Judaism and Homosexuality: A Brief History

The Jewish people have had a far more complicated relationship with homosexuality than the outright ban in Leviticus implies.

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Jerusalem's gay pride parade in 2015.
Jerusalem's gay pride parade in 2015.Credit: Emil Salman
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Let us begin at the very beginning of the Kingdom of Judah, with King David, who many suspect was gay. Or at least bisexual.

This view is based on just two verses, in the Book of Samuel, which could be interpreted as showing that David's relationship with Jonathan ran deeper than mere friendship.

When the two first meet, the Bible tells us: "The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul" (1 Samuel 18:1), and later, when Jonathan is killed, David laments, saying: “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).

Conservative commentators reject anything but a platonic interpretation, arguing that the chosen king of Judah could not conceivably have loved Jonathan physically, since homosexuality was already banned by Jewish Law.

This argument doesn’t seem to hold. Various verses in the Book of Kings and elsewhere in the Bible seem to indicate that not only was homosexuality tolerated during the First Temple period — it was typical cultic behavior among the ancient Israelites at the time.

"And there were also sodomites in the land: and they did according to all the abominations of the nations which the Lord cast out before the children of Israel" (1 Kings 14:24), the Bible says of the reign of King Rehoboam, grandson of King David. These “sodomites,” as the King James Bible has it, were male and female sacred prostitutes: men and women who reside in temples and have sex with patrons as a form of deity worship.

We should not be surprised that worship through sacred prostitutes was practiced in ancient Israel some 2700 years ago. It seems to have been ubiquitous in the ancient Near East, among the Canaanite cultures, and in the cultures of Mesopotamia.

Based on what the writings of these neighbors of Israel, we may surmise that the male temple prostitutes of Jerusalem were probably dressed in women’s clothing, and may have been castrated.

Whether sacred prostitutes were plied in the name of Yahweh or his "wife" Asherah, who were widely worshipped together at the time, is not known.

A sacred book is found

So the Bible tells us that sacred prostitution was practiced in First Temple-era Judah. The question is when the practice was stamped out.

The Bible tells us that too. In the Book of Kings, we learn that early in the reign of King Josiah, at the very end of the First Temple period, a sacred book was found in the Temple, and that Josiah based his reform of the Yahweh cult on it.

Scholars believe the book was an early version of Deuteronomy, which explicitly bans sacred prostitution.

The sentence in 2 Deuteronomy 23:17 is traditionally translated as: “There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel”. However, the translation is not accurate. The words rendered as “whore” and “sodomite” are the female and male versions of the Hebrew word for sacred prostitute (qedesha and qedosh).

Either way, this verse led Josiah to ”break down the houses of the sodomites, that were by the house of the Lord" (2 Kings 23:7).

These verses (and a few others) indicate that the men of ancient Judah not only engaged in homosexual sex, but that they may have even done so in the Temple itself. If so, it doesn’t seem unthinkable that David and Jonathan were more than just friends.

Total ban on anal sex

Deuteronomy does not ban homosexuality, only sacred prostitution. So the question is, when was sex among men banned?

We cannot know with accuracy. The ban only appears in two verses, both in the same section of Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13). Most scholars believe these verses were written either during the Babylonian Exile or during the early Second Temple period, so sometime during the 6th to the 4th century BCE (2600 to 2400 years ago), but when exactly in this period, we do not know.

Nor can we know what led to this prohibition. Some speculate that it was an expansion on the ban on sacred prostitution. Others think it was an effort to limit contact between Jews and gentiles, but the fact is no-one knows.

Whatever the reason and whenever it was decreed, once it was codified in Leviticus, it became Jewish law. But does this mean that ancient Jews stopped engaging in homosexuality?

Probably not. From the end of the 4th century BCE, and later under the Romans, Jews found themselves living in cultures that practiced homosexuality between men and boys as a norm.

The question is how tolerant the rabbis were of these practices. This turns out to be a very difficult question to answer.

The all-important book of Jewish Law, the Talmud, contains statements to the effect that anal sex among men causes solar eclipses (Sukkah 29a) and earthquakes (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 13:3), but also distinguishes between two forms of pederasty — anal sex that warrants a penalty of death by stoning, and homosexual sex that doesn’t involve penetration, about which the rabbis were more lenient (Niddah 13b). Oddly, to say the least, Jewish Law does not explicitly ban sex with boys under the age of nine (Talmud,Yevamot 51b, and Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Biah 1:14, where he adds that in his opinion, the men should be flogged).

In his book “Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture” (1993), the historian Daniel Boyarin applies somewhat creative interpretations of rabbinic texts, that lead him to the conclusion that in late antiquity, Jews engaged in homosexuality openly, albeit without anal sex. For example, Boyarin cites the relationship between Rabbi Johanan bar Nappaha and his student Resh Lakish recounted in Bava Metzia 84a as an example of homosexuality among rabbis.

While his readings are interesting and this Talmud page is unquestionably weird, it doesn’t seem plausible that homosexuality was openly practiced among the rabbis, especially in light of the fact that the rabbis permitted men to share a bed — notwithstanding the warning of Rabbi Judah that this would lead to illicit sex — because “Jews were not suspect of such acts” (Tosefta Kiddushin 5:10). This probably means that male homosexuality was uncommon among Jews in Late Antiquity around 1700 years ago, or at least was practiced in secret.

But things were about to change, as the pagan world gave way to the two great religions of Christianity and Islam, both of which followed Judaism's lead and banned homosexuality.

Homoerotic poetry and persecution

In Europe, the church actively persecuted homosexuals. But in the Arab world, homosexuality was tolerated, and the practice of older men having sex with teenagers and boys that had been common in the Greek and Roman world remained common, despite the explicit ban in the Quran (e.g., 4:16).

This differential between the two cultures found expression in the Jewish communities living among them. In European rabbinic writing, there is barely a reference to homosexuality until modern times, while the writings of Jews living in the Arab world are replete with mentions of the practice.

The great Jewish poets of Muslim Spain, including Solomon ibn Gabirol, Samuel ibn Naghrillah and Judah Halevi, wrote homoerotic poetry. How common the practice was can be learned from Joseph Karo’s important book of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch (Safed, 1563), in which he writes: “In these generations, which are filled with licentiousness, one should avoid sleeping with a male.”

What Rabbi Karo is saying is that while the rabbis permitted co-sleeping because “Jews were not suspect of such acts,” in his day, this was no longer the case. His followers say explicitly: “The writer wrote this because in his country this sin was common.”

In his article “Sodomy in Ottoman Jewish society” (“Zion,” 2001), Yaron Ben-Na’eh provides many mentions of homosexuality among Jewish men. One example from a Greek town near Saloniki, from the year 1561, will suffice: “David bar Nissim came and gave testimony how last summer he was walking in a town and he saw that Moshko with a guy which was having homosexual sex with him, and when they saw him they ran away in separate directions with their pants undone.”

'Homosexuality' as a social artifact

It seems homosexuality has been part of life throughout Jewish history. Yet Hebrew had no word for “homosexual,” only words to describe homosexual acts.

The reason for this is that homosexuality is a social construct, an idea invented in the second half of the 19th century, in the German speaking world, as shown by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his seminal book “The History of Sexuality” (1976). It was in Germany that the first gay and lesbian activists appeared, the first academic and popular gay journals were first published, and the first institute for the research of sexuality was first established.

In short, it was in Germany a century and a half ago that the modern gay identity was born. It is not surprising then that the words “homosexual” and its counterpart “heterosexual” were first coined in German in 1868, and spread to the rest of the world's languages.

In Palestine of the early 20th century, this new German social construct of homosexual identity collided with the common Mediterranean practice of sex among men and boys, on top of which, Anglo and Slavic notions held sodomy to be a grave sin and a crime. And with the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine came its anti-sodomy laws.

Technically, the law, modeled on the English Common Law, prohibited anal and oral sex, whether with man or woman, but from the outset it was both interpreted and applied as a law against homosexuality. Hebrew newspapers of the time report on men, mostly Arabs and Jews from the Arab world, being prosecuted on sodomy charges, nearly always with teens and boys.

Sometimes the children were punished too. The reports do not mention "homosexuality," if only because the term had not become common yet.

Meanwhile, in Palestine

The handful of sexologists trained in Germany who settled in Palestine and opened practices did know the term. But they seem to have had a difficult time applying it to the sexual practices they found in Palestine.

In 1940, the sexologist Dr. Abraham Matmon was interviewed on the subject of homosexuality in Tel Aviv by a local paper. There were two kinds of homosexuality in Palestine, he said: “In the East this scourge is very common, but it is mostly sodomy. Pure cases of homosexuality are very rare in the East, in my opinion. Most of the cases are sodomy cases of corruption and licentiousness, especially with teenagers.”

On the other hand with regard to “pure homosexuality,” he said: “Just a few years ago this scourge was totally uncommon among Jews. Among Ashkenazi Jews I only saw a few rare cases, but these were of completely degenerate families (families of psychopaths) and were mostly cases of pure homosexuality...I believe that in this country only a small number of cases are of pure homosexuality. Most of them are clearly morally corrupt” (quoted from “A Common Scourge is the East: Descriptions of Homosexuality in the Hebrew Press during the British Mandate, Ofri Ilani, “Zemanim” 131, 2015).

When the mandate ended, the State of Israel adopted, among others, its sodomy law.. But a few years later, in 1953, Attorney General Haim Cohen (who was born and raised in the liberal Germany of the early 20th century) instructed the prosecution not to prosecute offenders on sodomy charges, and a few years later, in 1956, he instructed the police not to investigate cases of sodomy either.

Due to these directives Israel became quite liberal in its treatment of homosexuals compared to the world during the 1950s and early 1960s. However, homosexuality remained technically illegal and therefore underground. Also, the police could harass homosexuals, even if trials did not ensue.

Come the 60s, Western nations began to legalize homosexuality. The Civil Rights Movement's drive to abolish sodomy laws in the United States was reported in Israeli newspapers, and a liberalized attitude towards homosexuality began to proliferate in Israeli society, through cinema, television, literature and other media.

In 1975, the first association for the promotion of gay rights was established in Israel, and in 1979, gay rights activists held their first demonstration in Tel Aviv. Eventually, in 1988, Israel abolished its sodomy laws.

During the 1990s, Israeli society began to view homosexuality in a more positive light, especially after studies began to appear in 1992 indicating that homosexuality was not a preference: gay men are born that way. The fact that homosexuality could be now practiced openly led Israelis to the gradual realization that gay men were not “perverts” or “criminals” but normal members of society; that played its part as well.

Los Angeles presents: The world's first gay synagogue

In the United States, Reform Judaism had been embracing of homosexuality at least since 1972, when the movement accepted the Beth Chayim Chadashim congregation of Los Angeles — the world’s first gay synagogue — into its fold.

In 1977, the Central Conference of American Rabbis called on state government to legalize homosexuality, and in 1990 the Reform Movement officially announced homosexuals were accepted as equal members.

The Conservative Movement was slower to accept homosexuality, only changing its policy in 2006.

Orthodox Judaism has not changed its policy, and still views homosexuality, or at least anal sex, among men as a grave sin, since the Bible explicitly says so.

As for lesbians, Jewish law has ignored homosexuality among women, with the exception of a passage in the Talmud banning it because it could lead women to have illicit sex with men. Nor has Israeli law ever banned sex among women. And it is interesting to note that European languages had terms for lesbians before the 19th century, which may indicate that lesbianism as a social construct existed before homosexuality.

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