American Reform Responsa
13. Judaism and Homosexuality
(Vol. LXXIII, 1973, pp. 115-119)QUESTION: A rabbi on the West Coast, the regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, has organized a congregation of homosexuals. He has said: “These are people facing their own situation. They have become a social grouping.” Is it in accordance with the spirit of Jewish tradition to encourage the establishment of a congregation of homosexuals? (Alexander M. Schindler, ..President-elect of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations)ANSWER: There is no question that Scripture considers homosexuality to be a grave sin. The rabbi who organized this congregation, justifying himself, said that being Reform, we are not bound by the Halacha of the Bible. It may well be that we do not consider ourselves bound by all the ritual and ceremonial laws of Scripture, but we certainly revere the ethical attitudes and judgments of the Bible. In Scripture (Lev. 18:22), homosexuality is considered to be “an abomination.” So, too, in Leviticus 20:13. If Scripture calls it an abomination, it means that it is more than violation of a mere legal enactment: it reveals a deep-rooted ethical attitude. How deep-rooted this aversion is can be seen from the fact that, although Judaism developed in the Near East, which is notorious for the prevalence of homosexuality, Jews kept away from such acts, as is seen from the Talmud (Kiddushin 82a), which states that Jews are not “under the suspicion of homosexuality.” In other words, the opposition to homosexuality was more than a Biblical law; it was a deep-rooted way of life of the Jewish people, a way of life maintained in a world where homosexuality was a widespread practice. Therefore, homosexual acts cannot be brushed aside, as the rabbi in the West is reported to have done, by saying that we do not follow Biblical enactments. Homosexuality runs counter to the sancta of Jewish life. There is no side-stepping the fact that from the point of view of Judaism men who practice homosexuality are to be deemed sinners. But what conclusion is to be drawn from the fact that their homosexual acts are sinful acts? Does it mean, therefore, that we should exclude them from the congregation and thus compel them to form their own religious fellowship in congregations of their own? No! The very contrary is true. It is forbidden to force them into a separate congregation. The Mishna (Megila IV.9) says that if a man in his prayer says “Let good people bless Thee, O Lord,” the man who prays thus must be silenced. Bartenura, explaining why we silence the man who says “Let the good praise Thee,” states that it is a sin to pray this way because the man implies that only righteous people shall be in the congregation. The contrary is true. He adds that the chemical chelbena (Galbanum) has an evil odor, yet it is included in the recipe of the sacred incense offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. Bartenura bases this idea specifically on the statement in the Talmud (Keritot 6b) in which the presence of ill-smelling Galbanum in the sacred incense is used as proof for the following statement: “No fast day service is a genuine service unless sinners of Israel are included among the worshippers.” That is to say, that if we were self-righteous and considered the community to be entirely composed of noble people, we would then be far too smug and self-satisfied for a truly penitential fast-day service. That is why Maharil, in the 14th century, followed the custom of saying before the “Kol Nidrei” that we must pray side by side with the sinners. This has become our Ashkenazic custom before the “Kol Nidrei” prayer and, in fact, it has become a universal Jewish custom since Joseph Caro, the Sephardi, mentioned it as a law in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 619.1 (and compare the Ba-er Heitev to the passage). In other words, not only do we not exclude sinners, we are actually forbidden to do so; they are a necessary part of the congregation. That is the significance of the law in the Mishna that we silence the reader if he says “Let only the righteous praise Thee.” This throws light on the present situation. We do not exclude them. We are forbidden by our tradition to do so. They are excluding themselves, and it is our duty to ask: Why are they doing it? Why do they want to commit the further sin of “separating themselves from the congregation”? Part of their wish is, of course, due to the “Gay Liberation” movement. Homosexuals, male and female, fighting the laws which they deem unjust, are conducting a strong agitation on behalf of their status, and therefore are in the mood to extract formal recognition from all possible groups. If they can get the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to acknowledge their right to form separate congregations, it will bolster their propaganda for other rights. In fact, the press recently carried a demand on the part of women homosexuals for a separate congregation of their own (I believe these were Christian women). It seems to be also that it is not unfair to ascribe an additional motive for their desire to be grouped together, to the exclusion of others: in this way they know each other and are available to each other, just as they now group together in separate bars and saloons in the great cities. What, then, of young boys who perhaps have only a partial homosexual tendency, who will now be available to inveterate homosexuals? Are we not thereby committing the sin of “aiding and abetting sinners” (Mesayea yedei overei avera)? To sum up: Homosexuality is deemed in Jewish tradition to be a sin–not only in law, but in Jewish life practice. Nevertheless, it would be in direct contradiction to Jewish law to keep sinners out of the congregation. To isolate them into a separate congregation and thus increase their mutual availability is certainly wrong. It is hardly worth mentioning that to officiate at a so-called “marriage” of two homosexuals and to describe their mode of life as “Kiddushin” (i.e., sacred in Judaism) is a contravention of all that is respected in Jewish life.Solomon B. FreehofSee also:S.B. Freehof, “Homosexuality,” Current Reform Responsa, pp. 236ff.”Resolution,” CCAR Yearbook, vol. 87, 1977, pp. 50ff.”Resolution,” National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, 1965.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.