Friday, May 11, 2012

Shabbat-O-Gram May 11

Shabbat Shalom


This Friday evening during Kabbalat Shabbat services, we'll be honoring our TBE Leadership Circle with the dedication of a lovely new plaque in our lobby.  Established as part of this year's Annual Appeal, the Leadership Circle is more than a giving category.  It's a growing group of families who believe in the important work we are doing and dedicated themselves to helping us achieve our lofty goals.  It's about donation, to be sure, but even more about dedication.  While there are many families here who sustain the community through their hard work (and we are grateful to you ALL), we simply could not do all we are doing without the special efforts of these individuals.  They set a sterling example and encourage others to emulate them.  Truth is, we need to expand this circle considerably to meet our ambitious objectives and sustain excellence.

So join us on Friday.  The service will be extra special - we're bringing in a whole slew of musicians!    

Also this week:


On a week when the President took a genuinely historic step, this would seem an appropriate time to reprint a column I wrote a few months ago:  Gay Marriage: A Moral Choice.  When speaking of this complicated topic, it's important understand that there is no monolithic Jewish view and that so many of us have been, like the President, evolving.  That column is below.  BTW, if you want to evolve even more quickly, see the film "Bully."  I saw it last week.  It's not just about gay-bashing, but that's part of it.  The capacity for cruelty never fails to astound me, even among people we would otherwise consider civilized.  And cruelty cuts across the socio-economic spectrum.  But the harsh treatment endured by homosexuals over the years rivals even that which has been endured by Jews.  Everyone should see this film.

The Obama declaration, along with this week's formation of a broad-based unity government in Israel, accelerates the possibility of civil marriage in Israel.  Israeli opinion on socio-religious matters, like American opinion, appears to be liberalizing, albeit in fits and starts, and there is real hope that Israel will soon become a more pluralistic environment, Jewish in character but less beholden to the Ultra-Orthodox extreme.

Why might this week's news speed up that process?

1)    For one of the few times in its history, Israel now has a government that is blackmail-proof.

2)    Plus, the impetus that led to this week's political earthquake was the need to, at long last, integrate the Ultra Orthodox into national service and the military.  Right now it's about the Tal Law but it's really about Israel's readiness to finally begin reassessing the "Status Quo" arrangements made by Ben Gurion at the time of the state's founding, giving religious communities and rabbinic authorities undue control over the life of the state.

3)    Add to that the curious position the GLBT community has in Israel.  Shunned by the rabbinic authorities, who control marriage, they are not allowed to marry.  But the state maintains a very liberal approach to gay rights, in large part because it helps Israel's "brand" both diplomatically and economically in appealing to liberals abroad, especially in the US). And it's worked, despite theoccasional backlash.  No less a figure than liberal icon Barney Frank haschampioned Israel's gay rights record and Tel Aviv was recently named the world's best gay city.

4)     All marriages performed abroad are accepted by the state, including gay marriages - similar to the way all marriages and conversions are handled.  A marriage or conversion I perform here is automatically accepted in Israel (for now, unless the Rotem Bill once again rears its ugly head).  One I perform in Israel will not be accepted, because the rabbinic authorities control personal status.  Inevitably, this inconsistency needs to be rectified.  It is only a matter of time before the forces coalesce to allow civil marriage in Israel, gay or straight, Jewish, non Jewish or mixed.  The forces are all in place, including the Russian immigrants, the secular parties and, because of this need to sustain the liberal brand re. GLBTs, even Netanyahu.

5)    As gay marriage becomes increasingly acceptable to Americans, and national polling trends are clearly and dramatically heading in that direction, Israeli leaders will increasingly see the light. See how the Obama declaration has already sparked debate in the Knesset.  This will increase the momentum for civil marriage in Israel.  With a blackmail-proof government dominated by secular parties on the left and right, it might even happen...gasp...soon.

Thanks to President Obama, I may get to perform state-sanctioned weddings in Israel yet!   But I'm not holding my breath....

Now, back to the President's declaration.  Here is how I addressed some of the ethical issues surrounding the question of gay marriage:

Q - I have some sympathy for gay marriage, just legalized in New York, but I can't understand how anyone who takes the Torah seriously could consider it the proper moral choice. I mean, the book of Leviticus is rather explicit in describing homosexuality as "an abomination." How can anyone get around that?

A - Let me make it easy for you. What New York has done is to guarantee equal rights, legal and financial benefits that most couples take for granted, involving unemployment assistance, medical services, estate planning and taxes. You can see some of them listed here. If you are one of the shrinking minority who now disapprove of gay marriage and even if you consider homosexuality a sinful life-choice, it is still possible to support this law on the basis of fairness and equality, without compromising your religious views. Granting equal rights is the right moral choice.

Not only is this a matter of equal rights, it's also a classic church / state case. I don't want the government promoting a particular religious perspective at the expense of others, because invariably, since I am not from the majority, the religious perspective that is excluded will be my own. I see abortion in that light too. Just as I don't want the government to impose one set of views as to when life begins (and take differs markedly from the fundamentalist Christian view), I also don't want government and religion to mix when it comes to marriage.

Yes, I believe that marriage is a sacred institution, but not because of anything the government mandates. When I perform a wedding, I am acting both on behalf of the state, as a licensed justice of the peace, and Jewish tradition, as a rabbi. The two roles are combined but they are distinct, as evidenced by the two separate wedding documents that are signed, the ketubah and the state license.

I've never had a concern over the legalization of gay civil marriage, even as my religious views have, to quote the President, "evolved." I could conceivably perform a wedding ceremony that the state would call "marriage" but that might deviate slightly from the traditional Jewish rites known as "kiddushin." Even those who are religiously ambivalent can support gay civil marriage wholeheartedly, then, for the very reason that we don't want our government getting into the religion business.

Perspectives have been evolving dramatically over the past few decades, in both the scientific and religious communities. Among mainstream psychologists, homosexuality is no longer seen as either a mental disorder or, for the most part, a matter of choice. Theologically, many liberal Jews and Christians now view the Leviticus prohibition as referring to cultic prostitution and specifically to anal sex, but not to committed, loving relationships.

For many, including myself, the tipping point on this issue was the AIDS crisis, when we were appalled at those supposed representatives of God who responded to unbelievable suffering with mean-spirited accusations of divine retribution. As a Jew, I was disgusted at the social victimization and physical abuse suffered by the LGBT community, culminating in recent highly publicized suicides of persecuted young people.

I was further sickened by the politicization of this issue by the religious fundamentalists (Christian and Jewish) and am happy that only the radical fringe has failed to realize that persecution of gays has now become a losing issue in national elections. I believe in a loving God who would not have created human beings "hard wired" to live out their lives in frustration and loneliness. I also join with my rabbinic forbearers in wishing for everyone a life of dignity and wholeness.

Finally, don't fall for the "slippery slope" argument that this will inevitably lead to the legalization of bestiality or incest. That is an insult to all of us, gay and straight alike. When there is an organized Bestiality Rights Movement afoot, complete with parades, protests and petitions with thousands of signatures (and hoof prints) decrying speciesist discrimination, then get back to me.

In the meantime, even if you disagree with the outcome, which is your right, you can celebrate the fact that many thousands of good, kind, loving people will now have the same rights that you and I have.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Mom's Day

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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