The Jewish Week - New York
Same-Sex Marriage, In The Jewish Tradition
In his sensitive and intelligent column "Same Sex, Different
Values" (Feb. 27), my friend Gary Rosenblatt contends that
Jewish and American values "are not always compatible."
As someone whose entire academic career has been devoted to a study
of the ongoing struggles between Jewish tradition and the modern
world, I have no problem with his assertion. However, I do question
whether "the issue of same-sex marriage, and more broadly,
gay and lesbian lifestyles, is a case in point."
I do not agree that those of us who are religious Jews and favor
same-sex marriage and full rights for gays and lesbians do so only
because we embrace "the goals of liberal America." While
many traditional Jews undoubtedly will condemn as "sophistry"
those of us who champion from a Jewish standpoint "what the
Torah condemns" on this issue, I believe such a charge is grossly
unfair and represents a narrow reading of Jewish religious and ethical
As a religious Jew who favors the extension of full rights to gays
and lesbians in both civil and religious realms, I contend that
"the actual realization of the biblical quest for justice"
is the primary motivating factor for our support of this stance.
As such, our advocacy should not be reduced to a stance that is
described as being simply "politically correct and comfortable
for us personally."
For many of us, this biblical quest for justice stems from a vision
of humanity that is stated at the beginning of Genesis, where the
Torah teaches that every human being is created b'tzelem, "in
the image of God." Furthermore, this notion is complemented
by the demand found in Exodus and elsewhere in the Torah that commands
us as Jews to champion an ethic of compassion and empathy. The Bible
reminds us again and again not to "oppress the stranger, for
we were strangers in the Land of Egypt and you know the heart of
the stranger." A Jew who takes these commandments seriously
can assert with religious integrity that the overarching ethos of
these mitzvot provides sufficient sanction for the claim that Jewish
tradition can permit gays and lesbians to enjoy the same privileges
and entitlements that heterosexuals do.
A tradition that demands "You shall do that which is upright
and good" can surely be construed in such a way that the ethos
of Jewish tradition can be said to trump a single statement in Leviticus
18:22 that condemns homosexual behavior as an "abomination."
After all, Judaism is an expansive and pluralistic interpretive
tradition that has permitted rabbis throughout the ages to allow
changed contexts and sensibilities to inform them as they adopt
innovative stances. Such stances are nevertheless faithful to the
underlying spirit and enduring principles that lie at the heart
of Judaism as these rabbis issue rulings on a host of diverse moral
and religious questions.
Countless examples could be adduced to illustrate this point. In
our own era, we should note that a preponderance of halachic authorities
permit the deaf-mute to act as a witness and to deliver testimony
in Jewish legal settings despite the uncontested fact that deaf-mutes
are specifically barred by the classical tradition from acting in
these ways. Many rabbis have permitted this because they acknowledge
that pedagogic methods now exist that allow for the education of
those afflicted with lack of speech and hearing. To insist on the
application of this ban in our age would be both illogical and immoral
despite a clear decree to the contrary enunciated by the Talmud.
At the outset of the 20th century, a great debate among rabbis
rocked the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel concerning the
extension of voting rights to women. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook,
who established the Chief Rabbinate in prestate Israel, opposed
the granting of suffrage to women on the grounds that such a right
would alter traditional gender roles and thereby destroy the Jewish
family. But Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Hai Ouziel, destined to become the
first chief Sephardic rabbi of the state, disagreed, asserting that
the "basic human right" of suffrage could not be denied
the female gender. His view prevailed.
While I would not suggest that Rabbi Ouziel would apply that logic
or that license to the case of Leviticus 18:22, I see no reason
why such reasoning and such interpretive freedom cannot be extended
to that passage and to the issues of gay and lesbian rights, particularly
in light of the Jewish ideals cited here.
Those of us who advocate such positions therefore do so because
a principled approach causes us to assert that Jewish tradition
requires that full rights and privileges be extended to our lesbian
sisters and gay brothers. This is not the claim of people devoted
to comfort. It is instead what many of us feel that a Judaism committed
to justice and compassion mandates.
At the time when the biblical prohibition regarding homosexuality
was written and in subsequent classical rabbinic commentaries on
that passage, the rabbis could not imagine a monogamous, procreative
same-sex relationship. This is surely part of the rationale behind
the condemnation contained in Leviticus.
In our day, when we know such relationships can and do exist, I
would argue that this reasoning is no longer convincing and the
same ideals the tradition attaches to heterosexual marriage ought
to be applied to same-sex relationships. Such extension of the ideal
strengthens the family and allows for children to be raised in stable
and loving homes where the bonds between partners are permanent
and sanctified. In this way, the ideals of the tradition in regard
to marriage are promoted by extending full rights - including marriage
- to same-sex couples. n
Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish
Institute of Religion.