Judaism and Homosexuality: An Annotated Bibliography
My research centers around the desire to explore the intersection of religion, specifically Judaism, and sexuality. This intersection can be surmised by the following question: how do the three main Jewish denominations, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed view the issue of homosexuality?
From this question, comes a morass of spiritual, ethical, Biblical, and philosophical questions, questions that strike at the complexity of this intersection and at the heart of our shared humanity, Jew and Gentile alike. These ten sources are just the tip of the iceberg of scholars and spiritual leaders that continue to wrestle with this issue. Even with a small sample, I have gathered perspectives from these three Jewish denominations that show the central tensions between compassion and law, love and communal expectation, and grace and tradition.
Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition
Greenberg, Steven. Wrestling with God and Men : Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. Madison, Wisc. : University of Wisconsin Press, ©2004., 2004. EBSCOhost,
Rabbi Steven Greenberg writes about his experience being an openly gay Orthodox rabbi in a community that was and is firmly against homosexuality and gay behavior. Growing up, Greenberg was not raised in any religious context, and was taught that the purpose of science was, “to sift through religion to clean out its primitive notions and superstitions…”. (4). Greenberg also recounts that he didn’t know anyone who was attracted to the same sex, and that “…the very possibility of sexual desire or sexual activity between men or between women was inconceivable.” (4).
However, somehow Steven Greenberg became a gay Orthodox Rabbi. This book is a very personal look into a person wrestling with both his sexuality and his faith, and how the people in his life influenced this spiritual journey and self-discovery. His ultimate conclusions lead him to believe that homosexuality is not merely just ‘okay’ within the Jewish tradition, but homosexual relationships are just as capable of producing holy, God-glorifying relationships as hetero-normative relationships.
Greenberg then spends the next hundred pages introducing persuasive evidence from the Bible and the Talmud that argues for an affirming stance towards homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism. Consider this particular example, from 1 Samuel 18:1-4. The writer of 1 Samuel seems to insinuate that the biblical hero David has an intimate relationship with Jonathan, a son of King Saul. Saul eventually becomes jealous of David’s military prowess and popularity, so he attempts to kill David numerous times. Jonathan defends David against his own father and in so doing, gives up all claim on the royal position that Jonathan is supposed to receive, which fills Saul with disgust. Greenberg makes the case that this disgust from Saul could not be from merely a platonic relationship that Jonathan has with David, but this anger and contempt brews from Saul’s shame that Jonathan has entered into a romantic relationship with David.
This story becomes incredibly relevant to modern day when one applies this scenario to modern day coming out stories and generational differences. Saul is portrayed by the writer of 1 Samuel as a close-minded, jealous, murderous, insecure King, who can’t comprehend his son’s love for David. Saul is the antagonist, and the reader is made to empathize the two protagonists David and Jonathan’s relationship.
The one potential problem with this source is that, while I find myself agreeing with much of Greenberg’s evidence, his views on homosexuality within the Orthodox tradition are not commonly shared with other Orthodox Jews, both at the time of writing in 2004 and in modern day. The other source from Orthodox Rabbi Michael J. Broyde presents the much more prevalent view that homosexuality is not a proper, holy, sacred lifestyle that should be affirmed by the Jewish community.
Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View.
Rapoport, Chaim. Judaism and Homosexuality : An Authentic Orthodox View. London ; Portland, OR : Vallentine Mitchell, 2004., 2004. EBSCOhost,
With regards to Rabbi Greenberg’s more open-minded interpretation of Orthodox Judaism and homosexuality, Rabbi Chaim Rapoport in Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View presents the far more conservative consensus. In fact, Rabbi Rapoport says in the question and answer section of his book, “‘Gay Synagogues’ are anathema to the religiously sensitive because their aim is not only to condone behaviour that the Torah proscribes, but moreover to sanctify such practices.”. Rapoport is firmly against all homosexual behavior, even if that behavior is between two Orthodox Jews who follow all of the rules and traditions of the Jewish faith.
In his chapter on ‘The Nature of Homosexuality’, Rapoport writes, “the Torah has forbidden all plausible sexual activity…’, and, “…the purport of the commandments of the Torah is: God has created us with sexual desires; these must be completely suppressed and never expressed…” (21). Though this book was written in 2004, these views still hold as the Orthodox view from Jews on homosexuality.
Rapoport’s rhetoric exudes a growing sense of disease, even disgust, towards homosexuals and groups, whether they are religious or not. This seems to be consistent throughout the entire work and his own view of homosexuality and secular life, which is useful when considering some other more progressive Jewish attitudes. Rabbi Rapoport’s interpretation of Jewish law and homosexuality is upheld by the majority of Orthodox Jews, but most Jews are not Orthodox.
Marriage, Sex, and Family in Judaism
Ausubel, Michael and Michael J. Broyde. Marriage, Sex, and Family in Judaism. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, c2005., 2005. EBSCOhost,
This is a book of essays largely about heteronormative relationships and Judaism, but there is one chapter towards the end of the book called Lesbian Relationships and Jewish Law, which I thought was interesting because it was specifically lesbian. Many of the sources I came across either dealt with gay male relationships or just homosexual relationships in relation to Judaism.
This chapter is written by Angela J. Riccetti, who takes a strong legal bent to the issue of lesbian relationships and lesbian activity in Jewish life. Her writing is quite dense and full of Hebraic language and terms, clearly demonstrating that her work is not meant for the general public. Because the laws in the Torah only mention strictly male-to-male relationships, historically the issue of lesbian relationships has been a bit of a gray area for some strict literalist Rabbis.
Ultimately, the line that Riccetti arrives at is being out publically as a lesbian woman versus privately participating in lesbian activity and relationships while still being closeted. This falls in line with Moon’s third view, ‘We Don’t Talk About That’. As long as its not out in the open, the Riccetti’s reading of Jewish law says it’s largely permissible.
Eyes Wide Open: A Love Story between two ultra-orthodox jewish men
Scott, A. O. “A Love Story That Tests an Ultra-Orthodox Jew.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Feb. 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/02/05/movies/05eyes.html
Eyes Wide Open is a small indie film that released at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. It follows Aaron, an Orthodox father of four who inherits his family’s butcher shop in one of the most Orthodox communities in Israel. Aaron is, “…a kind, responsible and somewhat melancholy man, who makes his way each day, without complaint, from his shop to the synagogue to the apartment he shares with his wife, Rivka, and their four children.” (Scott). The life he leads is deemed respectable by the Temble Rabbis, until he takes on a 22-year old apprentice, Ezri, who complicates things.
Aaron begins to develop intimate feelings for his apprentice, and the movie revolves around the internal struggle between Aaron and his faith, the external struggle of Aaron and his religious community, and Aaron’s relationships with his family and with Ezri. As Aaron and Ezri fall deeper and deeper into love and subsequently face the public outrage of their relationship, Eyes Wide Open is careful not to portray this Orthodox community as ignorant or malicious, but, “[Eyes Wide Open] does represent an honest attempt, by and for outsiders, to understand the logic of a worldview defined by absolute obedience to God’s law.” (Scott).
I thought that this film was a wonderful example of someone grappling with these issues of homosexuality and Judaism, portraying the Reformed idea of holy non-heterosexual relationships within an Orthodox community. It truly encapsulates all of the central questions that Jews of all traditions are having to wrestle with and ask themselves.
Homosexuality, human dignity & halakah: A combined responsum for the committee on jewish law and standards
Dorff, Rabbi Elliot N., et al. “HOMOSEXUALITY, HUMAN DIGNITY & HALAKHAH: A COMBINED RESPONSUM FOR THE COMMITTEE ON JEWISH LAW AND STANDARDS.” Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbinical Assembly, 6 Dec. 2006,
This is a document articulating the Conservative position on homosexuality from the Rabbinical Assembly. The Assembly is the international association of Conservative Rabbis that have shaped the ideology, traditions, and practices of the Conservative denomination since its founding in 1901. There are 25 Rabbis who sit on the Assembly and vote on the measures that will then be reflected in Conservative Jewish life.
This measure was narrowly approved with a 13-12 vote, showing the controversial nature of homosexuality even within just one of the three Jewish denominations. The introductory paragraph lays the groundwork for their position:
“Contemporary Jewish law is based upon the legal and moral texts found in the Written and Oral Torah. The Written Torah famously pronounces that “God created humanity in His image” (Genesis 1:27; 9:6), that “It is not good for man to live alone” (Genesis 2:18), that you must “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and that “God is good to all; His mercies apply to all creatures” (Psalms 145:9).”
With that said, the members state, “Human beings cannot choose their sexual orientation.”, and “The experience of sexual attraction and falling in love is one that individuals experience as outside their conscious control.” (3). The Assembly denounces gay conversion therapy, but also lays out a spectrum of arguments against intimate homosexual relations, some that only forbid anal sex, and some that prohibit acts that may lead to sexual relations, such as kissing and skin-to-skin contact. The purpose of listing these arguments against gay sex acts is to establish that celibacy is preferable for homosexual Jews, but the Assembly concludes, “…the celebration of such a [homosexual] union is appropriate with blessings over wine and sheheheyanu, with psalms and other readings to be developed by local authorities.” (17).
The tension between tradition and the plight of homosexual Jews is palpable in this text. Conservative Judaism is directly in the center between the other two Jewish denominations and it shows in this document. There are 36 pages of summaries of arguments and painstaking adherence to every potential translation of Torah law. Ultimately, the Rabbinic Assembly makes a difficult decision to place the human dignity of homosexual Jews over, what the Assembly considers, clear-cut laws forbidding homosexual activity.
The biggest development of this document was the sanctioning of gay and lesbian Rabbis, by ruling that openly homosexual students would be accepted to Conservative Jewish seminaries. Since 2006, anyone who is interested in going to Conservative Jewish seminary is welcome to attend, regardless of sexual orientation. As a result, in the eleven years since the publication of this document, Conservative Jews have moved unequivocally to the left on homosexuality, despite the somewhat convoluted and contradictory message of the Assembly.
The perplexities of Conservative judaism
Wertheimer, Jack. “The Perplexities of Conservative Judaism.” Commentary, vol. 124, no. 2, Sept. 2007, pp. 38-44. EBSCOhost,
Jack Wertheimer writes in COMMENTARY Magazine about the reactions in the Conservative Jewish community to the treatise on homosexuality put forth by the Rabbinic Assembly in 2006, describing the implications of the ruling, the confusion felt by Conservative Jews, and the overall lack of clarity to the Conservative denomination’s diagnosis of the issue of homosexuality. He writes, “Far from welcoming the exercise as a success, two-thirds of the clergy claimed to have been ‘somewhat embarrassed’ by the contradictory rulings and over half of the lay leaders pronounced themselves ‘confused.’” (38)
The crux of his argument seems to be that, while the Rabbinic Assembly may be able to hold two seemingly contradictory positions on homosexuality together, Conservative Jewish congregations “…have not had the luxury of embracing both positions simultaneously but have been forced to choose between them.” (38).
Wertheimer goes on to present the two dueling narratives surrounding the inception of Conservative Judaism in the late 18th Century. The first origin story describes Jews who felt that Reformed Judaism abandoned God when it abandoned strict adherence to Torah law. They sought to restore tradition and customs to its high proper place in Jewish life. The other tale involves Jewish immigrants to America becoming disillusioned with the, “… East European-style Orthodoxy and its Yiddish-speaking rabbis.” (39). These new immigrants wanted a relaxed alternative to Orthodoxy and, “…sought a refined synagogue service, sermons in the vernacular, mixed seating of men and women, and a shift from an adult-centered religion to a child-centered one.” (39). These two different origin stories show the tension that Conservative Jews find themselves caught in, and whichever origin story you believe to be true probably influences how progressive or Orthodox you are on Jewish issues.
Conservative Jews strike a delicate balance between the other two denominations of Judaism and, on the issue of homosexuality, are divided. Much like the vote on the Rabbinic Assembly treatise showed, Conservative Jews enter into an arena of debate and contradiction much more often than Reformed and Orthodox circles do. Because of this, Conservative Jews are simultaneously more open-minded than the other two denominations and more divided than the other two denominations. Thus, Conservative stances on homosexuality, at least from 10 years ago, appear a bit convoluted.
Coming out as Queen: Jewish Identity, Queer Theory, and the Book of Esther
Bahar, Shirly. “Coming out as Queen: Jewish Identity, Queer Theory, and the Book of Esther.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality, vol. 13, no. 3, July 2012, pp. 167-178. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/15240657.2012.709134.
Shirly Bahar bases this work off of queer theory pioneer Eve Sedgewick’s seminal work, Epistemology of the Closet. This book deals with the evolution of homosexuality, its role in societal identity, and the evolution of queerness through historical and literary contexts. Sedgwick uses the the themes of works by Herman Melville, Oscar Wilde, Michael Proust, and others to illustrate the philosophical and psychological ramifications of closeted sexuality.
Bahar takes her work and builds upon it by connecting Jewish identity and queer identity. The vehicle for this direct comparison is the Book of Esther, found in the Old Testament. Esther is a Jew who becomes Queen through a long and sexist ancient beauty contest thrown by King Xerxes. Esther is encouraged by her Jewish uncle to hide her Jewish identity. After becoming Queen, one of the King’s advisors threatens to wage genocide against all the Jews in the country. Esther revealed her true identity to the King in a successful effort to prevent the elimination of her people for, to quote Esther, “such a time as this.”
Bahar, while admitting that this direct comparison of Jewish identity and queer identity is overly simplistic, makes the case that Esther being forced to conceal her Jewish identity and then later revealing it, is analogous to a coming-out experience for LGBTQ people. In equating these two things, Bahar advocates that sexual identity is just as complex, intrinsic, and essential as Jewish identity, or any other core part of one’s personhood.
To see the full PDF of Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, click here
Studying Judaism : The Critical Issues
Wright, Melanie Jane. Studying Judaism : The Critical Issues. Continuum, 2012. Studying World Religions. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=633578&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Melanie Wright surmises ten main points, beliefs, and debates in her book Studying Judaism: The Critical Issues. These include issues like gender, culture, politics, and central beliefs. Her last chapter focuses on issues that Jews will need to address or are in the early stages of addressing, like the issue of homosexuality. Her writing on this issue gives the Reformed perspective, saying that Reformed views, “… of heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderedness are identities that deserve to be treated with respect, since all humans are made b’tzelem elohim, in the divine image.” (169). In Wright’s analysis, homosexuality is just another facet of one’s personality and God-created character. Reformed circles view homosexuality and other alternatives to heterosexuality as having the capability to be just as holy,
Additionally, Wright cites Steven Greenberg, the author of Wrestling with God and Men : Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, who “…links the quest for homosexual rights to the feminist debate, arguing that the Levitical codes regard same-sex relations between men as abhorrent because such acts are seen as feminizing the male…”. The idea is that if you take away the sexist hierarchy of ancient Jewish culture, you also rid yourself of the stigma of homosexuality. Greenberg, and Wright by extension, argue that adherence to traditional gender roles created the laws in Leviticus that outlaw homosexual behavior, rather than homosexuality being anathema to God itself.
Already many Conservative circles and almost all Reformed communities of Judaism have embraced non-traditional gender roles. In fact, Wright points out in her chapter on gender that many Conservative congregations now are beginning to be open to female Rabbis, and Reformed communities have coined the term ‘Rabba’ to describe a female Rabbi. This argument that prohibitions against homosexual behavior centers around male hierarchy and traditional gender roles is one of the clearest explanations and refutations of Torah law I’ve come across.
Reformed denominations don’t share the same literal interpretations of the law books in the Torah that many Conservative and Orthodox Jews have, but rather incorporate historical context and evolving modern perspectives in study of the Torah. This often leads to more tolerant and progressive interpretations and discards some of the more anachronistic and archaic Jewish laws.
Beyond the Dichotomy: Six Religious Views of Homosexuality
Moon, Dawne. “Beyond the Dichotomy: Six Religious Views of Homosexuality” Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 61, no. 9, Sept. 2014, pp. 1215-1241. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00918369.2014.926762
Dwayne Moon offers six different views of the way homosexuality is seen by American Christianity and Judaism. His mission is to break the dichotomy of ‘born gay, sinful choice’ and explore six distinct views of Religious communities on human sexuality. These six views are ‘God Hates Fags’, Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin’, ‘We Don’t Talk About That’, ‘They Can’t Help It’, ‘God’s Good Gift’, and ‘Godly Calling’. The article moves through these six views, from ‘Homonegative’ to Moderate to ‘Homopositive’.
In the ‘Homonegative’ section, Moon cites an example of a person petitioning an Orthodox Jewish organization, asking them what their stance on homosexuality was. Their response was decidedly negative, saying, ““I don’t want to waste a minute on that. There is a passuk [verse] in the Torah: it is an abomination!” (page 5). The ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin’ ideology is the most widespread of any of these six views, particularly among American Protestantism. Moon writes that, “…some Orthodox Jews view homosexuality as caused by an illness rather than a willful rejection of God’s laws.”, insinuating that while homosexuality isn’t an ideal, it also is not a disqualification for being Jewish. In moderate examples, gay members are encouraged to just be celibate or are forced compartmentalize their religion and their sexuality separately. ‘Homopositive’ views sometimes include the ‘born gay’ assumptions of some moderate views, but rather than this being stigmatized, it is seen in a different gay-affirming light.
One potential issue with this source is that is focused more on Christian communities rather then Jewish ones, and the evidence that is provided is skewed more towards homosexuality and Christianity. With that said, the examples that are given from Jewish communities are still strong and echo other sources that I’ve compiled.
Jewish Responses to AIDS
Schlesinger, Yaffa and Victor Appell. “Jewish Responses to AIDS.” Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 33, no. 1, 1997, pp. 17-34. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1300/J082v33n01_02.
Schlesinger and Appell discussion the intersection of Judaism, sexuality, and gender through the lens of Jewish responses to the AIDS crisis. They focus on perceptions of people with AIDS (PWAs) in Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed sects of Judaism. This research was conducted in the mid-1990’s, so opinions have obviously evolved around the issue of sexuality, but the Orthodox view of homosexuality is what one might expect. Rabbi Rotenberg of the Orthodox sect said that, “People are afraid to call homosexuality an abomination for fear of being labeled fundamentalists…and close-minded.” Orthodox Rabbi Freundel believes that sexuality shouldn’t be talked about in the open, whether that’s heterosexuality or homosexuality. At Freundel’s synagogue, a ‘correct’ sexuality is not a prerequisite for membership, but an openly gay person or family would not be granted Aliya (invitation to the pulpit). Aliya is a tradition that every member of a Jewish community participates in and Schlesinger and Appell write, “losing Aliya means losing rights, losing honor to which every Jew is entitled.” While some Orthodox synagogues might accept people who are privately gay, homosexuality in the open would not be tolerated.
The Conservative view that the writers highlight separates homosexuality and AIDS. At a conference in 1994 centered around ‘Religious Responses to HIV/AIDS’, Rabbi Lebeau focused on Jewish responsibilities towards people with illness, referencing the Jewish tradition that when one visits the sick, they take a portion of the sickness away from the ill. HIV/AIDS is no different. During all of the sessions at this conference, not one time was the word gay mentioned or referred to. This separation of homosexuality and AIDS is a way of compartmentalizing, of helping those who need help without directly affirming or condemning their sexaulity.
The example that the writers give for the Reformed view centers around Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST), or the ‘Gay Synagogue’. CBST is located in New York City and founded in 1973, before the AIDS crisis. In the early 1980’s, when cases of AIDS first began breaking out, CBST began organizing visitations for people with AIDS. They organize memorial services for people who have died, and constructed plaques to the more than 70 people who died in their congregation of AIDS. These Reformed Jews are fully accepting and open to all sexualities, and care for people with AIDS regardless of identity. The writers mention the pushback that CBST received from ex-Jews who they visited in the hospital because mainstream Judaism rejected them before they were living. The mission of CBST is to break down these stereotypes and to provide a place for all Jews and all people to be cared for and accepted into a traditional Jewish community.