by R. Eliezer Melamed
The Need to Address the Issue of Homosexuality
Recently, we have witnessed serious accusations, public and blatant, from members of the LGBT community against the religious community and the Torah. Their position is adamant and defiant: they are not willing to accept the validity of a position opposing sexual relations with a member of the same sex. Their position is based on the liberal way of thinking currently dominating the global media.
Outside of the religious sector, few dare to oppose them. Even senior politicians have filed ranks with their position, and refrained from attending the “Jerusalem Conference” organized by the Besheva newspaper, which dared to schedule a discussion group on the possibility of helping people free themselves of this forbidden desire, so they can fulfill the mitzvah of marriage according to the Law of Moses and Israel.
It seems that many people are afraid to express the position of the Torah on this issue, and therefore, the wall of fear must be broken. Just as we knew how to face the pagans of old who denied the Torah, and thus advance the world morally, today as well, we must also oppose a type of liberal paganism which denies Torah from Heaven, and prevents the possibility of tikun (correction) that can benefit the many. In addition to this, in the media’s onslaught, libelous accusations against our holy Torah and its followers have been spread, and because we are silent, the slander is believed.
The Custom of Modesty versus the Need for Public Clarity
In past generations the custom was to deal with the issue of homosexuality in a very quiet way. Apparently, the Christian environment also had an influence on this. However, it seems that when the need arises, a thorough clarification of the Torah’s position should not be excluded. Some may argue that these issues should not be discussed in a newspaper, for perhaps adolescents may read them. But as I have heard from teachers, the youth want to know what the Torah has to say in these areas, and the only concerned parties about this are the adults.
As for children, they do not read this column in any case, and even if they do – they will not be harmed, just as they are not harmed by studying Torah verses dealing with the issue. Nevertheless, I am still hesitant whether the need to clarify this issue in public outweighs the custom of dealing with it modestly, and this largely depends on the public’s feelings, so I would be delighted to receive responses from the public, especially educators.
I will therefore attempt to clarify some of the main issues in this matter.
The Prohibition of Homosexual Intercourse
The Torah determined that it is forbidden for a man to have sexual relations with another man, as it is written: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). This prohibition is so severe that the Torah set the punishment of death by stoning for one who transgresses it, as it is written: “If a man goes to bed with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they must be put to death; their blood is on them” (Leviticus 20:13).
However, the punishment of stoning is only when they did it b’mayzid (deliberate violation of Jewish law), and before two witnesses who warned them not to do it, and that if they do, they will be punished by stoning, and nevertheless, they transgressed and sinned before them visibly. In practice, one would have to be completely insane to do so, because no one would dare commit a sin deserving of death before witnesses who warn him that if he continues to sin he will be punished by death. And if he dared, perhaps he really is insane and not responsible for his actions, and exempt from punishment.
Therefore, even though there are dozens of sins for which the penalty of death was determined by the Torah, in actuality, capital punishment by Beit Din (religious court) was very rare, to the point where our Sages said a Sanhedrin that effects a capital punishment once in seven years is branded a destructive tribunal, in other words, it tends to be stringent and decree the death penalty on people more often than it should.
Others say that a Sanhedrin which effects capital punishment for one person in seventy years is called a destructive tribunal (Mishna, Makkot 1:10). And even in those rare cases where capital punishment was performed, apparently, they were not due to sins of fornication. Accordingly, the punishment set by the Torah is meant to teach the gravity of the sin, and is mainly intended to discourage people from transgressing it deliberately and brazenly in front of witnesses.
Factors Causing the Revelation of this Inclination
Amongst the secular public, many believe that homosexuals were born with this feature, and it cannot be changed. In their opinion, therefore, one whose tendency leans to homosexuality should follow his heart, and most definitely not be criticized for it. However, according to the Torah, even when a person has a strong tendency towards homosexuality, the prohibition remains in full effect, and he is obligated to overcome his yetzer (inclination), just as a man who desires to commit adultery with a married woman must overcome his yetzer.
True, in issues of dinei shamayim (heavenly courts) the difficulty a person faces in overcoming his yetzer is taken into consideration, and the stronger one’s yetzer is, the lighter his sentence will be.
Genetic Predisposition and the Social and Moral Environment
Even if we accept this phenomenon as an innate tendency, it is clear that the social and moral environment has no less of an influence. The fact is that this phenomenon was very common in past cultures, to the point where the majority of men had transgressed this sin.
Amongst the Jewish nation, where environmental conditions encouraged normal sexual relations between husband and wife and condemned a relationship between men, this tendency was rarely manifested. As a result, our Sages did not prohibit two single men from sleeping together under one blanket, because Jews were not suspected of homosexual intercourse (Kiddushin 82a).
And there is no possibility that this phenomenon existed in their times without our Sages knowing about it, because there are always chozrim b’teshuva (people who return to the fold) who repent and consult with rabbis. In addition, since it is a sin that occurs between two people, there are cases where one party has been hurt, and complains against the offender. Therefore, we must conclude that during the times of Chazal(our Sages), the phenomenon of homosexuality was not common.
True, in more recent times the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law) tended to be stringent, determining that two men should not be secluded together, given that the number of transgressors had increased (E.H. 24:1). In fact, his words were relevant to what was common in Islamic countries. But the eminent rabbis of Ashkenaz wrote that in their countries, Jews were not suspected of homosexuality, and there was no need to be stringent in the prohibition of yichud (seclusion) of two men (Bach). Not only that, but some authorities say that it is forbidden to be stringent in this matter, because it would then appear to be yuhara (arrogance) (Yam Shel Shlomo).
Since it is difficult to assume that the essential nature of people has changed since then, we must conclude that even a person who was born with a tendency towards homosexuality, in a social framework like that which was prevalent in Israel for many generations, these tendencies were not manifest.
We do not know what has changed in the last generation, to the point where some people are convinced that by their very nature, their passions are directed solely to their own species and have no other choice in the matter. Is it liberty, which has become a major factor in our lives, together with all its virtues, which also gave freedom to all the tendencies that were hidden in the depths of the soul to emerge, and once revealed, are harder to overcome? Or perhaps the feminist movement, which created tension and war between the sexes, caused an identity crisis among some men and a fear of connecting with women?
There are dozens of other hypotheses and explanations for the increase of this phenomenon.
It is reasonable to believe that this difficult period of time will pass, and we will find the way to deepen the sacred bond of marriage, love and joy as the Torah commands, and as a result, the desire for this sin will be greatly diminished.
The Positive Attitude towards Sufferers
At any rate, this phenomenon in our generation has become more common, and it requires us to deal with it. First of all, it is important to be careful not to offend and hurt those who suffer from such tendencies. Sometimes, the grief, frustration, and shame that accompany such tendencies are so difficult, that some young people choose to commit suicide due to the great pain involved. Therefore, men and women who feel this tendency should be instructed to speak about it with their parents and a rabbi or counselor – both to relieve some of the suffering that accompanies them, and also to find the best way to deal with their tendencies. This truly is a matter of pikuach nefesh (saving of life).
The Attitude towards Sinners of Homosexual Intercourse
The Torah defined the sin of homosexual intercourse as “to’evah” (an abomination), and also defines the sin of eating forbidden foods in the same manner (Deuteronomy 13:3), and our Sages taught: “Toe’eh ata bah” [you error in respect of her, i.e., by forsaking the permitted and indulging in the forbidden] (Nedarim 51a). In other words, the purpose of this desire is for man to connect with his wife in holiness and joy, and by means of this connection, children are born and the world continues to exist.
However, those who sin in homosexuality divert their desire towards their own sex, harming the sanctity of marriage and the existence of the world (and the same holds true for eating – its purpose is to add life and holiness, and one who eats prohibited foods is “toe’eh bah”).
In any case, our attitude towards those who transgress this sin should not be more stringent than people who transgress other serious sins, such as Sabbath violators. Just as Sabbath violators are called-up to the Torah, provided they do not do it out of spite, so too, sinners who transgress this sin should be called-up to the Torah as long as they do not do it out of spite. Kal v’chomer (all the more so), they should be called-up to the Torah when there is a possibility they are careful not to transgress the grave sin of homosexual intercourse
Moreover, many of those who stumble in this transgression do not sin in defiance as do Sabbath violators, but out of regret that their yetzer compels them. And who knows: were we to face such trials, would we overcome them? Only Hashem, the God of Heaven and Earth, the Creator of souls, who knows thoughts and examines hearts, who recognizes the yetzer of each individual, can judge truly and compassionately according to the magnitude of one’s trials and pain.
Not to Distance Homosexuals from the Religious Community
It must be emphasized: Even one who fails to overcome his yetzer and transgresses the sin of homosexual intercourse, is obligated in all the other commandments of the Torah, and should try his best to strengthen himself in whatever way he can. And even concerning this sin – everyday, and every time he manages to overcome his desires and avoids sinning, his reward is great.
We must accept the commandments of the Torah, which determined that homosexual intercourse is strictly forbidden, and when we can, we must try to dissuade those who transgress this sin. Nonetheless, we must love even someone who fails to overcome his yetzer, and realize there is great value in every mitzvah he fulfills. And as long as he does not flaunt his homosexual inclination and is not defiant, we must bring him closer to the religious community, so he can become stronger in Torah and mitzvot in whatever way he can.
And, as is well-known, the value of Evil is limited, whereas the value of Good is endless. Correspondingly, the severity of sins is limited, whereas the value of mitzvot is endless. Therefore, even one who falters in transgressions, merits life in the World to Come thanks to his mitzvot and good deeds.
This article appeared in the ‘Besheva’ Hebrew weekly newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.