December 30, 2006
Rabbi Bernard Gerson
"The Center is Hot: Reflections on the Recent Decisions of the Conservative Law Committee Regarding Homosexuality."
I promised a number of weeks ago that I would devote my sermon this week to the recent decisions of the Conservative movement regarding Homosexuality (specifically, whether gay and lesbian Jews may be admitted to and ordained by our seminaries).
Before I begin, allow me to make two statements. First, there is not an ounce of gratuitousness to my remarks today! In other words, this issue has occupied the upper precincts of my psyche and I have neither the emotional nor personal connections with the subject that would require me to make hard-and-fast declarations about policy, ethics, or the ways that this issue will impact my personal practice as your rabbi.
Secondly, this issue is clearly bigger than you and me. I choose to enter it (as I will leave it) with a sense of humility. Where you and I come into play will be in subsequent conversations, within our interactions about the matter of the involvement of gays and lesbians in the synagogue.
A. Parsha Teaching Module
This week's portion opens with Judah's impassioned plea to Joseph to allow Benjamin to return to his father. Offering himself as a servant instead of his younger brother, Judah explained this remarkable request by saying that he fears his father would not survive the loss of the remaining son of his beloved wife (44:18-34).
At that point Joseph breaks down in tears, reveals his identity to his brothers (45:1-3) and reconciles with them (45:4-8). He sends an urgent message with them to his father, asking the entire family to join him in Egypt, where he would provide them with food during the famine in the Land of Israel (45:9-13).
Rabbi Uziel Weingarten, a modern rabbi who visited us on two occasions in recent years to offer lessons on our Tradition and the ethics of Communicating with Compassion comments on our sedra: The central question in this account is why Joseph waits so long before revealing himself to his brothers. Why does he treat them so unfairly and so cruelly?
Especially hard to understand is Joseph's behavior towards his father. On the one hand, the first question he asks after revealing his identity to his brothers is about his father: "I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?" (45:3). Earlier, as well, he had asked them if all is well with his father (43:27). But if Joseph was concerned about his father, why doesn't he inform him as to his whereabouts? And why does he subject him to the anguish of having one of his sons held hostage and to the terror of sending Benjamin to Egypt?
One modern commentary suggests that Joseph wants to ascertain that his brothers have repented of their earlier actions and thus become worthy of becoming the nation that would carry God's message in the world. The best way to do that is to formulate "a decisive test of character, while at the same time prodding them to introspection, no matter how trying this would be on Jacob."
Rabbi Uzi finds this explanation deeply troubling. First, who appointed Joseph to be the arbiter of his brothers' spiritual worth? And who entitled him to formulate cruel tests to determine this? It is for God to ascertain spiritual worthiness, and for us to treat each other with fairness and compassion.
Beyond that, what makes this modern commentary entirely unacceptable is the kind of behavior that it justifies. Joseph acts unjustly in imprisoning his brothers on trumped up charges (42:9-17), and adds to that injustice by keeping one of them in prison when the others return home to Jacob (42:19-20). His insistence that Benjamin accompany them on their next visit to Egypt to buy food causes Jacob and his entire family intense anguish (42:36-38). It puts them all into an impossible bind, pitting Jacob's love for his beloved Benjamin, and the brothers' love for their father Jacob, against the family's need to acquire food. And when the brothers finally do return to Egypt, Joseph frames Benjamin by planting the silver goblet in his sack (44:1-2), again causing the brothers, including his beloved Benjamin, terrible emotional pain (44:13).
The claim that this is all legitimate because it was done l'shem shamayim, for the sake of God, runs counter to everything that the Torah teaches us. The voice of God calls us to "do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8). It insists that God desires "kindness, justice and fairness" (Jeremiah 9:23). Joseph's behavior violates every one of the Torah's cardinal values.
Rabbi Yehudah Amital, head of Yeshivat Har Etzion near Jerusalem, emphasizes this point. He suggests that the Torah's detailed description of the intense anguish that Jacob and the brothers suffer makes clear that the Torah is highly critical of Joseph's behavior.
This teaching is especially relevant today, when this dynamic is tragically being played out in ways that were unimaginable just a few short years ago. People who are convinced that they are representing God's will ...
How often do parents use hurtful words with their children and explain that it is "for your own good"? How often do teachers shame students as a way of motivating them to try harder? How often do clergy shame members of their flock "for their personal or spiritual growth"?
So many people are wounded, scarred and traumatized because parents, teachers and clergy act abusively, and justify their actions by saying that "it is for your own good" or "it is in order to save your soul." It doesn't matter if the abuse is physical or emotional. The Torah calls us to "do justice, love kindness and walk humbly" (Micah 6:8). Except for situations of self-defense or protective use of force, the way to support other people's growth is by teaching--and modeling in our own behavior--the Divine path of fairness, compassion, respect and love.
B. Historical Hour in the History Conservative Judaism
So, if you will permit me to use the expression, what caused the storm?
The Conservative Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards (aka "The Law Committee"), in a voting session on December 6 that concluded an extended period of study and deliberation, passed two primary rabbinic responsa on the topic of homosexuality. One responsum was written by Rabbi Joel Roth and it advocated maintaining the status quo. According to Rabbi Roth, all forms of sexual relations between two homosexuals are forbidden by the Torah. Hence, homosexual marriage or commitment ceremonies cannot be sanctioned by Jewish Law. The second responsum was co-authored by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner. This paper argued that the Torah only forbids a specific type of sexual intimacy between two men, and therefore, other types of homosexual relations need not be deemed to be transgressions. Rabbi Dorff and his colleagues further argued that Conservative Judaism ought to permit gay/lesbian commitment ceremonies but not marriages. With respect to the ordination of homosexual rabbis, it must be made clear that the Jewish Theological Seminary (where I was ordained nearly sixteen years ago) will now formulate its own institutional policy based on the options presented by the Law Committee. The other rabbinical schools in our Movement will undertake the same process.
Many have asked how the Law Committee could pass two such diametrically opposed responsa. The answer is that our Movement has always been committed to religious pluralism, and we believe that there may be more than one valid way to interpret Halakhah on any given issue. So, for example, some in our Movement will ride to synagogue on Shabbat, others will not; some will count women to a minyan, others will not. All these positions are valid since they are based on accepted rabbinic rulings of the Law Committee.
Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, a Past President of the Rabbinical Assembly and a congregational rabbi in New Jersey offers this response:
The rabbis decided long ago to uproot Torah when necessary. They asked again and again on their own issues, as with the issue of gay ordination, if a strict prohibition with Torah could be "uprooted." Let me give you several examples pointed out by Rabbi Judith Hauptman, professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The Torah says that lenders must cancel loan in the sabbatical year (Deuteronomy). thus giving borrowers a fresh start. The problem with this rule is the Torah itself predicts is that lenders may stop lending long before the seventh year for fear they will not be paid back. Hillel, the most famous rabbi in the Talmud, cancelled debt remission because that is exactly what happened: loans dried up. But how could he overturn a Torah rule? To explain it in simple terms. Hillel arranged a legal fiction. Lenders for the duration of the sabbatical year, handed their accounts over to the court, and retrieved them again in the eighth year. It satisfied lenders because they lost nothing. It pleased borrowers because they could borrow. Because of economic necessity, Hillel uprooted a rule of the Torah with a legal fiction.
Did these rabbis overturn and reverse a rule of the Torah? You bet. Why? Because they wanted to give daughters an inheritance, not because the Torah supported it. The second verse in Jeremiah is quite weak - weaker than the Torah. But the rabbis decided it was necessary based on moral grounds.
If ancient rabbis find a necessary social cause then, they instituted radical change as long as they provide justification.
Certainly the Torah looks upon homosexuality as an abomination (Leviticus 18). Certainly there is a negative attitude to homosexuals throughout all halachic literature from the time of the Torah to today. Need it stay that way? As in ancient times if rabbis find a halachic method to trump the verse, they may do so.
This has prompted many to respond with a measure of cynicism. Maybe the next prohibition that the Conservative rabbis will bring down, one congregant has commented, is lobster! I submit to you that we must not view this decision quite so simplistically and with such a broad sweep. There was a moral impulse at work here that was triggered not merely by interactions with God and Torah, but also by the real experiences and testimonies of those who were born, in the image of God, with gay/lesbian orientations.
Rabbi Judith Hauptman, professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, says that the verse in Leviticus "Love your neighbor as yourself," perhaps the greatest principal of Torah, applies here. We must treat gay men and women like everyone else, which they are.
C. Reactions to the Decision
So how do we assess, analyze and apply the proceedings of earlier this month? I submit to you that – more so than any practical meaning – this process has given us a momentous opportunity to check in with our theology and ideology as Conservative Jews.
Suffice it to say, this is no longer our fathers' and mothers' Conservative Judaism. What I mean by that is that our movement has evolved into a different identity, precipitated in large part by a polarization of the other movements who used to occupy a more centrist place on the American Jewish spectrum.
The Orthodox, to our right, who are so sure they know God's will and have transformed Jewish practice into a "black and white" operation; for example, their certification of kashrut is the only standard by which food is deemed to be permissible for consumption, and everything else is "treif."
The Reform movement, to our left, are so sure they know what God wants that they have disavowed a legal relationship with Heaven and maintain that it is exclusively a spiritual one. Summarily, there are very few if any "do not's" promulgated by our Tradition, and those "do's" for which a Jew is obligated are to be authorized by the autonomous individual.
In the words of my colleague, Rabbi Ed Farber, I am proud of our movement for admitting that we don't have a direct line to God and we're not willing to say the debate is over and here's the answer. Because to say that is chutzpah. What we've done is kept the debate alive and given legitimacy to both viewpoints since we don't really know the answer. And it allows synagogues and Rabbis to continue to disagree but to respect the other's decision.
All of this really goes back to a more fundamental question which none of the press reports, websites, pundits, et al, regretfully, have mentioned. That question is whether we regard each letter of the Torah as written by God. Abraham Heschel, the most eminent 20th century Jewish theologian (and whose 100th birthday will be celebrated next month) wrote that the Torah is not a literal stenographic recording of God's voice, as over a long distance telephone, but a human interaction with a Divine revelation. God revealed at Sinai. The Torah is the Jewish people's response to that revelation, not a secretarial transmission of each letter that God said. That is what has happened in this case. We have humanly reacted with the Divine revelation in ways that the rabbis of old always did, when they wanted.
Returning to the matter of conflicting opinions, and the concerns that we rightfully maintain about divisiveness, I note that other movements have also handled major schisms in ideology or practice. Chabad has flourished despite profound disagreement over the late Rebbe's status as messiah. Reform has disagreed vehemently over the necessity of traditional practice in contemporary life. Orthodox Jews are profoundly divided over many subjects including the significance of the State of Israel. The mark of honesty and integrity is sometimes struggle." I remind you again that what is happened here in trying to mark the fine line between modernity and tradition is unique to our Conservative movement. As one of my colleagues has pointed out, because we are truly the last, remaining, centrist movement, like the sun, the center is hot.
What adds to the controversy, if the foregoing were not enough, is that the "permitting" papers considered by the Law Committee look favorably upon commitment ceremonies but declined to offer specific guidance on what form they would take.
D. What Does this Decision Mean for Us, Here and Now?
How does this decision affect our congregation? To be honest, it really doesn't. Let's face it: our congregation prides itself on being a warm, welcoming, and inclusive community. Some gays and lesbians are already members of our congregation. Perhaps this decision will allow more gays and lesbians to feel that they are welcomed in our congregation, and for some closeted gays and lesbians within our membership to feel comfortable enough to affirm their orientation publicly.
And, quite frankly, Jewish gays have not been lining up on the sidewalk here to request a commitment ceremony. Perhaps that is because they know of our previous policy, or not.
Eventually, though, this precedent will have application to our community, whether it is through the aegis of membership categories and lifecycle innovations, or (and this should not happen too soon!) in the selection of your next rabbi, who may be "straight" or may be a self-declared homosexual.
I identify keenly with Rabbi Zelizer on this subject: I am convinced that what has happened with the more liberal halachic opinion is "just" the one hand, and requires an "adjustment" on the other for laity and for rabbis. I personally need some time for just halachic arguments that my mind understands to reach my kishkes. I will not be changing my habits, not tomorrow, not next week.
I do not believe that the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony (kiddushin) can be applied to same-sex couples. As I have preached from this bimah, I consider marriage to be the repository of Jewish continuity, and cannot in good conscience solemnize the marital bond of any union other than that of a Jewish male adult and a Jewish female adult.
However, the possibility of providing an innovative, meaningful ceremony (that is not understood to be kiddushin) for two Jews of the same sex who are committed for life to each other in a loving relationship is one that I find intriguing from an intellectual standpoint, in the absence of any pragmatic pressure at the present time.
This affords us all an opportunity for dialogue and interaction. I would like to take your ideas and perspectives into account before any innovations or evolutions are achieved.
We must analyze questions of membership, ritual participation, commitment ceremonies and other life-cycle events as they relate to gays and lesbians. As rabbi and congregation, we must explore these new roads together and reach closure on where we wish to go. In due time, public sessions for study and discussion of the Law Committee papers will be set up, and then the appropriate bodies, which include our Board of Trustees, Ritual Committee, and perhaps even a special task force of key congregants who can help us to formulate ideas and provisions.
As my colleague and classmate at the Seminary, Rabbi Jeffrey Spector, noted in a letter to his New Jersey congregation, I realize that this issue resonates powerfully for many of us, and I hope that through study and careful yet compassionate deliberation, we will arrive at some conclusions that will reflect our love of Torah and affirm our belief that every human being is indeed created in the image of God.
E. CLOSING THOUGHT
Returning now to our parsha lesson, how remarkable it is that the Torah presents its heroes as they are, in their greatness and their weakness, in moments when they see clearly and in moments when they don't! All of us, even the greatest of the great, have our individual journeys, and all of us struggle with our issues. Joseph and the brothers deal with issues of envy, gossip, conflict resolution and revenge, and emerge with greater understanding and an expanded ability to love. May God guide us that we too emerge from our struggles in that way.
The proceedings of the Law Committee constitute, in the words of my colleague Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a deep and redemptive conversation – one that has been both deliberate and deliberating. The transparency and sharing of the process through the hard work of the Rabbinical Assembly, Jewish Theological Seminary, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism should give us pause for consideration, reflection, and ultimately, hope.
F. Further Readings and Reflections
The Rabbinical Assembly website now has not only the recent teshuvot on homosexuality but also the 3 teshuvot on mikvah passed in September, with an accompanying introduction that discusses them:
The Conservative Judaism GLBT & Halacha Resource Page has been updated on the Shefa website*, with links to the Teshuvot recently considered and/or passed, essays, video-links, media-links, and responses from both CJ institutions and invested individuals. Visit the page here: http://www.shefanetwork.org/GLBTQ Inclusion.html
VAYIGASH: "IN THE NAME OF GOD" Parsha Comments by Rabbi Uziel Weingarten 2004
Rabbi Menachem Creditor (Assistant Rabbi of Temple Israel in Sharon, MA) Reflections 12/8/06
Rabbi Jeffrey Spector (Rabbi of Beth Shalom in Livingston, NJ), Letter to Congregants 12/06
Rabbi Gerald Zelizer (Rabbi of Neve Shalom in Metuchen, NJ), Sermon of 12.09.06
Rabbi Jason Miller, (Rabbi of Cong Agudas Achim in Bexley, OH) Letter to Congregation 12.06
Rabbi Ed Farber (Rabbi of Beth Torah in N. Miami Beach, FL), Posting on Ravnet "Embarrassed
by the Conservative Movement?"