Leviticus 18:22 - In Practice and Reality

Part 1: "Lost (and Mistakenly Found) in Translation"

In Part 1 we looked at the inherent problems in translations - no matter how faithful one thinks they are to the text, there will always be a bit of their personal interpretations and inferences mixed in.  But when we get beyond the context of just a text-based translation, how do these interpretations reflect the ideologies of the various movements and streams of Judaism?

Leviticus 18:22

ואת זכר לא תשכב משכבי אשה תועבה הוא

V'et zakhar, lo tishkav mish-ka-veh isha, to-eh-vah hee.

And you shall not lie with a male like lying with a woman. It is an offensive thing.

(Translation: Richard Elliott Friedman)

In an attempt to over-simplify and condense enormous amounts of biblical scholarship into something concise and easy to understand, we'll compare each of the 4 major movements' stances on what Leviticus 18:22 means in practice, including existing prohibitions and allowances. We have included commentary and other texts below if you'd like to get more in-depth on each of the movements.

For more information and a general look at how each of the movements respond to homosexuality, check out this page from the Human Rights Campaign.

For more information on the timing and process each movement has undertaken in deciding to admit openly LGBT students to their seminaries, check out this article from My Jewish Learning.


Orthodox

Halakhic (traditional) Judaism prohibits all same-sex sexual relations and relationships, no matter what kind. The movement does not allow for same-sex unions or ordination of openly LGBT clergy*. The movement differentiates between orientation/attraction (not condemned) and actions (condemned).  


Reform

These laws reflect the time in which they were written. Perhaps there was a reason for their implementation at one time, but that time has long since passed. These laws, like much of traditional Jewish law, are no longer binding and do not mesh with modern ideals. The Reform movement sanctifies same-sex marriages, welcomes LGBT people to become rabbis, and advocates for for equality in civil and religious life.



Conservative

Leviticus 18:22 refers specifically to male-male anal sex. While previous generations have used this verse to prohibit all same-sex relationships (and relations), this is outdated, according to the Conservative movement. The Conservative movement sanctifies same-sex unions and allows for openly gay and lesbian people to become rabbis.


Reconstructionist

Owing much of its ideology to the idea that modern Jews live in two worlds (Jewish and Secular), the movement was at the forefront of LGBT acceptance, being the first to welcome openly LGBT people to become rabbis. The movement sanctifies same-sex marriages and advocates for full equality in both civil and religious life.

 


*Rabbi Steve Greenberg is an openly gay, Orthodox rabbi. He came out after his ordination and has since been accepted in some circles while excluded in others.

The texts below are representative of each movement's ideology. In some cases they are official statements and in others they are representative of the movement's stance. These are added here to give a bit of background and not to speak for the movements themselves. They are listed in order from most traditional to most progressive.

 

Orthodox:

"Halakhic Judaism views all male and female same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited. The question of whether sexual orientation is primarily genetic, or rather environmentally generated, is irrelevant to this prohibition. While halakha categorizes various homosexual acts with different degrees of severity and opprobrium, including toeivah, this does not in any way imply that lesser acts are permitted. But it is critical to emphasize that halakha only prohibits homosexual acts; it does not prohibit orientation or feelings of same-sex attraction, and nothing in the Torah devalues the human beings who struggle with them."

- Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a
Homosexual Orientation in Our Community

Conservative:

"We understand that there is a need for fences to prevent Jews from transgressing the Torah’s sexual prohibitions. If anal sex between men is a cardinal prohibition, then it is clear why our predecessors thought that non-anal sex should generally be prohibited as a fence around the Torah. Whether we follow Rambam or Ramban, the established halakhah presents a complete ban on all acts of homosexual intimacy. However, our predecessors assumed that this ban would lead those with homosexual inclinations back into heterosexual marriages... Given what we have learned about sexual orientation in recent decades, this assumption is no longer valid. To uphold the halakhah’s comprehensive ban is to consign a significant class of Jewish women and men to life-long celibacy or communal condemnation. This result is problematic not only for the affected individuals, but also from the vantage of the halakhah’s own mandate to safeguard human dignity."

 - Homosexuality, Human Dignity, & Halakhah: A Combined Responsum for the the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Rabbis Elliott N. Dorff, Danile S. Nevins, & Avram Reisner (2006)

 

Reform:

"In my view, the Jewish condemnation of homosexuality is the work of human beings – limited, imperfect, fearful of what is different, and, above all, concerned with ensuring tribal survival. In short, I think our ancestors were wrong about a number of things, and homosexuality is one of them.... In fact, the Jewish values and principles which I regard as eternal, transcendent and divinely ordained do not condemn homosexuality. The Judaism I cherish and affirm teaches love of humanity, respect for the spark of divinity in every person and the human right to live with dignity. The God I worship endorses loving, responsible and committed human relationships, regardless of the sex of the persons involved." 

- Rabbi Janet Marder, Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA and former President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis

Reconstructionist:

“[Reconstructionist Jews] recognize homosexuality as a fundamental aspect of identity that deserves to be treated with the Jewish values of b’ tzelem elohim (respect for human beings as made in God’s image).” Accordingly, Reconstructionist Jews are more concerned with an individual’s well being rather than the specific LGBT acts they may or may not engage in.

- Rabbi Joshua Lesser, Congregation Bet Haverim (Atlanta GA) and founder of SOJOURN


One of the most relevant points that we need to make: Judaism acknowledges that there are differences between sexuality and sex. The attractions and inclinations people feel are different than their actions. Especially in the most traditional circles, this is an incredibly important distinction to make. The Orthodox statement of principles is very clear to say that gay people (and their families) are to be welcomed as full members of their communities, and it is very important to treat them just as any other member would be treated. 

There are, clearly, a variety of levels of acceptance for LGBT people when it comes to rabbinic ordination, marriage, and starting families, but no where in Jewish law does it say that "being gay" is a sin. 

Stay tuned all month long as we continue to explore Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 leading up to Parshiyot Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim.

 

Comment

Robbie Medwed

Robbie Medwed began working with SOJOURN when it was known as The Rainbow Center as a volunteer in 2008. He served as chair of the TRC Advisory Board and as co-chair of Purim off Ponce (2010, 2011) before moving into his current role as Assistant Director, where he oversees SOJOURN's educational programming and outreach, including our award-winning workshops and training seminars. Robbie holds a master's degree in Jewish education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has written curricula and nationally-recognized inclusive programs for the Marcus JCC of Atlanta, BBYO, USY, Camp Ramah, the Jewish Teen Funders Network, Babaganewz, and JewishGPS. Robbie is also a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and cyclist. Robbie can be reached at robbie@sojourngsd.org.