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Isaac S. D. Sassoon





What Does Deuteronomy Say about Homosexuality?





APA e-journal

Isaac S. D. Sassoon





What Does Deuteronomy Say about Homosexuality?








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What Does Deuteronomy Say about Homosexuality?

Deuteronomy (23:18) states “Let there be no kadesh among the sons of Israel,” referring to ritualized male prostitution. What does this imply about regular male prostitution?


What Does Deuteronomy Say about Homosexuality?

Wedding cake toppers. Wikimedia

Prologue: Polyphony on Homosexuality

In an important study “Male Homosexual Intercourse Is Prohibited – In One Part of the Torah,” (TheTorah, 2017), David Frankel shows that whereas the Priestly Torah almost certainly means to outlaw homosexual intercourse (Lev 18:22 and 20:13), the other Torah law collections – namely Exodus’ ancient Book of the Covenant as well as Deuteronomy – had no parallel law. How significant is this fact? Frankel writes:

The Torah can be taken, among other things, as a ‘polyphonic’ text, or a loose anthology of competing claims regarding the legal stipulations of the covenant. The edited Torah, following this approach, was not meant to be read as a practical and coherent handbook on how to carry out the law, but as a collage of competing understandings of the requirements of the covenant.

Applying this approach to the Torah’s treatment of homosexuality, Frankel suggests:

[T]he polyphonic Torah calls on us to struggle with its alternative positions.

In a footnote (#17), however Frankel backpedals somewhat, observing that “the significance of the omission should not be overstated.” Nevertheless, I submit that the evidence from Deuteronomy might be more than mere evidence from silence.

Kedeshah and Ritualized Sex

Deuteronomy has the following prohibition:

דברים כג:יח לֹא תִהְיֶה קְדֵשָׁה מִבְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא יִהְיֶה קָדֵשׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 23:18 Let there be no kedeshah among the daughters of Israel and let there be no kadesh among the sons of Israel.

Many scholars identify the kedeshah and kadesh not as mere prostitutes but as individuals involved in ritualized sexual activity associated with temple worship, an interpretation confirmed by other scriptural passages.

Sacrificing with Kedeshot – The book of Hosea describes types of harlotry among the Israelites:

הושע ד:יד לֹא אֶפְקוֹד עַל בְּנוֹתֵיכֶם כִּי תִזְנֶינָה וְעַל כַּלּוֹתֵיכֶם כִּי תְנָאַפְנָה כִּי הֵם עִם הַזֹּנוֹת יְפָרֵדוּ וְעִם הַקְּדֵשׁוֹת יְזַבֵּחוּ וְעָם לֹא יָבִין יִלָּבֵט
Hos 4:14 I will not punish their daughters for fornicating Nor their daughters-in-law for committing adultery; For they themselves turn aside with zonot And sacrifice with kedeshot, And a people that is without sense must stumble.

Despite the parallelism between zonot and kedeshot, note that the men “turn aside”[1] with zonot but they sacrifice with kedeshot, implying some ritual context.

Kedeshim at the Temple – The book of Kings reports about King Josiah:

מלכים ב כג:ז וַיִּתֹּץ אֶת בָּתֵּי הַקְּדֵשִׁים אֲשֶׁר בְּבֵית יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר הַנָּשִׁים אֹרְגוֹת שָׁם בָּתִּים לָאֲשֵׁרָה.
2 Kings 23:7 He tore down the houses/cubicles of the kedeshim which were at (or in) the House of YHWH, at the place where the women wove coverings for Asherah.

This text seems to imply that there was a place for male prostitutes at or in the Temple. The medieval rabbinic commentator, Radak (R. David Kimchi, 1160-1235), however, in his gloss on this verse, supports the translation of Targum Yonatan that this cannot be about prostitution:

ויתץ את בתי הקדשים – ת”י ית בתי הקדיש טעותא והענין מורה עליו אשר הנשים אורגות שם בתים לאשרה אבל וגם קדש היה בארץ ויעבר את הקדשים מן הארץ תרגם כמשמעו נפקת ברא כי אם היה הקדשים זה ענין זמה מה ענין בבית ה’
Targum Yonatan renders batei ha-kedeshim ‘places of idolatry’ and the context shows him to be right.However, the word kadesh at 1 Kings 14:24 and kedeshim at 15:12 he translates according to its simple meaning, prostitutes. But here [at 2 Kings 23] if kedeshim had anything to do with lewdness, what business would they have being in the Temple?[2]

Despite his apologetics, Radak recognizes the basic meaning of kadesh terminology, as shown by the fact that only here (Kings 23:7), where Targum Yonatan renders kedeshim as idolatry, does he feel obliged to explain.

Ritualized Sex among Israel and its Neighbors

Some scholars find cultic prostitution attested in the cultures of Israel’s neighbors. For example, Samuel R. Driver (1846-1914) writes at Deut 23:18:

The allusion is to the … custom, common in Canaanitish and Phoenecian cults, by which persons of both sexes prostituted themselves in the service of a deity … The rendering ‘harlot’ and ‘sodomite’ are both inadequate: in neither case is ordinary immorality intended but immorality practiced in the worship of a deity, and in the immediate precincts of a temple.[3]

A more recent scholar, Hans Walter Wolff (1911-1993) notes:

There is extrabiblical evidence for sacral prostitution in Syria and Phoenicia … In Ugarit the qdšm are attested repeatedly.[4]

Hammurabi’s Code is also frequently cited as attesting to the institution. See, for example, law 181:

If a father dedicates [his daughter] to the deity as a nadītu, a qadištu, or a kulmašītu, but does not award her a dowry…[5]

The term qadištu here (cognate of the Hebrew kedeshah) is generally understood as “temple prostitute.”

Challenging the Temple Prostitute Translation

The identity of the kedeshim and the very existence of sacred prostitution in the ancient Near East has been challenged by contemporary scholars. Joan Goodnick Westenholz (1943-2013) was a leading representative of these challengers who argued that sacred prostitution resulted from mistranslation.[6] Terms in the ancient Near Eastern texts that scholars such as Driver, Wolff and Albright took to denote sacred prostitution or prostitutes, were misunderstood. Likewise, biblical kadesh/kedeshah is, allegedly, nothing but a quotidian zonah.

But I cannot pretend to find all the challengers’ arguments conclusive, especially as applied to the biblical witnesses, and am therefore not prepared to jettison outright the distinction between the cultic kedeshah and the non-cultic zonah.

Male Prostitution in the Bible

The biblical zonah (f.) is a professional prostitute – recognizable to potential clients (see Gen 38:14-16). The Bible, however, never mentions a professional zoneh (m.) who makes himself available for women clients; i.e., the Bible mentions no male converse of the zonah, for reasons not hard to guess.

Women—not to mention virgins and girls—who had the means to afford such services, were unlikely to wander the streets or hang around in temples. Moreover, in societies that tolerated polygyny, even married men could consort with harlots without being guilty of adultery. The standard for women was very different (see, e.g., Lev 21:9).[7]

But as noted above, Deuteronomy 23:18 does reference a professional kadesh who, whether attached to a shrine or not, offered his services to men. The parallel to kedeshah, which involves heterosexual intercourse, implies that the problem is not the kind of sex but the circumstances, whether because the act is (problematically) religious, commercial, or promiscuous. Hence it may be inferred that homosexuality per se is not one of Deuteronomy’s concerns.

This inference was not lost on Ramban (1194-1270), in his reaction to Rashi’s gloss:

לא תהיה קדשה – מופקרת, מזומנת לזנות. ולא יהיה קדש – מזומן למשכב זכור…
“Let there be no kedesha” – a profligate woman, available for intercourse. “Let there be no kadesh” – a man prepared and available for homosexual congress…

Ramban objects:

למה יזכיר בהיותו קדש ומזומן, ואפילו הנבעל בחדרי חדרים יש בו כרת ומיתת ב[ית] ד[ין].
Why would it [Deut 23:18] single out the man who is “available [for hire]” when even if committed in total privacy such activity is punishable by cutting off (kareit) and the death penalty.

In other words, if homosexual congress is prohibited absolutely in all scenarios, why create a prohibition specifically for the prostitute and client? And yet, Rashi’s interpretation is the simple reading of the verse. It was only because Ramban was reading the Deuteronomic law in conjunction with the laws of Leviticus that he had to discard a perfectly logical inference.[8] But once it is acknowledged that Deuteronomy and the Priestly Torah are self-contained, they can each be understood on their own terms.

“The Price of a Dog” – The Verse in Context

The impression gained so far from Deut 23:18 could arguably receive support from the prohibition stated in the very next verse:

דברים כג:יט לֹא תָבִיא אֶתְנַן זוֹנָה וּמְחִיר כֶּלֶב בֵּית יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְכָל נֶדֶר כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ גַּם שְׁנֵיהֶם.
Deut 23:19 You shall not bring the fee of a harlot or the pay of a dog into the house of YHWH your God in fulfillment of any vow, for both are abhorrent to YHWH your God.

This translation reflects the Mishnah (m. Temurah 6:2, 3):[9]

איזהו אתנן האומר לזונה הא ליך טלה זה בשכרך…
What is [the definition] of etnan zonah? A person says to a harlot take this lamb as your fee….
איזהו מחיר כלב האומר לחבירו הא לך טלה זה תחת כלב זה…
What is [the definition] of mehir kelev? A person says to his fellow take this lamb in exchange for this dog….

As the Mishnah’s understanding was the standard approach in rabbinic literature, medieval Jewish commentators were puzzled by a law that would disqualify an animal for sacrifice just because its owner had paid for it with a canine. What is so offensive about man’s best friend?

For example, the author of Sefer ha-Hinnuch, who routinely offers explanations or rationalizations for the commandments, proposes the ensuing for these prohibitions.

לפי שהקרבן הוא בא לטהר מחשבת האדם ולהכשיר מעשהו… ובהיות קרבנו בא מאתנן זונה שהיא עברה מטונפת שמא יחשוב בעת קרבנו באותו ענין רע, ויפגל מחשבתו באותה המחשבה הרעה והבזויה. וגם כן מחיר הכלב מטעם זה… והכלבים ידוע שהן עזי נפש, ושמא מתוך חשבו בהן ובטבען החזק תחזק נפשו ותקשה ערפו מהנחם על חטאיו כאשר ראוי לו. ואם אמנה בני שאלו דברי ילדות הן, עמם תתעורר…
Since sacrifices come to purify a person’s thoughts and to improve his behavior … were his sacrifice to come from an etnan zonah, which is a filthy transgression, there is a risk that he would think of that bad thing at the time of sacrificing and thereby taint his mind by that bad and despicable thought. A similar reason applies to the mehir kelev … Dogs are known to be pugnacious. Thinking about them and their aggressive nature might harden his soul and stiffen his neck when he ought to be repenting for his sins. If, my son, you find these explanations childish as you well might, still let them stimulate you…[10]

Kelev as Male Prostititue

Many – if not most – modern scholars disagree, taking the kelev that is paralleled with a zonah to be a male prostitute. Thus, if zonah is the non-cultic version of the kedesha, the kelev is likely the non-cultic version of kadesh, namely a male prostitute who offers his services to men.

If this is indeed the case, it adds to the already growing impression of Deuteronomy’s less than comprehensive ban on homosexuality. Thus, although insisting that the kelev along with his sordid wages be excluded from the Temple, Deuteronomy may yet be indifferent to homosexual behavior outside the mercenary or ritual confines.[11]

Homosexual Congress in Deuteronomy

In other words, by proscribing male homosexual behavior in specific contexts, Deuteronomy can be seen to acknowledge homosexuality’s existence. By the same token, acknowledging the phenomenon while limiting its ban to specific contingencies, suggests that Deuteronomy had no interest in banning all such behavior. It is also worth noting that Deuteronomy imposes no punishment or curse on kedeshim.

What is the Toʿevah?

Those who recognize Deuteronomy’s self-contained integrity, do not try to force upon it the Priestly Torah’s attitude as expressed at Lev 18:22 and 20:13.[12] And yet, Deuteronomy 23:19 shares one intriguing feature with the two Priestly verses in Leviticus: toʿevah vocabulary. Verse 19 ends by declaring the wages and fees of both the zonah and the kelev to be abominations to God.[13] But what does the term toʿevah mean in general, and in the book of Deuteronomy?

Toʿevah in Deuteronomy

The noun (singular and plural) appears seventeen times in Deuteronomy, eight of which are in the construct, and form part of the stereotypical formula toʿavat YHWH. Categories Deut designates toʿevah (תועבה), toʿevot and toʿavat Hashem include:

  • Idolatrous rites (12:31);
  • Sacrificing blemished animals (17:1);
  • Transvestism (22:5);
  • Everyone who deals dishonestly (25:16);
  • Graven or molten images (27:15).

While it is hard to identify a consistent theme, the focus seems to be idolatry, sacrilege and fraud. Moshe Weinfeld, for instance, suggests “the feature common to them all is the two-faced or hypocritical attitude.”[14] If pressed, one could summarize the list as breaches of covenant and morality. However we are to understand it, taboo is nowhere on the horizon.

Toʿevah in Leviticus

The Priestly Torah, on the other hand, contains not a single occurrence of toʿavat YHWH. It knows only bald toʿevah and its use, as noted by Jacob Milgrom, is restricted almost exclusively to sexual relations.[15] Moreover, because in P’s background there seems to hover hypostatic, if not demonic, impurity and defilement,[16] some sense in its toʿevah – not least at Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 – a quasi-taboo connotation.

Rabbinic Demythologizing the Priestly Toʿevah

In Priestly texts, taboo seems to loom large; but a demythologizing process, begun by the prophets, was carried forward by the rabbis.

From Abomination to Error

If the Priestly concept of toʿevah was, animated by fear of malignant forces, akin to its concept of tum’ah, then Bar Kappara neutralized it at the wedding of Rabbi Simon son of R. Yehudah HaNasi (b. Ned. 51a):

א”ל בר קפרא לרבי: מאי תועבה? כל דא”ל רבי דהכין הוא תועבה, פרכה בר קפרא. א”ל: פרשיה את… א”ל לר’: קום רקוד לי דאימר לך, הכי אמר רחמנא: תועבה – תועה אתה בה.
Bar Kappara asked Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi], “What is meant by toʿevah?” Now, every explanation offered by Rabbi was refuted by Bar Kappara, so he said to him, “Explain it yourself.” …He replied… “Thus says the Merciful One, toʿevah: ‘you err with respect to it/her’ (toʿeh attah bah).”

Thus abomination goes from being an abomination to being an error.

From a Sign of Distaste to a Sign of Obedience

Even if one reads the Priestly concept of toʿevah more mundanely as vilification intended to arouse revulsion, this idea was, likewise, undercut by the rabbis (Sifra, “Kedoshim” 9:12, gloss on Lev 20:26):

ר’ אלעזר בן עזריה אומר מנין שלא יאמר אדם
R. El‘azar ben Azaryah taught: “What verse teaches that a person should not say,
אי איפשי ללבוש שעטנז
אי אפשי לאכול בשר חזיר,
אי איפשי לבוא על הערוה,
‘Wearing sha‘atnez [linsey-woolsey] is repugnant to me,’
‘Eating swine’s flesh is repugnant to me,’
‘The ‘arayot [illicit relationships] are repugnant to me’-?
אבל איפשי מה אעשה ואבי שבשמים גזר עלי כך…
Rather should one say: These things are not distasteful to me, but I avoid them in obedience to the commandment that my Father in heaven has laid upon me….”

R. El‘azar ben Azaryah replaces revulsion with submission to the divine will as the proper motivation for eschewing shaʿatnez, swine’s flesh andʿarayot. Whether these three precepts were named by way of illustration or by virtue of some intrinsic peculiarity, their very linkage speaks volumes.ʿArayot are classified as toʿevot (Lev 18:26-30; Yeb. 21a, etc.) and forbidden foods (of which swine’s flesh is the standard exemplar) are generically labeled toʿevah (Deut 14:3; Hul. 104b, etc.).

Shaʿatnez is the odd man out – never being called toʿevah. Yet, for purposes of right motivation, R. El‘azar ben Azaryah makes no distinction between toʿevah and non-toʿevah proscriptions. Indeed he equates them. Thus we learn that whatever the Torah’s objective in attaching the epithet toʿevah to certain prohibitions (but not to others), it was not the enshrinement of primitive aversions.

Leaving No Room for Prejudice

Prejudice is a maggot that, once inside, would turn Torah into its home and sanctuary. Racism – most notorious of infestations – was, until recent times, left unmolested to parasitize Noah’s curse of Canaan (Gen 9:25).[17]Similarly, homophobia found the word toʿevah at Lev 18:22 and latched on to it. Again, bigotry got away with profaning Torah while many of us sat idly by.

Whether one chooses to read prejudice into the epithets of the Priestly Torah,[18] or, with Bar Kappara and R. El‘azar to read it out, Deuteronomy, as I see it, left no crumb for such bigotry to feed on.


August 30, 2017


Last Updated

February 24, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Hacham Isaac S. D. Sassoon is a rabbi and educator and a founding member of the ITJ. He studied under his father, Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, Hacham Yosef Doury, Gateshead Yeshivah and received his semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lisbon. He is the author of The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (Cambridge University Press 2011), a commentary on chumash An Adventure in Torah: A Fresh Look Through a Traditional Lens (KTAV 2023), and most recently the co-editor with Rabbi Steven H. Golden of the Siddur 'Alats Libbi (Ktav 2023).