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QUESTION

I am a single bi-sexual woman living in NYC. What are the halakhic parameters of lesbian sex? What is mutar and what is assur? What is the letter of the law and what is the spirit of the law? I’ve never been sexually active with another woman though I would very much like to do so.

ANSWER

Halakha defines sexual intercourse as penile penetration of the anus or the vagina. Thus, (anal) sex between two men is defined as sex and forbidden by the Torah, while sex between two women is not defined as sex, and thus not forbidden in the Torah’s list of arayot, sexual sins.

What about according to the Talmud? The Bavli, interestingly, discusses this phenomenon (which it refers to as נשים מסוללות / מסולדות זו בזו, women who sport with one another / rub up against one another) in two places. In Yevamot 76a, the Gemara quotes Rav Huna who states that a woman who engages in such behavior is considered a zonah and forbidden to a kohen. Rava, and the Gemara, reject this and state that since there is no halakhic act of sex, the woman’s status cannot be affected by this act. This act, concludes the Gemara, is פריצותא בעלמא, “mere wantonness.” (See also Yerushalmi Gitin 8:8 for a parallel debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai). This phrase indicates that while the act is seen as morally reprehensible, it is not technically forbidden according to halakha, even rabbinically.

This is also the sense that emerges from the other sugya, in Shabbat 65a. There, the Gemara states that Shmuel’s father did not let his daughters sleep together in the same bed. The Gemara rejects the possibility that this is because their rubbing up against one another may itself be seen as forbidden. It concludes that the concern was only that if they become accustomed to sleeping with another person they may have sex with a man before they are married (see Rashi, there). The simple sense of the Bavli is that there is no halakhic prohibition, possibly because the Bavli does not recognize this as real sexual activity, let alone an act of intercourse.

There is however one rabbinic source that is more stringent. The Sifra, the Tannaitic commentary to Vayikra, states that to institutionalize marriage between two men or between two women would be a violation of the prohibition כמעשה ארץ מצרים לא תעשו… ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו, “Like the acts of the Land of Egypt you shall not do… and their edicts you shall not follow.” On the one hand, this is significant in that it makes the relationship between two women parallel to the relationship between two men. This might indicate that it would view the act of sex between two women more stringently as well. On the other hand, the Sifra only refers to the institution of marriage (as the verse can be seen to be referring, in general, to societal institutions), and not to the act of sex per se.

Given that the Sifra is not quoted in the Bavli, and that it is referring only to marriage and not to sex, it would have been reasonable to expect that we would rule that sex between two women, while considered פריצותא, wantonness, is not technically forbidden. Halakha however did not go that way because of how Rambam ruled. Rambam, both in his Commentary to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 7:4) and in his Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations (20:8) quotes the Sifra and states that sex, and not just marriage, between two women is forbidden as a violation of the “acts of Egypt.” He makes it clear that this is not halakhically defined as sex per se, and hence a woman who did such an act would not be considered a zonah, and would not have committed an act of adultery. Nevertheless, he states that such activity is unambiguously forbidden.

Shulchan Arukh EH 20:2 follows Rambam and rules that sex between two women in forbidden based on the verse prohibiting the “acts of Egypt.” The only remaining question in the poskim is whether this is a biblical or rabbinic prohibition, and whether it is forbidden under all contexts, or only in a marriage or marriage-like context (see Otzar HaPoskimEH 20:2).

For further reading, see the article “Two Women Who Were Sporting with Each Other” by Admiel Kosman and Anat Sharbat.

To conclude, such activity is seen as licentious and against the spirit of the law. It is interesting, however, to speculate whether the designation of wantoness would be applicable in the context of a committed relationship and when such sex is experienced as an act of intimacy and not as an act of pure sexual gratification.

According to technical Halakha, it is fair to say that according to most poskim it is at least rabbinically forbidden, although there are some who would take issue with Rambam or limit Rambam to only certain contexts.

What has not been addressed is also the question of engaging in any sexual activity outside of marriage. Halakha and tradition underscore that sex is something that should be done only in the context of a long-term, committed relationship, specifically marriage. It is this that sanctifies the act of sex and makes it about connecting deeply to another person and not just about gratification of desire. This is an important ethos to keep in mind at all times and, as stated above, could also give a different context to the designation of “wantonness”.