Gay and Bisexual Men (MSM)
(כב) וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא׃
These two verses from the Parasha Kedoshim have arguably done the most damage to LGBTQ Jews and Christians alike, but when we study Torah we must understand the context and the scope of these verses before we can even begin to apply them to a modern context.
When discussing these verses it's important to understand that the Sages were writing from a time before the modern concept of sexuality as an innate trait was common. The prohibition in these verses referred specifically to a sexual act (anal penetrative sex between men) it does not condemn sensual or romantic relationships between men.
To look into the reasoning of this prohibition we need to look into the commentary on these verses and the setting of that commentary.
We have learned the punishment for homosexual intercourse, but from where is the prohibition derived? The verse states: “And you shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22).
"As Rabbinic Studies Scholar Michael Satlow has noted this rabbinic attitude towards penetration as an essentially demeaning act of domination over the penetrated party is closely related to the Roman attitude toward penetration. In Roman Culture, it was deemed appropriate to penetrate their social inferiors, women and male slaves but penetrating their equals or superiors was a disgrace to the one penetrated."
- David Brodsky, 'Sex in the Talmud: How to Understand Leviticus 18 and 20' from Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible p 157-172.
With this context in mind we can understand a little better why the Rabbis were so vehemently opposed to Jewish men having anal penetrative sex with other men. To them it was the same as being subjugated like a woman, and a reminder of the Roman subjugation of the Jewish people. An understandably reprehensible correlation.
However it also brings up more questions and issues in a modern time. Today in the 21st Century Jewish Women, (and Women in general) are more and more being given the same rights and opportunities as men.
Before we discuss the issue of Homophobia in the Jewish community we should at least acknowledge the misogyny inherent in this ruling.
Our attitudes towards sex and sexuality are different than the were the in Rabbinic Period. It's now widely scientifically accepted that sexuality is innate, a gay man can no more change his attraction to men as a heterosexual man could his attraction to woman. Conversion therapy the practice of "converting" gay and bisexual youth by physical, psychological and sometimes even sexual abuse and torture is being rightfully made illegal in more places every year.
All this being said, looking at the original prohibitive verses with a modern lens we need to ask ourselves these things:
Does this prohibition on anal penetrative sex still apply today, when we as a people are largely divorced from the Misogynistic Roman context, even in a consensual relationship between men of legal age?
Does this prohibit two Jewish gay or bisexual men from entering a loving romantic and sexual relationship?
Lesbians and Bisexual Women
Rabba bar Rav Huna said: One who passes water from two places, so that he appears to have a hole or some other blemish in his member, is unfit to enter into the congregation of Israel, as is a man with crushed testicles. Rava said: With regard to these matters, the halakha is in accordance neither with the opinion of the son nor with that of the father. The son, this refers to that opinion of Rabba bar Rav Huna, which we just stated. As for the ruling of the father, this is referring to that which Rav Huna said: Women who rub against one another motivated by sexual desire are unfit to marry into the priesthood, as such conduct renders a woman a zona, whom a priest is prohibited from marrying. It was about this that Rava said that the halakha is not in accordance with Rav Huna’s opinion.
And even according to the opinion of Rabbi Elazar, who said that an unmarried man who has intercourse with an unmarried woman not for the sake of marriage renders her a zona, a woman who has had sexual relations with a man forbidden to her by the Torah, this applies only to intercourse with a man, but lewd behavior with another woman is mere licentiousness that does not render her a zona, and therefore she is still permitted to marry into the priesthood.
There is very little mention of lesbians or sexual/romantic relationships between women in the Torah and other Jewish texts. Except this brief comment that a woman who has had sex with other women is still allowed to marry a Kohen. The absence of lesbianism from these texts is largely unsurprising however as the sages were almost exclusively men and were framing Jewish law largely in terms of heterosexual marriage and relationships, women's lives outside of marriage, childbirth and mitzvot does not play a major part.
The six 'genders' of the Talmud are often used in modern times to apply to what we would now call Transgender or non-binary people and while this is helpful in some cases (especially if it brings comfort and representation to Jewish trans folk) but it's best to remember these designations are removed from modern context and what they describe is closer to what we'd call 'sex' today as they refer to physical genitals and other sex characteristics.
From this we should first state two things:
- The Talmudic designations of sex are from an ancient society completely removed from modern day gender and sex labels.
- Bearing point 1) in mind, these designations are still excellent proof that people who do not fit into the typical physical characteristics of either binary sex have existed since before the time of the Babylonian Talmud.
The 6 sexes of the Talmud:
Zachar - Male. derived from a word for a sword.
Nekeivah- Female derived from the word for a crevice.
Androgynos- borrowed from the greek (Andros + Gynos Man + Woman) refers to an Intersex person who has both 'Male' and 'Female' sex characteristics.
Tumtum - Means 'hidden' refers to someone whose sex characteristics are somehow obscured. Unlike the Androgynos a Tumtum is seen as being sometimes completely male and sometimes completely female.
Aylonit- Someone who is assigned female at birth but develops male characteristics at puberty. This is also likely an ancient intersex designation but seems to encompass many women who become infertile later in life.
Saris - Used on it's own as a term for a eunuch
- Saris Chammach - someone who is born a saris. Typically they are assigned male at birth but do not develop male characteristics at puberty. But a Saris Chammach can include someone who was either born without a penis due to a genetic condition or whose penis was damaged from infancy. This categorisation it's worth pointing out, seems to encompass multiple Intersex conditions as well as what we now know as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
-Saris Adam - someone who becomes a saris later in life and is rendered infertile.
(Sources: http://www.sojourngsd.org/blog/sixgenders; Mishnah Bikkurim - see below)
(א) וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקִים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ (בראשית א, כו), רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן פָּתַח (תהלים קלט, ה): אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם צַרְתָּנִי וגו', אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אִם זָכָה אָדָם, אוֹכֵל שְׁנֵי עוֹלָמוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם צַרְתָּנִי, וְאִם לָאו הוּא בָּא לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קלט, ה): וַתָּשֶׁת עָלַי כַּפֶּכָה. אָמַר רַבִּי יִרְמְיָה בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן, אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס בְּרָאוֹ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (בראשית ה, ב): זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בְּרָאָם. אָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָן, בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן, דְּיוּ פַּרְצוּפִים בְּרָאוֹ, וְנִסְּרוֹ וַעֲשָׂאוֹ גַּבִּים, גַּב לְכָאן וְגַב לְכָאן. אֲתִיבוּן לֵיהּ וְהָכְתִיב (בראשית ב, כא): וַיִּקַּח אַחַת מִצַּלְעֹתָיו, אֲמַר לְהוֹן מִתְּרֵין סִטְרוֹהִי, הֵיךְ מָה דְאַתְּ אָמַר (שמות כו, כ): וּלְצֶלַע הַמִּשְׁכָּן, דִּמְתַרְגְּמִינַן וְלִסְטַר מַשְׁכְּנָא וגו'. רַבִּי תַּנְחוּמָא בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי בְּנָיָה וְרַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אָמַר, בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן גֹּלֶם בְּרָאוֹ, וְהָיָה מוּטָל מִסּוֹף הָעוֹלָם וְעַד סוֹפוֹ, הֲדָא הוא דִכְתִיב (תהלים קלט, טז): גָּלְמִי רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ וגו'. רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בַּר נְחֶמְיָה וְרַבִּי יְהוּדָה בַּר סִימוֹן בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אָמַר מְלֹא כָל הָעוֹלָם בְּרָאוֹ, מִן הַמִּזְרָח לַמַּעֲרָב מִנַּיִן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קלט, ה): אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם צַרְתָּנִי וגו'. מִצָּפוֹן לַדָּרוֹם מִנַּיִן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים ד, לב): וּלְמִקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם וְעַד קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם. וּמִנַּיִן אַף בַּחֲלָלוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קלט, טז): וַתָּשֶׁת עָלַי כַּפֶּכָה, כְּמָה דְּאַתְּ אָמַר (איוב יג, כא): כַּפְּךָ מֵעָלַי הַרְחַק. אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר, אָחוֹר לְמַעֲשֵׂה יוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, וָקֶדֶם לְמַעֲשֵׂה יוֹם הָאַחֲרוֹן.
(1) ... Said R’ Yirmiyah ben Elazar: In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created him [as] an androgyne/androginos, as it is said, “male and female He created them”. Said R’ Shmuel bar Nachmani: In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created [for] him a double-face/di-prosopon/ du-par’tsufin, and sawed him and made him backs, a back here and a back [t]here, as it is said, “Back/achor and before/qedem You formed me” [Ps 139:5]. They objected to him: But it says, “He took one of his ribs/ts’la`ot . . . ” [Gn 2:21]! He said to them: [It means] “[one] of his sides/sit’rohi”, just as you would say, “And for the side/tsela` of the Tabernacle/ mishkan” [Ex 26:20], which they translate [in Aramaic] “for the side/seter”.
This Midrash states that HaShem made Adam as Androgynos and then split him into male and female in the above verse of Beresheit.
(א) אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס יֵשׁ בּוֹ דְּרָכִים שָׁוֶה לַאֲנָשִׁים, וְיֵשׁ בּוֹ דְּרָכִים שָׁוֶה לַנָּשִׁים, וְיֵשׁ בּוֹ דְּרָכִים שָׁוֶה לַאֲנָשִׁים וְנָשִׁים, וְיֵשׁ בּוֹ דְּרָכִים אֵינוֹ שָׁוֶה לֹא לַאֲנָשִׁים וְלֹא לַנָּשִׁים:
(1) The Androgynos is in some ways like men, and in other ways like women. In other ways he is like men and women, and in others he is like neither men nor women.
(ה) כֵּיצַד אֵינוֹ שָׁוֶה לֹא לַאֲנָשִׁים וְלֹא לַנָּשִׁים: אֵין חַיָּבִים לֹא עַל מַכָּתוֹ וְלֹא עַל קִלְלָתוֹ לֹא כַּאֲנָשִׁים וְלֹא כַּנָּשִׁים, וְאֵינוֹ נֶעֱרָךְ לֹא כַּאֲנָשִׁים וְלֹא כַּנָּשִׁים, וְאִם אָמַר "הֲרֵינִי נָזִיר שֶׁזֶּה לֹא אִישׁ וְלֹא אִשָּׁה" אֵינוֹ נָזִיר. רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר: אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס בְּרִיָּה בִּפְנֵי עַצְמָהּ הוּא וְלֹא יָכְלוּ חֲכָמִים לְהַכְרִיעַ עָלָיו אִם הוּא אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה. אֲבָל טֻמְטוּם אֵינוֹ כֵּן, פְּעָמִים שֶׁהוּא אִישׁ פְּעָמִים שֶׁהוּא אִשָּׁה:
(5) And in what is he different from both men and women?One does not burn terumah if it came into contact with his discharge, Neither is he liable for entering the temple while impure, unlike men or women. He must not be sold as a Hebrew slave, unlike men or women. He cannot be evaluated, unlike men or women. If one says: “I will be a nazirite, if he is neither a man nor a woman,” then he becomes a nazirite. Rabbi Yose says: the Androgynos is a unique creature, and the sages could not decide about him. But this is not so with a tumtum (one of doubtful), for sometimes he is a man and sometimes he is a woman.
The Androgynos in this verse is seen by the sages as a unique case of a third gender: not male or female and so the mitzvot an Androgynos is obliged to fulfill may change on a case-by-case basis. This is not so for another Talmudic sex the Tumtum, whose sex is obscured or doubtful.
Transgender, Nonbinary, and Gender Non-conforming People
(ח) פָּתַח רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן וְאָמַר (בראשית יג) וַיֵּלֶךְ לְמַסָּעָיו מִנֶּגֶב וְעַד בֵּית אֵל עַד הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה בֵּין בֵּית אֵל וּבֵין הָעָי. וַיֵּלֶךְ לְמַסָּעָיו, לְמַסָּעוֹ מִבָּעֵי לֵיהּ. מַאי לְמַסָּעָיו. אֶלָּא תְּרֵין מַטְלָנִין אִנּוּן. חַד דִּידֵיהּ וְחַד דִּשְׁכִינְתָּא. דְּהָא כָּל בַּר נָשׁ בָּעֵי לְאִשְׁתַּכְּחָא דְּכַר וְנוּקְבָא בְּגִין לְאַתְקָפָא מְהֵימְנוּתָא. וּכְדֵין שְׁכִינְתָּא לָא אִתְפָּרְשָׁא מִנֵּיהּ לְעָלְמִין.
(8) Then Rabbi Simeon said: "It is written, 'and he went on his journeys from the south to Bethel unto the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Hai' (Gen. 13:3). It says, 'He went on his journeys' instead of 'his journey.' Why is that? There is a reference not only to his own journeying, but also that of the Schekina, who always went with Jacob, and therefore we learn that every person needs to be male and female at all time, for the sake of his faith, he ought not to think or imagine that the Schekina forsakes
Every person contains aspects of the masculine and feminine at other times, this portion continues that if a man must be away from his wife on a journey he should pray to HaShem to bestow the Shechinah on him so that the divine feminine travels with him.
From this we know that HaShem can bestow feminine or masculine presences on people.
The Talmud says that what is prohibited is falsifying identity for the purpose of spying on the other sex. The great medieval commentator Rashi says that the prohibition is limited to concealing identity for the purpose of adultery. The Shulhan Arukh notes that cross-dressing is permitted on Purim because its purpose is simha (celebration, joy) and that it is forbidden if it is for the purpose of fraud. In limiting the prohibition to situations of fraud and deception, the talmudic and medieval rabbis indicated that cross-dressing in a way that is true to the cross-dresser’s identity is permitted. (www.jewisrecon.org)
Lord in heaven,
who brought forth wonders
by fire and water for our Fathers,
cooling Abraham’s Chaldean kiln,
so in its flames he’d not be burned;
who altered Dina’s fate in the womb,
and made a serpent of Moses’ wand;
who whited with illness Miriam’s hands
and turned the Sea of Reeds into land—
transforming the muddy bed of the Jordan
into passable sand,
and making from stone and shale
a pool whose springs would not fail
if only you would make me female!
If that alone might be done,
how wondrous then would be my fortune!
Spared the arduous labor of men,
I’d settle down and raise my children.
But why complain and bitterly whine?
If my Father in heaven is so inclined
as to fashion me with a lasting deformity,
how could I ask that He take it from me?
Worry about what just can’t be
is incurable pain and endless misery;
empty condolence is hardly an answer.
“I’ll just have to bear it, “ I said,
“though I’ll suffer until I wither away and die.”
And since long ago I learned from tradition
that both good and bad deserve benediction,
in the faintest of whispers I’ll mutter each morning;
Blessed art Thou, O Lord—who has not made me a woman.
-On Becoming a Woman by Qalonymos ben Qalonymos, born in Arles, 1286. published in 1322 in their magnum opus, Even Bohan (Touchstone) translated by Peter Cole (The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 285-6)
This poem published in the 14th century had been read in multiple ways over the ages, in his both "Wrestling with G-d and Men" Rabbi Steve Greenberg suggests that the poem was the account of a a gay man yearning to be made a woman to make his love of men acceptable in society.
However, It is also possible to read it as an early account of a transgender woman, as the author's discomfort and misery of not being seen as female is very similar to what we would now call gender dysphoria.
"Today we are taught that there are two and only two options, male and female, that are determined by anatomy and do not change. But transgender, intersex and genderqueer people are beginning to challenge this belief. Transgender people, Jews and non-Jews, ivrim, border-crossers, people in between – are standing up and telling our truth. One may be born with a ‘male’ body, and know herself to be female. One can feel that they encompass qualities called ‘male’ and qualities called ‘female.’ Others identify as another gender entirely – not male, not female, but a third gender. Some people choose to change their bodies or names to reflect their inner identities; some don’t.
People might know themselves to be transgender as children, or in their twenties, or forties or eighties. Some people are deciding that they do not have a gender, or do not wish to choose one. Transgender experiences are asking us all to question some of our most basic categories.
For those who have never known someone who is transgender, all of this might seem difficult to understand, or even a little crazy. I invite us all to question what it is that we’ve always believed. I invite us to fully embrace that great promise of the High Holy Days: that the way things have been is not the way that they always have to be.
All of you here are needed in the work of opening minds and hearts; because for those who live in these gender-places in between, our ancestors’ twilight demons can be real. It is dangerous not to conform to gender categories.
People whose gender is unclear suffer high rates of violence, discrimination, and abuse. But in the face of this, trans people – like gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer people before us and alongside us – are standing up every day to insist that the world is bigger than what we’ve been taught, more complex and wonderful than two simple fixed categories. Like the wide spectrum of sexual identities, gender diversity is a gift to be celebrated. Some transgender experiences are about finding holiness in a journey from one gender to another. Other people choose to sanctify someplace in between, or another identity entirely.
No one can define twilight, but we all know its power and its beauty. Each human being, no matter what their gender identity, is created in the image of God. God’s image transcends all categories."
--The Holiness of Twilight by Reuben Zellman, 2006 delivered at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco, California Erev Rosh Hashanah 5767/2006
For a PDF of the full version of this Drash visit: http://www.transtorah.org/PDFs/Holiness_of_Twilight.pdf
LGBTQI+ Acceptance in the Wider Jewish Community
(כב) בֶּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ. וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי, וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בָהּ, וּמִנַּהּ לֹא תָזוּעַ, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ מִדָּה טוֹבָה הֵימֶנָּה:
(22) Ben Bag Bag said:Turn [Torah] over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein. And look into it; And become gray and old therein; And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it.
“Were the case for gay inclusion to be made, well grounded in Jewish legal texts and employing precedent in methodologically sound ways, it would still be unable to convince rabbinic authorities to overturn the prohibition against same-sex relations. Real world solutions to human problems require much more than a change of mind. They are made possible by the rising tide of new moral awareness, by gradual changes of the heart that push against the comforts of habit and stasis.”
- Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Wresting with G-d and Man: Homosexuality in the Jewish tradition. Pg 21.
Despite New Zealand providing some basic protections for the Rainbow Community, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2012, the Rainbow Community still faces higher levels of violence, discrimination and poverty then their cisgender, heterosexual peers. Despite NZ's anti-discrimination laws there are also still legal loopholes for Rainbow people to be excluded from religious groups on 'religious grounds.'
A survey of 8,400 NZ High School Students in 2012.
- Approximately 40% of transgender students had significant depressive symptoms and nearly half had self-harmed in the previous 12 months.
- One in five transgender students had attempted suicide in the last year.
- Nearly 40% transgender students reported being unable to access healthcare
- Nearly one in five transgender students had experienced bullying at school on a weekly (or more frequent) basis – this was nearly 5 times higher than the proportion of students who were non-transgender.
- Transgender students were generous and giving members of their communities, in that over 40% did activities to help others at school and nearly half worked as volunteers.
A 2019 study of the Rainbow/ LGBTQI community in New Zealand:
- 29% of Rainbow/LGBTQI Respondents reported experiencing High or very high levels of psychological distress (last 4 weeks)compared to 8% in cisgender heterosexual respondents.
- 56% of Rainbow/LGBTQI Respondents experienced mental illness in their lifetimes compared to 29% of cisgender heterosexual respondents.
Until 2009 the gay/trans panic defense was considered a legal defense in New Zealand. In 2009 a Hungarian tourist was initially charged with murder of a 69-year-old man, but the charge was downgraded to manslaughter after his lawyer successfully invoked the gay panic defense.
Sexuality: One's physical and romantic attraction to others
Lesbian: A woman exclusively attracted to other women.
Gay: A man exclusively attracted to other men. Though gay has come to be used to describe any same-gender attraction it still predominantly applies to men.
Bisexual: A person who is attracted to two or more genders.
Asexual: Someone who does not experience sexual attraction to any genders.
Queer: originally a slur, now largely reclaimed and used as an umbrella term for non-cisgender/ heterosexual identities
Rainbow: Another umbrella term like queer or LGBTQ+ that refers to the Rainbow flag.
Gender: The state of being male or female (or neither). Gender is what the brain perceives the self as.
Transgender: A person whose gender differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. I.e a trans woman is a woman who was assigned male when she was born.
Cisgender: The opposite of transgender. A person whose gender is the same as the gender they were assigned at birth. i.e: A cis woman is a woman who was assigned female when she was born
Non-binary: Someone who does not identify as solely male or female. Non-binary is an umbrella term for any genders outside of the male-female binary. Non-binary people may identify as multiple genders or as being outside gender entirely.
Genderfluid: Someone whose gender identity is not fixed in place, whose gender may vary and change.
Sex: Physical sexual traits of a person including internal/external genitalia and hormone levels.
Intersex: Someone born with both male and female genitalia and sex characteristics or having ambiguous sexual characteristics due to genetic or physical traits.
Perisex: Someone whose physical sex characteristics meets the binary classification of male or female.
If you want a copy of this resource sheet find it online here at
TransTorah (Website run by Openly Trans Reconstructionist Rabbi, Rabbi Elliot Kukla.)
Keshet (US Based Reform/Progressive Jewish LGBTQ Rights Organisation)
Eshel (US Based Orthodox Jewish LGBTQ Rights Organisation)
Local LGBTQ Resources
Rainbow Youth (LGBT Youth Org based in NZ)
OUTLine (LGBT Helpline based in NZ)
0800 688 5463
InsideOUT (LGBT Youth Org based in NZ)
Agender NZ (Trans resources for New Zealanders)
General LGBTQ+ Resources
My kid is gay. com (For parents of LGBTQ kids)
It Gets Better
The Trevor Project
An illustrated online book discussing gender, sex and trans identities.