Why gay sex is not immoral

By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, October 28, 2011
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Orthodox Rabbis opposed to gay marriage - hardly worth a headline. But two prominent British Orthodox rabbis recently went further. Dayan Lichtenstein, head of the Federation Beth Din, suggested the Prime Minister's desire to sanction gay marriage was "a sign of moral decay," while Rabbi Alan Plancey seemed to suggest the government's plan was a sign of "standards of morality dropping". This goes too far.

The Bible outlaws male-to-male penetrative intercourse as a "toevah", but the King James translators perhaps let some of their own misgivings about homosexual intercourse impact on their choice of translation of it to mean an "abomination". In Leviticus and Deuteronomy we are told that eating pork or shellfish is a toevah but, despite steering clear of treif myself, I don't consider a person who does eat ham immoral.

I regularly meet Jews who are driven to self-harm

When the term is first mentioned, in Genesis, it refers to the Egyptian perception of what it would mean to eat with a Jew. Most frequently, the term refers to Jews committing acts of cultic idolatry. A toevah is national and particular; not universal, not moral.

The Bible prohibits only a specific form of sexual behaviour as a toevah. It says nothing about lesbians and some scholars have suggested the proscribed behaviour isn't all forms of gay penetrative sex, rather a particular form of cultic prostitution. I'm not suggesting halachah permits all other forms of gay sexual engagement - it doesn't - merely that Jewish leaders who equate homosexual attraction and sexual behaviour with moral decay perpetuate two falsehoods.

They misrepresent the Torah, allowing our most precious treasure to fall prey to accusations of homophobia and bigotry, and they risk wreaking havoc in the lives of young gay Jews and women and their families. As a rabbi, I am regularly called upon to offer pastoral support to young, committed gay Jews whose sense of self-worth has been so shaken by the extreme disdain of homosexuality they have heard from their religious leaders that they have taken, or considered taking, steps to harm themselves. One should tread carefully in these dangerous waters.

The vast majority of my Orthodox colleagues expect a Jew who is clear about his or her gay sexual identity to live alone, without a sanctified relationship with another they can love spiritually, emotionally and erotically. Frankly, this has to be better counsel than the advice to marry a woman in pretence, or the suggestion that sexual orientation can be "reversed" through therapy. But in Genesis there is a verse that speaks of such a life-sentence of loneliness: "It is not good for a person to be alone." The Hebrew term used - "tov" -can only be translated to mean "good". Goodness is not cultic or particular. Goodness is the language of universal morality.

As a Masorti rabbi, my challenge is to find ways to offer Jews who are clearly committed to their gay sexual identity an avenue towards God and away from the "bad" life of loneliness. Yes, being prepared to support two gay Jews building their lives together could lead to a breach of halachah.

But, equally, being prepared to support a "straight" couple could breach other halachic demands - the Bible speaks forcibly against enjoying sexual intimacy around a significant part of a woman's menstrual cycle. It may be easier for a "straight" couple to raise a family and fulfil the obligation to be fruitful and multiply - the obligation that ensures we have a Jewish future. But I have had the honour to see and support many wonderful gay parents raising well-balanced Jewishly committed kids.

I've been involved in challenging the Masorti movement, here and in the US, with these questions for almost a decade. I know this difficult balancing act is not popular. But accusations of immorality are too easily made, untrue to our Torah and, ultimately, immoral in themselves.

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon is the minister at New London Synagogue

Last updated: 12:40pm, October 28 2011