Almost a year ago, President Obama spoke about how his attitude regarding homosexual marriage changed over time. One year later, even the Boy Scouts of America is beginning to change its thinking. More and more states—even countries are revising their thinking.
Many people get upset when such a topic comes up. I understand that very well. However, if everyone thought exactly alike, the world would sure be a boring place. In a democratic society, the homogenization of public opinion is not always possible or even desirable. People have a right to their opinions on this subject—even if I, as a citizen, may not necessarily agree.
There is a higher issue at work here: It’s really about personal autonomy, i.e., the freedom for consensual adults to live one’s personal life without government interference. Therefore, I support anyone’s right to choose having a same-sex marriage.
In all honesty, I did not always feel this way.
Let me share a story with you. In the late 1980s, I lived in San Francisco and I was the rabbi of a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Richmond District of San Francisco. My father was a Holocaust survivor who had witnessed many terrible things in Auschwitz and Majdanek, two of the worse concentration camps of the Holocaust era. Hitler, as you may know, went after the gay community and killed approximately 15,000 in the camps. My father remembered seeing how they were treated. Their suffering left an impression upon him that he never forgot.
After settling in Alameda, CA., my father helped establish Alameda’s first Reform synagogue—Temple Israel. Well, one Sunday, I went to visit my father and he was on his way to attend a wedding. I asked him, “Where are you going?” He replied, I am going to be a witness for a gay Jewish wedding.”
Feeling surprised—even shocked—I observed, “Dad, you never cease to amaze me; you are the last person I would have ever expected to participate in a marriage ceremony, given your religious background . . .” Dad replied with a smile, “What’s the matter with you son? What’s so terrible about two human beings wanting to affirm their love and commitment to each other?”
My Father’s words left a lasting impression. He helped me to look beyond the religious barriers that tend to stigmatize or marginalize feeling people in the name of “Tradition.” Just as I mentioned earlier, same-sex unions between consenting adults is a privacy issue. Nobody—whether it is the State or the Church or synagogue—has the right to micromanage people’s personal lives.
Earlier this past week, I briefly participated on an Orthodox blog named Hirhurim, and while I was on, I was surprised to read some of the comments regarding Rabbi Elliot Dorf, who happens to be an outstanding Conservative rabbinical scholar. One person felt it was wrong to call Rabbi Dorf by his title, “Rabbi,” since he endorses gay marriages. Some of us demurred. I wrote, “Whether you recognize Rabbi Dorf as a rabbi is not the issue here; it’s really about treating those folks who have different viewpoints with respect. You cannot go wrong showing kindness to another person. One can politely agree to disagree without being disagreeable.”
As the conversation ensued, one participant quipped, “According to the Torah, homosexuality is punishable by death!” I asked him, “Can you show me a single instance in Judaism where anyone was ever executed for being a homosexual?” He had no answer. I pointed out that there are two kinds of cases where a homosexual may be executed according to the Mishnah. One case pertains to someone who is threatening to sodomize a man, i.e., homosexual rape. Alternatively, the Mishnah may be speaking of someone threatening to sodomize an underage male child (BT Sanhedrin 73a).
However, both cases appear to be only theoretical for there is no court record of any homosexual ever having been executed. In the medieval Jewish period, the death penalty was sometimes administered on an ad hoc basis—depending upon the urgency of a given situation.
In our discussion, I explained that the scriptural basis of this law most likely derives from the famous biblical story of Lot and the angels:
• But before they laid down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” (Gen 19:4-5).
Obviously, the townspeople were interested in not inviting the guests for coffee, cake or crumpets. However, one thing is motivating their behavior—a desire to show that they are in control. Homosexual rape has nothing to with love or even, “free love (for you ex-Hippies). However, it has everything to do with dominance and control. This would also explain why the Torah considers the rape of a male—”an abomination” (Lev. 20:13). Although this term is not used for cases of ordinary rape, one must remember that in a patriarchal society, sodomizing someone against his will evokes disgust and primal fear. In fact, it still does—even in the 21st century.
So, in the final analysis, what does this mean? For one thing, ancient Israel’s society differed considerably from our own. Just because Abraham and Sarah lived in tents, doesn’t mean that we should also live in tents in order to emulate their particular lifestyle. In ancient Judaism, monogamous male relationships probably did not exist, or, happened to be extremely uncommon. Greek and Roman societies were different.
In addition, I would add that there are numerous passages that we do not interpret the Torah literally. The Torah tells us to “circumcise the foreskin of our hearts” (Deut. 10:16). Yet, I do not know of any fundamentalist who would interpret this passage literally; if he did, he would be a fool. In fact, the rabbis frequently refused to interpret biblical legislation pertaining to the death penalty literally because of their concern for the social welfare of the community. We do not stone people for adultery either. If we did, a sizable portion of our society would be dead by now.
Unlike the Fundamentalists of the evangelical community, which tends to focus on the literalism of biblical truth, Jewish tradition has long argued that exegetical interpretations are derived contextually as well. Evangelical scholars often derive the prohibition against same-sex marriage from the biblical passage, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 24:25).
While it is true the Genesis passage speaks of a marriage between a man and a woman who create new life, one must remember that marriage is not only for the sake of siring children. The emotional bond of marriage, i.e., “becoming one flesh” can also mean a fully monogamous life that involves sharing and caring to one another. Marriage is the most profound connection that binds two human beings as they face good and sorrowful times together. Each partner is always present supporting the other. “One flesh,” entails a lifelong, exclusive attachment of one person to another—both physically and spiritually; this sharing involves a willingness to eliminate all the barriers that keeps their hearts apart from one another.
In summary, a contextual reading of the Torah dealing with homosexuality allows for a more elastic postmodern interpretation that could conceivably permit same-sex marriages.
One last question arises: Is it Halachic?
The answer depends largely upon one’s definition of “halacha.” Briefly stated, Halacha is never monolithic; Halacha is not a static system. Halacha allows for a radical re-visioning of Jewish law based upon the ever-changing social circumstances. Hillel, for example, permitted people to circumvent the agricultural laws of the Sabbatical Year—despite the fact scripturally speaking—all debts are cancelled.
People who have committed suicide used to be buried in the outer parameters of a Jewish cemetery as a sign of disgrace. Today, psychoanalysis has completely altered our understanding of suicide, which often has physical or psychological causes that the early rabbinical authorities could never imagine possible.
Similarly, most of the rabbis of the Talmud did not understand or legislate against pedophilia, but given what we now know about this terrible social and psychological disease, we would be foolish to rely on the views of Sages that lived almost 2000 years ago who thought molesting a child was harmless. Women never voted in biblical times; today, despite the fact that many Halachic scholars think it is biblically forbidden for women to participate in an election or even run for a political office (see the Woman’s Suffrage debate of the early 20th century in the halachic literature.