The issue has been a subject of contention within modern Jewish denominations and has led to debate and division. The prevalent view among Jews had been to regard homosexual intercourse as sinful, arguing that it is categorically forbidden by the Torah. This remains the current view of Orthodox Judaism, but not of Reconstructionist Judaism and Reform Judaism. Conservative Judaism's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which until December 2006 held the same position as Orthodoxy, recently issued multiple opinions under its philosophy of pluralism, with one opinion continuing to follow the Orthodox position and another opinion substantially liberalizing its view of homosexuals and homosexual relationships while continuing to regard certain sexual acts as prohibited.
The Torah prohibits men from having sex with other men. It states: "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is a to'evah" (Leviticus 18:22). (וְאֶת זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה הִוא) Leviticus 20:13 further states: "A man who lies with a male as one lies with a woman; the two of them have done a to'evah; they shall be put to death; their bloodguilt is upon them." (וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת זָכָר מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה עָשׂוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם מוֹת יוּמָתוּ דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם)
The term to'eva is usually translated as "abomination" and is used in the Bible to refer to a variety of forbidden acts including incest, idolatry, eating unclean animals, and economic injustice. In the context of sexual prohibitions, the word is also interpreted by the Talmud to be a contraction of the words תועה אתה בה to'eh ata vah("You are wandering astray with it"). Preceding this it states in Leviticus 18:3, "What is done in the land of Egypt, wherein you were settled, you are not to do; what is done in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you are not to do; by their laws you are not to walk". Rabbis later interpreted that as prohibiting lesbianism as well (see below).
In Samuel (I and II), the Biblical text described the relation between David and Jonathan in terms of love, comparing it to the love between man and woman. Some modern scholars have ascribed sexual significance to these passages, while traditional interpretations overwhelmingly reject any such interpretation. For example, after David killed Goliath and spoke with Saul, the Bible relates:
Jonathan's soul became bound to David's soul, and Jonathan loved him as [he loved] his own soul. Saul took him that day and did not allow him to return home. Jonathan and David made a covenant because he loved him as [much as] himself. Jonathan removed the coat that was on him and gave it to David, and his suit and even his sword and even his bow and even his belt. David went wherever Saul sent him, and would be successful. Saul put him in charge of the soldiers. He was good in the eyes of the entire nation and in the eyes of the Saul's ministers.Even though Jonathan was the crown prince, he was able to allow David to assume authority that was rightfully his own because of his great love for him. On Jonathan's passing King David eulogized him: "I have great pain over you, my brother Jonathan, you were very pleasant to me, your love for me was more wondrous than the love of women." (II Samuel 1:26)
There is, however, no evidence that Biblical passages about the relationship between David and Jonathan, or the sexual significance some modern academic scholars have ascribed to it, influenced either historical or contemporary Jewish views on the subject of homosexuality, or were thought of as having a homoerotic character in Jewish religious thought.
According to Rabbinic interpretation understands the Torah prohibition of Lo tikrevu legalot ervah ("You shall not come close [to another person] to uncover nakedness") to forbid all sexual acts which can lead to forbidden intercourse, and prescribes the punishment of lashes. But according to , this verse is not written in conjunction with Homosexuality, rather it is referring to the forbidden incest marriages. The major sources of Halacha (Jewish law) such as the Rambam (Maimonides) and the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) only quote that law in reference to the forbidden family marriages.
However, even in Biblical times, it was very difficult to get a conviction that would lead to this prescribed punishment. The Jewish oral law states that capital punishment would only be applicable if two men were caught in the act of anal sex, if there were two witnesses to the act, if the two witnesses warned the men involved that they committed a capital offense, and the two men subsequently acknowledged the warning, but proceeded to engage in the prohibited act anyway. As such, it is not surprising that there is no account of capital punishment, in regards to this law, in Jewish history.
In any case, rabbinic tradition understand the Torah's system of capital punishment not to be in effect in the absence of a Sanhedrin and Temple. However, the severity of the punishment may indicate the seriousness with which the act was seen in Biblical times.
A midrash, Sifra Aharei Mot 8:8–9, states that this refers to sexual customs, and that one of those customs was the marriage of women to each other, as well as a man to a woman and to her daughter. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, summarizes the matter as follows:
For women to be mesollelot with one another is forbidden, as this is the practice of Egypt, which we were warned against: "Like the practice of the land of Egypt . . . you shall not do" (Leviticus 18:3). The Sages said [in the midrash of Sifra Aharei Mot 8:8–9], "What did they do? A man married a man, and a woman married a woman, and a woman married two men."
Even though this practice is forbidden, one is not lashed [as for a Torah prohibition] on account of it, since there is no specific prohibition against it, and there is no real intercourse. Therefore, [one who does this] is not forbidden to the priesthood because of harlotry, and a woman is not prohibited to her husband by this, since it is not harlotry. But it is appropriate to administer to them lashings of rebellion [i.e., those given for violation of rabbinic prohibitions], since they did something forbidden. And a man should be strict with his wife in this matter, and should prevent women known to do this from coming to her or from her going to them.
Classical rabbinic Jewish sources do not specifically mention that homosexual attraction is inherently sinful (though it is regarded as unnatural). However, someone who has had homosexual intercourse is seen to have allowed their "unnatural attractions" to get the better of them, and it is thus believed that they would be held accountable by God for their actions. If he does teshuva (repentance), i.e. he ceases his forbidden actions, regrets what he has done, apologizes to God, and makes a binding resolution never to repeat those actions, he is seen to be forgiven by God (in a similar manner to the other capital crimes, excepting murder).
Therefore, a homosexual act is wrong not because it does not result in a birth (in Judaism, a sexual act that does not result in a birth is not forbidden, such as when the wife is pregnant, barren, or using contraceptives), but because it invokes holy spiritual forces which are then used in an unnatural way (from the Creation's point of view), between two partners that are of the same sex. Therefore, only male homosexuality (which involves the intercourse) is Biblically forbidden; female homosexuality is forbidden for different reasons and in general is much less serious sin. (As a matter of fact, the exact same explanation can be used to explain Kabbalistic view of masturbation and why it is forbidden).
Jewish law [...] rejects the view that homosexuality is to be regarded merely as a disease or as morally neutral.... Jewish law holds that no hedonistic ethic, even if called "love", can justify the morality of homosexuality any more than it can legitimize adultery or incest, however genuinely such acts may be performed out of love and by mutual consent.
Rabbi Norman Lamm (the Chancellor, a rosh yeshiva ["head of the yeshiva"], and former president of Yeshiva University, a major Modern Orthodox Jewish institution) advocated that some (although not all) homosexuals should be viewed as diseased and in need of compassion and treatment, rather than willful rebels who should be ostracized. He distinguishes between six varieties of homosexuals, including "genuine homosexuals" who have "strong preferential erotic feelings for members of the same sex", "transitory" and "situational" homosexuals who would prefer heterosexual intercourse but are denied it or seek gain in homosexuality, and heterosexuals who are merely curious. Lamm explains:
Clearly, genuine homosexuality experienced under duress (Hebrew: ones) most obviously lends itself to being termed pathological especially where dysfunction appears in other aspects of personality. Opportunistic homosexuality, ideological homosexuality, and transitory adult homosexuality are at the other end of the spectrum, and appear most reprehensible....
Where the category of mental illness does apply, the act itself remains to´evah (an abomination), but the fact of illness lays upon us the obligation of pastoral compassion, psychological understanding, and social sympathy. In these sense, homosexuality is no different from any other social or anti-halakhic act ...
An example of a criminal act that is treated with compassion by the Halakhah, which in practice considers the act pathological rather than criminal, is suicide.... in the course of time, the tendency has been to remove the stigma from the suicide on the basis of mental disease....
The suicide analogy should not, of course, lead one to conclude that there are grounds for a blanket exculpation of homosexuality as mental illness.... people do not ordinarily propose that suicide be considered an acceptable and legitimate alternative to the rigors of daily life. No sane and moral person sits passively and watches a fellow man attempt suicide because he "understands" him and because it has been decided that suicide is a "morally neutral" act. By the same token, in orienting ourselves to certain types of homosexuals as patients rather than criminals, we do not condone the act but attempt to help the homosexual. Under no circumstances can Judaism suffer homosexuality to become respectable.
When an Orthodox Rabbi, Steven Greenberg, publicly announced that he was homosexual, there was a significant response from rabbis of all denominations reported in the Jewish newspapers. Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a leading rabbi at Yeshiva University, stated "It is very sad that an individual who attended our yeshiva sunk to the depths of what we consider a depraved society,"
Sandi Simcha Dubowski's movie Trembling Before G-d (2001) documented the experiences of several homosexual Modern Orthodox and Haredi Jews. No Haredi Orthodox group spoke out in favor of the film. The spokesperson for Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Avi Shafran, attacked the film with an article "Dissembling Before G-d", maintaining that gay people can be cured through therapy, and that the movie is meant to promote homosexuality:
Atzat Nefesh is based in Israel and addresses people with a variety of sexual problems. It operates a hotline and several support groups in Israel, and purports to successfully change the sexual orientation of LGB people.
In Conservative Judaism, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly makes the movement's decisions concerning Jewish law. In 1992, the CJLS action affirmed its traditional prohibition on homosexual conduct, blessing homosexual unions, and ordaining openly homosexual clergy. However, these prohibitions grew increasingly controversial within the Conservative movement.
In 2006, the CJLS shifted its position and paved the way for significant changes regarding the Conservative movement's policies toward homosexuality. On December 6, 2006, The CJLS adopted three distinct responsa reflecting very different approaches to the subject. One responsum substantially liberalized Conservative Judaism's approach including lifting most (but not all) classical prohibitions on homosexual conduct and permitted the blessing of homosexual unions and the ordination of gay clergy. Two others completely retained traditional prohibitions. Under the rules of the Conservative movement, the adoption of multiple opinions permits individual Conservative rabbis, congregations, and rabbinical schools to select which opinion to accept, and hence to choose individually whether to maintain a traditional prohibition on homosexual conduct, or to permit gay unions and clergy.
The liberalizing responsum, adopted as a majority opinion by 13 of 25 votes, was authored by Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Daniel Nevins, and Avram Reisner. It lifted most restrictions on homosexual conduct and opened the way to the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis and acceptance of homosexual unions, but stopped short of religiously recognizing gay marriage. The responsum invoked the Talmudic principle of kavod habriyot, which the authors translated as "human dignity", as authority for this approach. The responsum maintained a prohibition on male-male anal sex, which it described as the sole Biblically prohibited homosexual act. This act remains a yehareg ve'al ya'avor ("die rather than transgress" offense) under the decision.
Two traditionalist responsa were adopted. A responsum by Rabbi Joel Roth , adopted as a majority opinion by 13 votes, reaffirmed a general complete prohibition on homosexual conduct. A second responsum by Rabbi Leonard Levy, adopted as a minority opinion by 6 votes, maintained that homosexuality is potentially curable and encouraged people with homosexual inclinations interested in living as religious Jews to seek treatment.
The Committee rejected a fourth paper by Gordon Tucker which would have lifted all restrictions on homosexual sexual practices.
The consequences of the decision have been mixed. On the one hand, four members of the Committee, Rabbis Joel Roth, Leonard Levy, Mayer Rabinowitz, and Joseph Prouser, resigned from the CJLS following adoption of the change. On the other hand, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles had previously stated that it will immediately begin admitting gay and lesbian students as soon as the law committee passes a policy that sanctions gay ordination. On March 26, 2007, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York followed suit and began accepting openly homosexual candidates for admission for their Rabbinical program.
Meanwhile, Masorti synagogues in Europe and Israel, which have historically been somewhat more traditional than the American movement, continue to maintain a complete ban on homosexual conduct, clergy, and unions. As such, most Conservative rabbis outside the USA are exercising their authority as local rabbinic authorities (mara d'atra) to reject the more liberal responsa. The head of the Israeli Masorti movement's Vaad Halakha (equivalent to the CJLS), Rabbi David Golinkin, wrote the CJLS protesting its reconsideration of the traditional ban on homosexual conduct. . The Masorti movements in Argentina, Hungary, and the United Kingdom have indicated that they will not admit or ordain homosexual rabbinical students. The Masorti Movement's Israeli seminar also rejected a change in its view of the status of homosexual conduct, stating that "Jewish law has traditionally prohibited homosexuality."
The Reform Judaism movement, the largest branch of Judaism in North America, has rejected the traditional view of Jewish Law on this issue. As such, they do not prohibit ordination of gays and lesbians as rabbis and cantors. They view Levitical laws as sometimes seen to be referring to prostitution, making it a stand against Jews adopting the idolatrous fertility cults and practices of the neighbouring Canaanite nations rather than a blanket condemnation of same-sex intercourse or homosexuality. Reform authorities consider that, in light of what is seen as current scientific evidence about the nature of homosexuality as a biological sexual orientation, a new interpretation of the law is required.
In the late 1980s the primary seminary of the Reform movement, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, changed its admission requirements to allow gays to join the student body. In 1990 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) officially endorsed a report of their committee on homosexuality and rabbis. They concluded that "all rabbis, regardless of sexual orientation, be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation that they have chosen" and that "all Jews are religiously equal regardless of their sexual orientation."
In 1996 CCAR passed a resolution of civil marriage. However, this same resolution made a distinction between civil marriages and religious marriages; this resolution thus stated:
In 1998, an ad hoc CCAR committee on Human Sexuality issued its majority report (11 to 1, 1 abstention) which stated that the holiness within a Jewish marriage "may be present in committed same gender relationships between two Jews and that these relationships can serve as the foundation of stable Jewish families, thus adding strength to the Jewish community." The report called for CCAR to support rabbis in officiating at gay marriages. Also in 1998, the Responsa Committee of the CCAR issued a lengthy teshuvah (rabbinical opinion) that offered detailed argumentation in support of both sides of the question whether a rabbi may officiate at a commitment ceremony for a same-sex couple.
In March 2000 CCAR issued a new resolution stating that "We do hereby resolve that, that the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual, and further resolved, that we recognize the diversity of opinions within our ranks on this issue. We support the decision of those who choose to officiate at rituals of union for same-sex couples, and we support the decision of those who do not."
To promote inclusion of LGBT members and clergy, the Reform movement established the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College. The IJSO offers educational programs and makes available copies of Reform responsa and policies on homosexuality.
The Reconstructionist movement sees homosexuality as a normative expression of sexuality and welcomes gays and lesbians into Reconstructionist communities to participate fully in every aspect of community life. Since 1985, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has admitted gay and lesbian candidates for their rabbinical and cantorial programs. In 1993, a movement Commission issued: Homosexuality and Judaism: The Reconstructionist Position. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) encourages its members to officiate at homosexual marriages/commitment ceremonies, though the RRA does not require its members to officiate at them. In 2007, the RRA elected as president Toba Spitzer, the first openly gay or lesbian leader of a rabbinic association.