By Gary Konecky

Copyright © 2011 by and Gary Konecky. 

Copyright © 2012 by Gary Konecky

When something has been considered to be prohibited for centuries, millennia, it is very easy to make out a case for taking no action whatsoever, just to leave the Torah prohibition intact with no liberal interpretation attempted. But the much more difficult path of attempting to find a permissive road on the halakhic highway is, in my view, mandated by the consideration of Ĥesed - sheer human kindness and …sheer human dignity. It is surely more laudable to adopt the path of …the permissive ruling… -Rabbi Simchah Roth

Rabbi Simchah Roth is a prominent conservative rabbi who has given considerable thought to the issue of gays, lesbians and halakhah (Jewish religious law).  In 2003, he wrote a very thorough analysis of homosexuality (and related issues) entitled; Dear David, Homosexual Relationships, A Halakhic Investigation.  Below is an exploration of some of the key points Rabbi Roth makes in that investigation. 

Before we begin this exploration, one point needs to be addressed.  Rabbi Roth’s brilliant analysis is in line with the official position of Conservative Judaism.  The official position being the two verses from Leviticus ban male-male anal intercourse.  It is important to note that there are other positions (both in and out of Conservative Judaism) that differ from this position. 

Defining the Issue

Judaism must seek a way to reconcile what is viewed as a mi-de-orayta (a commandment with the force of the written Torah) prohibition against aginut, a halakhic status in which someone who cannot marry or have a sexual relationship.  Furthermore, the status of aginut cannot be corrected by the person who has this status.   Additionally, Rabbi Roth feels that the view as mi-de-orayta is subject to other interpretations and is not the outright ban on all forms of same sex sexual activity (see parts 14 and 15 of this series) that Orthodox Judaism, fundamentalist Christians, and others claim it is. 

Rabbi Roth feels the following are truisms:

·        People have no conscious control over their sexual orientation.

·        The medical community has determined that homosexuality is not a mental illness.

·        The Torah prohibits anal intercourse.  Other forms of sexual activity are banned by halakhic tradition.

·        As a result of society’s continuing prejudice against gays and lesbians, gays and lesbians suffer mentally and emotionally.  Proof of Rabbi Roth’s feeling is the significant number of publicized child suicides involving sexual orientation in recent years.

·        The observant orthodox gay Jew is put in an impossible position of observing his faith and being condemned by that same faith for something over which he has no control.

Regarding the last point, Rabbi Roth further notes: 

Apart from the gay person there is no one in the whole breadth of compassionate Jewish life to whom halakhah, as heretofore interpreted, says, "you may never, ever, under any circumstances, find legitimate sexual expression and enjoy physical love"…

The alternative to condoning some homosexual acts is to condemn the observant gay person to a life without any possibility of expression of physical love. Experience teaches us that the results of such repression could be anything from emotional instability, neuroses and drug addiction right through to desperate self-destruction. This cannot have been the intention of Torah, which is…"kindness in the world".

Do we really, truly, believe that gay people deserve to this type of loneliness and isolation?  Do we really believe that it is okay to force someone into emotional instability, mental illness, substance abuse, and possible suicide because we misinterpreted two verses of scripture? 

Furthermore, the Talmud (Baba Bathra 60b) tells the Rabbis:  “…we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure…”  This raises the very important question of why the rabbis, long after the Talmud was closed, decided to expand the verses from Leviticus (that Rabbi Roth believes prohibits only male-male anal intercourse) into something that the entire gay and lesbian community cannot endure?

When we want to punish someone for a grave crime, we put him or her in solitary confinement.  Yet as we have discovered (in the Appendix to Part 13 of this series), sexual orientation is an innate drive, in effect it is part of the person as

G-d created that person.  Are we saying that gays and lesbians (as G-d’s creations) should in effect, spend their entire lives in the sexual/emotional equivalent of solitary confinement because we misunderstood a religious teaching?

Furthermore, what of the Talmudic dictum (Berachoth 19b, Menachoth 37b, Shabbath 81b); “Great is human dignity, since it overrides a negative precept of the Torah”?  While the Talmud construes this dictum very narrowly, I think it is still fair to ask; is not human dignity at stake here?

Rabbi Roth, quotes Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff as stating: 

I, for one, cannot believe that the God who created us all created ten percent of us to have sexual drives which cannot be legally expressed under any circumstances. That is simply mind-boggling - and, frankly, un-Jewish. Jewish sources see human beings as having conflicting urges that can be controlled and directed by obedience to the wise laws of the Torah; it is Christian to see human beings as endowed with urges that should ideally be forever suppressed. It makes of G-d a cruel director in this drama we call life, and our tradition knew better. It called G-d not only merciful, but also good. God's law, then, must surely be interpreted to take those root beliefs of our tradition into account.

Not only does this quote discuss the cruelty of the ban on same sex sexual activity, but it also points out a fundamental difference between Christian and Jewish thought.

Rabbi Roth, citing the great Jewish sage the Rambam (Maimonides) and Rabbi Mordechai Halperin, MD, states that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 only prohibits male-male anal intercourse.  Again, it must be pointed out that homosexuality is more than this one mere sex act, and the prohibited sex act pertains to gay men only.  Nothing in Leviticus prohibits lesbianism.  This crucial point is a major flaw in anyone’s argument that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 prohibit all homosexuality.

Homosexuality and Heterosexuality

Rabbi Roth then gives a most interesting example of how all this plays out:

Mishkav zakhur is a major sexual prohibition. It belongs to the category known collectively as arayot, forbidden copulations. Like other forbidden acts in this category it is a capital offence. In former times, when there were courts adjudicating capital cases according to Torah law, both males participating in this act of anal penetration would have been sentenced to death by stoning if there had been two halakhically competent witnesses to the act who had warned the couple that what they were doing was a capital offence…

[Mishkav zakhur is but one of the arayot that people generally find difficult to observe. Another, on the heterosexual side, is the prohibition of copulation between a man and a woman (even one's wife) who does not bathe regularly in a mikveh after menstruating. This too is punishable by excision if one dies unrepentant. There is no relative value difference between the two sins from the halakhic point of view. Let us imagine for a moment a situation that could arise in almost any town or city where Jews live today. In an apartment block there are two apartments on the same floor. In apartment A live a man and his wife - a couple who were married through Ĥuppah-Kiddushin and who lead a decent Jewish life of observance and synagogue attendance. However, the woman in this apartment does not bathe in a mikveh every month. In apartment B lives a man and his male partner - a couple who also try to lead a decent Jewish life of observance and synagogue attendance. Although this couple is gay they scrupulously avoid anal sex, accepting that it is a sex act prohibited by Torah law, just as is copulation with a niddah is a sex act prohibited by Torah law. Is it not ironic that the two men in apartment B are better Jews from the point of view of religious observance than the husband and wife in apartment A?]

Ĥuppah-Kiddushin – the Jewish marriage ritual

Mikveh – a body of water in which one bathes for purposes of ritual purification

Niddah – a woman who is not ritually clean (as a result of menstruating) and has not yet immersed in a mikveh.   Such a woman is prohibited from having sexual relations with anyone, including her husband.

Interestingly, further in Rabbi Roth’s analysis, he makes the following statement:  “According to these Rishonim the prohibition of the Torah against mishkav zakhur is directed against men married to women.”  Rishonim as used in this quote would be the sages of the generations preceding the Talmudic period.  Rabbi Roth further quotes these Rishonim as saying:  “The Torah prohibits mishkav zakhur ... so that they will marry women and keep the precept to be fruitful and to multiply...” 

Assuming that these verses from Leviticus prohibit male-male anal intercourse only, there are credible religious grounds to further argue that the ban on anal intercourse applies only to married males (males married to females) as anal intercourse might interfere with the biblical commandment of having children (be fruitful and multiply).

Procreation and Masturbation

Halakhah as stated in the Shulĥan Arukh [Even ha-Ezer 1:1] states: “A man must marry a woman in order to procreate…”  In part 14 of this series, we learned that a gay male is exempt from this requirement.  Further proof for this exemption comes from the Brisker Rav (a leading rabbi of his generation who lived from 1886 to 1959).  The Brisker Rav is reported to have said that a gay male is exempt from the commandment of being married and procreating since he doesn't have these drives.

As Rabbi Roth notes: 

This seems eminently appropriate. It would be cruel in the extreme to impose marriage on a man for whom any sexual encounter with a woman would be totally distasteful and probably a physical impossibility because of the constraints of his psychological and emotional complexion. It would be cruel not only to the man but also to the woman he marries. The Brisker was obviously referring to the fact that a gay man does not have a constitutional sexual attraction towards women: he is just not programmed that way. He is sexually attracted towards other men as naturally and a surely as straight men are attracted towards women. The Brisker must have intuitively perceived that this sexual orientation is not something of the gay man's choosing, but something imposed upon him by some mechanism beyond his control and beyond his understanding. (This is also true of the heterosexual orientation, of course, but this is not usually appreciated since the heterosexual drive is the norm assumed by humanity in general and by Torah in particular.)

Furthermore, Rabbi Aharon Feldman (an ultra-Orthodox Jew and Dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College) writes that Isaiah 56:3-6 clearly addresses the issue of homosexuals and the exemption from the duty to procreate:

Let not the saris [who is physically unable to have children] say 'I am a dried up tree.' For so saith G-d to the sarisim who keep my Sabbath, who choose what I desire, and who keep my covenant: I shall make them in My house and within My walls a monument, a shrine, superior to sons and daughters. I shall render their [lit., his] name everlasting, one which will never be forgotten...

Sarisim – plural of saris

Having concluded that gay men are exempt from marriage and procreation, we now come to the subject of masturbation.  In part 13 of this series; we explored a situation where Jewish law appeared to be in conflict with itself.  Masturbation is another one of those areas.  As Rabbi Roth notes in his discussion of masturbation: 

The Shulĥan Arukh [Even ha-Ezer 23:1-2] (under the influence of the Zohar [Zohar, Part 3, 90a]) prohibits this activity in hyperbolic language:

It is forbidden to masturbate. This sin is more serious than all the other sins in the Torah... It is not enough that those who 'fornicate with their hand' ... are committing a grave sin; they must also be excommunicated...

Keeping in mind the rabbinic prohibition that all homosexual activity (male and female) sexual activity is forbidden, the consequence of this teaching is that gays and lesbians are effectively left with no sexual outlet.  That said, it should be noted that the target of the ban on masturbation is primarily the male, as the origin of this ban is in Genesis 38:10, where Onan dies as a result of coitus interruptus, a heterosexual activity. 

Furthermore, the consequences of denying a male or a female all forms of sexual relief and expression include risks to one’s physical health, mental anguish, emotional instability, self-destructive behavior, substance abuse, and suicide. 

Rabbenu Tam, one of Judaism’s greatest rabbis, concluded that anyone who is exempt from the commandment of procreation, is exempt from the ban on masturbation.  As we have concluded that gay men are exempt from marriage and procreation, they are also exempt from this ban as well.  It should be noted that only Rabbenu Tam has reached this conclusion.

Even if gay men are not exempt from the ban on masturbation, there are still other opinions that must be considered.  Rabbi Yehudah he-Hasid has pointed out a situation in which masturbation should be seen preferable:

One person asked whether someone whose sexual drive was getting the better of him and he was afraid that he might sin by copulating with a married woman or his menstruous wife or any other of the arayot that are forbidden to him whether he could masturbate so that he might not sin. The response was that in such circumstances he should masturbate, for if it is a married woman it is preferable that he masturbate rather than sin with the woman...

Rabbi Shelomoh Luria takes Rabbi Yehudah he-Hasid’s thought and goes one step further:

When there are two sins to choose between, either this one, or a more serious one, it is better that he disregard the prohibition of masturbation ... So, if it was possible for him to commit a sin, such as having intercourse with a married woman, or a woman during her menstruation, and he didn't do it, he is considered like someone who did a mitzvah... and therefore, it is permitted for him to spill his semen for this reason.

Mitzvah is properly translated as a commandment, although it is usually used as meaning a good deed.

As Rabbi Roth elaborates:

We have established that anal penetration is one of the arayot forbidden by the Torah and must be avoided by gay men. Therefore, according to the thinking of Rabbi Yehudah he-Ĥasid, masturbation as an alternative to mishkav zakhur is to be condoned; and according to Rabbi Shelomoh Luria if the masturbation succeeds in preventing the sin of mishkav zakhur then it might even be regarded as a mitzvah!

The noted authority the Maharshag (Rabbi Shim'on ben-Yehudah Gruenfeld) concluded that masturbation is only prohibited when there is no purpose.  As far as a gay male avoiding anal intercourse, there is a purpose.

Another authority [Atzei Arazim #101 (quoted in Otzar ha-Poskim on Even ha-Ezer 23:1)] feels this restriction is applicable only in terms of the heterosexual activity of coitus interruptus, which violates the commandment of procreation.  Rabbi Roth concludes:  “Thus, only to a married man in the presence of his wife would masturbation be completely prohibited, and that prohibition would then have no relevance at all to our present thesis.”

Furthermore, Rabbi Roth quotes Rabbi Yosef Engel, writing in the Atvan de'Orayta, #13:

It is quite logical to assume that God has no complaint with His creatures [when they cannot fulfill a mitzvah because they are not able to]. God places a duty only on those who are able to fulfill the mitzvah. Someone who is under constraint is not required to fulfill a mitzvah at all, because God only demands of a person what he is capable of doing... A command is only a command because it is God's will that we do that thing and we are required to fulfill God's will and His commandments. That is why the person who is under a constraint is not commanded, the command does not apply to him at all, because God only wants those who are able to fulfill [a commandment to do so] and not someone who is unable to fulfill it... Procreation is a positive command and therefore the person under a constraint is completely excused.

Clearly this would exempt gays and lesbians from the duty of procreation.  Furthermore, Rabbi Roth quotes the following: 

[An esteemed colleague has raised a very valid query in this regard. "Your arguments about medical/psychological acceptance of same-sex orientation as organic and ... other kinds of orientation as pathological are defensible only in contemporary context... So if I accept the notion that our understanding of human sexuality has evolved, what is to prevent later research from determining that genetics or environment may produce a permanent 'imprint' of a more specific nature... Are we, by your logic, on a road to the 'consenting (halakhically-defined) adults' standard if the consensus of medical science explains sexual appetite as less voluntary than we imagine?" My response to this query is simple. In talmudic terms I would say: whatever the future consensus of respected, authoritative and persistent scientific opinion on any matter might be must be taken into account by an evolving halakhic system such as is that of our movement.]

Amplifying this point, Rabbi Roth goes on to state: 

We do not know why some people are homosexually orientated. To the halakhah it is immaterial what the etiology of the condition is (and experts have so far reached no consensus on this matter). It is clear that it is a psychological and emotional mindset that directs a person's sexual drive and over whose existence and influence the individual has no conscious control: these feelings and tendencies are just there. In homosexuals the drive is as innate and as demanding as is the heterosexual drive in heterosexuals. In this sense we must accept that the gay person is the way he or she is because that is God's will for them. If they have no control over their emotional complexion in this matter they are to be regarded as acting under constraint from the halakhic point of view. People who are in such a situation with regards to a certain mitzvah - they cannot force themselves to perform it or cannot prevent themselves from disobeying it - are exempt from that mitzvah as long as the impediment that is beyond their control exists.

Other Male-Male Sex Acts

We now come to other male-male sexual activities such as mutual masturbation, fellatio, etc.  As discussed in part two of this series, Leviticus 19:14 states:  “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but shall fear your God; I am the Lord.  When we explored this verse, we discovered that this verse prohibits a host of behaviors far beyond the plain meaning of the text.  This raises an important question, are these male-male sexual activities permissible as they substitute for forbidden male-male anal intercourse or are these activities that can be construed as placing a stumbling block before the blind?  In other words, when a gay man invites another gay man to engage in these sexual activities, is he aiding and encouraging the man he invited to commit a sin?

Rabbi Roth citing the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 6a-6b) concludes:  “…you would not be aiding or encouraging him in his wrongdoing if he were going to do it any way. You would only be doing wrong if the only way he would commit this sin is through your complicity.”  Additionally, Rabbi Roth quotes Rabbi Feinstein (a very prominent rabbi) as follows:  “A Jew (any Jew) is only required to prevent someone else committing a sin in ignorance. When the other person would do it anyway he is not required to take action to prevent them from doing so.”

From this we can conclude, that for two consenting adult gay men mutual masturbation, fellatio, etc. is not a sin as it is a substitute for prohibited male-male anal intercourse.  It is however prohibited for gay men to entice non-gay men (as well as children and adolescents) to engage in these acts, as that would constitute placing a stumbling block before the blind.


Moving on to lesbianism, the origins of the rabbinic prohibition against lesbianism is Leviticus 18:3, which Rabbi Roth translates as:  “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.”  By defining lesbianism as a practice of the land of Egypt, the rabbis could then enact a ban against lesbianism.  While male-male anal intercourse carries the death penalty, no penalty is specified for lesbianism. 

Women are exempt from the requirement to marry and have children.  As the great rabbi, the Rambam (as translated by Rabbi Roth) states:  “Men are commanded to procreate, women are not.”  As Rabbi Roth explains:  “…for a woman for whom conjugal life with a man is distasteful there is no compulsion to submit to marriage and procreation.”

Rabbi Roth also notes that the rabbinic prohibition against lesbianism seems to be directed toward married women.  Strikingly, there is no halakhic consequence for violating this rabbinic enactment.  Furthermore, lesbians are under the same constraint as gay men if we assume that this rabbinic prohibition is binding.  Therefore, kissing, hugging, cuddling, and fondling are all permissible.  If we apply the analysis regarding fellatio, it would appear that female-female oral sex would also be permissible.  As Abaye says in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 67b):  “…certain actions are punished by stoning, some are exempt from punishment, yet forbidden, whilst others are entirely permitted.”

Sexual Orientation and Public Ritual Observance

Rabbi Roth also notes: 

The paternal and maternal instinct is no less strong in gays and lesbians than it is in their heterosexual counterparts. Religious gays and lesbians want to celebrate and commemorate their life-cycle joys and sorrows within the framework of the religious kehillah just as straight people do. We should make the effort to find appropriate halakhic and communal avenues to facilitate these needs. And we must bear in mind that the duty that devolves upon us is not only that of finding a halakhic modus vivendi, but we must also educate our congregants into a new understanding, help them to open their hearts, respond to their fears.

One objection that could be raised to the suggested arrangement for a commitment ceremony could be that the legitimacy of the bond is based in the halakhic presumption that the male couple will never engage in mishkav zakhur. Since - according to the objection - such an avoidance cannot reasonably be presumed, the ceremony should be invalid ab initio, since everyone agrees that mishkav zakhur is one of the arayot and those that contravene this law are ĥayyavei karet, doomed to excision. This objection is a red herring. There is, in fact, no halakhic difference between the sin of mishkav zakhur and the sin of be'ilat niddah, copulating with a woman who has not bathed in a ritual bath after her last menstruation [Yerushalmi, Sotah 5:1. Shulĥan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 183:2. (See also Rambam, Issurei Bi'ah 4:11)]: both are Ĥayyavei karet. It is commonplace that the overwhelming majority of Conservative married women do not visit the mikveh (ritualarium, ritual bath) regularly - or at all!. Based on statistical probabilities, in the case of every marriage the presumption should be that the woman has not visited and will not visit the mikveh. Yet this fact does not deter even one Conservative rabbi from performing Ĥuppah-kiddushin for any such couple. We do not pry into what happens in the couple's bedroom after their marriage; the same should apply to a gay couple… Furthermore, obviously this objection is completely irrelevant as regards commitment ceremonies between two lesbians.

Rabbi Roth, citing Rabbi Reuven Bulka, goes on to discuss the role of gay men in public Jewish observance: 

Rabbi Reuven Bulka is a renowned Orthodox rabbi and posek [decisor] and also a licensed clinical psychiatrist. I quote here part of a published reply that he gave to a gay man who asked him about such matters. Here and there I have marginally changed the original wording for the sake of clarity. The original questions are in italics and the rabbi's response in ordinary typeface.

1.      May I lead services if I am asked? Is this permissible for someone like me, who is committed to trying to live a life of Torah and mitzvot, but who is a sexually active homosexual (who nevertheless avoids the prohibition of mishkav zakhur [anal penetrative sex]) and is "out of the closet"?

Absolutely yes. There is no such thing as someone who is a homosexual. Tendencies are not relevant. Behaviour is relevant. If you do not engage in mishkav zakhur you are a tzaddik [righteous], and worthy of aliyyot to the Torah and of being a sheli'aĥ tzibbur [prayer leader] etc.

2.      Should I accept aliyyot to the Torah if I am offered? At one synagogue I attend I am called up to the Torah, even though the congregation knows that I am gay; but at another, they will not call me up. Who is correct?

The ones who call you to the Torah. The others are wrong.

3.      Would it be forbidden for me to teach Torah? I have devoted much of my time to teaching Torah, and regard doing this as a replacement for my never being able to have children. My concern now is that, since I am an out gay man, if I were to teach Torah publicly, perhaps people would think it is OK to be gay?

No. Nothing wrong at all...

4.      Would there be a halachic problem with being involved in a support group for religious homosexuals, with the express intent to keep these people as observant Jews?

No [there would be no halakhic problem].

5.      On what grounds could this be considered as mesit [Aiding and abetting people to sin]?


6.      Surely, on the contrary, it is keruv [Keeping people within the fold of Judaism] and hazalat nefashot [saving human lives, or saving people for Jewish practice]?


There are those who feel that gay men cannot serve as rabbis, cantors and teachers owing to the perceived violation of these two verses from Leviticus.  Other faiths also actively discriminate against gay men serving as clergy, or serving in leadership roles in faith communities.  Against this discrimination, Rabbi Simchah Roth responded in 2003 (during a debate as the Conservative Jewish leadership wrestled with the issue of gays and lesbians roles and rights in the Conservative Jewish movement).  His response mentions Rabbi Joel Roth, who had been an outspoken opponent of any rights or accommodations for gays and lesbians in the Conservative Jewish movement.  Rabbi Simchah Roth wrote:

On what grounds (other than a prejudice which is no longer appropriate) can such discrimination be exercised? Perhaps the rationale is that "sinners" cannot serve as rabbis. This is an admirable policy - but should it not be uniformly enforced by us? The Rabbinical Assembly has members who publicly declare that they use their automobiles on Shabbat and Yom Tov for purposes other than synagogue attendance. The Rabbinical Assembly surely must have male members whose wives do not regularly visit the mikveh. For all I know there may well be female married rabbis who do not do so either. The Rabbinical Assembly has members who openly admit that sometimes they eat non-meat products etc in non-kosher restaurants... None of these rabbis were denied entry into rabbinical school nor is their continued membership of the Rabbinical Assembly challenged by anyone (and certainly not by me). How are we to explain that the only "sinners" who are discriminated against are gays? But beyond all this: even the most severe of the respondents of the CJLS of a decade ago, Rabbi Joel Roth, conceded that it is no sin to be homosexual. So the only "sin" that the CJLS policy statement can refer to is the assumed incidence of mishkav zakhur. Whatever happened to presumed innocence? Whatever happened to "Every person is presumed to be kasher (unless they are proven to be otherwise)", [Tur, Yoreh De'ah 119]? Whatever happened to "Every Jew is presumed to be kasher" [Mishnah Berurah, 136:9]? Is it appropriate that we automatically assume that every gay male is guilty of mishkav zakhur?

[Even if our rabbinical schools insist on making that assumption that should not prevent them from accepting female homosexuals into rabbinical and cantorial schools…]

Perhaps it was thought that an "out-of-the-closet" gay person is a bad rôle model? Why? Because he or she does not create a family? Do we accept into our rabbinical schools only married people? Do we require our rabbinical and cantorial students to affirm that they will marry and procreate? Do we oust from office all rabbis and cantors who are not married? Perhaps we are to be wary that a gay rabbi might seduce straight people into homosexuality. Leaving aside the question whether this is psychologically possible, I cannot understand why this issue should be of greater concern than the possibility of sexual misconduct by heterosexual rabbis, cantors and teachers. The Rabbinical Assembly has created organizational mechanisms to deal with such issues: those mechanisms would be just as effective as regards gay misconduct as straight misconduct. But, moreover, if, despite all the prejudice against gays that undoubtedly exists in our congregations, a person declares that they are gay and that they want to be a rabbi (or a cantor, or a teacher), then they will be all that much more careful to observe all the requirements of religious propriety scrupulously. That a gay religious leader will behave with impropriety is less likely than that a heterosexual religious leader will do so.

Perhaps it could be argued that no congregation would accept an "out-of-the-closet" rabbi as its spiritual leader. That is a moot point: the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Similar dire prophecies were made several decades ago concerning women serving as rabbis: time has proven those prophets to be false prophets…

The Gemara [Ĥullin 6b-7a.] records that once Rabbi Me'ir ate a vegetable grown in Bet She'an during a shemittah year and that Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi used that precedent in order to declare that Bet She'an was permanently released from the strictures of shemittah, even though it was obviously well within the borders of Eretz-Israel. The opposition to this move was very vocal: "How can you permit something that was expressly prohibited by all your predecessors?" Rabbi responded first by bringing an analogy. During the desert wandering Moses had created a bronze serpent which was given the name "Neĥushtan"; for the full story see Numbers 21:6-9.. This bronze serpent had been preserved, but by the time of King Hezekiah it had become an object of idolatrous veneration. King Hezekiah did not hesitate to destroy this artifact made by Moses [2 Kings 18:4]. Rabbi asked his critics how they would explain that righteous kings who preceded Hezekiah, such as Asa and Jehoshaphat, did not destroy this artifact, even though they were zealous in removing other forms of idolatry - and yet Hezekiah did so. "His predecessors left him room to make a name for himself. In the same way my predecessors have left me room to make a name for myself." On this incident Rashi comments: "If our successors do not find something to put right how will they make a name for themselves?" Is it too fanciful to suggest that the predecessors of our generation have "left us room to make a name for ourselves"? Is it too fanciful to suggest that our generation must make a name for itself by "putting right" the status of religiously observant gays? Surely, the time has come.

Gemara – as used here is another name for the Talmud.                                                                                        Rabbi Me'ir is a sage of the Talmud.                                                                                                                    shemittah year – the sabbatical year in which almost all forms of agricultural activity are forbidden in the Land of Israel.  Consumption of agricultural products grown during the sabbatical year (shemittah year) is forbidden.                                     Bet She'an – a city in the Land of Israel, thereby subject to the shemittah year ban on agricultural activity and consumption of agricultural products grown during the shemittah year.                                                                                                    Rabbi - Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, the leading rabbi of his generation and credited as the complier of the Mishnah   


Rabbi Roth concluded his analysis of this complex issue as follows: 

In his responsum of a decade ago Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff wrote:

Taken together, these data are sufficient for me to affirm confidently that we should no longer see homosexuality as a moral abomination. The tradition, in saying that it was, clearly assumed that sexual attraction to, and sexual intercourse with, people of the same gender were totally voluntary. We certainly know enough by now to assert that that is a factual error.

In an article entitled "Dr. Laura Misguided On Homosexuality", June 2, 2000 / 28 Iyyar 5760, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has written:

Religious people should finally get over their all-too-apparent homophobia and reverse the discriminatory policy, which says that homosexuality is an aberration marked by God for special censure. Like heterosexual men and women, gays are God's children, capable of bringing light and love to a planet whose darkness is caused not only by sin but also misguided judgmentalism.

We now come to the end of our exploring the meaning of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.  As we discovered in part 14, when we explored a passage from the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59a), the age of prophecy is over and it is now our obligation to faithfully interpret these verses.  To that end, I have tried to bring as many scholarly and learned opinions as I could.  Not surprisingly, these opinions are somewhat different.  The one these opinions agree on is that these verses are not the blanket prohibition of homosexuality that the homophobes claim.  Furthermore, some of these opinions seem to state that homophobia is wrong and may well be a sin equal to or greater than the sin of violating these two verses. 

Having done a lengthy analysis, we can recap some of the opinions we have encountered as follows:

  • Anal intercourse to humiliate or rape someone is what these verses prohibit.  (See part 14 for the discussion of this point).
  • Male-male anal intercourse is prohibited (the opinion of conservative Judaism at this time). 
  • Only male-male anal intercourse involving a man married to a woman is prohibited (see above)
  • The prohibition no longer applies to loving same sex couples, as the prohibition was given prior to such couples existing.  Furthermore, the prohibition was against this form of sex when it was used during idol worship. (see Rabbi Artson in part 15)
  • These verses prohibit pederasty (See the appendix to part 15 of this series).



The primary source for the material in this installment, including most quotes, is from Dear David, Homosexual Relationships, A Halakhic Investigation by Rabbi Simchah Roth.   Dear David, Homosexual Relationships, A Halakhic Investigation can be found at

We are all indebted to Rabbi Simchah Roth for his insightful and comprehensive analysis.  I am also grateful to Michael Novotsky for calling Rabbi Roth’s insightful analysis to my attention.

Some of the Talmud quotes are from The Soncino Talmud, Judaic Classics by David Kantrowitz, Version 3.0.8, Copyright 1991-2004, Davka Corporation. 

Some of the quotes of scripture are from the English Translation of Tanach © D. Mandel, Judaic Classics by David Kantrowitz, Version 3.0.8, Davka Corporation. 

Additional quotes of scripture are from:

The source of the quote from Pirkei Avot is:
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