Lesbians and the Torah

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?

In Part 2 we explored how today's mainstream Jewish movements interpret and implement Leviticus 18:22.

Before we get into part 3, let's take a look again at the verse in question:



ואת זכר לא תשכב משכבי אשה תועבה הוא


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

(Translation: Richard Elliott Friedman)


When you read the verse above (and Leviticus 20:13, which is very similar), you'll notice something pretty blatantly absent: women. In fact, you won't find any mention of female same-sex relations or relationships anywhere in the Torah. Not even once. 

Naturally, you'd assume that no mention means there's no prohibition, right? If there's no law saying you can't do something, it's usually a pretty good indication that you CAN do something, usually. Well, sort of.

Leviticus 20:23

ולא תלכו בחוקת הגוי אשר אני מפניכם את כל אלה עשו ואקץ בם

And you shall not go by the laws of the nation that I am expelling before you, they have done all of these and I am disgusted with them.


The ancient rabbis were incredibly uncomfortable by the idea of two women together. If two women could find sexual satisfaction with each other, why would they need to stay married to their husbands? They assumed that any woman, if given the opportunity, would leave her husband to enter into a (sexual) lesbian relationship. But, the rabbis also knew that they couldn't just make up a new law that didn't exist before, so they twisted the text and their experience to quash their fears.

Lesbianism is not mentioned explicitly in the Bible. However, a [rabbinic] proscription against such behavior is derived from another biblical passage: ‘According to the deeds of the Land of Egypt, in which you dwelt, you shall not do; and according to the doings of the Land of Canaan, where I bring you, you shall not do; and in their statutes you shall not walk.’...What were these statutes? ‘A man would marry a man, and a woman would marry a woman, and a woman would marry two men, and a man would marry a woman and her daughter.’
— Rabbi Chaim Rappaport, Judaism and Homosexuality, An Authentic Orthodox View

The rabbis had found their way out: You can't do it because THEY did it!  Who were THEY? Anyone else who wasn't Jewish, apparently.

It is forbidden for women to enmesh [play around]...with one another and this belongs to the ‘practices of the Egyptians’ [of] which we have been warned: ‘you shall not copy the practices of the Land of Egypt’...although such conduct is forbidden, it is not punishable with lashes since there is no specific prohibition against it and no sexual intercourse takes place at all.
— Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah 21:8

Maimonides makes an interesting revelation here. Sexual intercourse, according to traditional Judaism, is defined by penetration. According to Maimonides, because there is no (male-female) penetration, lesbian sex isn't actually sex at all. Therefore, even if there are two women who have engaged in sexual activity together, there is no real punishment because no real sexual intercourse took place. 

There's one other reason as to why female-female sexual relations were prohibited in traditional Judaism, and one which we'll explore in the coming posts: misogyny. Having sexual relations with a woman was the purview of men, and when a woman has sex with another woman, she is attempting to take on the privilege and authority of men. She is knocking the system off balance and threatening the "natural" hierarchy of power (see: patriarchy). 

In our modern world, where the ancient systems of power are less and less relevant, the prohibition on female same-sex relations is clearly unnecessary and offensive. (Really, it was always unnecessary and offensive.)

In the next few posts, we'll start to put Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 in the context of the other verses in the same chapters, and explore how that affects historical and modern interpretations.


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.