Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Love your neighbor, even if they’re not like yourself
A halakhic approach to people who are LGBTQ+
At the Jerusalem “March for Pride and Tolerance” there are rainbow signs and stickers with the statement “V’Ahavta l’rayakha, gam im eino kamokha,” “Love your fellow, even if they’re not like yourself.” But is this interpretation of the biblical commandment true from a halakhic perspective?
This week we read the list of arayot, prohibited sexual acts, which includes “mishkav zakhar,” penetrative sexual relations between two men. This list is prefaced with the statement, “You shall not observe the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelled, or observe the practices of the land of Canaan where I am taking you, you shall not follow their laws (chukot). You shall observe My rules and keep My laws (chukotai) to follow them, I am the Lord your God.” The midrash explains that one of these practices was that “A man would marry a man and a woman would marry a woman…”
As several great Torah scholars have previously pointed out, certain acts between two men or two women are prohibited – the single act the Torah explicitly prohibits as one of the arayot is punishable by death, others are considered Torah level prohibitions and others rabbinic. Nowhere is there a prohibition against feeling attraction or romantic love to a person of the same sex. Lest we think this is incidental, it’s important to recall that the Torah does prohibit other feelings – such as hating our fellow Jew.
Furthermore, assuming that someone with same sex attraction or in a same sex relationship has sinned behind closed doors is in itself a product of prejudice and hyper-sexualization that we are unlikely to find in other areas of halakha. Unfortunately, this alone is often not enough to convince someone with such prejudice to reevaluate their attitudes.
In this short dvar Torah we will not answer, or even question, how a halakhically observant person who has feelings of same sex attraction should live their life. I advise each person with questions in this area to consult trusted, qualified, knowledgeable authorities in halakha and other relevant areas, just as I would any other person who questions how to reconcile their authentic self and their obligation to follow the Torah and serve God. This article asks another question – how should halakhically observant people treat people who are LGBTQ+ and out?
Thou shalt not hate
Towards the beginning of Parshat Kedoshim we are commanded:
“Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart; certainly rebuke your fellow – do not bear fault on their behalf. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your People; love your neighbor as yourself.”
Rambam counts these as five different mitzvot, four negative (prohibitions) and two positive (active commandments):
- Not to hate in your heart.
- Not to embarrass another Israelite (derived from “do not bear a sin on their behalf”).
- Not to take revenge.
- Not to hold a grudge.
- To rebuke your fellow.
- To love all people of the covenant.
Rambam, based on Chazal, explains that these verses are connected. In general, hating another Jewish person in one’s heart is prohibited. The mishna defines hate as someone who does not speak with another for three days due to the hostility between them. In order to prevent such hatred each of us is commanded to confront those they feel have wronged them and rebuke them. If the other apologizes they must forgive them. One may not take revenge or hold a grudge.
Yet there is an exception. If one observes another Jew transgressing, Rav Shmuel bar Yitzchak said it’s permissible to hate them and Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak taught that there’s an obligation. How can this be? Rambam explains that they are referring to someone who witnessed another Jew sin and warned them, but the other did not desist. In this case it is a mitzvah to hate the person until they cease their evil ways and do teshuva (repent). Put simply, one is allowed, and perhaps commanded, to hate their fellow Jew if they reject rebuke. Unfortunately, if such is the law, it seems like most, if not all, Jews would have reason to hate and/or be hated. Can this be true today?
The gemara in Arkhin teaches:
What’s the source that someone who sees something indecent in their friend must rebuke them? As it says “Hokheakh tokheakh,” “certainly rebuke.” If one rebuked and the other did not accept it how do we they should return and rebuke them? The Torah says hokheakh tokheakh – repeating the word rebuke. In any event, is it possible [one should rebuke] even if the other’s face changes [they are embarrassed or upset]? The Torah states ‘Do not bear fault on their behalf.’
In Yevamot the rabbis suggest another limitation to the mitzvah of tokhakha:
“Rabbi Ile’a said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon: Just as there is a commandment to say something that will be heeded, so too there is a commandment that one should not say something that will not be heeded.”
The gemara in Arkhin states that one should rebuke their fellow until the other accepts it, or until they get embarrassed or upset – since such a result is a sin on the part of the one giving tokhakha. This is particularly important as Rabbi Elazar Modai teaches that one who embarrasses his fellow in public has no portion in the World to Come and the gemara compares it to murder. In Yevamot we’re told one shouldn’t offer rebuke if the other is not receptive – because they are unable or unwilling to understand the fault in their actions. Clearly there is a limit to rebuke, but which one is it? Talmudic scholars offer various resolutions, some based on who is giving the rebuke – a teacher or a peer, others based on who is receiving the rebuke, yet the continuation of the gemara in Arkhin suggests these nuances may be irrelevant, as there may no longer be anyone capable of fulfilling this mitzvah:
Rabbi Tarfon said, “I would be surprised if there’s anyone in this generation who would accept rebuke, for if one tells another, ‘Remove the splinter from between your eyes,’ he says to him, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes.’”
Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said: “I would be surprised if there was anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke.”
Rabbi Tarfon thinks it is unlikely that anyone at that time would accept rebuke, instead they’d retort with the Talmudic version of “every time you point your finger, three more point right back at you.” It’s possible that Rabbi Tarfon intended this retort as an example of a defense mechanism, but both Rashi and Rabbeinu Gershom explain that even good people at that time were somewhat corrupt and had no standing to rebuke others. Instead of bringing about teshuva, it would lead to hate. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya adds that no one knows how to rebuke in a way that will not upset the other.
Rishonim and Acharonim debate whether we should still attempt to rebuke our fellow Jews, and if so when such a thing is appropriate. Those that say there is still a mitzvah to rebuke point out that this must be done in private, so as not to embarrass a fellow Jew. This prohibition does not seem to be dependent on the person’s mitzvah observance. Furthermore, there is also a prohibition against ona’at devarim, saying words to another that will cause distress. As Sefer HaChinuch explains, “One should not say words to an Israelite that will cause them pain or distress when they are unable to be helped by them.”
What should one do when faced with such a conflict? On one side there is a mitzvah to rebuke, and on the other side we are faced with the prohibitions against causing another Jew pain or embarrassing them which are definitely applicable today. At the very least it is forbidden to give tokhakha in public, and even in private one may not use hateful rhetoric and demeaning language. Indeed, it seems preferable to avoid possibly transgressing the two prohibitions and passively refrain (shev v’al ta’aseh) that of rebuke, particularly as it is not clear the mitzvah of tokhakha is relevant – in this specific case or in general. Chafetz Chaim rules that these mitzvot apply to all Jews except for apikorsim, heretics who deny the Torah.
This assertion is strengthened by the previous topics in the gemara in Arkhin, the sins of arrogance and lashon hara, malicious speech (even if it is true). It takes a certain amount of arrogance to believe oneself qualified to give proper rebuke when many great rabbinic authorities are unsure there is anyone capable of such a thing. Based on the verse “Death and life are in the tongue’s hands,” Rabbi Chama, son of Rabbi Chanina taught that the tongue can kill just as the hand can kill. Speech is powerful and dangerous, we would do well to exercise caution.
Great rabbis such as Chafetz Chaim and Rav Kook taught that negative rebuke is no longer appropriate, others rule that we no longer know how to rebuke, and therefore we must consider all Jews that sin as if they are before rebuke. This is certainly the case when the person is known to generally keep mitzvot, and their real or supposed sins are limited to one specific area.
Until this point we have discussed the individual impact of such attitudes. What about the effect tolerance or even acceptance may have on the community? In the same chapter in Hilkhot De’ot Rambam begins by speaking about the importance of surrounding oneself with friends and neighbors who are righteous, as we are influenced by those around us. He ends by saying that someone who sins between themself and God and does not accept rebuke may be shamed in public. Yet Rambam also teaches that we should not alienate those who desecrate Shabbat, rather they should be encouraged to keep the mitzvot and if they come to synagogue they should be accepted.
Rav Aharon Lichteinstein taught that tokhakha had three goals: helping the one who sinned to repent, standing up for truth, and educating the public. Even if the first is no longer applicable, what about the latter two?
Indeed, some people see LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Orthodox community as a conflict between individual and communal needs. I have heard many people claim that they have no problem with individuals who are LGBTQ+, but they are concerned that accepting them into the community will give the impression that there are no halakhic issues involved.
Here we would do well to use Chazal’s distinction between different types of people who are known to have sinned. Chazal explain that a min, a heretic, is someone who worships false gods. These people do not have a place in the Jewish community and they are no longer considered our “kinsmen.” They also discuss a mumar, an apostate, someone who sins publicly. There are two types of mumarim: a mumar l’hakhis – someone who sins to anger God, and a mumar l’tayavon – someone who sins due to their appetite or desire. There are special laws to distance ourselves from the former, but less so for the latter. Furthermore, we are commanded to judge one another favorably. One popular interpretation of this mitzvah is that if a person is generally mitzvah observant and we observe them acting in a way that is suspect we must look for reasons to think otherwise.
Nevertheless, in a teshuva from the 1970s Rav Moshe Feinstein states that there is no natural inclination for male homosexuality and therefore people who act on such feelings are resha’im – evildoers. While this was a popular opinion half a century ago, there is no science to back it up and it is no longer accepted in the medical, psychological, or general Western world.
Additionally, there are respected halakhic opinions that teach us that the attitudes of the cultures that surround us have influenced the Jewish people in a way that people who do not observe certain aspects of halakha may no longer be considered rebelling against God, and therefore should not be ostracized. Chafetz Chaim understood that most people who sin are not rebelling against God, they are misguided, and therefore we may not hate them, we show them love and teach them the right way. Rav Kook taught us that all Jewish people have good qualities, and that many of those who have rejected Judaism do so because of their innate goodness and kindness. These feelings must be encouraged, as this is the way to correct any misguided notions. Shame and guilt may have worked in the past but does not speak to this generation. As Rav Yaakov Ettlinger wrote almost two hundred years ago, “It is appropriate to bring them back and draw them with words of shalom (peace), until they return to the strength of the Torah.”
How does one who disagrees with another’s actions include them in the community while ensuring they are able to impart their knowledge of Torah to their own children?
I put forth my own parents as an example. In the U.S. we lived in a community with a broad range of people. Even within our Orthodox shul and school there were many people who were not as observant as we were. When I was young I was invited to another girl’s house for Shabbat lunch. My mother took me aside and quietly informed me that the father was not shomer Shabbat and therefore I may hear him on the phone in his office or watching tv, but the home was strictly kosher and I should enjoy myself. The message was clear – we don’t do this, we don’t believe it is correct – but also without condemnation.
On another occasion a less observant family repeatedly invited ours for Shabbat lunch. Eventually my mother informed them that we would love to go but we do not eat food that is warmed in an oven on Shabbat. This was once again said without judgment – this is what we think is right. This family bought a plata and changed the way they prepared food, going over all my mother’s concerns, so we would be their Shabbat guests.
My parents are truly exceptional people. They have faith in their convictions and the path they have chosen, and the humility to know they do not have a monopoly on goodness and truth.
I believe these stories are indicative of the education that they continue to give their children and grandchildren, and that their love and acceptance coupled with their steadfastness to their halakhic observance is a large reason why my four siblings and I continue to follow the Torah and involve ourselves professionally and personally with the welfare of our Jewish community.
The Netziv argued against those who sought to completely separate themselves from those leaving religion in his generation. He compared this to the attitudes of the Second Temple period, and the hatred between the different sects that lead to Sinat Chinam, free hatred, and bloodshed. When we judge others, make assumptions about their thoughts and actions and shun them we create further dangerous divides. Instead of strengthening our people and the Torah, such attitudes weaken it and push people further away from mitzvah observance. While one may have concerns, kindness, understanding, and unity should triumph. And if we err, we err on the side of love and acceptance.
This week we have the honor of learning a klal gadol baTorah – an important, overarching principle in the Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Chafetz Chaim explains, “You are obligated to love your fellow as you love yourself. Just as no one knows all your many faults better than you do, and you must love your fellow to the same extent, even if you see many faults in him.”
This statement notes that we must love ourselves as well. None of us is perfect, but we must take pride in who we are and how God made us, even as we strive to do better and serve God with our whole self. We must apply the same level of understanding to those around us. There is a way to find balance – to accept the whole person that is before us without approving of all their actions. People retreat and seclude themselves out of fear. But if our faith in our path is strong then we should not fear exposure to differences, such exposure does not only influence us, it gives us the opportunity to influence others. Perhaps it is time to open our arms in love.
After all this, some might ask why this article singles out attitudes towards and inclusion of people who are LGBTQ+, after all, doesn’t this apply to anyone who another Jew believes does not follow the Torah or has sinned in some way? This is an excellent question. I don’t have a good answer. The one thing I can think of is that most of us have the luxury of hiding our sins or differences. People who are LGBTQ+ are not always afforded the same.
Before Chava is created God states, “It is not good for man to be alone, I shall make him a helpmate.” Adam was alone in the world. He needed a partner, a chance to build a family and a community. Being without is “no good.” In the absence of a Sanhedrin, what is the halakhic legitimacy to actively work against people who are looking to build a family and join a community, even if we deem they are wrong in some aspects?
Ultimately, all the arguments for and against acceptance are well beyond the scope of this short dvar Torah, and the values of the mitzvot and halakhot involved must be weighed along with the possible harm and benefits to individuals, communities, and Judaism at large. I will not pretend there is one clear conclusion. But I will not ignore that there is significant halakhic basis to support inclusion. Have we not learned from the past how harmful hateful rhetoric and emphasizing divides are to our relationship with each other and with God?
If there is halakhic legitimacy to judge people who are LGBTQ+ favorably, and not only tolerate, but even accept them in the observant community, what kind of Jew chooses exclusion and degradation instead?
Perhaps if we focus on the good in each of us and display patience and understanding for everything else, the truth of the Torah will become more apparent to all. At the very least we have chosen to be stringent about the laws that obligate us to judge others favorably, not to hate our fellow Jews, but rather to love them as ourselves.
 Although I specifically discuss same-sex relationships, most of this article applies to all people who are non-straight, non-cisgendered, such as people who are transgender. I apologize for any terminology that is offensive or exclusionary. I have tried my best to write with respect, sensitivity, and inclusiveness, but I am always learning. If you have any questions, comments, or corrections, or if you just want to be heard, please write firstname.lastname@example.org
I will add that many times discussions of issues of halakha and LGBTQ+ issues use derogatory language or concepts to apply halakhic precedent. This is not necessarily because LGBTQ+ is by definition pathological, but due to the halakhic system’s application of terms such as choleh – ill, or shoteh – mentally incompetent. The halakhic system is more flexible when there are non-normative, extenuating circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling certain mitzvot. These limitations are often described using negative terminology, even though they may not be (for example a woman who just gave birth is exempt from fasting on Yom Kippur, she is not sick and there is nothing “wrong” but her situation is not the same as most other people – not normative).
Such claims often come from well-meaning individuals trying to be inclusive, but people do not appreciate being compared to the mentally ill or incompetent. Additionally, it is no longer medically accurate terminology (if it ever was), as homosexuality was removed from the DSM list of mental disorders decades ago.
I have tried to steer clear of such language and comparisons. If such extrapolations are made or cited please understand that I am not claiming a one-to-one comparison, but rather that the halakhic exceptions that were applied to certain people with non-normative attributes may also be applied in this case, and one does not need to assume that this is necessarily due to some pathology.
 Vayikra 18:22, 20:13 and Rashi there; Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 1:9, 11, 14
 Vayikra 18:3-4
 Sifra Acharei Mot 8:8; Rambam Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 21:8
 There are those that say that same-sex relationships violate the very order of Bereishit, as the Torah says, “Therefore a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and they will be as one flesh.” But if this is the case then wouldn’t all our ancestors who were married to more than one woman at a time also violate this? As would people who never married, people who had intercourse outside of marriage or an exclusive relationship, etc…? Do we treat such people in the same way?
Others point to the term the Torah uses to describe mishkav zakhar – to’eva, disgusting. This term describes one act only. Additionally, it is used in other contexts as well, such as non-kosher animals and using inexact weights and measures. (Devarim 14:3; 25:16) While the latter is clearly a moral failing, the former is not – it is an issue of kedusha, sanctity.
I do not wish to be bogged down in the arguments concerning what sins LGBTQ+ people may or may not be committing. It is largely irrelevant to the position put forth here. I have not come to change the Torah or halakha. But I felt it important to bring several examples used by the most vocal opponents to inclusion or equal rights for people who are LGBTQ+ who claim that these feelings involve a sin of great magnitude. This position is not supported by the sources.
As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein taught over two decades ago, our rabbis are much more concerned with Shabbat observance. If you would not treat or speak of someone who desecrates Shabbat in public in such a way, then your attitudes to people who are gay are not based in Torah. https://pagesoffaith.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/perspective-on-homosexuals/
 Vayikra 19:17
 Relations with a woman in nidda is also on this list, yet we don’t investigate whether couples are observing nidda, even if there are public indications they are not.
 Vayikra 16:2
 Sefer HaMitzvot Lo Taaseh 302-305, Aseh 205-206
 TB Sanhedrin 27b
 Hilkhot De’ot 6:6
 Pesachim 113b, based on
 Hilkhot Rotzeakh u’Shmirat Nefesh 13:14
 Hilkhot De’ot 3, Hagahot Maimoniyot
 TB Arkhin 16b, a similar interpretation is found in Sifra Kedoshim 4:8
 TB Yevamot 65b
 Mishna Avot 3:11
 Based on the continuation of the gemara and Rishonim on the topic.
 Hilkhot De’ot
 Vayikra 25:17; TB Bava Metzia 58b
 Sefer HaChinuch 338
 Hilkhot Lashon Hara 8:5. He adds that someone who denies one mitzvah of the Torah is such a heretic. There are those who claim that people who are LGBTQ+ or allies fall into this category, but this is not necessarily true. And this is not the place to go into this discussion. Furthermore, we will see that this differentiation is not so clear cut.
 Chazon Ish YD 2:28, Chafetz Chaim Igeret 26, Responsa Binyan Tzion 23
 TB Avoda Zara 26b; Chulin; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 266:2; 325:5
 Chapter 6
 Ma’amar Kiddush Hashem
 TB Avoda Zara 26b. For further discussion see other sources quoted in this article and Noda B’Yehudah Or HaYashar 30.
 Rambam Commentary on the Mishna Sanhedrin Chapter 10, Introduction to Perek Chelek, Principle 13
 Vayikra 19:15; Mishna Avot 1:6; Rambam and Rabbeinu Yona on the mishna; TB Shavuot 30a; Shabbat 127a-b; Chafetz Chaim Petikha Hilkhot Lashon Hara, Asin 3, and Be’er Mayim Chaim; Sha’arei Teshuva 3 says we should at least remain in doubt and suspend judgment.
 Igros Moshe OC IV 115
 I have heard some Orthodox Jews claim that this must be the case as God would not make someone in such a way. This is preposterous. There are people born with physical and mental differences all the time. Some of these differences make it difficult or impossible to keep some aspects of Torah. Rambam explains that halakha works for some of the people some of the time, but it does not work for all of the people all of the time.
The question is what to do on these occasions.
It should be noted that this question comes from both sides – if one believes in the goodness of the Torah and the justness of God they cannot fathom that God would create people with exclusively same sex attraction or gender dysphoria and then prohibit them from living a full life and building a family. Some solve this conflict by claiming that God did not create such people, or that it is such a small minority it is inconsequential (although every individual is a whole world so there is no such thing as inconsequential). These people deny widespread scientific understanding. Other people claim that the Torah must be reinterpreted or halakha adapted. These people are seen as a threat to Orthodox Judaism.
Both sets of people should recognize that they come from the same set of assumptions – God is good and the Torah of God is good. Unfortunately, the world is a flawed place and we are flawed people and it may take us some time to figure out how to navigate this conflict.
 Igeret 26
 Igrot HaReiya I 138
 Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, Responsa Binyan Tzion HaKhadashot 23
 Responsa Meishiv Davar I 44
 There is value to every mitzvah performed by a Jewish person. None of us keeps every halakha and when people who claim to represent Torah Judaism reject people for their non-observance they push them away from the Torah, instead of encouraging them to follow as much of the Torah as they can. See Rambam Igeret Teiman (ed. Mossad Harav Kook, p. 136)
 Sifra Vayikra 19:18, TY Nedarim 9:4
 Rav Yosef ben Naftali Shwartz, Misped u’Kina pg. 5
 If I were to judge those fellow Jews who single out this community and give them the benefit of the doubt they do not seem to afford others, I would say that they make assumptions about the reality and behavior of people who are LGBTQ+ and the relative magnitude of halakhic prohibitions that, for the most part, they have no way of knowing the other has committed. If I was judging them unfavorably I would say they have been influenced by attitudes and biases that are foreign to the Torah, unsubstantiated by scientific and psychological research, and display an alarming lack of empathy.