“Rav Kook on Homosexuality” from Bezalel Naor, From A Kabbalist’s Diary (Orot, 2005), Chap. 12 (pp. 157-170)
The thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935), first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine, has served as an inspiration to many in this generation. His fusion of Halakha (Jewish law) and Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and his awareness of and responsiveness to issues affecting modern society, have resonated with many souls who, in general, do not warm to the teachings of an Orthodox rabbi. Even when such individuals are in no position to agree with his strict maintenance of rabbinic tradition, they at least recognize that this virtuoso is no mere apologist for Orthodoxy. Rav Kook’s remarks, infused by what was undoubtedly a transpersonal consciousness, are too refreshing to be the stuff of apologetics.
Over the years, as a teacher of Rav Kook’s printed works, I have often heard students venture a guess that Rav Kook’s stance on homosexuals would have to be lenient. The reasoning goes something like this: Since Rav Kook expressed sympathy and understanding for the early secular Zionists, the halutsim, wouldn’t he have to demonstrate the same love, the same ahavat yisrael, toward homosexuals?! Actually, as known to anyone who has studied Rav Kook in some depth, his reaction to secular Zionism is not a simple affair at all, but rather extremely nuanced1 . And we should be surprised if his attitude to homosexuality prove facile or simplistic. The printed work of Rav Kook—as opposed to the jingos, tokens and slogans of party apparachiki—is indeed complex.
I have found two pieces in Rav Kook’s oeuvre that address the issue of homosexuality. The first, embedded in a teshuvah or legal responsum, reads as follows:
. . . That which he2 asserts, that Rabbenu Asher (ROSH) wrote for his time, and in his day, homosexuality was not widespread among the gentiles—he needlessly gives the gentiles the benefit of the doubt. One who knows their mores even today, after the gloating of modern culture3 , through laws emitted by the upper crust among them, and from the arguments of the most highly educated, concerning values of ethics and sexual modesty4 , will understand to what degree even today, there is room among them for to’evah (“abomination,” Biblical term for homosexuality5 ). This applies for several centuries prior to this one. And let his honor not forget that Rabbenu Asher (ROSH) wrote the book of legal decisions in Moorish Spain, in a milieu of Arabs, who even today engage in the “abomination of the Emorites.” One who has sojourned in Asia6 , and whose ears have heard of their everyday abominal practices, knows their character . . .7
It is not within the scope of this paper to comment on Rav Kook’s observations concerning Middle Eastern society. What does concern us, is his perception of modern European civilization. While the wording is ambiguous (a problem with much of Rav Kook’s writing), the author is definitely cynical when it comes to the much touted strides made by Western culture, law, education and ethics. In his seminal work, Orot, written about this time8 , Rav Kook reserves some especially scathing remarks for contemporary European society. The wholesale slaughter of the Great War, provoked in Rav Kook, as in many other sensitive individuals, profound disillusionment with the chimera of progress. The lines he penned from his St. Gallen exile are Zarathustran in tone, reminiscent of the prophecies of Nietzsche’s alter ego:
The sin of the murderers—the wicked kings and all provocateurs—is indelible. The blood that was shed in the land will be atoned only by the blood of those who shed it, and the atonement must come: Total dismantling of all the foundations of contemporary civilization, with all of their falsity and deception, with all their poison and venom. The entire civilization that rings false must be effaced from the world . . . Then the present civilization will disappear with all its foundations—literature and theater, and so forth; all the laws founded on inanity and iniquity, all evil etiquette will pass away. And the Lord alone will be exalted on that day 9. The spiritual fabric that in its present state could not prevent, despite all its glorious wisdom, wholesale slaughter and such fearful world destruction, has proven itself invalid from its inception . . . all its progress is not but false counsel and evil entrapment . . . Therefore, the entire contemporary civilization is doomed and on its ruins will be established a world order of truth and God consciousness10 .
Rav Kook put little, if any, stock in the veneer of respectability with which Europe cloaks itself. Beneath the surface there is ample latitude for immorality. Though to the best of my knowledge, Rav Kook never mentions him by name, nor does he allude to his theories11 , one is reminded at this point of the discoveries of the Viennese psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud.
As a whole, the piece quoted is unremarkable; all in all, what one would expect from an Orthodox rabbi. No sympathy for homoeroticism from that quarter!
The second reflection on homosexuality is to be found in the book many regard as the magnum opus of Kookian philosophy, Orot ha-Kodesh (Lights of Holiness). Of the two passages, this is without question the bolder. Here Rav Kook goes out on a limb to offer novel exegesis of a well known Talmudic ruling.
The arousal of the new science concerning the natural inclinations that some men have from their conception, and on account of this, they (i.e. the scientists) want to uproot the ethical protest of this—but the word of our God will stand forever12 . Already Bar Kappara interpreted in this regard, “to’evah (homosexuality)—to’eh atah vah (you stray thereby)13 .” For it is an evil inclination, which man, individual and collective, must combat. That small amount of desire that might be found in an individual which is ineradicable, was foreseen by the sages. Regarding it they said: “Whatever a man wants, etc. It is comparable to a fish which comes from the fish market. If he wants, he eats it fried; if he wants, he eats it boiled14 .” Thus, they (i.e. the sages) plumbed the depths of human nature to the point of compassion on those perverted from birth. Nevertheless, they commented: “Why do crippled (infants) arise? Because they “overturn their table” (a euphemism for anal intercourse)15 .” And though it is not a law, nevertheless, it is a conversation of ministering angels, namely sages who resemble angels of God16 . All of the people of God will camp and travel by their word17 . And all the remnant in Zion and the remainder in Jerusalem will be accounted holy18 , and despise perversions19 . And the way of the upright is paved20 .
As much rabbinic writing, this pensee assumes familiarity with Talmudic sources. The first allusion is to a passage in Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 51a. The Talmud relates that at the wedding of Rabbi Judah the Princes’ daughter to the wealthy Ben El’assa21 , one of the wedding guests, Bar Kappara, goaded Rabbi Judah as to the deeper meaning of the Biblical term to’evah (abomination) unique to homosexuality22 .
Every explanation Rabbi (Judah) proferred for to’evah was demolished by Bar Kappara. He (Rabbi Judah) said to him (Bar Kappara): “You interpret it.” He (Bar Kappara) said to him (Rabbi Judah): “First, let your daughter pour me a cup of wine.” She poured him a cup. He (Bar Kappara) said to Rabbi (Judah): “Get up and dance for me, that I should tell you.” (So Rabbi Judah danced.) “This is what the Torah is conveying: To’evah (abomination)—to’eh atah vah (you stray thereby).”
The Talmudic exegete Rabbenu Nissim (RaN) explains: “You stray thereby—by deserting heterosexual activity and choosing a man23 .” The Bible commentator, Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, understands Bar Kappara to mean that a male who engages in homosexual intercourse strays from the course of nature24 . Rav Kook juxtaposes this jeu de mots of Bar Kappara to the outlook of modern science25 . Whereas science, or at least a certain current within the scientific community, regards homosexuality as natural for some men, Rav Kook musters Bar Kappara’s opinion as a way of saying that homosexuality represents a straying from nature.
Nothing very remarkable there. And, let it be stated, the controversy regarding the supposed biologic component of homosexuality, remains a heated debate in scientific circles. To date, it has yet to be proven conclusively that there is such a biologic basis for some men preferring an “alternative” lifestyle.
It is the next nugget in Rav Kook’s pensee that is surprising in its originality. In a seeming volte face, or at least a qualification, Rav Kook grants that in some isolated cases the homosexual urge may be innate. He further suggests that the Halakha’s reluctant acceptance of anal heterosexual intercourse may have been a concession to that urge! This is a groundbreaking concept not only as regards Talmudic exegesis, but in terms of empirical and perhaps observable behavior. The import of Rav Kook’s statement is that husbands who ask of their wives anal intercourse may be expressing a latent homosexual wish! That the Halakha sanctioned it—albeit grudgingly—means the rabbis recognized that in some instances, the individual is born a homosexual, and thus his urges are bound to find expression. By allowing the latent homosexual to engage in anal intercourse with his (female) wife they chose the lesser of two evils26 .
While it might be possible to interpret Rav Kook as saying that a homosexual is drawn to the specific act of anal intercourse per se, rather than to the overall intimacy of male companionship, etc., I believe this a forced interpretation. I think it more reasonable to assume that while engaging in anal intercourse with his wife, the latent homosexual will act out a homosexual fantasy.
Perhaps Rav Kook’s exegesis, at first blush so daring, is but an extension of the rabbis’ method of putting in perspective a number of dos and don’ts:
Lest your evil inclination deceive you saying, “All good things the Holy One has prohibited to Israel,” (therefore) the Holy One said: “Whatever I have prohibited to you, I have allowed you its parallel. How so? I prohibited to you menstrual blood; I allowed you hymenal blood. I prohibited to you blood; I allowed you liver, which is blood throughout. I prohibited to you swine’s flesh; I allowed you the fish called shibuta, whose flesh resembles that of swine. I prohibited to you a man’s wife; I allowed you his divorcee. I prohibited to you a non-Jewish woman; I allowed you a captive woman. I prohibited to you a brother’s wife; I allowed you his widow when he dies childless (levirate marriage). I prohibited to you a mixture of wool and linen; I allowed it in zizit (ritual fringes). I prohibited to you the fat (helev) of a domestic animal; I allowed you the fat of a wild beast 27.”
Yalta, one of the wise women of the Talmud, posed the following riddle to her husband Rabbi Nahman:
Since whatever the Torah has forbidden, it has compensated for—it forbade blood, it allowed liver; it forbade menstrual blood, it alllowed hymenal and postpartum blood; it forbade the fat of a domestic animal, it allowed the fat of a wild beast; it forbade swine, it allowed the brain of the shibuta-fish; it forbade a man’s wife, it allowed his divorcee; it forbade a brother’s wife, it allowed levirate marriage; it forbade a non-Jewish woman, it allowed a female captive—I now desire to eat milk and meat!
Rabbi Nahman said to his cooks: “Roast for her on the spit an udder28 .”
Rav Kook might well have added to this litany: “The Torah forebade anal intercourse in a male; it allowed it in a female.” One may argue that there is a world of difference between eating “mock swineflesh” in the form of mullet’s brain29 and stooping to anal intercourse. To this, one may counter that neither is a soldier taking home a female captive (eshet yefat to’ar) recommended behavior. In the latter regard, the rabbis enunciated the famous psychological principle: “The Torah spoke opposite the evil inclination (dibrah torah k’neged yezer ha-ra); better Israel should eat the meat of a dying animal slaughtered than they should eat that animal’s meat unslaughtered30 .” Wedding a non-Jewish captive is far from recommended; it too is a concession to an overwhelming desire. If the Torah were to forbid her, the Jewish soldier would take his warbride in defiance of Halakha. I believe I have made a strong case for subsuming Rav Kook’s innovation within the realm of rabbinic psychology.
The remainder of Rav Kook’s pensee is a paraphrase of the discussion in TB Nedarim 20ff:
Said Rabbi Yohanan ben Dehabai: “Four things were told to me by the ministering angels: Why are children born cripples? Because they (fathers) overturn their table (i.e. engage in anal intercourse with their wives31 ) . . .
Said Rabbi Yohanan: “These are the words of Yohanan ben Dehabai, but the sages said the law is not like Yohanan ben Dehabai, but rather whatever a husband wishes to do with his wife, he may do so. It is comparable to meat that comes from the butchershop. If he wants to eat it salted, he may do so; if he wants to eat it roasted, he may do so; if he wants to eat it boiled, he may do so. It is also comparable to fish that comes from the fish market.”
Said Amemar: “Who are the ministering angels? The rabbis!” . . .
A woman came before Rabbi (Judah the Prince). She said to him: “Rabbi, I set for him a table and he overturned it.” He (Rabbi) said to her: “My daughter, the Torah allowed you32 , so what should I do for you?!”
A woman came before Rav. She said to him: “Rabbi, I set for him a table and he overturned it.” He said: “How is this different from a small fish?!”33
A Talmudic discussion not to be taken lightly! The give-and-take, and especially the anecdote of the anonymous women and the rabbis, become the source for later authorities to decide whether anal intercourse (biah she-lo ke-darkah) is permitted.
Maimonides writes: “A man’s wife is permitted to him. Therefore, whatever a man desires to do with his wife, he may do . . . He may have with her vaginal and anal intercourse, provided that (in the latter case) he does not ejaculate34 . Nevertheless, it is a mark of piety . . . that he not stray from the way of the world and its custom, for this thing (i.e. sexual intercourse) is only for the sake of procreation 35.”
The great French Tosafist, Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre (RI) disagreed with Maimonides, and allowed anal intercourse even if it were to culminate in seminal emission. His is a different proviso—that anal intercourse be only occasional and not habitual36 .
The “final verdict” of Rabbi Moses Isserles (RaMA) in his gloss to Shulhan ‘Arukh, Even ha-‘Ezer 25:2, relects both opinions of Maimonides and Rabbi Isaac:
He (a husband) may do with his wife as he pleases . . . He may have with her both vaginal and anal intercourse, providing he does not waste his seed. Some are more lenient, and allow anal intercourse even if it results in seminal emission, provided that he engage in anal intercourse only occasionally and not habitually.
This is not to say that Rav Kook wrote in a prescriptive vein when he suggested that the Halakha’s careful acceptance of bi’ah she-lo ke-darkah (unnatural intercourse) was a response to a deep-seated psychological need on the part of some individuals. The paradigm for such thinking was established by the sages of the Talmud when they declared,”Dibrah Torah k’neged yezer ha-ra” (“The Torah spoke opposite the evil inclination.”) The application of this principle was Rav Kook’s response to the supposed biological basis for homosexuality current in scientific circles in his day. Already in Rav Kook’s day, the legislature and intelligentsia could be counted upon to support such an interpretation of the phenomenon of homosexuality. The piece that ensues is one more example of the startling relevance of Abraham Isaac Kook’s literary legacy.
1 See e.g. the lengthy letter to Rabbi Jacob David Ridvaz (Wilovsky), published in Rav Kook’s collected letters, Igrot RAYaH (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1961), Vol. II, pp. 184-198.
2 Rav Kook’s correspondent was the wealthy Swiss gentleman, Rabbi Zalman Pines.
3 The word “kultura” occurs in the Hebrew original.
4 In other words, one is able to know the mores of the sociey by the legislation passed and by the arguments the very learned advance.
5 Leviticus 18:22; 20:13. See below note 19.
6 The letter is datelined “St. Gallen, 1916.” Rav Kook, stranded in this Swiss community for the beginning years of World War I, had spent the previous decade (1904-1914) as Ashkenazic rabbi of Jaffa, Palestine.
7 A.I. Kook, Mishpat Kohen (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1985), p. 358.
8 See Abraham Isaac Kook, Orot, translated and introduced by Bezalel Naor (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993), p. 85.
9 Isaiah 2:17.
10 Orot, pp. 98-99.
11 Rav Kook’s son, Zevi Yehuda Kook (1891-1992), does on one occasion refer (negatively) to the theory of the unconscious. See my notes to Orot, pp. 261-262.
12 Isaiah 40:8. The ungrammatical form of the sentence is attributable to the fact that this a passage from a spiritual journal. Eight such journals went into the making of Orot ha-Kodesh (Light of Holiness). See the editor Rabbi David Cohen’s introduction to Orot ha-Kodesh (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook,1969), p. 22
13 Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 51a.
14 Ibid., 20b.
15 Ibid., 20a.
16 Ibid., 20ff.
17 Cf. Numbers 9:20.
18 An improvisation on Isaiah 4:3.
19 Cf. Proverbs 8:13. In the Hebrew original, the word is tahapukhot. It is possible Rav Kook alluded thereby to the rabbinic term for anal intercourse between husband and wife, hafikhat ha-shulhan (“inverting the table”). See TB Nedarim 20b.
20 An improvisation on Proverbs 15:19. Why Rav Kook’s citations of Biblical verses are sometimes inexact, would be a topic for lengthy discussion. Suffice it to say, there is a school of thought which holds that at least some of Rav Kook’s writings are the product of “automatic writing.” Here is not the forum for a treatment of “maggidism” and other automatisms.
Orot ha-Kodesh, Vol. III, p. 297. The editor entitled the piece, “Perversions of the Natural Inclinations.”
21 A wedding may seem an inappropriate setting for such a discussion, but a precedent may have been set by the reading of ‘Arayot (the section on sexual misconduct in Leviticus 18) on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Some commentators connect this to the matchmaking festivities that went on that day (see Mishnah, Ta’anit 4:8). It was hoped injecting this somber note would prevent the gaiety from getting out of hand. See Tosafot and Piskei Tosafot , Megillah 31a.
In the course of the discussion, Bar Kappara goes on to explicate the terms “tevel” (Lev. 18:23) and “zimah” (Lev. 18:17).
22 See commentary of Rabbi Samuel Edels, Hiddushei Agadot MaHaRSHA, ad locum, that though the term “to’evah” may refer to other (non-sexual) sins, it is not used in the context of any of the other forms of sexual misconduct. See above note ? See also Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, Ben Yehoyada, Sanhedrin 82a.
23 Nedarim, ad locum.
24 Epstein, Torah Temimah (Vilna, 1904), Leviticus 18:22. Epstein finds support in the expanded version of Pesikta Zutarti: “You stray thereby, for it does not result in procreation.”
25 I am not sure to which scientists Rav Kook is referring. I do know that a century ago, Sigmund Freud speculated some fetuses developed into homosexuals because the mother was infected with venereal disease!
26 In Leviticus 20:13 homosexual intercourse is a capital offense. Nowadays, since the disappearance of the Sanhedrin (Jewish high court), homosexuality is one of thirty-six offenses subject to karet (divine retribution). See Mishnah, Kreitot 1:1.
27 Midrash Tanhuma, Shemini, 8.
28 TB Hullin 109b. In other words, the udder of a cow, which contains a residue of milk, is nevertheless allowed to be consumed. This is the Torah’s compensation, as it were, for forbidding meat and milk together. Tosafot, ad locum, cull a different recension of this midrash from the poetry of Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kallir for Parshat Parah. Tosafot write that the Kallir based himself on the Yerushalmi.
29 Assuming “mullet” is the correct identification of the fish shibuta.
30 TB Kiddushin 21b-22a. See also RaSHI, Deuteronomy 21:11.
31 There are some rishonim (medieval authorities) who interpret the euphemism of “inverting the table” to refer not to anal intercourse but rather to alternative positions of vaginal intercourse. Rabbi El’azar Azikri (Safed, 16th century) quotes RaSHI, Nedarim that it refers to the so-called “missionary position,” i.e. female above and male below. This interpretation is not contained in the printed version of RaSHI. See Azikri, Sefer Haredim (Venice, 1601), mizvat ha-teshuvah, chap. 3 (chap. 64). Shitah Mekubezet, Nedarim, attributes this interpretation to the Spanish Rabbi Yom Tov ben Abraham (RITBA). (Not found in the RITBA to Nahmanides’ Hilkhot Nedarim printed at the end of Tractate Nedarim in the Vilna edition of the Talmud.) Rabbi Abraham ben David (RABaD) of Posquieres (Provence, 12th century) interpreted “inverting the table” to mean “performing the (sex) act of animals,” known in the colloquial as “dog style.” See Rabbi Abraham ben David, Ba’alei ha-Nefesh, Kafah ed. (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1982), p. 122. According to the Haredim (ibid.), this definition of “inverting the table” was included by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher in his code Tur, Even ha-Ezer, chap. 25, but nowhere does it occur in the printed version of the Tur. The Tur does quote RABaD to the effect that “inverting the table” would be permitted only with the wife’s consent. See Rabbi Abraham David (Wahrman) of Buczacz, ‘Ezer Mi-Kodesh to Shulhan ‘Arukh, Even ha-‘Ezer 25:2.
I think the reader will gather that none of these opinions are mainstream. The RaSHI and RITBA never made their way into print, and the RABaD failed to surface in the printed edition of Tur.
32 Rabbenu Nissim (RaN) ad locum explains: “The Torah allowed you–For it is written, “If a man takes a woman” (Deuteronomy 24:1), she is his to do with her all his desires.”
33 Aramaic “bonita” or “binita.” The commentators explain that the fish may be eaten roasted, poached or boiled, as one desires.
34 Literally, “waste his seed.”
35 Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 21:9. Thus the halakha (law) is like Rabbi Yohanan; the opinion of Rabbi Yohanan ben Dehabai is recorded as a middat hasidut (mark of piety).
36 Tosafot, Yevamot 34b, s.v. ve-lo ke-ma’aseh Er ve-Onan. This is based on an understanding of Onanism as a deliberate and habitual waste of semen. Actually, this is the second solution of Rabbi Isaac (RI). His first solution coincides with Maimonides’ opinion.