Homosexuality Is Part of Jewish Tradition

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Feb 2, 2022, 3:32:38 AMFeb 2
Contrary to the common perception, intimate relations between people of
the same sex did not always have a negative image in Jewish communities.

On July 7, 1971, Haaretz published an opinion piece (in Hebrew) entitled
“Israel or Sodom: Public condoning of sexual perversions – a grave
matter.” The author, Eliezer Livneh (Liebenstein), was a former Knesset
member from Mapai (precursor of today’s Labor Party) who become one of the
main ideologists of the Greater Land of Israel movement. He wrote in
response to calls at the time to cancel the sodomy law (which was
ultimately cancelled only in 1988, thanks to Shulamit Aloni).

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Livneh was neither ultra-Orthodox nor Orthodox, but rather a Jewish
nationalist, yet his main argument was that homosexuality is foreign to
Judaism, constitutes a foreign influence by degenerate Western culture and
should be combatted.

In the op-ed he claimed that for hundreds of years Jews in the Diaspora
succeeded in preserving their communities from those “sexual perversions,”
or as he phrased it: “It is totally absurd to have suffered for many
generations in the Diaspora, while strictly preserving, nurturing and
refining the heterosexual principle, only to return to the Land of Israel
and renew the ‘gentiles’ abomination’ here.”

The history of homophobia in fact proves that Livneh’s claim (which many
Jews have upheld and still uphold to this day) is, if anything, a “foreign
influence.” Throughout the modern period nationalist homophobes have
claimed that homosexuality is nothing but a degenerative foreign cultural
influence on members of their people. The English considered homosexuality
a Bulgarian or French pathology. For their part, the French considered it
an English phenomenon: As late as 1991, French Prime Minister dith Cresson
said that homosexuality belongs to “the Anglo-Saxon tradition” and is
foreign to the French Latin culture.

Israeli President Ezer Weizmann, as is well-remembered, also said that
there was homosexuality in the British army but not in the Palmach pre-
state militia. Many European nations identified gays as “Turks,” while the
Turks themselves call gays “Persians.”

In general, there is a perception that homosexuality is a vice originating
in the East. Thus the Nazis charged sexologist and gay rights activist
Magnus Hirschfeld that as a Jew he “brought the oriental vice to Germany.”

In our day, nationalists in Russia and various countries in Africa are
claiming that homosexuality is a Western influence that must be combatted.
Nationalism and chauvinism always bear hatred of the other – be it a Jew,
a gay or any foreigner.

In any case, the historical facts indicate that Livneh and his ilk were
and are mistaken. The Jews did not strictly preserve “the heterosexual
principle.” Intimate relations between men existed in Jewish communities
and apparently were also common. Historian Yaron Ben-Naeh has shown in his
research that despite the explicit biblical prohibition, in Jewish
communities in the Ottoman Empire same-sex relations were rather common.
This is indicated by dozens of sources. Moreover, until the modern era,
grown men who had a need for the favors of youths did not have a negative
image in Jewish society.

In recent decades, religious LGBT activists have been making an effort to
suggest new interpretations of rabbinical law that will enable Jewish
communities to live in peace with LGBT people, and vice versa. And indeed,
liberal rabbis, mainly in the United States, stress that the prohibition
on sexual relations between people of the same sex is no harsher than the
prohibition on desecrating the Sabbath, for example. Some of them permit
intimate relations between males and prohibit only complete penetration,
which is euphemistically called “entering like the brush into the tube.”

Love thy fellow man as thyself – but really

During the past 100 years, some Jewish thinkers set themselves a more
ambitious aim: to prove that homosexuality is an integral part of the
history of the Jewish people and Jewish tradition. One of them was Hans-
Joachim Schoeps, a Prussian Jewish historian and theologian. He was a
leader of German Jewish youth, though he held nationalist German and
reactionary opinions. After World War II he hastened to return to Germany
and was a loyalist of the deposed Prussian royal family. In the 1970s he
was a pioneer of the campaign to cancel the prohibition on homosexuality
in Germany (Paragraph 175).

Since the prohibition on homosexuality often relied on the prohibition in
Leviticus 18, Schoeps wanted to make clear the context in which this
prohibition was promulgated. He argued that priestly male sacred
prostitutes were common in biblical Israel, as in other Semitic cultures.

Schoeps concluded that such sacred prostitutes were active even in the
Temple in Jerusalem, based especially on Deuteronomy 23:18, “There shall
be no harlot of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a sodomite
of the sons of Israel” – where the Jewish Publication Society translation
(and others) uses “sodomite” for the word qadesh, the feminine form of
which, qdesha, is a holy prostitute. (German translations use a cognate
for “whore”.)

Only in the period of Josiah’s reform, when the cults of foreign gods were
uprooted, was sacred male prostitution prohibited. And since the cult was
so popular among the people, it was necessary to make the prohibit in a
particularly stringent way and the cult is now considered an abomination.
However, Schoeps stresses that the prohibition in Deuteronomy relates to a
pagan cult of this sort, not to the sexual act itself.

An equally daring theory was developed by poet and kabbala researcher Jirí
Mordecai Langer. Langer, who is mainly known as Franz Kafka’s Hebrew
teacher, was born in Prague, became a yeshiva scholar in the court of the
Belzer Rebbe and died in 1943 as a marginal poet in Tel Aviv. He might
have been considered a kind of messiah of the homoerotic gospel among the
Jewish people had his unusual kabbalistic theory not been silenced and
pushed to the margins.

In his book “The Erotics of Kabbala” published in 1923, Langer argued that
“brotherly love,” i.e. love of a man for a man, is in fact the deepest
basic urge in Judaism, at the basis of the commandment of “love thy fellow
man as thyself.” In his view, in early Judaism the erotic stream of love
between men prevailed, but over the generations “love of woman” prevailed.
Like Schoeps after him, Langer concluded that the harsh prohibition of
sexual relations between men constitutes proof that the tendency toward it
was common among Jews. He also argued that an erotic relationship, which
not actualized in the form of intercourse, is what connects yeshiva
students to one another and to their rabbi.

Langer’s ambition in life was to reawaken “love of the friend,” that
“lofty and sublime human emotion that was extinguished in the hearts of
the Hebrews in their bitter and biting exile.” Had he not died before his
time, he might have succeeded in spreading the idea in Israel that Judaism
and homosexuality are not mutually exclusive, but rather are connected in
a complex way.

Regrettably, in the decades after his death this message was completely
forgotten. The LGBT liberation movement appeared only in the 1970s, as an
American-style, secular, liberal movement.

It is not necessary to accept the theories propounded by Laner, Schoeps
and others like them, but their attempts to create a Jewish homosexuality
are particularly relevant now. In face of the murderous violence that
invokes Jewish justifications, there is no reason to make do with just
allowing gays to live. It should be argued that homosexual passion and its
realization constitute a layer in Judaism itself. Sodom, after all, is
also located in Israel.

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