Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Rabbis

By Charles David Isbell
Louisiana State University
November 2009

Last month I examined the difficult issue of abortion. This month I want to tackle the equally divisive issue of homosexuality.

Despite the common misperception that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah pertains exclusively to homosexuality (note our word "sodomy," but see further below), biblical legislation regarding homosexuality is based upon two verses in Leviticus and two passages from Paul. In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, male-with-male sex is considered an "abomination" (tô'evah) and the penalty of death is prescribed for its practice. In 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, homosexuality is included in a long list of sins (including fornication, adultery, idolatry, theft, coveting, drunkenness, scoffers, and swindlers) that disqualify one for "the kingdom of God." Then in Romans 1.26-32, Paul attacks both male and female homosexuality, concluding as does Leviticus 20.13 that "those who practice such things are worthy of death."

An early rabbinic commentary on Leviticus extends the biblical prohibition to lesbianism along with a warning against indulging in the abhorrent practices that were well known among the Egyptians and the Canaanites.[1] This link to Egypt is also reflected in the Gemara,[2] where the 'Amoraim rule that the Egyptian Potiphar purchased Joseph "for himself," a phrase which Rashi later interprets to mean that he wanted Joseph for purposes of homosexual activity.

An interesting Mishnaic discussion[3] records Rabbi Judah forbidding two bachelors to sleep together under one blanket, although the majority view of the later 'Amoraim appeared to be that there was no need for such a safeguard against homosexuality because Jewish males were considered unlikely to engage in its practice.[4]

Elsewhere in the rabbinic writings, various reasons are advanced for the strict ban on homosexuality. In one discussion, the ban is regarded as a universal law included among the "Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah".[5] Much later, homosexuality is also considered to be an unnatural perversion[6] on the grounds that homosexual acts frustrate the procreative purpose of sex, just as do all other forms of "spilling the seed in vain".[7] According to yet another view, a homosexual man is believed to be likely to abandon his wife,[8] again circumventing the appropriate purpose of marriage.

It is with the question of the specific sin of the men of Sodom that two biblical prophets, followed by the rabbis but ignored by modern opponents of homosexuality, turned the discussion in completely new directions. In Genesis 19.5, the male citizens of Sodom demanded that Lot allow them to commit homosexual rape against his visitors, and were only prevented from carrying out their intentions by the miraculous intervention of the visitors themselves, who turned out to be divine messengers. Yet even so specific a phrase as that found in Genesis—"Bring them out to us so we may have sex with ['know'] them"—receives two interesting treatments from the biblical prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Jeremiah 23.14 identifies the sin of Sodom with adultery, false dealing, and refusal to turn evil-doers from their evil ways. Ezekiel 16.49-50 argues that "this was the iniquity of Sodom your sister: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of food and untroubled tranquility. Yet she did not support the poor and the needy. They became haughty and committed an abomination in My presence, so I removed them when I saw it." Neither Jeremiah nor Ezekiel mentions homosexuality.

Thus already within the Bible, there was a movement to transvalue the wording of the Genesis text by the failure of Jeremiah and Ezekiel to comment on the implications of the homosexual demands made by the citizens of Sodom. The observation of Ezekiel appears guided by the fact that the narrative preceding the destruction of Sodom described the almost excessive hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18) to the same visitors who visited him before they arrived in Sodom. Whereas Abraham had sought to serve their needs for food and shelter during a journey, the people of Sodom reacted to them only as sexual objects who could be co-opted to satisfy their own lusts. Visitors to Abraham were treated with respect and civility. Visitors to Sodom not only were not treated graciously, they became the objects of intended rape.

This focus upon the social issue of hospitality was continued by the rabbis with two talmudic references of significance. The first occurs in the course of a discussion about a rigid attitude taken by some people who firmly held to the letter of the law in an attempt to avoid doing a positive and good [and thus more valuable] mitzvah. Such an attitude, involving a variety of religious obligations totally unrelated to homosexuality, is defined as "middat Sedom," or "[acting in] the manner of Sodom".[9]

The second passage that deals with the rabbinic perspective on Sodom is Sanhedrin 109a-b, where an extended and complex discussion is recorded. The Mishnaic discussion lists certain individuals [Jeroboam, Ahab, Manasseh, e.g.] and groups of people who have "no share in the world to come." Included in this latter category are "the generation of the Flood" and "the men of Sodom." For the Tannai'im, the men of Sodom are "wicked and great sinners against YHWH" (citing Genesis 13.13) equated with the "sinners" who will not "stand ... in the assembly of the righteous" (Psalm 1.5). The gemara on this mishnah interprets the description in Genesis 13.13 to refer both to sins of the body and to sins involving money and charity. In this context, the rabbis link the physical (sin of the body) to the predicament of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar described in Genesis 39.9, where the biblical reference is clearly heterosexual adultery. Finally they link sinning with money to Deuteronomy 15.9, where reference is made to the withholding of financial assistance from the poor.

In a further explanation, and almost as an aside, the 'Amoraim add several stories [haggadot] that illustrate what they viewed to be the sins of the men of Sodom. None of these haggadot pertains to homosexuality, but all of them portray a ruthless and crooked society that trampled the civilized standards of hospitality to strangers, recounting specific examples of thievery by trickery, bloody assault, twisted renditions of sentence by perverse judges, mistreatment of orphans and other powerless folk. The attitude that is underscored, clearly influenced by the biblical treatment of Ezekiel, is the denial of food, sustenance, and protection to strangers.

In one instance, we are told, a young woman who was discovered bringing food in secret to a starving traveler was herself severely beaten. But the parade example of Sodomite wickedness imagined by the rabbis was their custom of offering bricks of gold to strangers instead of food. After the death by starvation of the stranger, each individual could retrieve his own gold bricks because their names had been inscribed on them in advance to prepare for just such an eventuality.

It is clear that the rabbis were far more concerned about the general bloodiness and violence, the perversity of justice, etc., which they perceived in Sodom than about the sexual practices of its citizens. In addition, as we have shown, they take what appears in the Bible as a sexual demand and use it as an object lesson about the necessity of hospitality to strangers and fair treatment of the poor, again by drawing a sharp contrast between the warm hospitality to strangers exhibited by Abraham in Genesis 18 and the gross inhospitality that resulted in the destruction of Sodom one chapter later. This should not be taken to imply that homosexuality was acceptable to the rabbis, but should certainly serve to illustrate its relative importance when weighed against injustice and bloodshed.

In next month's installment, I will take up what I believe to be some of the implications of the biblical and rabbinic teachings about homosexuality for the twenty-first century debate that continues to rage.


[1] Sifra 9.8.

[2] Sotah 13b.

[3] Kiddushin 4.14.

[4] Kiddushin 82a.

[5] Sanhedrin 57b-58a.

[6] Sefer ha-Hinnukh, 209, a thirteenth century work by an anonymous scholar in Spain, who listed and explained the 613 "Commandments" believed by the rabbis to be contained in the Torah.

[7] I.e., masturbation or early withdrawal to prevent pregnancy.

[8] Tos. Ned. 51a.

[9] Ket.103a; BB 12b. Subsequently in the same discussion [BB 12b], it is argued that this phrase is being used to describe a man who refuses to confer a benefit which costs him nothing.

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