Copyright © 2011 by and Gary Konecky

By Gary Konecky

In the last installment, we worked through Rabbi Greenberg’s extensive analysis of verses Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.  As these verses are so important to religious based attacks on LGBTI people, we will explore some additional perspectives of these verses in this installment.  While many of these perspectives share overlapping points of view, I have organized the material by author and source so that those who wish to explore this issue further can do so.

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Dorff has a fascinating discussion of Leviticus 18:22 on pages through 151-156 of Torah Queeries, Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.  He feels Leviticus 18:22 is ambiguous.  It prohibits a man from lying with a man the way he lies with a woman.  Men and women can have sex orally, vaginally, or anally; the most common form being vaginally.  As a man does not have a vagina, we are left to puzzle out what is this verse referring too. 

It is at this point that Judaism differs from other religions.   For the answer to this question is not the written word of G-d, but Judaism’s oral tradition, a tradition which goes back to the revelation at Mount Sinai, a tradition that was only written down as a result of bitter necessity in the wake of the destruction of the Temple and exile of the Jewish people.  That oral tradition, most prominently the Talmud, is our answer to this puzzle.  The sages of the Talmud understood this verse to prohibit male-male anal intercourse.  This was the understanding of rabbis through the Middle Ages.  Prohibition of anything other than male-male anal intercourse is a rabbinic enactment that occurred after the Middle Ages.

The written Torah gave the rabbis great latitude to enact laws.  Most often this took the form of putting a fence around the Torah.  An example of this is that creative labor is banned on the Sabbath.  Writing is defined as a form of creative labor.  Therefore, least anyone accidentally violate the commandment regarding the Sabbath, the rabbis forbid anyone from even touching a writing implement on the Sabbath. 

It is this concept of rabbinic enactment that gives rise to the current Orthodox Jewish religious law (halakhah) that all forms of homosexual activity are prohibited. 

Rabbi Dorff notes that the rabbis who debated this issue in the Talmud, and the rabbis who made this enactment did not have the scientific knowledge that we have today.  In fact, there is no such thing as biblical homosexuality.  Today, we know that sexual orientation is not a choice, and that a same sex couple is not rebelling against G-d.  We know that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation make matters worse, not better (see Part 13 Appendix:  Can Sexual Orientation Be Changed?).  Today, we know that the bigotry and hate displayed against homosexuals causes suicides, substance abuse, and depression.

While the written Torah gives rabbis significant authority to make rabbinic enactments part of halakhah, it is not a blanket authority.  For the honor of fellow human beings is so great, that no rabbinic enactment may undermine such honor.  It is a very serious dishonor to say that someone’s sexual acts are an abomination.  It is an extreme form of dishonor, cruel and demeaning, to demand that someone never engage in sexual expression with someone they love.  Conservative Judaism recognized this rabbinic overreaching and it is the halakhah of Conservative Judaism that states this ban applies only to male-male anal intercourse.  Reform Judaism has done away with the ban altogether. 

Professor David Brodsky

Professor Brodsky has a most interesting analysis of Leviticus 20:13 on pages 157-169 of Torah Queeries, Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.  He makes several key points that are crucial to our understanding of these two verses.  The first is that our concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality are a modern construct.  He and Rabbi Dorff agree that these two verses from Leviticus do not prohibit all forms of homosexual contact.  In fact, for the first seven centuries of the Common Era, the rabbis and sages understood this verse to prohibit male-males anal intercourse only. 

The sages of the Talmud were troubled by the redundant phrase “as one lies with a woman,” which can also be translated as “the lyings of women.”  Jewish tradition holds that every single letter, word, and phrase of the Torah has a meaning.  If a seemingly redundant word or phrase appears, there must be a reason as nothing can be redundant.  The great Jewish sage Rashi explains the Talmudic sages understanding of this seeming redundancy (Sanhedrin 54a) as not only prohibiting male-male anal intercourse, but also prohibiting male-female anal intercourse. 

Additionally, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 54b-55a) discusses in detail the offenses of pederasty and bestiality.  The Talmud concludes that the penetration of a male (anally) in pederasty, a male who penetrates an animal (vaginally or anally), or a female who is penetrated (vaginally or anally) by an animal is guilty of violating a Torah prohibition, a G-d given commandment. 

We also have a Talmudic era discussion about sex with a hermaphrodite.  The gist of Rabbi Eliezer’s (one of the sages of the Talmud) analysis is that if the hermaphrodite had a penis and was penetrated (anally) during intercourse, then a violation of the prohibition of verses from Leviticus that we are discussing has occurred.  If on the other hand, the hermaphrodite’s vagina was penetrated, then no violation of these verses from Leviticus has occurred. 

These passages clearly indicate that the sages of the Talmud understood these verses from Leviticus as prohibiting anal intercourse. 

Also noteworthy, is that the rabbis of the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 24a and  Jerusalem Talmud Hallah 58c) prohibit males from looking at females nakedness, going so far as to liken looking at certain parts of the female anatomy as being the same as having sex with that female.  Yet, these same rabbis and sages made no effort to expand the prohibition of male-male anal intercourse.  That is a creation of the rabbis in the generations after the Middle Ages, long after the compilation of the Talmud.  In fact, the Talmud is explicit in speaking of the affection that men, including their fellow rabbis, shared. 

Professor and Author Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson makes a critical and often overlooked point on pages 145-150 of  Torah Queeries, Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.  He attempts to put these two verses from Leviticus into context.  Context is critical to our understanding of anything.  For example, if I show you a rock from the Grand Canyon, your response may well be; big deal, it looks like any other rock.  On the other hand if I take you to the Grand Canyon and I show you where the rock is from, then suddenly you have context and with that context the rock becomes significant (as you realize it is part of a story of geologic activity spanning countless generations).

It is this way with these verses from Leviticus.  When we studied the destruction of Sodom (part 11 of this series), we discovered that by ripping a verse out of context, we totally misunderstood what the sin of Sodom was and how those who ripped that verse out of context drew completely wrong conclusions about what the sin of Sodom was. 

Prof. Michaelson makes the critical point that these verses and the chapters surrounding these verses deal with ritual purity and impurity.  The concept of ritual purity and impurity is one of the most easily misunderstood concepts in the Hebrew Bible.  Ritual purity and impurity is almost always thought to have something to do with sin.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Ritual purity and impurity are simply sates, just like being awake and sleeping are states.  If you go to the bathroom, you become ritually impure.  Wash your hands in the ritual manner after going to the bathroom and you become ritually pure again.  A woman, who is having or just had her period, is ritually impure.  A man experiencing a nocturnal emission is ritually impure.  Attend a funeral (which is a commandment) and you will be ritually impure.  Follow the ritual procedures for remedying these ritual impurities and you once again become ritually pure. 

The state of being ritually pure or impure is of great significance in the Hebrew Bible.  For example, a ritually impure person cannot go to the Temple.  Attendance at the Temple and the bringing of sacrifices is obligatory on certain festivals.  Another example, is that if you are ritually impure, you cannot partake of the Passover sacrifice (another commandment).  

Prof. Michaelson also wrote a fascinating article, How can you be gay and Jewish?  He makes the point that the prohibition on all forms of homosexual contact are a post Middle ages rabbinic enactment, and that the Talmud only prohibits male-male anal intercourse.  He further makes the point that the rabbis who enacted this ban were ignorant in terms of their knowledge of gays and lesbians or scientific information about them.  If you do not know any gays and lesbians, if you do not know that no individual chooses their sexual orientation, then when you make pronouncements about them, you are acting out of either fear, or ignorance, or both. 

The fact of the matter is that G-d made and makes gays and lesbians.  The fact of the matter is that G-d is a loving G-d.  The fact of the matter is that it was G-d who said in Genesis 2:1: “It is not good that the man should be alone…” Therefore, we are left to ponder, how can a loving G-d, a G-d who made us in His image, a G-d who said that we should not be alone; how can this same G-d ban us from the very special, intimate joy of a loving relationship?  This is the question posed by Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.  Not only must gays and lesbians wrestle with this issue if they are to find meaning in their lives, in their relationships, and a G-d of their understanding, but those who demonize gays and lesbians must also address this question.

If the Torah is the word of G-d, as many religious people and I believe, then we must find a way to answer this question.  We are faced with the realities of this question as we live our lives.  Those gays and lesbians who are in the closet, a closet imposed by straight people and religious fundamentalists, experience appalling high rates of suicide and also engage in an impressive variety of self-destructive behaviors.  We must ask, is suicide and self-destructive behavior what G-d truly wants from us.  Is repressed sexuality, leading to the endless series of clergy sex scandals what G-d truly wants for us?  Is repressed sexuality leading to an endless series of sex scandals involving closeted homosexual hypocrite politicians what G-d wants from us?

Those who come out of the closet often-lead lives of loving relations, sustained relationships with families of their choosing and often times with the special love of their lives.  Yet, religious fundamentalists condemn these people for doing just this.  Furthermore, they seek laws and constitutional amendments to strip these people and their relationships of any and all legal protection.  Is this what a loving G-d wants from us?

It is with these thoughts in mind that Prof. Michaelson offers several possible interpretations of these verses:

  • The verses deal only with sexual violence and humiliation (see part 14 of this series).
  • These verses deal with these sex acts only in the context of idol worship.  Interestingly, the prohibitions of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are included in the prohibitions against idol worship.  Furthermore, the Hebrew word toevah, which is frequently translated as abomination, but which more accurately should be translated as taboo, is used over 100 times in the Hebrew bible, not merely in these two verses.  Toevah is a contextual word meaning a word whose meaning depends on the context it is used in.  For example, it is used to refer to certain things that were acceptable to G-d, but were taboo to the Egyptians, and vise a versa.
  • Only anal sex is prohibited (as discussed earlier in this installment).
  • Gay and lesbian sex maybe a sin, but if one is acting out of a compulsion, Jewish law states there is no sin (a concept which is explored in the next installment).
  • We cannot fathom another person’s romantic path or the route it is meant to take.  Therefore, even though we cannot understand why G-d made gays and lesbians, they are fulfilling some Devine destiny.
  • All of us sin which is why G-d taught us about tshuvah (loosely translated as repentance, but more accurately translated as returning to G-d).

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Rabbi Artson has made the groundbreaking argument that homosexuality, as we understand it today, was not described in the Torah nor understood by the rabbis.  As a result, he argues that the Torah verses in question are not applicable to homosexuality as it is practiced today.

Rabbi Artson has also made the argument that male-male sexual relations were a common part of idol worship.  Therefore, the prohibitions in Leviticus are not a prohibition against homosexuality, but are part of the biblical prohibition against idol worship. 

Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner

As discussed above, most of the prohibitions on homosexual activity are rabbinic in origin.  Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner make this point as well. 

Before we get to the rest of their analysis, we must first review the concept of putting a fence around the Torah.  Basically, a fence around the Torah is a rabbinic enactment designed to prevent an accidental transgression of a Torah given (G-d given) commandment.  For example, a husband’s sexual contact with his wife is prohibited during her menstrual cycle.  The rabbis enacted additional restrictions on contact during the post-menstrual cycle period, least there be an error in determining when the cycle has ended and if sexual contact is permitted.  

Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner employ the Talmudic rule of legal reasoning known as Kavod HaBriyot.  Kavod HaBriyot is the principal that rabbinic (but not Biblical) restrictions can be overridden on the basis of "respect for others" or "human dignity."  As the rabbinic prohibitions against homosexuality can be considered as a mere fence around the Torah, and as our understanding of understand homosexuality today is inconsistent with that of the rabbis that created this fence, and as the rabbinic restrictions on homosexuality are inconsistent with human dignity, we therefore conclude that these restrictions should be lifted.   This analysis is the official position of Conservative Judaism. 

Rabbi David Ellenson

On pages 98-101 of Torah Queeries, Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, Rabbi Ellenson makes a very interesting point.  In an effort to understand how to implement these two verses from Leviticus, Rabbi Ellenson goes back to two verses from Exodus.  Exodus 22:20 tells us:  “You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and Exodus 23:9 which states:  “Also you shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The reason these two passages are relevant is that they have to do with a central principle of Judaism; that as a result of the Israelite experience in the land of Egypt, G-d requires the Jewish people to be sensitive and responsive to the needs of others (the stranger). 

If the understanding that Leviticus bans all forms of homosexuality is correct, than that ban must conform to this key principle.  Tragically, by interpreting the verses from Leviticus to ban all forms of homosexuality, the promoters of this ban have become the people who now oppress the stranger in contravention of these commandments given in Exodus. 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

I have spent a lot of time laying out a case for why I do not think that homosexuality is a sin.  Therefore, some of you will find my choice of including Rabbi Shmuley Boteach thoughts in this installment to be an unusual choice.  Rabbi Boteach is included here because he has an interesting perspective on the subject of homosexuality and this seems an appropriate place to look at one of this writings; Homophobia Is Itself an Abomination. 

Rabbi Boteach is an orthodox rabbi and he feels homosexuality is a sin.  Despite this he writes:  

…For two decades now I have watched how opposition to gay relationships has come to define American values. While fifty percent of straight couples divorce, while America sinks ever deeper into an eddy of materialism and greed, and while purpose and happiness remain so elusive that our country consumes three-quarters of the earth's anti-depressants, for our religious leaders, politicians, and the media it's still all-gays-all-the-time.

Why the obsession? People of faith insist that homosexuality is the sin because the bible calls it an abomination. Little do these ignoramuses realize that the word appears approximately 122 times in the Bible. Eating non-kosher food is an abomination (Deut.14:3). A woman returning to her first husband after being married in the interim is an abomination (Deut. 24:4). And bringing a blemished sacrifice on G-d's altar is an abomination (Deut. 17:1.). Proverbs goes so far as to label things like envy, lying, and gossip as that which 'the Lord hates and are an abomination to Him' (3:32, 16:22).

As an orthodox Rabbi who reveres the Bible I do not deny the Biblical prohibition on male same-sex relationships. Rather, I simply place it in context. There are 613 commandments in the Torah. One is to refrain from gay sex. Another is for men and women to marry and have children. So when Jewish gay couples come to me for counseling and tell me they have never been attracted to members of the opposite sex in their entire lives and are desperately alone, I tell them, "You have 611 commandments left. That should keep you busy. Now, go create a kosher home with a mezuzah scroll on the door. Turn off the TV on the Sabbath and share your challah with many guests. Pray to G-d the prescribed three times a day for you are His beloved children. He desires you and seeks you out."

Once, I said to my friend Pat Robertson, whom I have always found engaging and open in our conversations, "Why can't you simply announce to all gay men and women, 'Come to Church. Whatever relationship you're in, G-d wants you to pray. He wants you to give charity. He wants you to lead a G-dly life." He answered to the effect that homosexuality is too important to overlook. Other evangelical leaders have told me the same. Homosexuality is the single greatest threat to marriage and the family.

Really? With one out of two heterosexual marriages failing, with seventy percent of the internet dedicated to the degradation of women through pornography, and with a culture that is materially insatiable even as it is all-too spiritually content, can we straight people say with a straight face that gays are ruining our families? We've done a mighty fine job of it ourselves, thank you very much.

But the extreme homophobia that is unfortunately to be found among many of my religious brothers and sisters -- in many Arab countries being gay is basically a death sentence -- stems from an even more fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sin. The Ten Commandments were given on two tablets to connote two different kinds of transgression, religious and moral sin. The first tablet discusses transgressions between G-d and man such as the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, and desecrating the Sabbath. The second tablets contains sins between man and his fellow man, like adultery, theft, and murder.

The mistake of so many well-meaning people of faith is to believe that homosexuality is a moral rather than a religious sin. A moral sin involves injury to an innocent party. But who is being harmed when two, unattached, consenting adults are in a relationship? Rather, homosexuality is akin to the prohibition of lighting fire on the Sabbath or eating bread during Passover. There is nothing immoral about it, but it violates the divine will…

I have countless gay friends whose greatest fear, like so many straight people, is to end up alone. Should we merely throw the book at these people? Does not the same Bible also say, "It is not good for man to be alone?" And all I'm asking from my religious brethren is this: even as you oppose gay relationships because of your beliefs, please, for the love of  G-d, be tortured by your opposition. Understand that when our most deeply held beliefs conflicts with our basic humanity, we should feel the tragedy of the conflict, rather than simply find convenient scapegoats upon whom to blame all of America's ills.

In conclusion, while there is diversity of opinion over what these two verses from Leviticus mean, it is clear that they are not the blanket prohibition of homosexuality that some religious leaders claim they are.  Furthermore, it appears that the homophobia displayed by some religious leaders, by many of our politicians, and by many people in general; are in fact a sin, a sin that maybe greater than the sin discussed in these two verses from Leviticus. 


Torah Qeeries, Weekly Commentary on the Hebrew Bible, edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Josuha Lesser, and David Shneer, Copyright 2009, New York University Press.

Jay Michaelson’s How Can You Be Gay and Jewish can be found at

A summary of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson’s position can be found at

See also page 99 of Torah Qeeries, Weekly Commentary on the Hebrew Bible.

Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner brilliant analysis can be found at:

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Homophobia Is Itself an Abomination can be found at:

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