Homosexuality and Torah: A Personal Look at Acharei Mot

An Israeli man wears a rainbow a kippa, the traditional Jewish skullcap for men, during the annual Gay Pride march in Jerusalem on July 21, 2016.
Israeli police said they suspected the man behind the attack on last year's march, Yishai Shlissel, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who killed a teenager and stabbed five other people, had been in contact with his brother from prison about an assault on the event. / AFP / THOMAS COEX        (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images)
An Israeli man wears a rainbow kippa during the annual Gay Pride march in Jerusalem on July 21, 2016. THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images.

(״ואת-זכר לא תשכב משכבי אשה תועבה הוא״ (ויקרא יח:כב

“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)

I cannot describe how it feels to hear these words, written in our Torah, recited aloud in front of me.  Read both during the reading of Parashat Acharei Mot and during Mincha on Yom Kippur, these words forever condemn me, and many others like me, to a life as an outsider in the frum world.  Every other gay or bisexual religious Jewish kid, whether struggling with his identity or open about it, knows this feeling.

I recently came out to friends, family, and my yeshiva.  It is truly remarkable that every Rabbi and all of my peers in yeshiva were completely accepting of me.  I have realized for myself, however, that, more than acceptance from others, I need acceptance from myself.  The issue is that, if we are being honest with ourselves, there is simply no getting around the fact that Judaism strictly prohibits homosexual acts.  As important it is to be accepted and welcome in the Orthodox community, and as meaningful it is to hear a Rabbi you respect tell you that you have a place in the frum world, none of that changes the halacha.  Torah, it seems, views homosexuality as an aberration to the natural order of the world.  This prohibition does not only appear in Acahrei Mot.  It appears in the following parsha, Kedoshim, as well:

״ואיש אשר ישכב את-זכר משכבי אשה תועבה עשו שניהם מות יומתו דמיהם בם.״

(ויקרא כ:יג)

“If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abomination; they shall be put to death– and they retain the bloodguilt.” (Leviticus 20:13)

Many contemporary scholars suggest that only anal sex between men is forbidden Biblically, while other forms of sexual intimacy between men is a Rabbinic injunction.  It is not clear whether that is correct, but it must be noted that a majority of poskim do not agree with this assertion.  The Gemara in Yevamot 54b suggests that ha’arah, or initial stages of intercourse, is sufficient to cause both men to be liable for homosexual relations.  What is ha’arah?  This is discussed futter in Yevamot 55b-56a.  Rabbi Yohanan says it is insertion of the penis, while Shmuel says it is external contact of the sexual organs.  It is also suggested in a sugya in the Yerushalmi in Kiddushin that, given the juxtaposition of niddah with homosexuality in our parsha, the laws relating to homosexuality are deduced from it.  The Shulchan Aruch poskins as such, stating: “If one has bodily contact or petting with one of the arayot (people with whom sexual relations are forbidden), or he hugged and had genital contact and benefited from nearness of the flesh, he receives (Biblical) lashes” (Even HaEzer 20:1).

Rabbi Riskin of Efrat, who deserves immense honor and respect for his longtime support and empathy towards LGBTQ Jews, alongside his many other praiseworthy efforts over the decades, has suggested an alternative way to interpret the verses in Vayikra.  In a 1993 article in The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Riskin argued that, under the principle of oness rachmana patrei, the prohibition of homosexuality should not apply to gay Jews today.  This principle states that G-d does not hold us accountable for sins committed under duress.  Since we know today that homosexuality is not a choice in our time, the logic goes, then the Torah prohibition does not apply to LGBTQ Jews in our era.  I want to believe in that argument, but are we to believe that the nature of human beings has changed that drastically since the times of Chazal?  I want nothing more than to find a halachic basis for engaging in homosexual acts or having a romantic partner, but I also believe in intellectual honesty.

It is clear that in the times of Chazal, homosexual tendencies were prevelant in at least parts of the world.  It is also clear that the concept of gay marriage was known to the Rabbis and seen in a highly negative light.  Regarding yichud between two men, the Shulchan Aruch poskins based on a statement from Masechet Kiddushin 82a, which states that “Jews are not suspected of [engaging in] homosexual intercourse.”  This shows that some people in the world at that time were suspected of homosexuality, and this also suggests that those tendencies and urges were innate.  Since, at that time, Jews were not suspected of homosexuality, two Jewish men could be in seclusion together.  In our era, at least between two gay Jews, it would seem like the laws of yichud would be in effect.  While it is true that at the time of Chazal, at least according to this statament, “Jews were not suspected of engaging in homosexual acts,” it must not be forgotten that homosexual relations are included within the sheva mitzvos b’nei Noach (the seven Noahide laws), binding upon all of humanity.  If gentiles were suspected of homosexuality, yet still forbidden from acting upon it, how could it possibly ever be permissible for gay Jews to act upon their urges?

Personally, my greatest struggle is that I do not, in fact, find the Torah’s prohibition of homosexuality puzzling.  In the context of what Judaism is trying to bring to the world, it makes complete sense.  It is not natural in the sense that it is not the ideal way that sexuality should manifest itself.  For whatever reason, Hashem made some of us this way.

Some suggest that the ban on homosexuality stems from the prohibition of wasting seed.  This does not make sense to me.  Unlike many other religions, Judaism does not view sexuality as a negative thing.  Rather, it is a potentially dangerous urge that must be realized through the appropriate channels.  Through kiddushin, marriage, Judaism elevates romance and sexuality to the level of the holy.  Husband and wife become partners with G-d in the act of creation.  Yet, even outside procreation, sex within the framework of kiddushin is considered holy and sanctified.  Judaism, however, offers homosexual Jews no pathway to sanctify their urges.

Marriage within the framework of halacha is not an option for gay Jews, for Chazal makes clear that homosexual marriage is an abomination.  The Gemara in Chullin 92a-b discusses the topic:

“Ulla says: There are thirty mitzvot that b’nei Noach accepted upon themselves, but they are only fulfilling three… One is that they do not write a ketubah for men (i.e. they do not officiate gay marriage).”

Rashi explains that, even in those societies in which males have intercourse, they still do not write a marriage contract for them.

In our Parsha, the Rabbis examine the following pasuk:

(״כמעשה ארץ מצרים אשר ישבתם בה לא תעשו״ (ויקרא יח:ג

“You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt…nor shall you follow their statutes” (Leviticus 18:3):

What are the “practices and statutes” of the Egyptians?  In the Sifra, midrash halakha on Vayikra, it is explained: “What did they do?  A man would marry a man, and a woman, a woman” (ספרא, אחרי מות, פרשה ח:ח).

Chazal clearly views homosexual marriage in a profoundly negative light.  Yet, despite all this, it is also clear that Torah believes that everyone should be in a loving relationship.  So where does this leave gay Jews?  Certainly, being in a committed, lifelong relationship is far more beneficial to the spiritual growth of gay Jews than living alone forever.

Beyond the idea of marriage and sanctifying sexuality, the Torah’s prohibition on homosexuality makes sense when seen in its historical context.  Hashem chose the Jewish people as His own to introduce a radical new idea to the world.  Judaism teaches that might does not always make right, that the forces of nature are not to be worshipped, and that all of humanity is to be treated with respect and dignity, for we are all created in the image of G-d.  How does the ban on homosexual acts fit into this idea?  It is clear, from our own tradition and other ancient sources, that other nations that engaged in homosexuality viewed it as the domination of one man over another.  It was viewed as a sign of masculinity, power, and strength to have intercouse with or even rape another man or boy.  In this context, the Torah’s prohibition makes complete sense.  Even marriage between two men was not seen as enough to sanctify any of these activities.  Whether homosexuality today still operates under a similar framework is irrelevant, for Torah prohibitions would still apply.

So where does this all leave us?  I cannot describe how it feels to have the powerful urge to want to violate this Torah prohibition laid out in Acharei Mot.  The support I have received from friends, family, and my yeshiva is truly remarkable, and I am so thankful for it, yet it has not helped my increasing feeling of loneliness amongst my peers.  I feel different, ammoral, and even heretical.

I have come to the conclusion that I must create a space for myself in the frum world, and I must demand acceptance.  Yet, I cannot accept the premise that the prohibition in Vayikra no longer applies or that certain actions are permissible.  I also, however, cannot accept being condemned to a life devoid of love and intimacy.  The only answer I can see is to create a framework for myself that allows me to reconcile Torah with my sexuality.  While the laws of negiah and yichud are not so clear for gay couples, in this circumstance following the letter of the law is not enough.  What is the spirit of the law?  There is no halachic basis, per se, for this, according to the halachic structure we have today.  Perhaps the task set forth before me is to create a life, a relationship, a family, and a future for myself within the framework of frum life.  The time may come when I will be forced to violate certain prohibitions for my own sanity, for I refuse to live a loveless life.  I may have to choose, at times, the values of love and a relationship over strict observance of halacha in this one area, for the only other choice is a loveless life, and that is no choice at all.  Most of all, I must remain proud of who I am, for this is the lot I have been given.

The prohibition in Achrei Mot should not foster hatred, neither of LGBTQ Jews nor of the Torah.  Rather, it should challenge us all to remember that Judaism, like life, is not black and white.  Our tradition is full of contradictory values, and, at times, we are all forced to make difficult decisions.  What is Hashem asking of the Jewish people in this world?  Torah offers a revolutionary vision to the world, challenging us to realize the human experience in a way that brings sanctity to the mundane.  Is our mission not to create a world of love, kindness, and respect by emulating the endless love and mercy of Hashem?  Is it not to be an or l’goyim, a light unto the nations, “opening eyes deprived of light, rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:7)?

To the majority of the Jewish world, all I ask of you is to remember the principle of kavod kabriyot, respect for human dignity, and that we are all created in the image of Hashem.  To my fellow LGBTQ Jews, whatever decisions you make for yourselves, know that you have a helek, a portion, in Torah in any event, for “her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths, peaceful” (Proverbs 3:17).  You will always have a place in the Jewish nation, and nothing will change that.  A Chag Kasher v’Sameach, and may we all have the zechut to celebrate Pesach next year together in a rebuilt Jerusalem.

About the Author
Jake Fradkin is currently a student at a yeshiva in Yerushalayim, and he intends to continue his academic studies at a university in Israel. Having grown up in a secular Jewish home in New Jersey, Jake developed a passion for Judaism, Torah, and Zionism.
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