Affection Between Men
Torah Study Program: Hazon - Our Universal Vision
I would like to discuss the issue of affection between men. But before I discuss the issue in a broad sense, I will attempt to respond to the question that was raised whether, according to halacha (Torah law), two men can engage in erotic hugging, kissing, and touching, as long as they do not have intercourse.
There is a general Torah prohibition against engaging in any erotic touching with someone whom one is forbidden to sleep with, and this prohibition also includes erotic touching of a homosexual nature. The source for this prohibition is found in Leviticus 18:6 which states: "Any man shall not approach his close relative to uncover nakedness; I am Hashem." The Oral Torah interprets the phrase "shall not approach" to refer to any erotic touching which can lead one to have any form of intercourse which is forbidden by the Torah. This prohibition is discussed by Maimonides in his Sefer HaMitzvos (Prohibition 353), and it is also discussed in the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzva 188). The Sefer HaChinuch states that this prohibition applies to both men and women.
There is a major halachic difference, however, between the Torah's prohibitions against forbidden forms of intercourse, and the Torah's prohibition against erotic touching: Unlike the prohibitions against intercourse, the prohibition against erotic touching does not bring "kares" (the soul being cut off) or the dealth penalty. Even if one violated one of the Torah's prohibitions against intercourse, there is the life-giving option of "teshuva" - repentance and renewal which cause us to return to the path of our Creator.
There is no question that Torah-committed individuals who are unable to get married, whether they have a heterosexual orientation or a homosexual orientation, were given a difficult life-challenge. In some respects, the person with the homosexual orientation has the greater challenge, for reasons already mentioned in previous correspondence. The reason why the Creator gives certain individuals unusual life-challenges is a topic for another discussion. It may be helpful, however, for all people to remember, regardless of their sexual orientation, that there can be warm, physical expressions of affection and love which are not erotic. There are many men, including "gay" men, who sometimes engage in non-erotic hugging and touching with other men. In fact, traditional Jewish culture is much more open to displays of physical affection between men than Anglo-Saxon culture. For example, in Israel, especially among the Sephardim, one sees men hugging or kissing each other at joyous occasions or when greeting each other after a period of separation. And in Israeli yeshivos, when a young man gets engaged, it is customary for his fellow students to not only wish him "mazel tov," but to also give him a hug or a kiss on the cheek. And let us not forget that in Torah-observant communities, men dance with men and women dance with women. These "mitzva" dances create a warm sense of unity among the participants, and they are emotionally and spiritually uplifting.
Last, but not least, men can experience with their male friends the deep pleasure of "emotional" affection and intimacy. To experience this form of intimacy, however, they need to be in touch with their feelings and to be capable of expressing these feelings in words. Many men find this to be a difficult process, especially those who grew up in an Anglo-Saxon culture. In fact, some married men have difficulty developing this type of intimacy with their wives.
I have known some single men and women who had a deep need for emotional intimacy, but they didn't know how to achieve this, so they ran after sexual experiences which they hoped would meet this need. They ended up feeling unsatisfied, for they did not receive the emotional love they were looking for.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (5:19) teaches that all love which depends on a physical or external cause will pass away when the cause is no longer there, but a love which is not dependent on a physical or external cause will last forever. And the Mishna cites the friendship between David and Jonathan as an example of a love which lasts forever. It is recorded in the Book of Samuel 1 that "Jonathan's soul became attached to David's soul" (18:1). As the Malbim and other commentators explain, the good and the holy within Jonathan's soul was drawn to the good and the holy within David's soul, and vice versa. These spiritual qualities last forever; thus, a love based on these spiritual qualities also lasts forever.
Our sages often refer to Hashem as "Rachmana" - an Aramaic word which means "the Loving One." May Rachmana bless all of us with a love that lasts forever.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
The author is the director of the E-mail Torah study program "Hazon - Our Universal Vision":