yearnings of their heart by saying "Get thee to a monastery. Get thee to a
I hear it further said that if homosexuality is countenanced, why not
condone polygamy a practice that is not even enjoined in the Torah? But monogamy is not a deprivation of sexual
expression. If there is serious dissatisfaction, the Jewish divorce offers
relief. If anything, polygamy is an excess of choice. Nor is the prohibition of
incest or bisexuality analogous to homosexuality. For these there are
alternative sexual expressions. For the homosexual, there is no sexual expression
except a sexless existence in which even masturbation is halachically
prohibited. Would a loving God create such a being in His image to be condemned
to life-long suffering and frustration?
Others argue that the purpose of union and of marriage is procreation, and
that homosexuality is prohibited because it denies history, denies the future
and defies the purpose of marriage. Are we not mandated to multiply and
fructify and fill the earth? Is that argument not further substantiated by the
Talmudic ruling (Yebamoth 64a), "If a man took a woman and live with her
for ten years and she bore no child he may not abstain any more from the duty
of propagation." Consequently, the man is justified to divorce her and to
marry another after a decade of barrenness. Yet, the rabbis could not find it
in their heart to dissolve such a union.
"Lo m'laah libam.” Such a
divorce would wrong another human being. They may live together since the
purpose of union is not just procreation. The purpose of union includes the blessedness
of companionship and of love that does not always eventuate in having children.
Were having children the only justification of marital union, would we deny
"kiddushin" because of the
infertility or medical disability of either or both bride and groom? The head
and heart of halachah concede that
procreation is not the only goal of human sexuality.
Moreover, in an age in which artificial insemination and adoptions exist as
choices, a homosexual union is not a barrier for the raising of family and the
having of children.
There are numerous questions that are raised about the etiology of
homosexuality. But ultimately, my Jewish response to the lot of the homosexual
remains a moral one. There is a morality in Jewish law that must not be
ignored. As a moral, spiritual Jew I have to ask myself not only what the
literal law declares but, especially in this issue where the law consigns to
living hell such innocence, I feel obligated to deal with the purpose and
intent of Jewish law.
I have been taught and believe that Jewish law is
not a dead hand without heart and soul. Even the most stringent followers of
the halachah would not today apply the law that demands death to the
homosexual. Who calls for us to criminalize homosexuality?
The underlying issue is moral, not textual. We cannot as thinking, feeling
Jews base our judgment on a verse or two in the Bible. There is an entire
corpus of religious text and spiritual principles that forms rabbinic
conscience. "The Torah's ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths
are peace." The Torah cultivates Jewish conscience. It reminds us that we
are to love the stranger and to know his heart. If we don't know the heart, if
we do not know the humanity of the pariah, we do not know our own humanity. As
long as we have not discovered the stranger in our midst as "human being,”
we will not discover our own humanity.
The community and its rabbinic leadership have powers to turn the earth into
a living heaven or hell. Over some issues we mortals have little control. We have
little control over natural catastrophes: earthquakes, floods, hurricanes,
tornadoes. But there are catastrophes over which we have control because we
have created them. The curse upon the gay person we have pronounced. This
tragedy we have imposed on our children is not the will of God. It is our
doing. The blessing and curse, life and death given us is our choice. We are
not coerced to silence.
The law is not a monster. Jewish halachah was not instituted to make life
miserable. On the contrary, it was to enhance life, to introduce love and
compassion and softness into a hard and abrasive universe. The entire rabbinic
tradition was motivated to make the ways of the Torah pleasant and joyful and
A wonderful commentary by Maimonides in his Book of Laws regards the
Sabbath. There he explains that the commandment of the Sabbath, while it is a
biblical law, may be set aside if human life is in danger. "If it is
uncertain whether the Sabbath needs to be violated or not or if one physician
says that violation is necessary and another says that it is not, the Sabbath
should be violated for the mere possibility of danger to human life overrides
the Sabbath" (The Laws of the Sabbath: Chapter II).
Ask why should the Rabbi be implicated in these rulings? Maimonides goes on
to say, "And if these violations of the Sabbath are to be done they should
be not left to heathens, to minors, to slaves or women lest these should come
to regard Sabbath observance as a trivial matter. If you violate the Sabbath it
should be done by adults and scholarly Israelites. And it is forbidden to delay
such violation of the Sabbath for the sake of a person who is dangerously ill.
For the Bible tells us (Leviticus 18:5) which if a man do he shall live by
them. He shall live by them and not die by them. Hence, you learn that the laws
of the Torah are not cruel or vengeful to the world but are a source of
compassion, loving kindness and peace." There are fundamentalists, and
Maimonides may be referring to the Sadducees and the Karaites, who assert that
this permissiveness is a violation of the Sabbath and therefore to be
prohibited. Maimonides responds to obedience to such a literal reading of the
Torah, with a quotation from Ezekiel 20:25 – "Wherefore I gave them also
statutes that were not good and ordinances whereby they should not live."
Micah's question to us is not to be denied. What is required of us? What is
demanded of me and of every Jew is to protect the hounded, the persecuted, the
humiliated, the ostracized, the pariahs created by human beings and not by God?
What is required of us is to accept the dignity of each individual, to know the
heart of the stranger, to make them feel as home with us and to encourage them
to live out their own lives with dignity and within a compassionate community?
The Lord God formed the human being of the dust of the ground and breathed
into his nostrils the breath of life and the human being became a living
soul." Every human being is created in God's image. To make the innocent
afraid, to make the human being cry, to force a human being to hide from his
own flesh, to humiliate God's creation, is to spit in God's face. We are taught
by the rabbis that to shame God's creation is to shed his blood. That shaming
is an abomination which we can cleanse from our midst.
Our sages have taught us: "Better a man cast himself in a fiery furnace
than that he put his fellow to shame in public" (T. Berachot 43b).
We read in Deuteronomy 23:2 that the eunuch shall not enter into the
assembly of the Lord. But the prophetic conscience would not be stilled.
"Let not the alien say who has attached himself to the Lord, 'The Lord
will keep me apart from his people'; and let not the eunuch say 'I am a
For thus saith the Lord, "As for the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who
have chosen what I desire and hold fast My covenant, I will give them in My
house and within My walls, a monument and a name. Better than sons and
daughters, I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish"
The prophetic conscience resonates in our hearts and minds. Open the gates
for the pariahs, gather together the dispersed and despised. "I will
gather still more to those already gathered."
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