Friday, December 15, 2006

Gay Vote Reflects 'Passionate Centrism'

(The Jewish Week 12/15/2006)

Conservative Judaism is taking a beating from friends and foes alike for the confusing nature of last Wednesday's decision by the movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. As a Conservative rabbi and vocal supporter of gay rights, I've fielded the pleas of exasperated congregants begging for just a little bit of clarity. How is it possible, they ask, for the committee to adopt two diametrically opposing positions, both by a majority vote? That result required some people to have voted for in favor of each. It's the equivalent of voting for Bush and Gore, with or without the butterfly ballot.

What kind of wishy-washy movement is this that flips while it flops?

It is a movement, I contend, that looks like America.

Conservative Judaism revels in creative tension rather than moral clarity. It lives in the real world of tough questions and thrives on the unresolved conflicts that force us to confront paradox and imperfection.

The middle is an uncomfortable but dynamic place to live. While other movements often offer easy responses, Conservatives look for the kind of dialectic that has been central to rabbinic Judaism since Talmudic times, and that's the kind of religion America needs. Most Americans agonize over complex issues like abortion, capital punishment and sexual orientation. Their religion should, too. There is no such thing as a knee-jerk Conservative response to anything, and that is how it should be, because what people yearn for is a religion based on the humble assumption that no human entity possesses the entirety of Truth.

In rabbinic literature, the schools of Hillel and Shammai disagreed on almost everything. If one of them had said, "tastes great!" the other would have said "less filling!"

There was one point of law that they were arguing about for three years. Finally a voice from heaven cried out, "These and those are the words of the living God," one of the most important maxims in all of Jewish literature. But the law went according to Hillel because the followers of Hillel were modest. Not only did they study the rulings of Bet Shammai, they mentioned Shammai's rulings before their own.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not preaching moral relativism here. There are absolute truths in the world - we just don't own them. We read in Deuteronomy that "the hidden things belong to God." The truths we perceive are partial, flawed and obscured. This Conservative ruling, then, is not based on timidity and indecision, but rather a passion for humility. And its brilliance is that, rather than seeking the path of watered-down, least-common-denominator compromise, it allows for the totality of both positions to be reflected and followed.

In the Talmud, there are no fewer than 319 passages where a legal discussion ends with the expression tayku, or "let it stand," which means that the rabbis essentially agree to disagree, acknowledging that no human being really knows the right answer. The term is actually an acronym for an expression meaning that the prophet Elijah will resolve the difficult cases. Since Elijah is, according to Jewish tradition, the one who will usher in the messianic era, the implication of tayku is that these questions will remain unresolved for a long, long time. The rabbis were in no rush to bring the Messiah.

While the tayku solution could be called a cop-out, it reflects the rabbis understanding that in certain situations compromise simply is not possible. I attended part of the Law Committee's deliberations last week and was impressed by the desire of so many on the committee to listen intently to all arguments. Several compromise positions were floated, some intending to delay or avoid a vote altogether while attempting to affirm the legitimacy of all sides. But in this case, no watering down of the positions was possible. Although some will call this solution wishy-washy, it was a mark of true boldness for the committee to recognize that there was no middle in which they could meet, and a mark of true love for the other that neither side pushed for total victory.

Although we sometimes can't meet in the middle, we can still shake hands across the divide.

But now, on both sides of that divide, there is dignity. The days of "Don't ask, don't tell" have ended. Now each synagogue and each rabbi will have to begin grappling with issues that most have avoided to this point. We will all have to confront, head on, the agonizing loneliness of disenfranchisement that has been felt by so many, on the one hand, and the stark and unyielding language of Leviticus on the other. Ultimately it will come down to the question, as it always does when we ponder life's ultimate choices, "What does God really want?" And the answer will now be, "We don't really know, and we'll be working it out for a long, long time ... but now we want to work it out with you. So hold my hand, across the divide."

Being a passionate religious centrist means never being afraid to say tayku, while affirming that even diametrically opposing positions can be the words of the living God.

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