Q. Why does halachah (Jewish law) disapprove of homosexuality?
A. Homosexuality has a long history, and the halachic attitude towards it has always been negative. It is mentioned four times in the Torah: Lev. 18:22, Lev. 20:13, Deut. 22:5 and Deut. 23:18. The basic statement is Lev. 18:22, “You shall not lie with a man in the way you would with a woman: it is an abomination.”
In the Talmud, Bar Kappara interprets to’evah (“abomination”) as to’eh attah vah, “you go astray in it”. Tosafot and the RaN explain, “You go astray in it by abandoning cohabitation with your wife and going after a male” (Nedarim 51a). The Torah T’mimah states, “You go astray from the foundations of creation by lying with a male”, adding the P’sikta Zutarta, “You go astray in it for, behold, you will not produce any issue from him”. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 209) says, “God desired His world which He created to be populated, therefore He commanded that they should not destroy their seed by lying with males”.
In the book of Genesis, two angels come to Sodom in the evening and accept shelter with Lot. The townspeople surround the house, demanding, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them!” (Gen. 19:5). “To know”, in this context, means to have carnal knowledge. The angels avert the immediate threat, but the next day the city is destroyed because of the people’s sinfulness.
In Judges 19:22-26, a Levite from Ephraim, en route from Bethlehem with his concubine, stays overnight in the territory of Benjamin. An old man gives them hospitality, but the people of the town beat on the door of his house and call, “Bring out the men who came into your house that we may know them!” Eventually they are pacified when the concubine is sent out to them, but they too suffer summary punishment for their deed. (It should be added that in both cases there is an element of abuse of hospitality as well as homosexuality.)
In the time of the monarchy various homosexual practices were known (e.g. I Kings 14:22-24, 15:12-14, 22:46-47; II Kings 23:7), and the prophets trenchantly criticised public orgies. Little is said of lesbianism; it was apparently less widespread than male homosexuality.
The homosexuality of the Greco-Roman period is scathingly treated in the New Testament (e.g. Romans 1:18-28; I Corinthians 6:9-11). Josephus relates that Herod would not let his brother-in-law Aristobulus go to Rome at Antony’s request because the boy was young and handsome and Antony would abuse him (Antiquities XV,2:6). Josephus also says that Jewish law “owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature has appointed, of a man with his wife” (Against Apion II,23).
The Mishnah lists relations with a male as grounds for death by stoning (Sanh. 7:4). Both partners are culpable, though if one was under 9 he is not deemed guilty but the adult is flagellated. If the boy is between 9 and 13 the adult is stoned and the minor flagellated. If there are no witnesses and no warning was given prior to the act, the punishment is karet (excision) for a deliberate act and chatat (sin-offering) for an inadvertent act.
Though the rabbis felt that Jews were unlikely to be suspected of homosexuality, Rabbi Judah rules that two bachelors should not sleep under the same cloak, but the sages disagree (Kidd. 4:14). The Shulchan Aruch, reflecting the prevalence of homosexuality in Arab lands, takes the strict view that, “In these generations, when licentious people have multiplied, one should avoid being alone with a male” (Even HaEzer 24:1) but the European commentator, the Bach (Joel Sirkes), comments, “In our countries it is not necessary as a matter of strict law to avoid this but only as a mark of piety”.
In relation to lesbianism, the Sifra quotes Lev. 18:3, warning against following the deeds of Egypt and Canaan, and says, “What did the Egyptians and Canaanites do? A man used to marry a man and a woman a woman.” The 3rd century Talmudic sage R. Huna disqualified a lesbian from marrying a kohen (Shabbat 65a/b). Maimonides says that people should not allow lesbians to frequent their homes (Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 21:8).
None of this, however, justifies persecuting or demonising homosexuals or lesbians. The difficulty the halachah has is with the practice, not the person. It does not and must not be disrespectful towards anybody, though it cannot accept homosexuality or lesbianism as a religiously-legitimate lifestyle.