Frequently Asked Questions about
Lesbianism and Halakhah (Jewish Law)
I am not a rabbi. That probably goes without saying, since Orthodox rabbis have to be men, but I thought it worth pointing out anyway. Orthodox Judaism is a living thing. It is not something that one can become an expert in merely by opening a book and reading. Unlike the sciences, where ones authority in a subject is (or should be) merely a function of ones knowledge and ones facility with that knowledge, authority in Jewish law is also a function of a granted authority called smicha, which is usually translated as "ordination". I don't have that authority. As such, what I am presenting for you cannot be taken as "what Jewish law says". It is information that you can take to your local Orthodox rabbi and discuss with him, and I strongly recommend doing just that, if you have a rabbi you feel comfortable with, but if you rely on what I write here for your own practice, you will be relying on the conclusions of someone without the authority to make halakhic determinations. I'm going to try and make this as comprehensive as possible. I will present all the source material that I have been able to find on lesbianism and halakhah and then discuss individual questions related to those sources. You can write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Acknowledgements: some of the sources given here were found by a study group in Israel that later became the first OrthoDykes group. Others came to light during discussions on the OrthoDykes e-mail list. Definitions of Terms: Biblical: anything stated explicitly in the Torah, Prophets or Writings (the Tanakh). Tannaitic: anything found in rabbinic literature through the redaction of the Mishnah by Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi in about 180 CE. This includes the Mishnah itself, as well as various Midrashim. The rabbis at this time were known as Tanna'im. Talmudic: anything found in the Talmud that post-dates the redaction of the Mishnah. The rabbis at this time were known as Amora'im. Geonic: anything dating from the period of the Geonim, which runs roughly from the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud in c. 700 CE through roughly 1000 CE. The rabbis at this time were known as Geonim. Rishonim: the rabbis who lived from about 1000 CE until about the time of the Shulchan Arukh in c. 1500 CE.
I am not a rabbi. That probably goes without saying, since Orthodox rabbis have to be men, but I thought it worth pointing out anyway. Orthodox Judaism is a living thing. It is not something that one can become an expert in merely by opening a book and reading. Unlike the sciences, where ones authority in a subject is (or should be) merely a function of ones knowledge and ones facility with that knowledge, authority in Jewish law is also a function of a granted authority called smicha, which is usually translated as "ordination". I don't have that authority. As such, what I am presenting for you cannot be taken as "what Jewish law says". It is information that you can take to your local Orthodox rabbi and discuss with him, and I strongly recommend doing just that, if you have a rabbi you feel comfortable with, but if you rely on what I write here for your own practice, you will be relying on the conclusions of someone without the authority to make halakhic determinations.
I'm going to try and make this as comprehensive as possible. I will present all the source material that I have been able to find on lesbianism and halakhah and then discuss individual questions related to those sources.
You can write me at email@example.com.
Acknowledgements: some of the sources given here were found by a study group in Israel that later became the first OrthoDykes group. Others came to light during discussions on the OrthoDykes e-mail list.
Definitions of Terms:
Biblical: anything stated explicitly in the Torah, Prophets or Writings (the Tanakh).
Tannaitic: anything found in rabbinic literature through the redaction of the Mishnah by Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi in about 180 CE. This includes the Mishnah itself, as well as various Midrashim. The rabbis at this time were known as Tanna'im.
Talmudic: anything found in the Talmud that post-dates the redaction of the Mishnah. The rabbis at this time were known as Amora'im.
Geonic: anything dating from the period of the Geonim, which runs roughly from the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud in c. 700 CE through roughly 1000 CE. The rabbis at this time were known as Geonim.
Rishonim: the rabbis who lived from about 1000 CE until about the time of the Shulchan Arukh in c. 1500 CE.
This paper is intended to introduce the reader to the source material relating to lesbianism (same-sex relationships between women) and halakhah. It is unfortunately the case that most modern material relating to homosexuality and halakhah focuses on male-male relationships, leaving the reader with the impression, in many cases, that the statements made apply equally to male and female homosexuality.
In point of fact, there are no sources in the halakhic literature which treat male-male and female-female relationships as falling into a common category (see further for the Sifra), and the concept of "homosexuality" as a condition shared by both men and women is foreign to Judaism.
It has often been stated that "homosexuality" is not an issue in halakhah; only homosexual acts are. But even this statement lumps acts between men and acts between women into a common category. Since, as we'll see, the halakhic views these acts as being as different as murder and jaywalking, categorizing them together should be avoided. In fact, when speaking about these issues, it would be more accurate to refer to mishkav zachor for male-male homosexual intercourse and nashim hamesollelot for female-female forbidden sexual activity. These are the terms I will be using in this paper, and it is my hope that they become the norm.
2. Tannaitic Sources
The earliest source we have that mentions any kind of female homosexuality is the Torat Kohanim, or Sifra. This is a midrash halakhah on the book of Leviticus. Like all the midrashei halakhah, the Sifra goes through the Torah verse by verse, telling us all the halakhot that are linked to each verse. Midrashei halakhah are not commentaries on the Torah. Rather, they take the Oral Torah, which exists independently of the Written Torah, and point to linkages between them, for the purpose of making it easier to learn and remember what the law is.
In Leviticus 18:3, we are commanded:
You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelled, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. And you shall not go according to their established practices.
On this verse, the Sifra (9:3) explains:
Could it be that you aren't to build buildings like them or plant crops as they do? Rather, the Torah says, "established practices" (chukim). This means only those things that they and their ancestors have decreed. And what are those? A man would take a man, a woman would take a woman, a man would take a woman and her daughter, and a woman would be taken by two men.
The word used for "take" is nasa, which also means to marry. There is a question, however, whether the sense in this source is marriage; i.e., a committed relationship, or sexual intercourse. One difference this would make is in how many unique things we can learn from the Sifra here. If the verb refers to entering into a marriage-type relationship, we learn four separate laws from it. If it refers to sexual intercourse, we learn only one law from it, since intercourse between two men, a woman and two men, and a man with a woman and her daughter, are all prohibited explicitly elsewhere in the Torah.
We will see how later Torah sages understood this source.
3. Talmudic Sources:
There are three of these. The first and most basic is in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot 76a. As an example of a case where the halakhah does not go according to Rav Huna, another Amora, Rava, brings the following:
Rav Huna said: Women who mesollel with one another are disqualified from marrying a Kohen.
Rava explains why Rav Huna is wrong:
And even according to Rabbi Eliezer, who says that a single man who has sexual intercourse with a single woman without marital intent makes her a zonah, that is true for a man. But for a woman, it is mere lewdness.
A zonah, which is generally translated as "harlot" or "prostitute", is one category of women that a Kohen may not marry. The term used here for "have sexual intercourse" is the verb ba, which is used throughout the Talmud as the basic term for intercourse. Two types of bi'ah (the noun derived from the verb ba) are discussed in the Talmud: bi'ah k'darkah, or "natural intercourse", which means vaginal intercourse, and bi'ah she'lo k'darkah, or "unnatural intercourse", which means anal intercourse.
What Rava seems to be saying is that since there is no bi'ah when two women mesollel with one another, it cannot be considered zenut (the state of being a zonah). As to what exactly it means to mesollel, we will get to that in later sources.
The second Talmudic source we have is in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 65a, which tells us that the father of the Amora Samuel, who was a Kohen, would not allow his daughters to do a number of things. Among them was:
Samuel's father would not allow his daughters ... to sleep in one bed together.
The Talmud discusses each of the four things to understand Samuel's father's reasoning.
Shall we say that the reason he would not allow them to sleep in the same bed lends support to the statement of Rav Huna, who said that women who mesollel with one another are disqualified for marrying a Kohen?
Since many families of Kohanim liked to marry into other families of Kohanim, the suggestion is that maybe Rav Huna was right after all, and Samuel's father didn't want to risk making that impossible. What is interesting is the fact that it's not deemed shocking that his daughters might have engaged in the act of mesollelot, and that the suggestion itself is considered reasonable, albeit wrong. The Talmud answers its own question:
No. He did this to prevent them from becoming accustomed to another body.
In other words, as Rashi explains there, Samuel's father's worry was that if his daughters got used to feeling another body in bed with them as they slept, they might come to develop a desire to share a bed with a man
And the third source, which is not about lesbianism per se, but which is the only other Talmudic mention of the word mesollel, is in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 69b:
Our rabbis have taught: If a woman mesollels with her minor son, and he penetrates her, the school of Shammai says she is disqualified from marrying a Kohen, and the school of Hillel says she remains qualified.
Rabbi Hiya the son of Raba son of Nahmani said in the name of Rav Hisda (and some say Rav Hisda said it in the name of Zeiri): Everyone agrees that the intercourse of a boy aged nine years and a day counts as real intercourse, and that under the age of eight years, it is not. The only dispute is regarding an eight year old boy. The school of Shammai says we learn from previous generations [in this matter], and the school of Hillel says that we don't learn from previous generations [in this matter].
The learning from previous generations refers to sources that indicate that in biblical times, boys were able to procreate at such a young age. The idea being that when a boy is young enough that his intercourse cannot lead to conception, it doesn't even count as actual intercourse, even if he penetrates a woman sexually.
This is the only place where mesollel is used referring to any case other than two women.
This is a confusing passage, and it is probably best understood in the context of the previous one we looked at. There, the verb mesollelot was used for something sexual that did not constitute bi'ah. Here, the whole argument is about whether the intercourse of a boy of a certain age constitutes bi'ah. One possibility is that the two cases are referring to something that is similar in appearance to bi'ah, but is not actually bi'ah. What that might be remains to be seen, and I will bring a few ideas further on.
4. Sources in the Rishonim:
We have a number of comments on our Tannaitic and Talmudic sources. The most important sources for an immediate understanding of the Talmud are generally Rashi and Tosfot, so we will start with those.
Rashi on Yevamot 76a has this to say about the word mesollelot:
Ha-mesollelot: In the manner of intercourse between a man and a woman. They rub their genitalia one against the other. Likewise in the case of "a woman who mesollels with her minor son" in Sanhedrin 69b.
There are two ways to read Rashi here. One is as I've translated above, with a full stop after "In the manner of intercourse between a man and a woman." According to this, "They rub their genitalia one against the other" is merely an illustration of the general principle. The other way to read Rashi would be with a comma following the first clause, so that it is descriptive of the genitalia rubbing. The fact that Rashi then brings the case of the woman and her minor son from Sanhedrin 69a would imply that the first reading is the correct one, as both cases given satisfy the general principle of imitating bi'ah.
What Rashi says here is key to the understanding of mesollelot in all later sources as well. As we shall see, the Rishonim give a number of explanations of mesollelot, most of which conflict with others. But all of them fit Rashi's general principle. For example, consider the Tosfot on the same page:
Ha-mesollelot: The Rivan explains that they would transfer the ejaculate that they received from their husbands [to each other].
This is nothing at all like the image of rubbing Rashi gives us, but it can certainly be viewed as an attempt to emulate heterosexual intercourse on the part of two women. And in fact, the Maggid Mishnah on Issurei Bi'ah 21:8 attributes the Rivan's view to both the Rivan and Rashi. It may be that the Maggid Mishnah had a different version of Rashi, or that our versions of the Maggid Mishnah are faulty. But it seems more likely that the Maggid Mishnah understood Rashi the way we are here, and that the view of the Rivan is one illustration of Rashi's general definition of mesollel as sexual intimacy that imitates bi'ah between a man and a woman.
It is worth noting that up until this point, there is no indication that nashim hamesollelot is forbidden, even rabbinically. The point at which this changed was the Rambam in Issurei Bi'ah (Laws of Forbidden Relationships) 21:8:
Women who mesollel with one another are violating a prohibition, and it is among the ways of the land of Egypt, which we were prohibited from, as it says: "You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt". And our sages said: "What would they do? A man would take a man, a woman would take a woman, a man would take a woman and her daughter".
Even though this act is forbidden, we do not give Toraitic lashes for it, since there is no verse that forbids it in particular, and there is no bi'ah involved in it at all. Therefore, she is not forbidden to marry a Kohen because of zenut, and a woman is not forbidden to her husband if she has done it, becuase there is no zenut involved.
But it is proper to give her rabbinic lashes since she did do something forbidden. And a man should take care to prevent his wife from doing this and to prevent women who are known to do it from visiting her, or her from visiting them.
One of the fascinating things about this source is the difference between what the Rambam writes and what he wrote in his commentary on the Mishnah. In Peirush HaMishnayot L'HaRambam (on Sanhedrin), Chapter 7, he writes:
And likewise that ugly act that occurs among women as well, bringing a woman upon a[nother] woman, it is an act of toeivah ["abomination"]. But there is no punishment for it neither from the Torah nor from the Rabbis, and neither of the two [women] are classified as a zonah, nor are they forbidden to their husbands or to Kohanim.
And this is what the rabbis called "women who mesollel with one another", it [the word] being derived from maslul, which means a paved path.
And although there is no punishment, this act is counted as being among the toeivot of the Egyptians, about which the explanation says: "You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt. What would they do? A man would take a man, a woman would take a woman, and a woman would be taken by two men."
(Maimonides wrote his commentary on the Mishnah in his twenties and didn't finish his Mishneh Torah until he was 42, which may account for the difference in the two sources.)
The fascinating thing here is the lack of any source prior to the Rambam for a linkage between the Sifra and the Talmud. And since all subsequent sources cite the Rambam (often verbatim) regarding this halakhah, we need to consider why the Rambam linked them.
A simple reading of the Sifra would seem to imply that the things the Egyptians did that Jews are commanded not to do include four types of marriage. Between two men, between two women, between a woman and two men, and between a man, a woman, and the woman's daughter. But the Rambam apparently does not read it that way. Because at no point does the Rambam state as halakha that such marriages, or committed relationships akin to marriage, are forbidden. He brings this Sifra in one place only, and that is as a source for prohibiting nashim hamesollelot.
What is the difference between this one of the four examples the Sifra gives and the other three? In the case of each of the other three, bi'ah is prohibited by the Torah. In the case of two women, however, (a) there is no bi'ah, and (b) there is no sexual act mentioned in the Torah at all, let alone a prohibition.
It would appear that the Rambam is reading the Sifra as mentioning specific sexual acts, rather than relationships. This is despite the fact that the Sifra uses the Hebrew word nasa, which ordinarily means "marry". Because the Rambam does not bring the Sifra to tell us that two men may not enter into a marriage or marriage like relationship. He brings it only to tell us that the nashim hamesollelot mentioned by Rav Huna is a forbidden act.
What does nasa mean? Jewish marriage is composed of two distinct procedures. The first one, kiddushin or eirusin, creates the halakhic bond between a man and a woman. It turns the woman from a penuyah, or single woman, into an eishet ish, or married woman. After kiddushin, it requires a get to end the relationship. But after kiddushin, the man and women are still forbidden to engage in marital relations. It is the second procedure, called chuppah or nesuin, which makes marital relations permissible. While the term chuppah symbolizes the man bringing the woman under his roof, the term nesuin, from the Hebrew nasa, which normally denotes a physical raising up, seems to refer specifically to the man physically taking possession of his wife; i.e., engaging in marital relations, or bi'ah.
The fact that Rambam brings this Sifra only in the case of sexual activity between two women requires us to understand that Rambam understood the Sifra to be speaking about sexual activity, and not about marriage or marriage-like relationships. Essentially, Rambam was faced with an illicit sexual activity between two women, mentioned in the Talmud by Rav Huna, but lacking a source for a prohibition, as well as a Sifra which listed a prohibition of activity between two women which ostensibly was never mentioned at all in the Talmud! Simple logic would seem to dictate that the two sources complete one another, and that the Sifra was speaking specifically about nashim hamesollelot.
From the above, we can learn conclusions about two issues; one is the question of just what activities are forbidden between two women, and the other is whether there is, in fact, a Torah prohibition against committed relationships between members of the same sex.
It is clear from Rashi that what is forbidden for two women to do together sexually is activity that is imitative of heterosexual intercourse, or bi'ah. This makes quite a lot of sense, actually, given that the primary sexual prohibition between two men is against a man lying with another man in the manner of lying with a woman. While the actual prohibition is of anal sex, the language the Torah uses for it clearly compares the act to an imitation of heterosexual intercourse.
Judaism is all about distinctions. Havdalah, or separation/distinction, is one of the most basic concepts in the Torah. We make distinctions between Kohanim and zarim. We make distinctions between Jews and non-Jews. Between men and women. Between minors and adults. Unlike modern western culture, Judaism abhors the blurring of critical distinctions. While we can never say what the reason is for the Torah phrasing the prohibition of mishkav zachor as a ban on two men imitating male-female sexual relations, it seems apparent that the Torah principle against blurring distinctions may be a reason. It is therefore unsurprising that the sexual activity forbidden between women would be similar.
But what precisely does it mean? In the case of mishkav zachor, we are not left to determine what it means; rather, the rabbis tell us what it means. In the case of nashim hamesollelot, Rashi's own illustration is that of two women rubbing their genital areas together.
While it is not of any halakhic significance, of course, it might be worthwhile to see how the contemporaries of the Talmudic sages viewed sex between women. The following appears in the entry on "Homosexuality" in the Oxford Classical Dictionary:
Perhaps the cultural predominance of the penetration model of sex obscured non-penetrative eroticism among conventionally feminine women, for which in any case there seems to have been no established terminology. The female same-sex sexual practice that imperial Greek and Roman writers alike singled out for comment was 'tribadism', the sexual penetration of women (and men) by other women, by means of either a dildo or a fantastically large clitoris.
Tribadism, in fact, comes from the Greek tribein, meaning "to rub". Although the Oxford Classical Dictionary only describes penetration by objects, Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary defines tribadism as "a homosexual practice among women in which the external genitalia are rubbed together." It would seem that tribadism, both in the sense given in the Oxford Classical Dictionary as well as the sense given by the Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary, is the correct English translation of nashim hamesollelot.
Is it legitimate to say that other forms of sexual activity between women are permissible? In the case of mishkav zachor, only actual anal penetration constitutes a violation of the prohibition. However, because mishkav zachor is a member of the arayot, or specific sexual prohibitions listed in the Torah, a category of ancillary prohibitions called kirva also apply. These include physical contact that can lead to the actual prohibition. It is a matter of dispute between Rambam and Ramban as to whether kirva is rabbinic or Sinaitic in nature, but either way, it is forbidden.
Tribadism, which the rabbis termed nashim hamesollelot, is not one of the arayot. Therefore, no kirva extensions pertain to it, and while there might be public policy rationales for discouraging sexuality between women in general, it does not seem that there is any Torah source for prohibiting sexual activity outside of tribadism, particularly in the case of women who are by their nature attracted only to other women, and not to men. There is certainly room to permit it.
This is not to say that tribadism itself is anything but prohibited. Rambam establishes that it is not only a rabbinic prohibition, but a Torah prohibition, even though as an act unspecified in the text of the Torah, and only included in a general prohibition (a lav she'bichlalut), no Torah lashes are to be given for it.
Same-sex civil marriage, or committed relationships:
We spoke above about kiddushin and nesuin. These procedures are relevant to relationships between Jewish members of the opposite sex only. There is no room in Judaism for applying them to any other relationships. However, the Sifra we discussed above has been used, from time to time, as a source for forbidding committed relationships between members of the same sex, and certainly forbidding same-sex civil marriage.
The situation for men and women is, of course, different. The prohibition against mishkav zachor being one of the arayot, it is difficult to see how a committed relationship between two men would work. This paper does not address the various issues relating to male-male relationships, however, and I would prefer not to speculate.
Women, however, have an entire range of intimacy available to them which does not fall into the category of forbidden activities. Committed relationships should be no problem halakhically, particularly if the women are commited to Torah observance, in which case it can be assumed that they will be as careful to avoid forbidden acts in their sexual life as they are to avoid forbidden foods.
The question of same-sex civil marriage, on the face of it, would seem to be a simple one. It is purely a civil status, one which has many implications, financial and otherwise, but has no religious implications whatsoever. Just as a civil divorce has no Jewish significance, neither should a civil same-sex marriage. And unlike mishkav zachor, which is forbidden to all men, whether they are Jewish or not, the prohibition against nashim hamesollelot applies only to Jewish women, so there is not even a problem of lifnei iveir in terms of supporting a status that may be entered into by non-Jews as well. There does not seem to be any Torah or rabbinic source for prohibiting same-sex civil marriage between two women.