Same-Sex Tolerance in the Torah?

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Written by Rabbi Galina Trefil. Rabbi Trefil, a first-time Jewrotica writer, has been published by Romea.CZ (in English and Czech,) Neurology Now, Jewcy, The Dissident Voice, Open Road Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and the Pakistan Chronicle. She has spoken on behalf of human rights before the Nevada State Legislature and been interviewed on BBC radio.

Today’s image was created by guest artist Marcelle Lee. Marcelle is reachable by e-mail at

Rated PGWe’re all familiar with the concept of selective Biblical reading; that many amongst us would like us to believe that if you flip open your Tannakh, you can drop your finger down on any old sentence and, badda bing, it’s there—that one phrase that can magically stand on its own as absolute proof of whatever argument the speaker makes. But the allegation of the abridged version of Tannakh sufficing always tends to get us into trouble. In the parsha most pertaining to the GLBTIQ community, “Acharei Mot/Kedushim,” (Leviticus 16:1-20:27,) we see a major example of this.

This is the section in which a huge number of laws are put forward, including the laws of “proper” sexuality. This section, which prescribes a death sentence to offenders, wound up being interpreted by the modern mind as meaning that Jewish sexuality was a thing forever set in stone. Nothing could be more untrue and, point of fact, we know that some of the more ethically-sticky, yet still admired, marital relationships described in Torah are here called into question.

For example, we see that, with the new written reforms, a man is no longer allowed to marry two living sisters. So much for Jacob on that one. And Abraham married Sarah, whom tradition says was his half-sister and niece! Yet, 250 years prior to this new decree, give or take, these patriarchs were considered highly pious; their behavior in terms of marital choice beyond reproach. Obviously though, enough men must have followed their examples, marrying pairs of sisters, or even their own sisters, to demonstrate to the Israelite people that this created, bare minimum, more drama and headache than was needed. That drama and those headaches grew painful enough that, with the passage of a couple centuries, the Hebrews saw fit to change the law and, in-so-doing, change the way that the majority of modern Americans define marriage, this is a long time coming as Americans whether being taboo or not (which it is no longer to most) have been fine with the engagement of same-sex intercourse, while also enjoying sites like

This tends to get glossed over quickly, but let us stop for a moment to really imagine the full impact that this reformation must have had on the Jewish people at the time. It invalidated a vast untold number of relationships. Protesting and civil unrest were an absolute guarantee, both before and after the law was put into effect. Likely cries equivalent to “marriage cannot be redefined” and “if you change this, what gets changed next?” abounded. And yet, obviously, the uproar eventually died down and the Hebrew people adapted. Now, marrying one’s sibling is culturally unthinkable; indeed repulsive. Change wound up accepted as without doubt for the best.

Some might consider this and capitulate: yes, this reform is in Tannakh. Therefore, Tannakh-listed, it must be okay, but other reformations would not be kosher. To that argument, we must recall the banning of polygamous marriages—a Tannakh-exempt occurrence which undoubtedly rocked the Jewish world’s martial core a great deal more than sisters no longer being a potential wives.

So we have established that Jewish marriage is not a steel concept, but instead fluid and it tends to flow in pursuit of higher levels of human rights. And yet…though marriage’s definition has been upgraded repeatedly, probably more times than we are aware, many still argue against its flexibility today, when, again, marriage is confronted with new cries for reform.

The same-sex relationship…. It is the hot topic that has the ability to potentially make or break the political powers that be of our time. Many politicians, in direct violation of the separation of Church and State rule, continually bring the Tannakh up, using it as a platform from which to defend their position. So, let’s get literal, and examine what’s really there…and not there.

Lesbianism and female bisexuality…. Some might be surprised to know that there is not one place in Tannakh itself where these are denounced. It is assumed that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, but, when you boil down to it in specifics, the Torah only forbids the sleeping of men with men, (which has a question mark that we’ll address later). The very concept of women being with women, however, is never approached.

Why is it not brought up in Torah? Perhaps, in a time period where there was one husband per a half dozen wives, arguing against it might have been seen as a lost cause. King Solomon, so praised for his interpretation and enforcement of the law, had roughly a thousand wives and concubines, all reserved for his male ardor alone. Statistically, it seems unlikely that one thousand harem women would have been completely heterosexual. It also seems unlikely that he was capable of providing adequate sexual satisfaction to all the women he possessed, so them seeking it from each other, according to basic human nature, is a typically logical scenario; one that all harems throughout the world are well-familiar with. (Lesbianism in harems, point of fact, was common enough that many harems had documented legal codes on how to address it.) Yet we never hear of King Solomon ruling against female-female relationships. Maybe he didn’t consider his status as husband threatened by his wives having romances with each other so long as they did not have them with other men. Or, perhaps, just as the fantasy of two women together is so culturally encouraged now, men with multiple wives back then might have even considered a degree of lesbianism as one of the perks of polygamy.

Who knows? We can’t know…because no one bothered to write the reason for the lesbian omission down and, as it is not written, Judaism has no right to claim any definite dogma regarding it.

So if a Jew is addressed by a same-sex female couple about their relationship and that Jew cannot point to any part of Torah objecting to it, then surely, some would argue, Torah must state somewhere that marriage absolutely must be between a man and a woman, right? Actually, no, it does not. There are no examples of non-straight couples being married in Torah, but there are no outright objections to it either. Marriage in general is never defined according to gender. We are told to draw our own conclusions by modern commentators, but how can we claim to know the minds of our ancient forefathers, let alone all historical aspects of the culture in which they lived?

From the lesbian perspective, such assumptions would be a tremendously slippery slope, as any polygamist woman will acknowledge that, in marrying her husband, she is also entering into an intense familial relationship with all of his other wives. In the days of Torah, were there instances where the girl married the guy in order to get the other girl? Doubtless. Did all guys care? Doubtlessly not.

So if a female same-sex couple has no basis for discrimination within the original written Jewish law—(and here I must specify that I reference Torah and not the works of commentators who came later, along with their own personal biases)—what should we then think of male same-sex couples? If the goose is vindicated and off the hook, should the gander still be tarred and de-feathered? Should modern Judaism tolerate anti-male sexism?

Here we would typically find Sodom and Gomorrah referenced, with all their accompanying perversions, but when we look at the chapter where Sodom and Gomorrah pay the ultimate price, we do not see the deity targeting gay men. We see Him targeting gang rapists—individuals committing an act which is devoid of true heterosexuality or homosexuality, but stands completely separate from both. Rape may be a perversion, but, as any survivor can testify, it has precious nothing to do with sex; is entirely centered on torture and power. Sodom and Gomorrah‘s destruction would be much better compared to the deaths of Leopold and Loeb than, say, Bert and Ernie. Therefore the argument that it was destroyed due to G-d’s anti-gay hatred seems to have a pretty significant flaw.

If you want to get technical, yes, Judaism prescribes a death sentence for men who lie together “as with a woman.” But does this mean sex? Or does it mean that it is totally unacceptable for a man to treat any other man with the same regard during sex as he would a female? In a time when women were bought and sold as slaves—oops! “brides,”—perhaps this law might have carried a guarantee that men could not give money to another man’s father and forcedly acquire sexual rights to him.

“You cry like a little girl,” a common phrase now which has ancestor terms going back thousands of years, all of which imply the same thing. Women are weak and do not merit respect. So the idea that male sex, if it happened, would have the strict regulation to not remove your partner’s dignity, that you not “defile” him, not overpower him as you would a female, on penalty of death…this is a concept which could relegate this law, albeit in a very sexist way, more towards how to have an appropriate, respectable homosexual relationship. Women are forced to submit but another man is a voluntary sexual equal.

That interpretation could be argued, granted, but what cannot be is that, at this point, it was common for men to “put a hand under each other’s thigh” when swearing an oath. This was perfectly respectable and a sign of intimate trust. What does this phrase really mean? No way to be anything about it but blunt: these men weren’t touching each other’s thighs, but instead their own personal holiest of holies. For a purely homosexuals-must-die religious group, it does seem odd that men would be socially encouraged to grab hold of each other’s genitals. True, as bizarre as it may sound to us today, this was not necessarily a sexual thing; was even practiced between fathers and sons. But, as in the harem scenario, let’s take human nature into account here, people. The concept that the law-makers of old never considered that this tradition might lead to male-male friskiness, at least occasionally, makes no sense. Yet, despite that, this custom was never banned.

At the end, we have arguments…for and against same-sex marriage and relationships. We have bits of Torah that can be interpreted either way. The verdict is inconclusive, so we have no option but to follow our own conscience and decide what we believe is the best viewpoint as regards sex, love, and marriage.

But, at least unlike reforms of old, which were mainly geared at protecting people from the suffering marriage can provide, the new cultural change is brought about by the persistent, refuse-to-give-up, mutual love of two human beings. And love tends to be a very precious thing, else G-d would not have created it.

Rabbi Galina Trefil has been published by Romea.CZ (in English and Czech,) Neurology Now, Jewcy, The Dissident Voice, Open Road Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and the Pakistan Chronicle. She has spoken on behalf of human rights before the Nevada State Legislature and been interviewed on BBC radio.
  • Ayo Oppenheimer

    Rabbi Galina, thank you for sharing your insights with Jewrotica! Even the most traditional of Jewish communities view Torah and particularly halacha (Jewish ritual law) as a living, breathing document that takes part in an evolutionary process. Perhaps one day same-sex relationships will be part of that evolution in very traditional communities as well.

    I do have a question, though. You had me totally onboard when discussing the takanot (corrective laws) outlawing polygamy and of course sister-type relationships, but you lost me in your closing analysis. When you compared the oath sworn on a thigh to, essentially, a genital grab, were you being irreverently playful or are you proposing this as a serious theory? If the latter, is this your interpretation based on something in text and tradition, is it based on someone else’s hypothesis or is it perhaps your ‘more spicy but creative license’ read of the text?

    Thanks and I hope that you will write for us again. Good luck!

    • Rrabbi Galina Trefil

      Shalom! Here below is a very good link regarding the “under the thigh” terminology. It is fact that there is no Torah documentation of this practice leading to male-male manual stimulation…however, crudely put, I believe denying it ever happened would fall under the modern clinical term of: “Are you kidding me?”

      As a side dish, this behavior was not restricted to the Hebrews, but practiced by other cultures of the period–later, the Romans included. This caused the common etymological theory that the originally-Latin-based word “testicle” derives from “testify” (to witness.) Thus “oath by nether region,” (specifically male-male genital grabbing and male genital self-grabbing,) still shows its historical importance in the daily English tongue even thousands of years later….

  • John

    This article seems to be the product of a question answered before the first word was ever typed. So it isn’t a research article on what the Torah says on homosexuality. It’s just misusing and leaving out what is in the Torah. Before I continue, let me point out that I am not Jewish. I am a Christian, and no, I do not believe homosexuality (among a plethora of other things) is biblical or smiled upon by God. I’d like to address a few things from the above article. For starters, the section comparing marriage among siblings and relatives to a new homosexual “norm” today is nowhere near parallel. In the case of those living during the time of Abraham, they may have been marrying relatives, but they weren’t relatives of the same sex, which is what this article is all about.

    Your article also says that the majority of Americans have changed how they define marriage, implying that they deem it open for homosexual unions. I would say a lot of this stems from media. The Atlantic ( writes how wrong Americans are about how few Americans are actually gay. Less than 5% of the US population considers itself LGBT. The way it is shown in TV shows, movies, and music, one would think it is at least 25%. Also, only a handful of US states (mostly in the Northeastern US) have legalized gay marriage, and not all of those are due to public consent through a vote.

    The article mentions the detestable acts of those in Sodom & Gomorrah, citing gang rape. Bring your attention to Judges 19. In verse 22, “certain men of the city, perverted men” came to the door of a man demanding him to hand over his guest (a Levite) so they could “know him carnally.” These men are not “perverted” solely because they want to gang rape someone, but because they pervert God’s intended purpose of sex and instead desire to know other men “carnally.” Genesis 2:24 says, “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” A man and woman are to become one flesh. When men know other men in a way meant for women, it is a perversion of God’s intention set forth in Genesis. It is also important to note that when God seeks to create a suitable helper for Adam in Genesis 2, God does not create another male; God creates a female, Eve (Genesis 2:18-24).

    The Torah DOES say a same-sex relationship between women is wrong. In Genesis 1:28, God commands male and female, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Wait a second. It takes the sperm of a man and the egg of a woman to create another human being in the form of a baby, yes? Can a man turn another man’s sperm into a child in his womb? No. Can a woman produce sperm from her own body? No. If God wants people to live in homosexual community, then why did he not create their bodies to be able to procreate with each other, without the help of a third party of the opposite sex? Because God did not intend marriage or intimate relationships to be between people of the same sex. Only a man and a woman, who become one flesh through marriage, are called to be fruitful and multiply.

    As a Christian, I can cite Romans 1:26, which specifically mentions lesbianism as against God’s grand design of sex. Here, referring to sexual practices of Gentiles, the Apostle Paul writes, “For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature.” “Natural use…against nature.” Women exchange what is natural (sex with men) for the antithesis (sex with women). Of course, it is impossible for a woman to have sexual intercourse with another woman because she lacks the very physical body part needed to actually have sexual intercourse.

    So, sex between women IS addressed in the Torah and remaining Tannakh. The sin of homosexuality boils down to the root of all other sins: love of self rather than love of God. If one sought to love God with all their heart, soul, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5), then no one would be a proud homosexual, or a serial rapist, or a thief, or a compulsive liar, or a glutton, or arrogant. Instead, they would dwell on God’s law, given to humanity to lead men and women to repentance and pursuit of the righteousness of God. As a Christian, I believe the law is impossible to keep. It shows us how we can never amount up to God’s glory, so we are all ultimately doomed in our sin. Knowing this, God sent His Son Jesus to die in our place as the final sacrifice needed for the atonement of sin. No more need for a temple, or sacrifices, or Yom Kippur. Jesus died once, for all. Anyone who confesses their sin to God, turns from their sinful ways, and follows Christ–who fulfilled the Law of the Prophets–will find forgiveness and mercy.

    • Robt. Switzer

      While I always appreciate it when anyone commits to discussing an issue in a serious and intelligent manner, I must admit I have great difficulty accepting a rationale put forth by someone who has a clear bias, although it’s commendable that you make it clear from the outset. In any event, it remains a bias against homosexual relationships, and thus you seem to want to defend your position through the use of selective Biblical citations, a practice Rabbi Trefil criticizes as unhelpful to examining the issue today when most of us have not studied the historical context of the times in which the Torah was written. (I don’t believe your citing the Christian Bible’s prescriptions are relevant as Rabbi Trefil writes solely about the Jewish text. But I will note that the specific prescription you cite in Romans against lesbian relationships, when none was previously stated in the original Testament, could easily be said to support the rabbi’s position that throughout history views on marriage and sex changed and continue to do so today.)

      Your argument is weakened by its reliance on a Bible that is an English translation probably from a Greek translation of either an earlier translation or the original languages, Judean and Aramaic (or both). The classic King James translation, as inspiring as its language may be, reflects the prejudices of the era when it was published (1611, to be specific). And, while I doubt you will be open to a scientific argument, there was not in ancient times or King James’ era the kind of understanding we have today about same-gender attraction. Moreover, there wasn’t even a noun for people who experience such attraction until the late 19th century. Thus, translating concepts as we understand them today for which there didn’t exist words when the Bible was translated, let alone written, leaves wide open the true meaning of the language both in the original and translated languages.

      You don’t say whether you believe the Bible to be the literal word of G-d. If this is your belief, then I don’t suspect you’ll ever be open to reconsidering your position. My difficulty with those who do accept the text as literal is that very few of us are able to study it as it was originally transcribed. As I previously mentioned, we rely on translations which, in addition to attempting to translate the untranslatable, contain errors, the result of human imperfection. Also troublesome is that some of the Biblical stories are told more than once and not always the same way. (Is G-d forgetful?) Which versions do we accept?

      Citing The Atlantic’s poll, or practically any other survey, as authoritative on the percentage of Americans who identify as gay is problematic. The willingness of all people to reveal their sexual orientation has long been acknowledged by polling organizations to be highly questionable. It is reasonably believed that a significant number of people will not respond truthfully for a variety of reasons, fear being the most obvious, based on their upbringing, personality, religious beliefs, and residence (e.g., city vs. rural, protected vs. unprotected by state law). Considering this, it is more likely than not that five percent is an underestimate of the actual percentage. But, for purposes of your argument, let’s say five percent is accurate. Applying it to the current population of the United States, that would mean 16 million Americans are gay or lesbian. Whatever the real percentage, would you suggest that this justifies denying them equal protection of the laws under the U.S. Constitution? The percentage of Jews in the United States is far lower. Should they be denied equal protection based on their limited numbers? And in a nation where the Constitution itself specifically states that it alone is the supreme law of the land, should a Biblical argument to deny people full civil rights have any place in the debate? Clearly, I believe the answer to all of these is “no.” If you read The Federalist Papers, written by three of the men who drafted the Constitution, you will find they would answer “no,” as well. You are entitled to your religious belief; however, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that moral opprobrium alone is not a constitutionally sufficient basis upon which a class of people can be singled out for discrimination. Rabbi Trefil’s essay helps to educate by providing us historical context, but neither your nor her argument is persuasive in my opinion if to be viewed solely from a religious standpoint. Whether you like it or not, we live under a secular Constitution that mentions religion only twice, outlawing religious tests to hold office and forbidding the establishment of a state religion. It never mentions any sort of Supreme Being. Thus, even if there were absolutely no question about the Biblical view of homosexuality, it has no place in the discussion.