Tag Archives: gay

Marriage Equality: Turning the Tide Towards an Idea Whose Time Has Come

Marriage Equality: Turning the Tide Towards an Idea Whose Time Has Come

by Rabbi Rick Brody

As one who has never been quiet about my advocacy for equal rights and inclusion for the queer (LGBTQ) community, including marriage equality, and as the unnamed husband in a popular submission on the Huffington Post from a rabbi who staunchly promotes those same values, I figured it was time for me to offer up a post of my own.

A Facebook friend shared a communication from MoveOn.org about marriage equality and criticized it for being propaganda that conflated a notion of inevitability (“You can’t stop an idea whose time has come”) with the need for a “revolutionary vanguard” (his words) to push the revolution (“Help us turn the tide”). He then compared this phenomenon of “turning the tide” to that of the Bolsheviks. He also mistakenly spoke about the “pushing” of “gay marriage.”

Here is the post in question, followed by an adaptation of my response to my friend. I should clarify from the outset that I have no affiliation with MoveOn.org and, while I agree with many of the stances the organization takes, I make no official endorsement of anything it says or does:

While I make no hesitation in expressing my absolute conviction in the moral necessity for marriage equality, I’m not interested in debating the “merits” of my views or criticizing someone else’s; what I am interested in doing is clarifying the way you framed the issue and the particular “propaganda” you have criticized above because I believe you have severely misunderstood and distorted the message:

No one is “pushing” for “gay marriage.” The issue is equality under the law. I’m not pushing for atheism when I demand that Christian bias be removed from public textbooks and classrooms. Nor am I pushing for abortion when I demand that a woman be left free to care for her own body as she so chooses without the government getting between her doctor and her vagina. As many have said, “If you’re opposed to abortion, then don’t have one.” And, “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married.” The “implementation of a policy” that you’re referring to is not about a revolutionary change. It’s about taking the rights afforded to some and extending them to all, equally. Perhaps more to the point, it’s about ending a particular policy, one of discrimination. No one ever spoke about heterosexual marriage as a “policy,” at least not until people began challenging hetero-only marriage as a discriminatory policy. It just simply was, and nobody gave any thought to that reality being any different, because enough brave people hadn’t yet spoken up and begun living their lives openly and honestly, demonstrating to the world that there is no logical, rational, or ethical reason to prohibit them from having the same access and entitlements to this “policy.” Those of us arguing for marriage equality are saying that the new status quo of equal protection under the law also should not be a “policy;” it simply should be what it is.

As for “the idea whose time has come,” I understand the comment to be not in conflict with the notion of “turning the tide.” I see it this way: A critical mass of people obviously already exists to challenge the status quo, raise the consciousness of others, and expand the conversation about marriage equality. It is part of the national conversation; the courts have established this fact by their repeated hearing of the legal challenges at various levels of the judicial system, the majority of state legislatures have felt the need to address the issue one way or another in their laws (while, again, 30 years ago it was a non-issue), and the president has commented on it repeatedly. So, undoubtedly, the idea has “arrived.” One of the only things in its way is bigoted lawmakers who refuse to see the ethical necessity of accepting this idea. MoveOn is saying, “the idea is here and we, supporters of equality, are not going to let it go away because we believe in it unflinchingly.” So it’s not a comment about descriptive inevitability–even though it is a fact that regularly, more and more people, especially younger people, poll in growing numbers in favor of marriage equality. The comment is one of the ethical appeal of the idea and the fact that supporters of it will not rest until the idea becomes the law.

Call that propaganda if you like, but Thomas Paine was an extraordinary propagandist and he helped us enshrine an idea (an independent democracy free of royal tyranny) that I hear few people in this country complaining about well over 200 years later. The suffragists of a century ago also succeeded in spreading the necessary propaganda for dismantling gender-based discrimination in voting rights. Not every “idea whose time has come” is another Bolshevik disaster. Sometimes it’s just a matter of what’s right. And helping “turn the tide” to ensure the success of an idea whose time has come is also just the right thing to do.

Responding to Cherry-Picked Derision of the Mitzvot

It is quite the fad among those who oppose fundamentalism — especially those who advocate for a more humane approach to the reality of same-sex romantic relationships in our contemporary world — to respond to “Bible-thumpers” by pointing out their hypocrisy: “What about all the other Scriptural prohibitions that you don’t spend any time preaching about, or might even violate yourself?!” This basic approach is important and has its place. We observant Jews, I think, find it especially laughable that non-Jews would be so adamant about the absolute authority of certain mitzvot while completely ignoring others.

However, this tactic of alerting the fundamentalist to his or her fallacies often moves in a different direction, especially when employed by those who seem to hate religion in general. Such people tend to equate all religiosity with fundamentalism and seem to find ridiculous, backward, and indeed threatening to modern life any practice that doesn’t have an immediately discernible rational explanation. Their inability to see that such practices might still have meaning for others leads them to dismiss the entire idea of adhering to a code of behavior that dates further back than last week, especially if any concept of a relationship to Divinity is expressed as part of the motivation for the practices or the system itself.

The Huffington Post has just published a typical sortie in this ongoing “battle” between atheists and fundamentalists. After reading it, I decided I’ve had enough and that it was time for me to weigh in with some advocacy for nuance and moderation in such discussions. I’m sure the haters on either extreme are yelling too loudly to hear me, but perhaps those in the middle who might be interested in a more intelligent conversation will find something worthwhile in my response.

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As an observant Jew, I agree with many other comments here that it makes little sense for Christians to cite some commandments from the Hebrew Bible as authoritative and to ignore others. And, like all Jews, I see all the commandments within the context of a much larger interpretive tradition that maintains that “anyone who translates a verse literally is a liar” (Babyl. Talmud, Kiddushin 49a), that essentially legislated out of any practical application many of the “archaic” laws of the Torah such as the stoning of disobedient children and capital punishment in general, that ultimately saw slavery (permitted in the Torah) as abhorrent, that transformed the basic Biblical practices of marriage through the banning of polygyny, etc. So, I agree that one — whether or not he or she plans on adhering to the commandments of the Hebrew Bible — ought to view them skeptically at first reading (skepticism is very Jewish; fundamentalism is not).

However, I am offended by the approach of this post in its attempt to casually suggest that the whole corpus of laws from the Hebrew Bible is ridiculous, and I’m probably even more offended by many of the specific prohibitions cited as efforts to prove the author’s point. As for the approach: It seems that the author deliberately chose the most archaic English translations of the material (lots of “thee”s and “thou”s), a technique that seems similar to a litigator’s act of “leading the witness.” Yes, these commandments were delivered in an ancient language, but to their original readers (and the original readers of various translations in historical context), they likely sounded much more felicitous than the words here do to readers of English in 2012. Other translations exist today with language that is much less “off-putting” than the language used here.

More importantly, this approach ignores the social and literary context of many of these laws. I believe that we need to be closer readers of the texts that have played such a significant role in shaping the values and laws that define our society. I believe that the proper correction for the myopic, “cherry-picking” use of Leviticus 18:22 by bigots, autocrats, and demagogues is not the same kind of cherry-picking in our rebuttal but rather a different kind of conversation about the Bible, its history of interpretation, and ethics — not more of the same decontextualized readings of other verses.

More egregious is the dismissal of many of the values (and practices) underlying the laws cited as examples here. At the very least, the problem with this current post is that in many cases, it focused on the “wrong” commandments to ridicule (i.e. practices not deserving of ridicule). The author seems to suggest that since most people gossip, it must be okay. What a terrible approach! I would prefer that people who have any ethical moorings argue with a little more nuance for intelligent adults to try navigating through the array of behavioral choices available to them by working to discern which ones have serious implications for those around them and which ones do not. In other words, we have much to learn about the Biblical abhorrence of inappropriate speech; not simply because the Bible says so, but because the Bible happens to be right on this issue — the abuse we commit with our words is much more destructive to another human being and to society as a whole than are the sexual acts of two consenting adults.

As for the other laws derided in this post, several have been “legislated out” of relevance even within normative Judaism in the manner mentioned above. In these cases, the author betrays ignorance about context. Others, however, remain at the foundation of a contemporary Jewish life in the pursuit of holiness and meaning and are anything but archaic, irrelevant, or inoperative to serious, observant contemporary Jews. Many Jews continue to take dietary prohibitions and Sabbath observance seriously for a variety of reasons. Such practices have had significant positive impact on the connectedness that Jews feel towards a tradition that forges a unique identity, that instills in us a sense of discipline, that emphasizes that we be conscientious about what we consume in our mastery of the world around us, that celebrates taking time away from a daily grind that depletes our energy and that blinds us from what really matters in the world, and that sensitizes us to living humbly in our quest for sanctity.

If more people were strict about adhering to some of these other “13 laws” than they were about preaching about other people’s apparent disobedience of other Biblical commandments, I believe the world would be a much more civilized and sanctified place. We don’t accomplish much by “throwing the baby out with the bath water” and ridiculing the entirety of ancient religion. Narrow readings of any text are generally not helpful. If we read more openly — including in a manner that pays attention to the world around us rather than just the actual words on the page — we can discover not only which ancient texts are truly problematic as we move forward but we can also discover deep possibilities for meaning and goodness within many texts and practices, both ancient and modern.

The Latest in the “Gay Rabbis” Debate

Rabbi quits seminary over exclusion of gays,” reports the Jerusalem Post.

I applaud Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum for a courageous decision to stand by her ethical convictions and resign from Machon Schechter, the Masorti (Conservative) rabbinical school in Israel, which is becoming less and less representative of the Masorti Movement there.

I studied at Machon Schechter as part of my “equivalency” studies while a student at RRC, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. At the time, neither American Conservative rabbinical school was accepting or ordaining openly gay students, but the majority of the student bodies, many faculty, and other leaders were pushing for change and we all knew it was a matter of time. A handful of years ago, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards passed a teshuvah (rabbinical decision) that permitted same-sex relationships, essentially rejecting all rabbinically imposed restrictions or discriminations towards such relationships (and obviously also towards the people engaged in them or inclined to engage in them), except for the most literal understanding of the Torah prohibition in Lev. 18:22. (Many believe there is even interpretive room for rendering that perspective — which technically proscribes male-male genital-anal intercourse — as legally obsolete, presumably, at least, in the context of a loving, adult, covenantal relationship.)

Shortly after this ruling, the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies (at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles)  and then the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York changed their admission and ordination standards to provide full equality to openly gay students. It was a great change for those of us (whether officially part of the Conservative Movement or not) who support the idea of adherance to traditional Jewish practice and the value of a Jewish legal process in the context of a relevant and ethical worldview grounded in equality for all those earnestly engaged in such an endeavor. But, as with many (though not all) questions of social norms, Israeli society lags a bit behind the American pace.

A couple of years after the Ziegler School changed its policies, it made another important change regarding its year of Israel study for its students. No longer would students study for the year at Machon Schechter but rather at the Conservative Yeshiva, a learning project of the Conservative Movement that is open to non-rabbinical students as well, and to Jews of any sexual orientation. I don’t know how much that issue of inclusion influenced the original decision, but in light of the story about Rabbi Elad-Applebaum, it seems to me that Ziegler made a very wise choice to disassociate itself with Schechter, which appears to be stuck in some kind of moral (and halachic) vacuum on this issue. I feel terrible for those who wish to pursue rabbinical ordination as Masorti Jews in Israel who, whether because of their sexual orientation or, like Rabbi Elad-Applebaum, cannot abide being part of a discriminatory institution. Perhaps Schechter will eventually “see the light” on this issue. In the meantime, I would love to see JTS make the same change Ziegler did and send its students directly to the CY for their Israel year. Maybe the CY will form a s’michah (ordination) program. At this point, if I were a rabbinical student choosing where to study in Jerusalem (regardless of what American seminary I was attending), I certainly would no longer consider Machon Schechter. I actually spent a year at Pardes and a second year mostly at Schechter. If I were planning such a second year now, I would give the Conservative Yeshiva serious thought.