Rabbi Ellenson on "Same-sex Marriage, in the Jewish Tradition" - Jewish Week, March 12, 2004

Monday, March 1, 2004

The Jewish Week – New York
Same-Sex Marriage, In The Jewish Tradition
David Ellenson

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 tradition.

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.