Ask The Rabbi: Orthodox Jewry’s stance on homosexuality

Many recent scholars, including the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, understand homosexual inclinations as a reflection of innate, involuntary desires.

srugim religious homosexual 311 (photo credit: .)
srugim religious homosexual 311
(photo credit: .)
Especially following the acceptance by non-Orthodox movements of homosexual members and clergy, the topic of homosexuality has become a particularly sensitive and contentious issue within the Jewish community. Orthodoxy, with a decidedly more conservative approach to Jewish law, has remained steadfast in its defense of the biblical prohibition, with various nuances developing in how to understand this proscription and its violators.
Within its larger list of illicit sexual behavior, the Torah explicitly prohibits male homosexual penetrative intercourse: “You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination (to’eva)” (Leviticus 18:22). The Torah further condemns to death the willful and pre-warned violators of this prohibition (Lev. 20:13). Additionally, this prohibition falls into a category of cardinal sins,  giluy arayot, which a person may never actively transgress, even to save his life (YD 157:1). The Noahide laws similarly proscribe such behavior among gentiles (Sanhedrin 58a).
While the Torah does not explicitly mention lesbianism, the Sages included it, along with other illicit sexual practices, to fall within the proscription of following in the ways of Egyptian traditions (Sifra Leviticus 18:3). While some scholars deemed female homosexual activity a biblical injunction (Kiryat Sefer Issurei Biah 21:8), others understood it as a rabbinic prohibition (Prisha EH 20:2).
Some forms of non-penetrative male homosexual activity might constitute less severe violations, although all penumbras of homosexual acts remain strictly prohibited (EH 20:1). While it remains preferable for someone to transgress a less severe prohibition, this reflects only the lesser of two sins, so to speak.
Various explanations have been offered for the injunction against homosexuality. Many have contended that homosexual activity was prohibited because it precludes reproduction and the settling of the world (Hinuch 209). This rationale partially reflects a utilitarian viewpoint of sexual activity, which deems procreation a central purpose. This explanation, however, suffers from the fact that the Torah permits sexual activity in contexts in which procreation is not possible, as in the case of sterile people (Rabbeinu Behaye Leviticus 18:6).
The Talmud understood the Bible’s characterization of homosexuality as a “to’eva” to represent a conflation of words meaning, “You go astray in it” (Nedarim 51a). In that sense, to’eva should be deemed, as in the JPS Bible, an “aberration” (as opposed to abomination). In this light, some commentators have explained that homosexuality causes deviations from heterosexual marital norms and breaks down the family structure (Tosafot). Others have understood homosexuality as deviations from human nature (Midrash Lekah Tov Leviticus 18:12). As Rabbi Chaim Rapoport has noted in his thorough book on this subject, these rationales, even when taken together, remain incomplete and disputable, with the ultimate foundation for the commandment remaining Divine wisdom.
One major source of contention lies in understanding the origins of homosexual orientations. Some authors have understood it as entirely unnatural and a wanton rebellion against biblical wisdom (Igrot Moshe OC 4:115). However, many recent scholars, including the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, have understood homosexual inclinations as a reflection of innate, involuntary desires. This position reflects greater affinity with contemporary social science, which generally accepts the notion that however it originates, people do not “choose” their sexual-affectional attraction. Thus the Torah does not prohibit a homosexual orientation, but is rather prohibiting a person from choosing to act on these sexual inclinations.
The alleged unreasonableness of a situation in which the Torah forbids acting on natural sexual inclinations has led to contrary responses. Conservative rabbis like Rabbi Elliot Dorff have argued that this tension is theologically untenable and have therefore sought ways to permit homosexual activity, despite the verses in Leviticus. Some Orthodox activists, on the other hand, contend that a homosexual orientation must be “reversible” or “curable,” contending that otherwise God would not forbid it.
Many Orthodox rabbis, however, recognize that along the continuum of different types of sexual attractions, many gay individuals retain a strong attraction to members of the same sex which is irreversible. In a famous 1974 article, Rabbi Norman Lamm posited that while homosexual acts always remain prohibited, the actors are not legally culpable for actions that stem from involuntary inclinations (oness). Most Orthodox thinkers have rejected this thesis, since one always retains the free will to abstain from sexual activity. Nonetheless, they acknowledge the tremendous challenge of such celibacy, and recognize that sexually active homosexuals (especially those who do not espouse an anti-religious agenda) should not be viewed as defiant rebels worthy of ostracism (mumar le-hachis). Rather, they must be approached with understanding and compassion, and should be treated as respectfully as other contemporary Jews whose level of observance does not reach halachic standards (mumar le-te’avon or tinok she-nishba).
While sometimes difficult to maintain within society’s culturalclashes, this latter position retains intellectual honesty whileshowing proper respect and compassion, and in my mind remains a properapproach to this complex issue.
The author, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.