Friday, May 1, 1998

Gay Marriage: Is it Our Issue Too? (Jewish Week)

 Gay Marriage: Is it Our Issue Too?

by Joshua Hammerman
Jewish Week -- 5/98

Over the past few months I've been grappling with how to respond to the Reform rabbinate's current struggle over same-sex marriage. It would be easy to convince myself that this is some other movement's problem, step aside and let others agonize for once. But I know that the decision my Reform colleagues made to table a vote previously scheduled for their upcoming convention was a difficult one, and I know that whatever they do in the future will have profound impact on pluralism in Israel and Jewish unity everywhere. So I wrote a recent Jewish Week column on the subject, which I excerpt here for you to think about and discuss.

We are all active participants in the discussion, not mere bystanders. If more non-Reform clergy and laity had lovingly joined the dialogue about patrilineal descent a decade ago, perhaps Reform leaders would have been less inclined to choose a separatist path. Who could blame a self-respecting movement for defying those who so often question its legitimacy?

So now, with so much on the line, I thank my Reform colleagues for taking the courageous course of inaction and tabling this vote. And I plead with them to do what is even more difficult: keep the subject of gay rights on the table even as gay marriage is being tabled. I speak both out of the deepest respect for the Reform rabbinate and as one who also struggles over this burning issue.

There are few matters that evoke so much heat and so little light in public discussion, and fewer yet that most people are so unwilling to discuss publicly. Several years ago I conducted a seminar here on homosexuality and Judaism and exactly three people attended. So I am grateful to the Reform movement for placing this entire subject on the agenda, where others might choose to ignore it and hope it goes away.

It is a Jewish sense of compassion and justice that lies at the root of my concern for the rights of homosexuals. Over the past two decades, no other group has been so vilified, mocked and assaulted by a society that is still decidedly homophobic. No group is still so lacking in human rights and legal protection. Add to this the devastation inflicted by the AIDS scourge, and the one-two combination of random suffering caused by nature and malicious torment caused by people almost defies belief. On top of it all is the fact that so many Jewish families have been impacted by this, and that many gay and lesbian Jews are in great need of spiritual support. Sadly, for the most part, the established Jewish community has rejected them.

I cry out at these injustices and, because I am a Jew, work to abolish legal barriers to equality. I fund enhanced AIDS research and try to create an inclusive spiritual home for all who seek the solace of our sanctuary. You might recall that my cousin, who lives in Stamford and suffers from the symptoms of that terrible disease, spoke movingly from our pulpit several years ago. If I did not show special compassion to those who have suffered so, I could no longer call myself a Jew.

As a Jew, I respect the sanctity of my tradition and often struggle with it. Part of me is able to understand the Torah's apparent condemnation of homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22) as an aversion to the specific act of anal intercourse or a general condemnation of Canaanite cultic practices. Neither of these plausible interpretations has anything to do with loving relationships between men, nor does the prohibition speak of lesbians at all. I also question whether God would create people with natural loving instincts and then deny them fulfillment in relationships. The Torah finds most abhorrent that which is unnatural, yet it seems to me that gay and lesbian love is completely natural for gays and lesbians. Gay bashing, on the other hand, seems clearly unnatural and abhorrent.

But there is another part of me that understands that a loving, committed and potentially procreating heterosexual marriage stands alone as the "ideal" standard of possible relationships. Not all of us achieve this ideal; most don't in fact. If the relationship involves any manner of coercion it has fallen short. Rape would be the most extreme example of this, but there are other, more subtle possibilities, including most trophy-spouse or show-biz couplings and many arranged marriages. Yet just as all human beings are created in God's image although very few are qualified to be High Priest (who must be a perfect physical specimen), so is holiness present in each relationship where there is love and commitment, even if it falls short of the "ideal." When Saul's son Jonathan pledges his eternal friendship to David in I Samuel 20, he says, "God will be between me and you and between our offspring forever." Sounds like a great opener for a same-sex commitment ceremony. Or, for that matter, a final night ritual for summer camp. Or a college reunion. Or a 50th wedding anniversary. Or a death-bed confessional. What can be better for Judaism than the creation of new rituals enabling us to recognize that whenever people give and receive love, God is present? Not every relationship can be marriage, nor is every marriage ideal, but every relationship can be holy.

Since many Reform rabbis already perform commitment ceremonies, what could possibly have been gained by pressing the matter of same-sex marriage now? The Conservative movement is only beginning to address gay rights in a serious way. One synagogue, B'nai Jeshurun in New York, has stopped supporting The Jewish Theological Seminary because it refuses to ordain gay rabbis. I support the ordination of gay rabbis, and to a degree commitment ceremonies (though I've never performed one) but not the redefinition of Jewish marriage. Nuptually speaking, the real fight should be over civil marriage and civil rights.

And in Israel, there is little doubt that passage of a same-sex marriage resolution would have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for supporters of pluralism, causing millions of God-seeking Israelis to suffer, including homosexuals.

The same-sex marriage discussion could not even take place in Israeli society right now, where the fundamentalist view is still P.C. Until the Torah is liberated for pluralistic interpretation over there, nothing should be done here to sabotage those efforts. At long last, new surveys find secular Israelis increasingly open to reclaiming a Judaism their parents long ago abandoned. The tight grip of the chief rabbinate is beginning to loosen, and even some Knesset members are beginning to imagine what was until recently unthinkable: a modified separation of synagogue and state. A more open religious marketplace would be good news for all the streams, including modern Orthodoxy, which would no longer languish under the shadow of corruption and coercion. The Judaism that will emerge from this process will be unlike any diaspora import. At the age of 50, Israel is discovering an indigenous Jewish voice.

The gestation of Israeli Judaism is a process that all must nurture carefully. Until that mission is accomplished, what good could come of a move that would further divide Reform from the others and "confirm" all the scare tactics of the fundamentalists? Freedom of thought is terrifying indeed.

Thankfully, the Reform leadership understood the need to put the same-sex marriage matter on hold. But please, don't shove gay rights back into the closet. Never be afraid to discuss this or any other controversial matter. If all opinions and parties are respected, God will be present, somewhere between us, forever.