Homosexuality Is Part of Jewish Tradition

Contrary to the common perception, intimate relations between people of the same sex did not always have a negative image in Jewish communities.

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, 2015.
Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

On July 7, 1971, Haaretz published an opinion piece (in Hebrew) entitled “Israel or Sodom: Public condoning of sexual perversions – a grave matter.” The author, Eliezer Livneh (Liebenstein), was a former Knesset member from Mapai (precursor of today’s Labor Party) who become one of the main ideologists of the Greater Land of Israel movement. He wrote in response to calls at the time to cancel the sodomy law (which was ultimately cancelled only in 1988, thanks to Shulamit Aloni).

Livneh was neither ultra-Orthodox nor Orthodox, but rather a Jewish nationalist, yet his main argument was that homosexuality is foreign to Judaism, constitutes a foreign influence by degenerate Western culture and should be combatted.

In the op-ed he claimed that for hundreds of years Jews in the Diaspora succeeded in preserving their communities from those “sexual perversions,” or as he phrased it: “It is totally absurd to have suffered for many generations in the Diaspora, while strictly preserving, nurturing and refining the heterosexual principle, only to return to the Land of Israel and renew the ‘gentiles’ abomination’ here.”

The history of homophobia in fact proves that Livneh’s claim (which many Jews have upheld and still uphold to this day) is, if anything, a “foreign influence.” Throughout the modern period nationalist homophobes have claimed that homosexuality is nothing but a degenerative foreign cultural influence on members of their people. The English considered homosexuality a Bulgarian or French pathology. For their part, the French considered it an English phenomenon: As late as 1991, French Prime Minister dith Cresson said that homosexuality belongs to “the Anglo-Saxon tradition” and is foreign to the French Latin culture.

Israeli President Ezer Weizmann, as is well-remembered, also said that there was homosexuality in the British army but not in the Palmach pre-state militia. Many European nations identified gays as “Turks,” while the Turks themselves call gays “Persians.”

In general, there is a perception that homosexuality is a vice originating in the East. Thus the Nazis charged sexologist and gay rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld that as a Jew he “brought the oriental vice to Germany.”

In our day, nationalists in Russia and various countries in Africa are claiming that homosexuality is a Western influence that must be combatted. Nationalism and chauvinism always bear hatred of the other – be it a Jew, a gay or any foreigner.

Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

In any case, the historical facts indicate that Livneh and his ilk were and are mistaken. The Jews did not strictly preserve “the heterosexual principle.” Intimate relations between men existed in Jewish communities and apparently were also common. Historian Yaron Ben-Naeh has shown in his research that despite the explicit biblical prohibition, in Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire same-sex relations were rather common. This is indicated by dozens of sources. Moreover, until the modern era, grown men who had a need for the favors of youths did not have a negative image in Jewish society.

In recent decades, religious LGBT activists have been making an effort to suggest new interpretations of rabbinical law that will enable Jewish communities to live in peace with LGBT people, and vice versa. And indeed, liberal rabbis, mainly in the United States, stress that the prohibition on sexual relations between people of the same sex is no harsher than the prohibition on desecrating the Sabbath, for example. Some of them permit intimate relations between males and prohibit only complete penetration, which is euphemistically called “entering like the brush into the tube.”

Love thy fellow man as thyself – but really

During the past 100 years, some Jewish thinkers set themselves a more ambitious aim: to prove that homosexuality is an integral part of the history of the Jewish people and Jewish tradition. One of them was Hans-Joachim Schoeps, a Prussian Jewish historian and theologian. He was a leader of German Jewish youth, though he held nationalist German and reactionary opinions. After World War II he hastened to return to Germany and was a loyalist of the deposed Prussian royal family. In the 1970s he was a pioneer of the campaign to cancel the prohibition on homosexuality in Germany (Paragraph 175).

Since the prohibition on homosexuality often relied on the prohibition in Leviticus 18, Schoeps wanted to make clear the context in which this prohibition was promulgated. He argued that priestly male sacred prostitutes were common in biblical Israel, as in other Semitic cultures.

Schoeps concluded that such sacred prostitutes were active even in the Temple in Jerusalem, based especially on Deuteronomy 23:18, “There shall be no harlot of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a sodomite of the sons of Israel” – where the Jewish Publication Society translation (and others) uses “sodomite” for the word qadesh, the feminine form of which, qdesha, is a holy prostitute. (German translations use a cognate for “whore”.)

Only in the period of Josiah’s reform, when the cults of foreign gods were uprooted, was sacred male prostitution prohibited. And since the cult was so popular among the people, it was necessary to make the prohibit in a particularly stringent way and the cult is now considered an abomination. However, Schoeps stresses that the prohibition in Deuteronomy relates to a pagan cult of this sort, not to the sexual act itself.

An equally daring theory was developed by poet and kabbala researcher Jiří Mordecai Langer. Langer, who is mainly known as Franz Kafka’s Hebrew teacher, was born in Prague, became a yeshiva scholar in the court of the Belzer Rebbe and died in 1943 as a marginal poet in Tel Aviv. He might have been considered a kind of messiah of the homoerotic gospel among the Jewish people had his unusual kabbalistic theory not been silenced and pushed to the margins.

In his book “The Erotics of Kabbala” published in 1923, Langer argued that “brotherly love,” i.e. love of a man for a man, is in fact the deepest basic urge in Judaism, at the basis of the commandment of “love thy fellow man as thyself.” In his view, in early Judaism the erotic stream of love between men prevailed, but over the generations “love of woman” prevailed. Like Schoeps after him, Langer concluded that the harsh prohibition of sexual relations between men constitutes proof that the tendency toward it was common among Jews. He also argued that an erotic relationship, which not actualized in the form of intercourse, is what connects yeshiva students to one another and to their rabbi.

Langer’s ambition in life was to reawaken “love of the friend,” that “lofty and sublime human emotion that was extinguished in the hearts of the Hebrews in their bitter and biting exile.” Had he not died before his time, he might have succeeded in spreading the idea in Israel that Judaism and homosexuality are not mutually exclusive, but rather are connected in a complex way.

Regrettably, in the decades after his death this message was completely forgotten. The LGBT liberation movement appeared only in the 1970s, as an American-style, secular, liberal movement.

It is not necessary to accept the theories propounded by Laner, Schoeps and others like them, but their attempts to create a Jewish homosexuality are particularly relevant now. In face of the murderous violence that invokes Jewish justifications, there is no reason to make do with just allowing gays to live. It should be argued that homosexual passion and its realization constitute a layer in Judaism itself. Sodom, after all, is also located in Israel.

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