Compiled by Luke Ford

Why Judaism Rejected Homosexuality

By Dennis Prager

When Judaism demanded that all sexual activity be channeled into marriage, it changed the world. The subsequent dominance of the Western world, says Dennis Prager, can largely be attributed to the sexual revolution initiated by Judaism, and later carried forward by Christianity.

The revolution consisted of forcing the sexual genie into the marital bottle. It ensured that sex no longer dominated society, heightened male-female love and sexuality (and thereby almost alone created the possibility of love and eroticism within marriage), and began the arduous task of elevating the status of women.

By contrast, throughout the ancient world, and up to the recent past in many parts of the world, sexuality infused virtually all of society.

Human sexuality, especially male sexuality, is utterly wild. Men have had sex with women and with men; with little girls and young boys; with a single partner and in large groups; with total strangers and immediate family members; and with a variety of domesticated animals. There is little, animate or inanimate, that has not excited some men to orgasm.

Thus, the first thing Judaism did was to de-sexualize God. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth by His will, not through any sexual behavior. This broke with all other religions, and it alone changed human history.

The gods of virtually all civilizations engaged in sexual relations.

Given the sexual activity of the gods, it is not surprising that the religions themselves were replete with all forms of sexual activity. In the ancient Near East and elsewhere, virgins were deflowered by priests prior to engaging in relations with their husbands, and sacred or ritual prostitution was almost universal.

The revolutionary nature of Judaism's prohibiting all forms of non-marital sex was nowhere more radical, more challenging to the prevailing assumptions of mankind, than with regard to homosexuality.

Indeed, Judaism may be said to have invented the notion of homosexuality, for in the ancient world sexuality was not divided between heterosexuality and homosexuality. That division was the Bible's doing. Before the Bible, the world divided sexuality between penetrator (active partner) and penetrated (passive partner).

As Martha Nussbaum, professor of philosophy at Brown University, recently wrote, the ancients were no more concerned with people's gender preference than people today are with others' eating preferences:

Ancient categories of sexual experience differed considerably from our own. The central distinction in sexual morality was the distinction between active and passive roles. The gender of the object . . . is not in itself morally problematic. Boys and women are very often treated interchangeably as objects of (male) desire. What is socially important is to penetrate rather than to be penetrated. Sex is understood fundamentally not as interaction, but as a doing of something to someone . . .

Judaism changed all this. It rendered the "gender of the object" very "morally problematic"; it declared that no one is "interchangeable" sexually. And as a result, it ensured that sex would in fact be "fundamentally interaction" and not simply "a doing of something to someone."

"None of the archaic civilizations prohibited homosexuality per se," Dr. David E. Greenberg notes. Judaism alone declared homosexuality wrong. "Thou shall not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination." "And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed an abomination." It is Judaism's sexual morality, not homosexuality, that historically has been deviant.

Greenberg, whose The Construction of Homosexuality is the most thorough historical study of homosexuality ever written, summarized the ubiquitous nature of homosexuality in these words: "With only a few exceptions, male homosexuality was not stigmatized or repressed so long as it conformed to norms regarding gender and the relative ages and statuses of the partners . . . The major exceptions to this acceptance seem to have arisen in two circumstances." Both of these circumstances were Jewish.

It is the Hebrew Bible that gave humanity such ideas as a universal, moral, loving God; ethical obligations to this God; the need for history to move forward to moral and spiritual redemption; the belief that history has meaning; and the notion that human freedom and social justice are the divinely desired states for all people. It gave the world the Ten Commandments, ethical monotheism, and the concept of holiness (the goal of raising human beings from the animal-like to the Godlike).

Therefore, when this Bible makes strong moral proclamations, Dennis Prager listens with great respect. And regarding male homosexuality -- female homosexuality is not mentioned -- this Bible speaks in such clear and direct language that one does not have to be a religious fundamentalist in order to be influenced by its views.

Judaism cannot make peace with homosexuality because homosexuality denies many of Judaism's most fundamental principles. It denies life, it denies God's expressed desire that men and women cohabit, and it denies the root structure that Judaism wishes for all mankind, the family.

The Need to Channel Passions into Marriage

God's first declaration about man (the human being generally, and the male specifically) is, "It is not good for man to be alone." Now, presumably, in order to solve the problem of man's aloneness, God could have made another man, or even a community of men.

But instead God solved man's aloneness by creating one other person, a woman -- not a man, not a few women, not a community of men and women. Man's solitude was not a function of his not being with other people; it was a function of his being without a woman.

In this regard, the Torah and Judaism were highly prescient: the overwhelming majority of violent crimes are committed by unmarried men. Thus, male celibacy, a sacred state in many religions, is a sin in Judaism. In order to become fully human, male and female must join. In the words of Genesis, "God created the human .. . male and female He created them." The union of male and female is not merely some lively ideal; it is the essence of the Jewish outlook on becoming human.

The Homosexual Life

A final reason for opposition to homosexuality is the homosexual "lifestyle." While it is possible for male homosexuals to live lives of fidelity comparable to those of heterosexual males, it is usually not the case. While the typical lesbian has had fewer than ten lovers, the typical male homosexual in America has had over 500.

In general, neither homosexuals not heterosexuals confront the fact that it is this male homosexual lifestyle, more than the specific homosexual act, that disturbs most people. This is probably why less attention is paid to female homosexuality.

When male sexuality is not controlled, the consequences are considerably more destructive than when female sexuality is not controlled. Men rape. Women do not. Men, not women, engage in fetishes. Men are more frequently consumed by their sex drive and wander from sex partner to sex partner. Men, not women, are sexually sadistic.

The indiscriminate sex that characterizes much of male homosexual life represents the antithesis of Judaism's goal of elevating human life from the animal-like to the God-like.

To a world which divided human sexuality between penetrator and penetrated, Judaism said, "You are wrong -- sexuality is to be divided between male and female." To a world which saw women as baby producers unworthy of romantic and sexual attention, Judaism said, "You are wrong -- women must be the sole focus of erotic love."

To a world which said that sensual feelings and physical beauty were life's supreme goods, Judaism said, "You are wrong -- ethics and holiness are the supreme goods." A thousand years before Roman emperors kept naked boys, Jewish kings were commanded to write and keep a sefer torah, a book of the Torah.


In 1989, Dennis Prager devoted a special issue of his journal Ultimate Issues to discussing Judaism, Homosexuality and Civilization. Among his many points was opposition to Reform Judaism's decision to ordain publicly homosexual rabbis.

In the November 15, 1996 issue of The Prager Perspective, the bimonthly successor to Ultimate Issues, Dennis wrote an essay entitled "Judaism, Homosexuality and the Difficulty of Dialogue." As an example of the difficulty of discussing this topic, he published a letter that KABC received from a female Los Angeles rabbi (who?) accusing Prager of homophobia.

Prager also published his essay "Homosexuality, Judaism and Gay Rabbis" in the most widely read Jewish paper in Los Angeles, the Jewish Journal. Prager writes:

The Torah is unambiguous on homosexuality. It declares same-sex sex a sin in the strongest language at its disposal ("abomination").

In response to these questions, Jews who wish to declare male-male and female-female sex the Jewish equal of male-female sex offer a number of arguments.

One argument holds that we can reject what we consider outdated because we already reject a host of other Torah laws, such as capital punishment for violating the Sabbath or for cursing one's parents.

But this argument is not compelling. It is one thing not to put a Torah punishment into practice and quite another to declare that a Torah sin is no longer a sin. I am unaware of any Jewish precedent for declaring that an act that the Torah condemns in its strongest terms is now completely acceptable.

Another argument holds that if the Torah knew what we "know" today, e.g., that homosexuality is genetic, the Torah would never have condemned it.

This argument is emotionally compelling - how can we oppose a condition that isn't chosen? But it is not logically compelling.

First, no one - certainly not the Torah - opposes a condition; it is only behavior that is opposed. To cite a heterosexual example, virtually all people, especially men, are genetically programmed to be adulterers. Monogamy is not nature's plan. Thus, the Torah only bans adultery, not an adulterous nature.

Second, we have only scant evidence that homosexuality is genetically inherited, and even that scant evidence is related only to male homosexuals, not to lesbians. Most lesbians acknowledge that their homosexuality is not genetic, and most evidence suggests that most lesbians became homosexual because of psychological conditioning, e.g., poor relations with her parent(s) or abuse by a man.

Third, even if homosexuality were genetic, this would have little impact on how we should view it. We have come to believe that there are genetic markers for alcoholism, yet we continue to regard it as a disease. Likewise, as painful as it is to say, the inability of a man to enjoy sex with a woman must be regarded as a flaw in what may otherwise be a superb human being. To understand this, a better analogy may be to deafness. It is better to be born with hearing than to be born deaf, yet no one considers deafness a moral flaw. So, too, heterosexuality is better than homosexuality, but homosexuality is not a moral flaw - a homosexual is as likely to be a kind and decent person as anyone else. The analogy is even more precise because there are many leaders of the deaf community who are offended by any suggestion that hearing is better than deafness - so much so that they oppose the cochlear implant, a surgical procedure that can give hearing to deaf children, on the grounds that it implies that hearing is superior to deafness.

We live in a time of radical egalitarianism - everything is equal, nothing may be regarded as superior to anything else. But Judaism is radically non-egalitarian - it constantly declares that some things are better than other things. One such declaration is that it is far better for men and women to sexually bond than for men and men or women and women to do so. Yet, to teach this basic tenet of Judaism - that society should hold opposite-sex love as its ideal - is to be labeled intolerant, bigoted, closed-minded, and homophobic.

Fourth, while the data on the genetic bases of homosexuality are minimal and only related to gay men, the historical data suggest that the amount of same-sex sex is related to how much a society accepts homosexual sex. Wherever society has said that male-male love is acceptable, it flourished. ...

As to the question of homosexual rabbis, in the words of a leading Reform Rabbi, Eugene Borowitz of the Hebrew Union College, while homosexuals must be guaranteed equal rights, "To be a rabbi is not a Jewish right but a title bestowed as a special Jewish honor. Rabbis ought to set an example of Jewish ideals."

The decency of a gay person who aspires to the rabbinate or to be the rabbi of a congregation is not an issue (any Jew being considered to be a congregational rabbi, irrespective of sexual orientation, is presumed to be a decent individual). Nor is the issue his being a homosexual. The sexual orientation of a candidate for rabbinic school or for a congregation's pulpit is none of our business. His known behavior is. A man who announces that he has sex with men or a woman who announces that she has sex with women can be honored with the title of rabbi, the most important public model of Judaism, only if we overthrow Judaism's historic attempt to channel human sexuality - which includes bisexuality, homosexuality, adultery, incest and promiscuity - into monogamous heterosexual sex.


In mid-November 1996, Dennis Prager told the editor of the Jewish Journal, Gene Lichtenstein, that he wanted to submit an article on Judaism and homosexuality. Gene said he'd publish it.

Two weeks went by and nothing appeared. Prager called Gene and asked what happened. Lichtenstein said that he so disagreed with the piece that he would not publish it without publishing a rebuttal in the same issue. This same need for 'balance," does not apply when the Journal publishes leftist views, notes Prager.

Gene sought a rabbi to write a rebuttal, but none of them would, despite their strong disagreement with Prager's ideas. So Lichtenstein wrote a rebuttal which he published with Prager's essay in the Journal's November 22nd 1996 issue.

Gene writes:

It is clear from his essay above that Dennis Prager holds strong feelings about homosexuality in general and the ordination of homosexuals as rabbis in particular. Who am I to quarrel with his (or anyone else's), deeply held feelings? For it needs to be underscored that, by definition, these feelings are intimate and personal, and often highly charged.

So no argument from me about them.

It is Prager's rationale and logic that I have difficulty with. Often his statements of fact seem questionable, as do some of his major assumptions. Indeed, Prager has dressed upa set of private feelings about homosexuality, which he marches around the parade grounds, in an effort to persuade both himself and us of their objective and compelling Jewish soundness. I am unpersuaded.

My first problem is with his halakhic stand.

I, like most Jews I know (along with about 80 percent to 85 percent of the Jewish population in America), view the Torah as a profound text, a Torah of truth, a Torah of wisdom, but also the center of a halakhic process that functions as a moral and ethical and, yes, commonsensical guide within this perplexing world we inhabit.

It is not for me, or most other Jews, a fixed and immutable document; rather, we - the rabbis and the rest of us - have always been charged with the responsibility to wrestle constantly with it. That is where discourse, conflict, interpretation come in. That is what the Midrash and Talmud are about. Even most Orthodox Jews accept this view. Moreover, such a Jewish discourse is not, as Prager portrays it, a conflict between ego and Torah prescription ("When the Torah and I conflict, my first response is to wonder why I am wrong, not to reject the Torah"), but a religious journey in search of moral ethical resolution.

Of course, not everyone accepts this view. For example, it was the Karaites, in the past as well as many of today's fundamentalist Christians, who read the Torah as Prager suggests, not most Jews. And it is also probably true that he most observant, particularly among Orthodox Jews, also take amore literal stand; they are the strict constructionists among us.

I am not arguing that the majority prevails, or that the correct approach is merely a matter of numbers. It is just that Prager - from his writings and in his public stance - like most of us, is often not a literalist either in his behavior or in his reading of the Torah. My assumption is that, like many of us, he drives to synagogue on Saturday and violates other Torahtic and Talmudic prohibitions; that he probably has few if any compunctions abou the "abomination" of wearing wool and linen; and that he does not view masturbation as the serious transgression described in the Torah. Nor is it likely that he holds as abomination all that is so deemed in the Torah or performs all that is commanded of him. As he informs us, he is a libertarian at heart.

So why does he selectively and wholeheartedly embrace the Torah in regard to homosexuality?

The answer seems clear when analyzing the opinions and assumptions (not facts) he articulates in his essay. The fact is he views homosexuality as a disease, a flaw, a form of impairment, whether acquired genetically or through psychological conditioning via one's family. His analogies are with alcholism and deafness.

These are, of course, feelings and assumptions, not facts, which may explain why the analogies do not stand up to close scrutiny. Alcoholism leads to serious illness and death; it inhibits work performance; it is against the law to drive when intoxicated and, as such, is dangerous to driver and pedestrians. AIDS is the only comparison that comes to mind here, and that illness is transmitted through unsafe sex, both for heterosexuals and homosexuals.

Deafness, too, seems a poor comparison. It is the concrete loss of a sense, hearing. No music, no sound and, in most cases, no speech. Communication becomes severely challenged. It is an impairment. That a man or a woman prefers sexual contact and intimacy with someone from the same sex seems not comparable with the loss of one of our senses.

Many homosexuals and lesbians claim that their enjoyment is enhanced when they make love to someone of the same sex. We may not share this view or this experience. We may disapprove of this behavior. We may feel uncomfortable when confronted with it, even find it repugnant. But that is a long way from perceiving, as Prager does, that homosexuals are physically impaired. ("The inability of a man to enjoy sex with a woman must be regarded as a flaw in what may otherwise well be a superb human being.")

A better analogy, I think, is race or, more specifically, being black. Most of us would choose heterosexuality rather than homosexuality because we live in a homophobic society. By extension, many of us might have chosen to be Christian rather than Jewish had we lived in Nazi-occupied Europe. And, indeed, in the United States, a number of non-practicing Jews tried to assimilate by changing their names or, in some cases, by denying their Jewish heritage during the first half of this century, when anti-Semitism was a widely held and acceptable sentiment, as well as a legitimized form of behavior.

In all cases, the aspersions and the faults were/are attributed to the outsider. The accurate part here is that there is a shared aversion or rejection within society for those outside the norm, but the perceived flaw or impairment is neither physical (as in deafness) nor objective.

And, as Prager so persuasively argues: it matters little whether the root cause is genetic or psychological.

None of this speaks to Prager's concluding point about homosexuals in the rabbinate… The difficulty arises, however, when we begin to concretize who exactly serves as our role model and who is the representative of our Jewish ideals. Above and beyond erudition, we usually are also looking at character; in some instances, at style as well. And always there are our feelings and preferences. Some of us cannot countenance a woman rabbi; others have difficulty with physical impairment in a rabbi (deafness, for example).

When it comes to lifestyle, the swings and feelings are wider and, in some cases, more intense. Some will not accept a rabbi who has committed adultery; poor role model, it is alleged. Others have a difficult time with a rabbi who adopts a patriarchal stance, either toward his family or congregation. (A friend of mine gave up on synagogue and a rabbi when the latter told the congregation what books they could and could not read.)

In all of this, personal preference takes hold. Dennis Prager has his - he does not want a homosexual serving as his rabbi - and it seems to me…. I have my own biases, but who am I to decide for others. In this instance, however, with a little understanding and tolerance (and Prager has it wrong here; there is no conflict between his two "deepest values" - tolerance and Judaism. Tolerance is a Jewish value.) Judaism can serve us all.

Gene Lichtenstein claims that Prager's essay was only "private feelings about homosexuality, which he marches around the parade grounds, in an effort to persuade both himself and us of their objective and compelling Jewish soundness."

Prager notes that, typical of leftists, Gene does not apply this argument to himself. "If I am using Judaism only as a cover for my feelings about homosexuality, how can we know whether Mr. Lichtenstein or any of my opponents are not using Judaism as a cover for their feelings about homosexuality?

"…To argue that I believe only in the Torah because all I cited was the Torah is equivalent to saying that someone who only cites the Ten Commandments to show that Judaism opposes adultery "does not accept rabbinic tradition." …The implication of Mr. Lichtenstein, Rabbi Dorff and the letter writers is that if you take the rabbinic tradition seriously, you will come to a different view of homosexual behavior than that of the Torah - but there is no truth to this implication. The rabbis' view of homosexual behavior was identical to that of the Torah."

The Jewish Journal then published a series of letters, almost all attacking Dennis. The most significant was signed by sixteen rabbis, four Conservative and 12 Reform.

"Apparently," writes Dennis, "Mr. Lichtenstein does not believe that the letters he publishes need engage issues or even approximate respectful dialogue. The letters… were of a level so low, so filled with invective and even hatred toward me that I wonder if Mr. Lichtenstein wonders about the moral level of his ideological allies. I wonder whether he was embarrassed by what he published week after week. Or perhaps, he took the high road in engaging me, while happily publishing all those who took the low road."

The 16 rabbis signed this letter:

Recently, the Jewish Journal provided coverage to a diatribe by Dennis Prager, who attacked gay and lesbian rabbis. We Los Angeles-area rabbis feel that we can respond more fully and more appropriately within our own constituencies to the specifics of Prager's poorly argued, homophobic, indeed cruel, reading of Jewish values.

We are rabbis, male and female.

We are rabbis, heterosexual, gay, lesbian and bisexual.

We are rabbis, discharging holy tasks that we feel called upon to do.

We are rabbis, serving in different movements.

We are rabbis, serving various constituencies.

We are rabbis, reflecting diverse theologies.

We are rabbis, embodying tradition in distinct ways.

We are rabbis, committed to teaching and perpetuating our glorious heritage.

We rabbis affirm one another in the work that we do.

We rabbis support each other in our personal lives.

We rabbis glory in the diversity of the rabbinate.

We rabbis honor the different talents that we each bring to our ministries.

We rabbis recognize that each bring strengths to our people.

We rabbis acknowledge that each rabbi is a bearer of Torah.

We rabbis celebrate that we include so many who are so qualified and so caring.

May every Jew find the rabbi who best suits his/her needs.

May every Jew be grateful that other Jews find rabbis who meet their needs.

May every rabbi be granted the insight, wisdom and sensitivity to meet the spectrum of religious, educational, cultural, social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of our people, to the best of our capacities.

Rabbi Leslie Bergson, Claremont Colleges

Rabbi L.B. Sacks-Rosen, Congregation Shaarei Torah

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, University of Judaism

Rabbi Don Goor, Temple Isaiah

Rabbi Moshe Halfon, Temple Ami-Shalom

Rabbi Avi Levine, Temple Beth Israel

Rabbi Jane Litman, Kol Simchah of Orange County

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, Wilstein Institute for Jewish Family Policy

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, University Syngagogue

Rabbi Joel Rembaum, Temple Beth Am

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, JCC of Pacific Palisades

Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Beth Chayim Chadashim

Rabbi Rafael Goldstein, Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services

Rabbi Steve Tucker, Temple Ramat Zion

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, University of Judaism

Rabbi Bridgit Wynne, Leo Baeck Temple