Monday, September 29, 2003
I learned something about myself this past weekend: I'm still a liberal at heart. How do I know this? Because my antennae are poorly tuned to signs that a serious conservative would pick up in a heartbeat.
The rabbi at the synagogue I attend chose as the topic of his sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah the Jewish perspective on homosexuality. He predicted (accurately, I think) that the Rabbinical Assembly (the governing body of Conservative Judaism in North America) was going to "revisit" its decisions on the question from several years ago. He predicted that, whatever the RA decided, the decision would be constroversial. And he said that it was important, therefore, to be very clear on the halachic process to justify any decision.
He then talked about that process as he saw it. He revisited classic Jewish texts, starting with the famous passages in Leviticus and extending through the early rabbis and the Talmud, and admitted that the best reading of all this precedent is clear opposition to homosexual acts as sinful, even especially sinful. He stressed two points about the character of this sin. First, that it is not a matter of sex being dirty or evil and marriage therefore being a unique concession to human needs, but about human sexuality being holy and therefore needing to be treated with care, and not with a cavalier and profane attitude. Second, that the rabbis did not have a concept of a homosexual individual, but only of homosexual acts, and therefore their condemnation of those acts rested on an explicit premise that these were sins that anyone might chose to commit or not to commit.
He then went on to argue that the traditional fate of a homosexual male - to live in the closet, to try to change his sexuality, or to live in exile from the community - was profoundly destructive, psychologically and socially. We now know, he said, that homosexuality, whatever its biological etiology, is innate and unchangeable. It is not a choice; it is a fate. And he felt that as a matter of morality it was inappropriate to condemn these people so fated to a life of chastity, and that therefore the challenge was to find some way consistent with Jewish law and tradition to allow gay men (and lesbians, though there is no biblical prohibition to overcome in their case) to live with "dignity." He cited rabbinic maxims to the effect that human dignity overrides the specific requirements of halacha (the original context, if I recognized the quotes correctly, was not causing social embarrassment to someone who performs a mitzvah incorrectly through ignorance - not a perfect analogy for his point).
He bloviated a bit about the beauty of diversity and not judging people unless you've walked a mile in their shoes and not losing the valuable resource of gay congregants and so forth; this was so much wasted breath, from my perspective. On the other hand, he stressed that he felt that male/female complementarity was an important fact of human nature, and something very important to parenting - not that gay parents would be harmful to children, but that, if possible, it's best to be raised by a man and a woman, and this I appreciated. All told, I thought the sermon was well-balanced, laid out where he stood on this question (on the liberal end of Conservative Judaism) and reassured those who disagreed that in reaching his conclusions he was respectful of the text and not merely saying "this bit of the Bible is bigoted; let's change it."
On all this, I basically agreed with him. As I think should be clear to readers of this blog, I *do* believe that there is an irreducible core of homosexuals who, from a halachic perspective, operate under a compulsion, and I *do* believe that mandatory celibacy is harmful (even if chosen celibacy can be a legitimate spiritual choice, something that I question in a Jewish context but can keep an open mind about more generally). For that reason, I think there needs to be some mechanism for saying to Jewish gays: here is how you should properly live your life as Jews - a way that does not deny traditional teaching about sexuality or impose a destructive androgyny, but that also doesn't simply throw up its hands and say "Judaism has nothing useful to say about this problem." Judaism has to have something useful to say about every problem, or it can make no real claim to universal religion.
So I went around to a number of more conservative congregants to take their temperature, and discovered that they had heard a rather different sermon than I had. Three times, independently, I heard a variation on the theme of: the rabbi is warning us that he's going to push for gay marriage at the RA, whether we like it or not.
One made the following analogy: a blind man is not at fault for being blind. And we don't shun him, we don't make him sit in the back of the congregation; indeed, we make every effort to accommodate him and make him comfortable. But he can't read Torah before the congregation, because doing so requires reading from a kosher scroll, and a blind man physically can't do that. So I don't want to shun gays or lesbians or their children, I welcome them into the congregation, but they just can't say what they have has the kedushah of marriage. And I sat through the sermon in dread that he was going to utter the "M" word and [here he listed several more conservative members of the congregation] would all walk out on the spot.
Another said the following: he talks about a dialogue, about listening to the congregation and having this kind of process, but he doesn't care what anyone thinks. He didn't warn anyone - the President of the synagogue, for instance - that he was going to give a controversial sermon. He's too scared to tell us that he's going to push for gay marriage, because then he'd get pushed back by some of us, and he's intimidated by healthy, self-confident people. But now he's going to go to the RA and get authorization to do whatever he wants, and we'll just have to live with it.
Said another: I don't understand what the sermon was about if it wasn't about gay marriage. We already have gay congregants - the rabbi at NYC's gay synagogue is a member of our congregation! They're welcome, their kids are welcome, nobody says boo about the fact that they are gay. What more does he want? How much more accepting can you get? The only thing I can think of is that he wants to have commitment ceremonies or gay weddings. But of course he didn't say that. I wonder why not?
Of course, as readers of this blog know, in my view these folks are also right. Whatever gay relationships are, they aren't marriage, and we shouldn't call them that. I believe that Jewish tradition can endorse the view that it is no averah - transgression - for a gay man to have a loving sexual relationship with another gay man, precisely because a gay man operates under a compulsion. I can even accept that you could somehow recognize that relationship Jewishly, praise it, tell gay youngsters: you should grow up to be like these two. But I can't accept that such a relationship has the same kedushah as a married couple. I don't see how you accept that notion without essentially throwing everything Judaism teaches about sexuality and relations between men and women out the window. I'm one of Derb's "acceptors" - but I can't accept that accepting a gay couple requires me to deny what I know about my own marriage.
I still agree with what the rabbi actually said. Assuming he's acting in good faith, he'll surely recognize that for him to read the seven blessings for two men standing under a huppah would be an atrocious travesty and would make it impossible for men and women to get married under his aegis. If he is acting in good faith, I have to trust that he'll understand this, and, whatever else he argues for at the RA, he won't argue for this. But it's obvious that the more conservative congregants do not think he is acting in good faith, and they are preparing for battle.
I wish this issue would go away, but it's not going to. The culture war is coming to my synagogue, and to a synagogue near you.