I can think of no social transformation in my lifetime as rapid and sweeping as the acceptance now accorded gay people. I understand if some gay people view their public embrace as less than quick or irrevocable. But from the lynching of Matthew Shepherd to Brokeback Mountain to gay marriage … it spins your head how fast it has all come.
Last Friday night, New York state authorized same-sex marriage, making New York one of only five states and DC to take this bold stance. Such a revolution deserves a little faithful and honest Judaic reflection.
I celebrate New York's decision.
This whole social, ethical transformation poses undeniably hard questions for how we relate to Torah norms about sexuality, family and authority. We're only beginning to articulate a religious vision for this new world. Gay marriage will help us approach that new vision.
We Conservative Jews worked our way toward accepting homosexuality partly through a legal argument passed in 2006 by our Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, written by my good friend Rabbi Daniel Nevins and two of my esteemed senior colleagues, rabbis Elliot Dorff and Avram Reisner. (That paper, along with others, can be found by clicking here.) They argued, in brief, that it was unfair, socially unproductive, and ultimately un-Jewish, to condemn constitutionally gay people to lives without love partners. So, while affirming that heterosexual marriage remains the ideal, and affirming that the Torah itself forbids male-to-male anal penetration, they argued that all other sexual restrictions on gay men, and all sexual restrictions on lesbians may be considered to have lapsed.
The key ethical leverage of their paper comes from the Talmudic dictum that "protecting human dignity supersedes a Torah prohibition." It wounds people's dignity, to say the least, to tell them that God forbids them from loving or being loved.
There are many virtues to this work, and if I had been on the CJLS in those days I would have voted for this paper. But while both its head and its heart are in the right place, I think it is only a first step in transformed religious thinking. By restricting themselves to arguments that could be plausibly based in authoritative sources, Nevins, Dorff and Reisner felt they hewed to a legal method with integrity. Their work still looked like Halakha, even if its conclusion was unprecedented.
But their method was not suited to asking and answering a more fundamental question, which should be central to our approach: What confers kedusha, sanctity, on a romantic and sexual relationship? The classical answer was inextricable from rules governing specific sexual acts. Undeniably, that is a Halakhic question, which cannot be evaded. The Dorff-Nevins-Reisner position helped us respond to it and helped us progress. (By the way, even more traditional
But now it's time to respond with additional religious depth to the more pressing question: What makes a relationship holy? To answer that question in a Jewish way demands that we identify interpersonal norms for all relationships, no matter the shape of the partners' bodies, or how they might be.
As a Jew, I find it ludicrous to affirm gay relationships for the sake of a sexual liberation ethic, as if everyone has a natural right to maximize pleasurable experiences. (I was mortified, for instance, by the San Francisco gay synagogue's prayer book which included a blessing for having anonymous sex, when a partner's identity is not even known. What value can this possibly be expressing?) A libertarian line is also inadequate. Does Judaism have nothing more profound to say than "everyone should do what is right for themselves?"
If Jewish communities are to affirm what has, until now, been an outlawed sexuality, it must be because we have come to see that gay relationships can conform to our deepest vision of human relationships, as expressed in norms of love, commitment, mutuality and family.
And that is why I celebrate same-sex marriage: because it allows more people to build stable families with loving partners. As Jews we should affirm the Torah's proclamation: it is not good for people to be alone. We should celebrate when they bind their lives together, aspiring to remain a couple until death parts them. We should believe Isaiah's prophecy: God did not create the world as a wasteland, but rather created it for people to settle it, building homes and families.
By coincidence, the morning after Gov. Cuomo signed the same-sex marriage bill, in our shul we celebrated a bat mitzvah of a fine young woman, who was brought to the Torah by her two mothers. Those women have built a home and family. They are raising their two children to be ethical, kind and creative people. They are giving them Jewish educations and identities. What more can you ask of them or anyone?
This local celebration deserves a blessing. So does the new possibility for more couples to follow their paths: Blessed are You, Master of the cosmos, who kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to experience this moment.