Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Homosexuality and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism: The Underlying Problem (and Solution)

It’s the annual Gay Pride event this coming week in Tel Aviv (in Jerusalem yesterday). As usual, although a bit more muted than in the past, the ultra-Orthodox and most Orthodox are shunning the festivities. Their antipathy to homosexuality runs deep. The question is: “why?”

On the face of it, the answer is simple: the Bible prohibits homosexual relations. Leviticus 18:22 states: “Do not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Which begs (or leads to) the question: why not? There are a few answers: some clear on the surface, but one that resides deeper – indeed, is related to a seemingly unconnected central issue in Israel today: the educational “core curriculum.”

The first reason for homosexual antipathy is a central biblical injunction – indeed, God’s first commandment – to procreate (Genesis 1:28): “Be fruitful and multiply.” That’s not possible in a homosexual relationship (certainly not without IVF treatment etc.). So in a sense, the Leviticus prohibition is the obverse side of the Genesis commandment.

Second, the Leviticus injunction seems to be bracketed by a specific circumstance. Near the start of that chapter, we find an “introductory” explanation for all the prohibitions that follow. Leviticus 18:3: “After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein you dwelled, shall you not do; and after the doings of the land of Canaan, to where I bring you, shall you not do; neither shall you walk in their statutes.”

Where and what exactly were these “doings”? They were not common custom among the average Egyptian or Canaanite citizenry but rather a “priestly practice,” a form of religious (idolatrous) worship, something found among many other ancient civilizations. Thus, the biblical prohibition against (only male) homosexual relations was but part of a litany of many idolatrous proscriptions. Indeed, the verse preceding the prohibition makes this even more clear (18:21): “And you shall not give any of your seed to set them apart to Molech, neither shall you profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.”

However, as I suggested at the start, the visceral antagonism of the strictly Orthodox against homosexuality has a more profound source. After all, most Israelis (indeed, Jews around the world), are not strict Sabbath observers or kosher eaters – but we don’t find the Orthodox protesting (and worse) against these “transgressors” in any vociferous form, if at all. So why against homosexuality?

The answer in a word: SCIENCE.

Scientific studies over the past several decades have shown (actually: proved) indisputably that homosexuality is a biologically natural phenomenon – not only among humans but among many primates and even other types of animals (e.g., penguins!). Regardless of culture and place, human homosexuality has existed throughout human history, and everywhere that researchers have looked. Indeed, the variation in percentage of the homosexual population within different countries is not that great, so that there’s seems to be a basic consistency among human beings overall.

Science has nothing to say about the Sabbath – nor about eating kosher. But it has lots to say about the natural, inborn propensity of a small but not insignificant percentage of homosexuals in every human society. The word “inborn” here is crucial; people do not become homosexual out of choice (heterosexual youngsters might experiment with some “same sex”, but that ends pretty quickly when hormonal puberty takes over).

This is a clash that the traditionally Orthodox are not interested in engaging because there is no retort to overwhelming evidence. Indeed, any recognition of scientific proof immediately brings up a profound theological question: how could God prohibit something that the Almighty bred into some human beings?

To be sure, this is not the only collision between science and Orthodox Judaism, but these days it has become the most blatant clash because homosexuals are no longer willing to hide in the closet – and contemporary science has no compunctions about letting the chips fall where they may on this topic.

And this is why the ultra-Orthodox in Israel (and the most extreme in the US) are adamant about not allowing science into their classrooms. The dissonance is too great for young minds – and probably for many of their adults as well. The issue is not a matter of “wasting Torah study time with science” but rather “science undercutting the foundations of Torah study.” Public gay pride events merely make the very Orthodox try to build their informational ghetto walls ever higher, as a matter of theological life or death.

Is there a way out of the morass? The answer can be split into two levels: practical and halakhic. On the practical level, some of the Orthodox community (and a few oases among the ultra-Orthodox) have changed their tune: the Bible prohibits homosexual relations but does not in any way excommunicate or otherwise proscribe the homosexual as a full-fledged Jew. They can be cantors in synagogue, read from the Torah etc. Indeed, several years ago it was reported that at least one (very) Orthodox Israeli rabbi developed an interesting “work-around”: he marries Orthodox gay men to Orthodox lesbian women! Totally kosher (after all, it’s man marrying woman); what they do (or don’t do) in – or outside – the marital bedroom is their business.

Even theologically there is a solution: as I mentioned above, the Leviticus proscription is bounded by idol worship (avodah zarah). Thus, the entire prohibition against homosexual activity can be “reinterpreted” as relating only to its being carried within the narrow circumstance of idol worship (that, of course, no longer exists almost anywhere). Less “reasonable” interpretations of biblical law have become accepted orthodoxy over the centuries e.g., the Rabbis’ invention of the “pruzbul”, negating the biblical commandment that all loans be invalidated at the Jubilee (50th year) cycle.

It will take halakhic courage to turn back millennia of what used to be “unacceptable behavior.” The road will be long and hard – but society in general, and even many Orthodox Jews, have already started to traverse it.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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