Many people think that same-sex attraction is innate and cannot be changed, and that therefore, a man with this tendency must follow it; certainly, no one should be criticized for doing so. In contrast, according to the Torah, even if a man has a strong tendency toward homosexuality, the prohibition remains in full effect, and he has an obligation to overcome his urges – just as one is required to overcome a powerful urge to commit adultery. However, the heavenly court does take into account the severity of a person’s challenge in overcoming his desires; the stronger his urge, the lighter his punishment.
Even if we accept that this is an innate disposition, it is nevertheless clear that the social and moral climate is no less influential than the inborn tendency. In fact, in the past there were cultures in which homosexuality was extremely prevalent, so much so that the majority of men committed this sin. In contrast, among the Jews, where the social conditions encouraged regular heterosexual relationships and discouraged male homosexual relationships, this inclination was almost never expressed. Thus, according to the Mishna, “R. Yehuda says…Two single men should not sleep under one blanket, but the Sages permit it” (Kiddushin 82a). The Talmud explains that R. Yehuda was stringent out of concern that such behavior might lead to sin. We must remember that in the past, people slept in the nude; thus, the case in which R. Yehuda was stringent was that of two single men sleeping naked under the same blanket. And yet the Sages permitted it, since “Jews are not suspected of male homosexual relations.” In other words, this phenomenon was so rare that the Sages felt it unnecessary make a decree to safeguard against it. We find a similar approach regarding yiḥud (the prohibition against seclusion). The rule is that it is forbidden for a man to be alone with a woman in a secluded or locked room, lest this lead to sin; however, it is permitted for two men to be alone with each other, although some undertook to act stringently out of piety. Shulḥan Arukh rules permissively, but then adds, “Nowadays, when there are many promiscuous people, it is best to avoid being isolated with [another] man” (EH 24:1). This opinion made sense given the prevalence of homosexuality in the Islamic countries of the time. However, the great sages of Ashkenaz responded that in their countries Jews were not suspected of such behavior, and did not need to be stringent (Baḥ). Not only that, but some say that such stringency is forbidden, as it is an exhibition of religious hubris (yuhara) (Yam Shel Shlomo, Kiddushin 4:23). Nevertheless, when it comes to sleeping together under one blanket, prominent Ashkenazic authorities are divided. Some are stringent (Ḥelkat Meḥokek and Beit Shmuel), while others are lenient (Yam Shel Shlomo). In practice, until relatively recently, the custom was to be lenient (AHS 24:6).
It is difficult to presume that basic human nature has changed. We must therefore conclude that in the past, even when people were born with a homosexual inclination, given the social contexts that were common among the Jews for so long, these tendencies were not manifest, to the extent that there was no concern that people would sin, even if they were to sleep next to their friends in the nude under the same blanket in a closed room.
We do not know what has changed recently to convince people that sexual orientation is innate, that they are attracted solely to members of the same sex, and that they have no choice whatsoever in the matter. Is it possible that freedom – which plays a central role in our lives and confers many advantages upon us – has also allowed all sorts of inclinations to be expressed that had previously been suppressed? And once these inclinations have been released, it is more difficult to overcome them. Moreover, recent generations have witnessed the rise of feminism, which, alongside its positive aspects, can cause tension and complications in heterosexual relationships. In its most extreme forms, relationships between men and women are posited as part of a struggle for control and power. Could it be that this environment produces anxiety in men about developing relationships with women? And is it possible that this anxiety affects the dynamics of sexual attraction? There are many theories and explanations to account for the current prevalence of homosexuality. In any case, it is reasonable to assume that it too will pass, and future generations will rediscover the Torah way to deepen the marital relationship with sanctity, love, and joy. As a result, the appeal of this sin will diminish greatly.
It is important to be aware that the pain, frustration, and embarrassment experienced by those struggling with this inclination can be so overwhelming that some young people choose to end their own lives. Therefore, it is important to guide the men and women with this inclination to discuss it with their parents, as well as with a rabbi or counselor. This is, first and foremost, so they can unburden themselves from some of their suffering, and second, so they can find the best ways to address this challenge.