There are several rabbinic passages which take up, or very likely take up, the subject of same-sex marital unions – always negatively. In each case, homosexual marriage (particularly male homosexual marriage) is rhetorically stigmatized as the practice of non-Jewish (or pre-Israelite) societies, and is presented as an outstanding marker of the depravity of those societies; homosexual marriage is thus clearly associated with the Other. The first three of the four rabbinic texts presented here also associate homosexual marriage with bestiality. These texts also employ a rhetoric of fear: societal recognition of such homosexual relationships will bring upon that society extreme forms of Divine punishment – the destruction of the generation of the Flood, the utter defeat of the Egyptians at the Exodus, the wiping out of native Canaanite peoples in favor of the Israelites.
The earliest source on this topic is in the tannaitic midrash to the book of Leviticus. Like a number of passages in Leviticus, including chapter 18 to which it is a commentary, the midrashic passage links sexual sin and idolatry to the Egyptians (whom the Israelites defeated in the Exodus) and the Canaanites (whom the Israelites will displace when they come into their land). The idea that among the sins of these peoples was the recognition of same-sex marriages is not found in the biblical text, but is read in by the rabbis…
The sources addressing female homoerotic sexual activity in rabbinic literature (link to glossary) are very few, and far less clear than those regarding sexual activity between men. There is a great deal of ambiguity in these texts as to what activities are forbidden, the consequences for women who engage in them, and the nature (that is, the source and/or the authority) of whatever prohibition does exist. Reading these sources suggests several potential reasons why rabbinic thinking on female homoerotic sexual activity is less developed than regarding male homoeroticism; these possibilities will be discussed in the course of the analysis of the texts below.
There is no direct prohibition on female homoerotic sexual activity in the Hebrew bible, indeed, no explicit discussion of such activity at all. Biblical laws of forbidden sexual couplings (notably Leviticus 18 and 20) are generally addressed to male listeners/readers. With the exception of the prohibition against bestiality (Leviticus 18:23 and 20:15-16), in which the prohibition against women committing this act follows on the prohibition to men,1 sexual acts which do not involve male participants are not discussed. Nor do the Mishnah (link to glossary) or the Tosefta (link to glossary) discuss sexual acts between women in any way. Only one midrashic (link to glossary) text from this period addresses any form of homoeroticism between women. As midrash, that is, as a form of exegesis of scriptural text, to Leviticus 18:3, this passage thus invokes the authority of scripture for its discourse on female homoeroticism; it links marriage between two women to the practices of the Canaanites and Egyptians, which this verse and numerous others explicitly forbid, as well as to a number of other sexual/marital connections explicitly or implicitly forbidden in scripture
While Gail Labovitz is undeniably correct about the paucity of coverage of female homoerotic sexual activity in the Talmud, I have found through my diligent research many references to female homoerotic sexual activity in other forms of literature. For instance, I was first informed about female homoerotic sexual activity in the "Letters" section of Penthouse magazine.
This literature invariably portrayed female homoerotic sexual activity in a positive light, particularly when this female homoerotic sexual activity led to male-female hetero-erotic sexual activity, the staple of the Penthouse genre and often captured in high quality color photos of the most stimulating kind.
Perhaps we Jews should broaden our understanding of what constitutes sacred text so that we can include and not exclude Penthouse magazine? Shouldn’t we Jews who’ve known the pain of exclusion and gas chambers be ready to open ourselves to alternative points of view on female homoerotic sexual activity be it of the oral, digital or dildo variety?
The literature of Penthouse provided me in childhood with a level of understanding of female homoerotic sexual activity that has not been surpassed by the weightiest of academic tomes. Still, all this learning has been of little comfort to the poor guy who’s girlfriend cheats on him with another girl. Oy, the shame! Oy, the humiliation! Oy and woe to female homoerotic sexual activity! It is my enemy!