What does Judaism Say about Homosexuality, Birth Control and Gender Equality?

Homosexuality is a deviation, and as such, it should be banned. Birth control denies our natural duty to procreate. Abortion is infanticide. Some social roles are strictly meant to be carried out exclusively by men – after all, Jesus did not choose any women to be apostles. These are just some arguments that were used in public debate on natural and God’s laws that took place in Poland in 2013. The debate was also heavily focused on those elements of contemporary culture that, according to the Catholic church, stood in opposition to natural law and which are propagated by the so-called civilization of death.

This absurd discussion shook the entire country, and it was fueled by two opposing fractions. The first, represented by the Catholic church, called for “traditional values”, and criticized gay rights, contraception, abortion, and women’s rights. This was opposed by Polish anti-clerical, left-wing intellectuals.

Our goal was to show that the world of orthodox Judaism embraces  views that are unacceptable for the Polish church. For many Polish Catholics, these contradict the Decalogue, and the faith itself. In this article, our regular contributor, Rabbi Tyson Herberger, explains how these issues, still controversial for the Polish society, have been discussed in Judaism for ages. Rabbi Herberger also shows that it is possible to study the Bible and draw very different conclusions from those circulating in the Polish mainstream.



Judaism is a pro-natal religion. One of the first things God tells Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:28) is to be fruitful. Judaism views this not just as advice to them, but as a clear instruction for us to have children.

That said, Judaism also understands that not everyone is ready for children at any given moment. Already in the Talmud (Yevamot 12b) there is discussion of contraception. Yes, there were basic forms of contraception fifteen hundred years ago; and yes, in certain cases Judaism not only allows for its use, but even encourages it.

In many cases, when it is not advisable for a woman to become pregnant and/or have children for health reasons, birth control can, and probably should be used. The Talmud discusses the months immediately after childbirth, and while the mother is nursing, as two potential instances where birth control would be allowed, and in some cases encouraged.

As many of you know, however, based on the story of Onan (Genesis 38:9-10), Judaism looks negatively upon ‘spilling seed’, and as such certain forms of birth control (mainly condoms) are generally not permitted for Jews. However, various intra-uterine devices, female birth control pills, and other forms are allowed in many cases.

Some rabbis encourage young married couples to wait

a year or two before trying to have children. This gives the couple time to learn to come together and share their lives as a couple. Otherwise, 20 or 30 years down the line, when their children have grown up, they will have to learn to live together in a way they never have before – without children. The first years are often filled with challenges as to how to live a shared life, and sorting (some of) these issues out before children come into the picture can allow for a more stable home for the children, and a happier relationship for the parents.

As we said, health is the primary reason for which Judaism allows contraception. But if you look at the last paragraph, the question of health is also one of mental health. Of being happy. Of being in a stable and happy household. Thus, as you can imagine, there are many reasons for a couple to use birth control (they are too old for kids, want to finish school first, think they are too young to be parents, etc.). Many modern orthodox rabbis say the decision to use birth control should be up to the couple, while more right-wing groups say a couple should speak with a rabbi first.

It is interesting to note that rabbis themselves often encourage women who are about to get married to take birth control pills in order to time their cycle in preparation for the wedding night.

It is also very important to note an important exception when condoms are not only allowed, but even required. When someone’s life is at risk, we do almost everything to save a life. Sexually transmitted diseases can kill. If your partner has AIDS, or any other STDs, then a condom is needed. Judaism does not by any means encourage sleeping with people you don’t know, but if it should happen, a condom should be used in order to protect from potentially life-threatening diseases.



Each and every Jew should be accepted into our Jewish community. Sexuality (or politics, financial standing, age, health or other issues) should not be a part of the decision. The Torah prohibits certain homosexual acts (Vayikra 18:22), but we are also prohibited from judging others negatively.

My own teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, says men and women in same sex couples should be allowed to adopt, and they should be accepted into community and religious activities, as should their children.

It is important to remember: the Torah never speaks against homosexuality. It only encourages heterosexual relationships as the norm. It says two men should not do certain things (Vayikra 18:22). The desire to do those actions is not prohibited. People are not held liable for desires that rise up within them. It is worth noting that heterosexual sex is also regulated, and even married couples inside their own homes have guidelines.

Lesbian relations are not directly discussed in the Torah. However, the Midrash (Sifra Aharei Mot 8:8–9) explains that the Torah (Vayikra 18:3) does prohibit certain lesbian acts.

It may be worth noting that the Torah doesn’t explicitly recognize people as homosexual or heterosexual, but rather talks about actions by individuals. Whether this means the Torah recognizes the concept of homosexuality or not is a subject of great discussion. Some say it indicates that everyone is bisexual, while others say we are all heterosexual but sometimes we may have desires to be with members of the same sex. Perhaps Israelite society 3500 years ago, when we received the Torah, had an entirely different construct of sexuality. Whatever it means, it certainly recognizes that at least some people have such desires at least sometimes.

Most modern orthodox rabbis recognize that our sexuality is a basic part of us. These rabbis say it is wrong to use therapy to try to change one’s sexuality. They add that a homosexual or lesbian with no attraction to the opposite sex should not enter a straight marriage. People owe it to themselves, as well as their potential ‘straight’ partners, to acknowledge their desires and not enter into straight relationships while trying/pretending to be straight.



Ideally, there would be no abortions in the world. However, we don’t live in an ideal world.

Sometimes a mother’s life is at risk. The Jewish position in such cases is clear. If an abortion can remove the risk to the mother, then we save the mother’s life – even if it means losing the potential child. An abortion to save a mother’s life is not only acceptable, but mandatory. Some rabbis allow abortion in order to save the mental health of a woman, but this is newer territory that is still the subject of discussion.

With modern medical technology we may know that the fetus is not healthy, and would be quite ill if it were to be born. In such cases there is discussion, with many (perhaps most) rabbis allowing for abortion, especially if it is in the first 40 days after conception. If the illness is fatal (such as Tay Sachs disease), some rabbis allow the abortion through the end of the second trimester.

If the child is illegitimate, abortion is permitted.

As the above guidelines indicate, Judaism does not view

a fetus as a human. It views the fetus as a potential human, which is considered a part of the mother (TB Nidda 44b & TB Hullin 58a). In fact, for the first 40 days after conception the fetus is considered a liquid, (TB Yevamot 69b) and only after that is it given the status of a fetus. Only after childbirth is a child called a neshema (soul) in the traditional literature. Then only 30 days after birth is it considered a whole person (the Talmud teaches this in Numbers 18:16).

Surprisingly, abortion isn’t directly discussed in the Torah. The closest we get is the mention of an accidental abortion.

In Shemot/Exodus 21:22, it says: ‘And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.’ This is understood as saying that the one who does an abortion is not held liable for murder, but that doing an abortion isn’t a good thing.


Ritual Participation

Traditionally, women didn’t practice their Judaism the same way as men. Halachically speaking, women are exempt from positive time-bound mitzvot (TB Kiddushin 29) such as sukkot, tefillin, tallit, shema, and a few other mitzvot. Halacha does not count women towards the minyan (there is some discussion over this, but in practice it is not done in traditional communities).

However, being exempt from a requirement is different than not being allowed to do something. In fact, Rabbeinu Tam (12th century France) clearly ruled that women may take upon themselves time-bound mitzvot that they are not required to do.

There are many reasons offered for why women are different from men. Some say it is so women can be free to care for children, who may need help at any moment. Others say it is because women are on a higher plane spiritually and need fewer mitzvot to keep them connected to Godliness. Some say it simply has to do with the general social standing of women

a few thousand years ago versus today.

We’ll look at just one topic that has been popular of late: women wearing tefillin. A few weeks ago news that some orthodox high schools in America allow female students to wear tefillin hit the Jewish press, and much discussion ensued.

But if we take a historical summary, we’ll see that this is nothing new. The Talmud (Eruvin 96a) says that King David’s wife Michal wore tefillin. Rashi’s daughters may have worn tefillin. And a nineteenth century Polish female Chasidic leader, the Maiden of Ludmir, is documented to have worn tefillin. There are other examples through history, but as you can see, the idea isn’t new. In fact, the Talmud (Eruvin 96b) even offers one opinion that women are obligated to wear tefillin. We don’t adhere to this opinion, but the fact that it exists and was recorded in the Talmud speaks loudly.

Similarly, women may wear a tallit, shake a lulav and sit in

a sukka – all things Halacha says they do not have to do.

The general movement over the past few years has been for women to be more empowered. Men and women will always have their differences: biological, psychological, and spiritual. But some of the ritual differences are being smoothed over as we speak.


Communal Leadership

Over the past forty years, Judaism has undergone a massive transformation regarding female leadership. Orthodoxy has not been as fast to move as the other Jewish movements, but today you can find orthodox communities with female presidents, board members and even spiritual leaders.

Yes, spiritual leaders. The female rabbis of the orthodox world are mostly given a title other than rabbi – Chochama, Maharat, or otherwise. But their course of study and their roles upon ordination are identical to those of rabbis. In fact, Rabbi Yehoshua Reich says that women he has worked with at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem are required to be more knowledgeable than 90% of their male counterparts. They know that they are the first generation of female orthodox clergy, and they can’t afford to be average if they are to gain acceptance in the more right-wing quarters of orthodoxy.

At the moment, liberal orthodoxy accepts the notion of female rabbis, while the center and right-wing portions are less open to it. But even here, women are now accepted as Halachic advisors and as advocates in rabbinic courts. These are massive steps, compared to just a few decades ago. Some think the issue of female rabbis may lead modern orthodoxy to part ways with Charedi orthodoxy as more and more orthodox women are ordained.

It is worth noting that just as any rabbi who is a Cohen cannot go into a cemetery, so too a rabbi who is a female is limited in her ritual participation in whatever way women in general are limited. Being a rabbi does not  always mean that you are the one who leads the prayers or reads the Torah.

Women have also moved into positions of lay leadership, earning the right to sit on synagogue boards, and to serve as community presidents.

There are Halachic arguments accompanying both sides of this discussion, but the short version of those in favor of female leadership is that if the ancient Israelites could accept the leadership of the Prophetess Devora in the TaNach (Judges 4 and 5), then there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to do the same and accept women as our leaders today.  ■


» first published in February 2014

Translation: Aga Zano

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