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Seeking Justice, Mercy and Humility: A Jewish Response to Marriage Equality

The prophet Micah (ch. 6) asks a question which many of us, in the quiet of our own thoughts, do (or should) ask ourselves: Man (or our society) has told you what is good, but (by contrast) what does God require of you? Micah, speaking as a mouthpiece of the Holy One, answers thus: Only to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

Whenever we approach a difficult situation or issue in our lives, our prophet urges us to consider: What does it mean to “do justice?” How can we “love mercy?” Where does “humility” come into play in our lives? This should be the central values discussion of our time.

Speaking Out on Jewish Values
However, as Rabbi David Saperstein, director of our Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington DC, has declare so eloquently, the Christian Right has successfully hijacked the values discussion (and the social policy decisions that result) by presenting a one-sided view of the significant social issues of our time.

Nothing has been more successful for the Christian Right than their demonization of the issue of gay marriage. Many states have passed ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage by large margins, truly energized by a voting bloc who supports keeping marriage as a purely heterosexual institution. Is this “doing justly?” We have heard loudly and clearly from the Christian right on this issue. Shouldn’t we hear also from our own Reform Jewish tradition about its perspective on this issue? So, what does Reform Judaism think about such things?

Jewish Views on Human Sexuality
In its far-reaching report on Human Sexuality, the Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR – Reform Rabbis organization) identified nine values as being significant to Jewish values on sexuality: B’tzelem Elohim (living in the image of God), Emet (truth), B’ri-ut (health), Mishpat (justice), Mishpacha (family), Tziniyut (modesty), Brit (covenantal relationship), Simcha (joy), Ahava (love) and Kedusha (holiness). In defining these values, the committee drew from traditional sources, evolving social norms and modern Jewish commentaries.

Central to the definition of kedusha (holiness) was the notion that In a Reform Jewish context, a relationship may attain a measure of kedusha when both partners voluntarily set themselves apart exclusively for each other, thereby finding unique emotional, sexual and spiritual intimacy. Ultimately, after reviewing Jewish sources and attitudes, the Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality was led to conclude that kiddusha (holiness) may be present in committed, same gender relationships between two Jews, and that these relationships can serve as the foundation of stable Jewish families, thus adding strength to the Jewish community.

Of course it makes sense that our Reform Jewish institutions would understand the evolving nature of human relations in this way. As Rabbi David Freelund (of my parents’ synagogue in Hyannis, MA) explained years ago in an article on the Reform Jewish perspective on marriage equality, “Reform Judaism has long been on the cutting edge of social issues and civil rights in America. Women’s rights, racial equality and religious freedom have long been dear to us.” Rabbi Freelund continued:

The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism lobbies on Capitol Hill on issues of importance to the movement. One of the arenas in which social activism of Reform Judaism has been prominent is in the area of gay rights, the idea that sexual orientation should be of no consequence for choices in profession, religion, personal or family status. But why?

Current credible medical and psychological authorities or bodies do not agree that homosexuality is somehow “abnormal” behavior. In fact, our best medical and social scientists can tell us that there is a normal spectrum of human sexual behavior, including both hetero- and homosexuality. This spectrum has been with us throughout recorded history and always will be.

What about Biblical Texts that Seem to Call Homosexuality an Abomination?
Clearly, the thrust of our rabbinic tradition has been to read these texts as condemning all homosexuality. However, these texts, as read in recent scholarly works and rabbinic teshuvot (opinions), may be understood to be specifically condemning only adulterous homosexuality (married people having sexual relations outside of their marriages) or homosexual rape (the concern of the story of Lot and Sodom).

Understood in the light of these studies, the deeper lesson of Torah takes precedence. Judaism and Torah teach that we are all are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Being created in God’s image means that each person is valued, worthy, and sacred. Such love – between mature consenting individuals – is similarly holy. Gay or straight, bisexual or transgender – the people, their gender identities, and the ways they make love – are blessed. The Torah teaches that; our tradition affirms it. Those who read it any other way may be quoting the Bible as others have read it, but are misreading the Bible for their own outdated and non-moral perspectives and purposes.

Where Does the Reform Jewish Movement Stand?
In that light, Reform Judaism embraced full inclusion of gays and lesbians in our congregations in 1977. The CCAR even adopted a resolution that year calling for legislation decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults, and calling for an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians. The United States Supreme Court acted on this issue, casting aside any legislation restricting the bedroom behavior of consenting adults. The CCAR was well ahead of the curve.

In 1990, the CCAR endorsed a position urging that “all rabbis, regardless of sexual orientation, be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation that they have chosen.” The committee endorsed the view that “all Jews are religiously equal regardless of their sexual orientation.” The admissions policies of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion were changed to state that the “sexual orientation of an applicant [be considered] only within the context of a candidate’s overall suitability for the rabbinate,” and that all rabbinic graduates of the HUC-JIR would be admitted into the CCAR.

Our Reform Jewish institutions have embraced full equality and are committed to it. Our religious ideals will be challenged in the years to come. In 2000, the CCAR resolved that each of its members was free to act to his or her own conscience in performing same-sex weddings, and that liturgy and rituals should be developed to make these ceremonies meaningful and immersed in the holiness marriage. This and much more has been done.

Reform Judaism stands today in support of [the many different kinds of families] in our congregations, and in support of spousal relationships that create Jewish homes and bring holiness into the world. We are committed to a policy of inclusion and freedom for our rabbis to marry those couples they see are Jewishly-committed, regardless of gender or orientation. It is time for our states and our country to recognize marriage equality as an enshrined corollary of our American freedoms.

Do Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly with our God
We, the people who recall the words of our sacred Scriptures – You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9) – seek to do justice. We, people of faith who try to love mercy, defend vigorously the dignity of every human being, consistent with the principle that each of us is created in the Divine image. While we respect those who may be single, we uphold the values of marriage and family. Marriage, imbued with the values of exclusivity, permanence, intimate companionship, and love, provides fulfillment for each partner and adds to the common good of the community. Thus, in an attempt to walk humbly with our God, we affirm that every human being has an absolute right to such fulfillment, and that the loving, committed relationships of same-sex couples have the same potential for kedusha (holiness) as those of heterosexual couples.

I look forward to the ability to marry our gay or lesbian congregants to their beloveds, in ceremonies recognized by the state and our country. May that day come speedily.

As always, I invite you to join me in a discussion on these significant Jewish issues. Email me at Rabbipaul [at] orami.org or call me to set a time for us to get together and talk.

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