Strikingly, and contrary to what is widely and mistakenly believed, homosexuality is not seen as a sin, and is not discussed at all, in the Hebrew Bible. The Biblical prohibition “you shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18, 22) is widely misunderstood as a prohibition of homosexuality. The prohibition, though, is of a man having sexual relations with another man as one does with a woman (and, Leviticus 20, 13 ordains capital punishment for such an act) – and, such a specific act is termed an abomination. I want to point out that the prohibition of Leviticus 18, 22 (and, this is true also of Leviticus 20, 13) in its plain meaning does not speak at all about homosexuality, which is an inclination, orientation or tendency – and, the prohibition is only of a specific action of a man lying with another man as one does with a woman. A heterosexual man can violate the Biblical prohibition, and a homosexual man can refrain from violating the prohibition.
In addition, one does not choose one’s sexual orientation. Whether we are born with a certain sexual orientation, or our orientation develops at a young age – in any case, we do not choose our orientation as a matter of conscious will. Heterosexuals do not make a conscious choice to be heterosexual in orientation, and homosexuals do not make a conscious choice to be homosexual in orientation. This is crucial, as in order for an act to be considered as a sin or as wrongdoing, the act must be a matter of free choice. How can we hold someone responsible for committing an act that is a matter of compulsion? Our sexual orientation is not only a tendency to act rather than a specific act – but, our orientation is also not a matter of free choice for which we can be held responsible. So, contrary to what is widely and mistakenly believed homosexuality is not seen as a sin in the Hebrew Bible – only a specific act of a man having sexual relations with another man as one does with a woman is prohibited and viewed as a sin.
The meaning of the Biblical prohibition of Leviticus 18, 22 (what specific act is prohibited) is not clear in the plain meaning of Scripture. This raises a fundamental problem with a fundamentalist approach of living according to Scripture as written – many things that are ordained or prohibited in the plain meaning of Scripture are not clear as to the intent. Jewish law is based upon the commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), which is a legal constitution of the Jewish people. However, in traditional Judaism we as Jews, in the realm of law, live not by what is written in the Bible (termed the Written Torah in the Talmudic tradition) in a fundamentalist way but by the Bible as interpreted and understood by the Jewish rabbinic tradition (termed the Oral Torah in the Talmudic tradition) – the foundation of which is the Talmud.
The modern Jewish movements today – orthodox, conservative, reconstructionist and reform as well as secular Judaism – have all grown out of the ancient Jewish, rabbinic tradition based upon the Talmud. In the Talmudic and medieval periods there were Jewish sects outside of the Jewish rabbinic tradition – like the Sadducees in the Talmudic period and the Karaites in the medieval period.
The terms Pharisees and Sadducees took on a negative connotation due to Christianity, but both the Pharisees and Sadducees were Jewish sects during the Talmudic period. The Sadducees were a priestly sect, and most of the ancient, hereditary priesthood in Judaism were Sadducees. The Sadducees rejected the Oral Torah (rabbinic tradition) and attempted to live as much as possible by what was written in the Bible (the Written Torah). The Sadducees disappeared with the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans – the Temple being the institutional center of the priestly cult. The Karaites were a medieval sect who like the ancient Sadducees rejected the Oral Torah and attempted to live as much as possible by what was written in the Bible. There were Karaite Jews in large numbers during the medieval period, but they too have largely disappeared.
The Pharisees were a sect that was in the main led by scribes and teachers. The Pharisees evidently were willing to interpret Scripture beyond the plain or literal meaning. The Talmudic rabbis were ideological descendants of the Pharisees. Thus, in traditional Judaism we as Jews live not by what is written in the Bible (the Written Torah) in a fundamentalist way but by the Bible as interpreted and understood by the Jewish rabbinic tradition (the Oral Torah) – the foundation of which is the Talmud.
I will give an example from the realm of Jewish law to illustrate that we as Jews in traditional rabbinic Judaism live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish tradition. The Biblical verse “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23, 19) is understood by the Jewish rabbinic tradition to prohibit the cooking and eating of milk and meat together. But, this is not the plain, simple meaning of the Biblical verse. The Biblical verse speaks only about not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk. For example, it is possible to roast a kid on an open fire, which would not constitute cooking according to the Jewish tradition, and to roast and eat the kid with milk from a cow that is not the mother of the kid, which would not violate what is written in the Biblical verse. Moreover, the Hebrew word (חלב) that is translated as milk may not actually mean milk, as the word can also mean fat. It is even highly likely that the original meaning of the Biblical verse was that it is forbidden to cook a kid in the fat of the mother (which may have been an ancient Canaanite practice), as in the Bible and in the Biblical world it was the meat and fat of animals that were sacrificed as a part of sacrificial worship.
The implications here are enormous – we as Jews in traditional rabbinic Judaism, from a legal point of view, live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish tradition – and, therefore, in principle traditional rabbinic Judaism is not fundamentalist (in the sense of a literal understanding of Biblical texts). The verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21, 24) is not understood according to the Jewish tradition in its plain or literal meaning as actual bodily punishment, which would reflect a very primitive conception of justice – rather, the verse is understood not according to the plain meaning as requiring monetary compensation. In not being bound in the realm of law by the plain or literal meaning of Biblical texts, the Jewish tradition is thus able to evolve and develop, and, an important image of Torah (Judaism) in the Talmudic tradition is a tree of life – and, a tree is organic constantly growing and changing, while at the same time preserving its identity.
If we return to the verse from Leviticus (18, 22) prohibiting a man from having sexual relations with another man as one does with a woman, the intent of the verse is unclear and the verse does not specify what specific act is being prohibited. The Talmudic interpretation is a narrow interpretation that anal sex between two men is being prohibited by the Torah – giving homosexuals freedom to have a homosexual relationship and engage in a variety of sexual actions other than anal sex without violating Torah (although other specific acts may be prohibited according to rabbinic law, which is less severe than Torah law). However, rabbis, as authoritative interpreters of Jewish law, not only have the power to define such a specific act of Leviticus 18, 22 in a narrow way as a prohibition of anal sex – but, rabbis also have even the power to uproot laws of the Torah.
For example, according to the Bible (Deuteronomy 21, 18-21), a rebellious son who does not obey his parents is to be put to death. The Talmudic rabbis uprooted the law on the basis of midrashic (rabbinic) interpretation in which they interpreted the passage not according to its plain meaning making it impossible to apply the law in practice. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) says that there never was and never will be such a case in practice of the rebellious son, and that the passage was written in the Bible only so that we may learn from it. The fact that rabbis today are resistant to using such broad powers is a political rather than legal issue.
Moreover, the context of the Biblical prohibition (Leviticus 18, 22) of a man having sexual relations with another man as one does with a woman is the general prohibition of idolatrous practices of surrounding pagan cultures such as the Canaanites and Egyptians (Leviticus 18, 3 and 18, 24). The term “toeva” (תועבה) translated as “abomination” implies in English an act that is morally reprehensible. However, in the context of Leviticus 18, the plain meaning seems to be not morally reprehensible but taboo in that the passage is delineating idolatrous practices as part of fertility rites of the surrounding Canaanite and Egyptian cultures (and not relating to moral wrongdoing). Also, in other places in the Torah the term “toeva” apparently has this meaning of taboo (and not morally reprehensible) as in the Book of Deuteronomy (22, 4) in which remarrying an ex-wife who had married another man in the interim is called an abomination.
There is a legitimate legal and philosophic question here as to whether such a Biblical prohibition of Leviticus 18, 22 (no matter how we may define what constitutes a man having sexual relations with another man as one does with a woman) applies in our day when we are not surrounded by idolatrous cultures such as ancient Canaan and Egypt. Homosexuality in our contemporary culture is not part of idolatrous practices and fertility rites of ancient Canaan and Egypt.
Here, too, rabbis as authoritative interpreters of Torah have the power to rule that such a Biblical prohibition no longer applies in our differing time period and culture. For example, Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman (who lived in the late 19th century and early 20th century) argued regarding Sabbath desecration in public that the traditional law defining such desecration as heresy does not apply in our contemporary world in which there are so many Jews who do desecrate the Sabbath in public – and the fact that rabbis do not apply such reasoning to the Biblical prohibition of a man having sexual relations with another man as one does with a woman is also a political rather than legal issue.