What Does Judaism Have to Say about Homosexuality, Jewish Same Sex-Marriages and Ordination?

The following question was asked during a recent survey. In developing the answer several principles of spirituality emerged for me, which may be interesting to you:

You are responsible for deciding on the ordination of persons, will you ordain someone who is gay or lesbian? Why, why not. Will you perform a marriage for two homosexuals? Why, why not.

I fully endorse and participate in the ordination and also the marriage of homosexual Jews. Continue to hear more about this from an institutional perspective, click here to view how I relate to the biblical texts in coming to my decision. In Living Jewish Life Cycle: How to Create Meaningful Jewish Rites of Passage I describe how to hold all Jewish ceremonies both traditionally and inclusively.

Reconstructionist Judaism, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish renewal and The Academy for Jewish Religion all have engaged in the unconditional ordination of gay and lesbian clergy since before my own ordination, and now the option exists within the Conservative Movement as well. All four programs now also teach our students to perform marriages for Jews regardless of sexual orientation. I agree with this whole-heartedly. In the first three of these groups I have participated as a member of the bet din (religious court) or other decisive authority in the selection or or ordination of many students, including those across the full specturm of gender-identity.

Rabbi Janet Marder put the matter most succinctly to my mind in the October 1985 issues of the Reconstructionist "reverence for tradition is no virtue when it promotes injustice and human suffering." In 1984 the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) began the unconditional ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and The Academy for Jewish Religion did so shortly thereafter. This has long been a principle and practice within Jewish renewal as well.

The Reconstructionist public was not initially so excited with this accomplishment as were those at the our seminary. A lengthy process was initiated of study of religious texts, ethics, and scientific findings on the topic. This study process was conducted in every congregation and led to the 1995 report "Homosexuality and Judaism: The Reconstructionist Position." In this report the authors (representative of regional dialogue groups so that every congregation felt heard) reviewed the relevant biblical, talmudic and contemporary writings in detail and issued a carefully reasoned position in favor of gay and lesbian marriage/commitment rituals, congregational membership and ordination.

A fundamental principle of Reconstructionism to which I do my best to adhere allowed for the process described above to take place, this is described in the report: "Before the modern era, change in Judaism was largely an unacknowledged process. Today with critical tools of analysis, and with open recognition of the human source of Jewish traditions, our reinterpretation is conscious and intentional. It is our obligation as Reconstructionist Jews to reinterpret our traditions, rendering them meaningful and compelling to contemporary Jews."

This method of reinterpretation was named "revaluation" by the movement’s founder, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan. "Revaluation consists of disengaging from the traditional content those elements in it which answer permanent postulates of human nature, and in integrating them into our own ideology. When we revaluate, we analyze or break up the traditional values into their implications, and single out of acceptance those implications which can help us meet our own moral and spiritual needs." The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, NY, Reconstructionist press 1962, pp 6-7.

The commission found fifteen contemporary Jewish values which undergird the movement’s stance on homosexuality. These can be referenced in the report’s forty pages available in a source book on the subject issued by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

2. How I interpret the relevant biblical texts:

Those who oppose the ordination of homosexuals draw upon different aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition including several biblical texts, especially Leviticus 20:13 and Roman’s l:24-27. How do you deal with these texts? How do they inform your decision, if at all?

In Judaism holiness, kedushah, is achieved through ritual and moral regulation. The holiness code in Leviticus 19 elaborates actions which define behavior leading to holiness. Many see the goal of a Jewish religious life as making holiness manifest throughout the world. However, a verse doeth not a moral code make, verses must be seen in the context of their larger rubric and through the lens of the times in which we live.

At this point it is most helpful to quote from an article by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson that appeared in the Jewish Spectator Magazine

"The proscription of homosexual acts in Leviticus forms the basis for all later halakhic prohibitions of homosexual acts. So, for example, the Mishnah states that "one who has intercourse with a male (M. Sandhedrin7:4) is to be stoned (see also Mishneh Torah, Issurei Bi’ah, l:4 and Sefer Mitzvat Gadol, Negative Commandment 94). Elsewhere (M. Kiddushin 4:14), the Mishnah records an argument on a similar subject: ‘Said Rabbi Judah, "Two bachelors should not sleep under one cover.’ But the Sages permit it’" [The text reveals that] the fear is of two bachelors sleeping under one cover that they will engage in a sexual act out of convenience. These are two heterosexuals with no other sexual outlet."

"The Talmud (B. Sandrin9b) discusses a case of homosexual rape, permitting the man who was raped to testify against the rapist. In the same tractate, the Talmud considers:

Where is the prohibition of a male? Because it says "if a man," a man and not a minor. And it says, "lies with a man," whether the passive partner be an adult or a minor. And it says, "as with a woman," from which we learn that there are two modes of lying with a woman. This verses speaks of the punishment for this act. (B Sanhedrin 54-a-b and see B. Yevamot 38b)

These passages speak about homosexual acts outside of the context of homosexual relationship. The nature of the sex is casual, almost circumstantial - two bachelors who happen to be under the same blanket, a young boy seduced by an older man (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Bi’ah l:14.

"The context of the Bible’s knowledge of homosexual acts is clarified by examining the two occasions where these acts are threatened. In the first case, the men of Sodom demand that Lot send out his guests so they could rape them. It should be noted that these would-be rapists are all heterosexual. Similarly, in he second case the Benjaminites of Gibeah demand "bring out the man who has come into your house, so that we can be intimate with him." Rabbi Robert Gordis notes: ‘Actually the two episodes highlight the heinous sin involved in violating the ancient practice of hospitality to strangers ; they are not primarily concerned with homosexuality.’"

Biblical texts which deal with homosexuality and in some cases heterosexuality most often do so in the context of violence or as in the case of Romans l: 24-27 and others, deal with idolatry and lust, not loving relationships. These are called "to-ey-vah" in Hebrew and are prohibited. Reconstructionism affirms committed relationships which are non-violent and which model living together in the context of loving commitment, i.e., marital holiness. I join in decrying the violent and non-relationship-based use of sexuality which the Torah and Talmud highlight in a great number of texts.

Again from the article by Rabbi Artson: "There is not a single case in the Tanakh which deals with homosexual acts in the context of homosexual love. Every case treats homosexuals who engage in homosexual acts as an expression of idolatry, of power (such as rape), or, presumably for fun....The Torah was not speaking about the constitutional homosexual because it had no awareness of the possibility of such a person...The Torah did not prohibit what it did not know."

[He quotes Rabbi Hershel Matt] "It is only in our own generation that homosexual behavior had been found to involve not merely a single overt act, or series of such acts, but often to reflect a profound inner condition and basic psychic orientation, involving the deepest levels of personality."

Thus, through the Kaplanian process of revaluation one comes to a new understanding of text and tradition which "allows the possibility of sanctifying a narrow range of homosexual behavior, just as we sanctify a narrow range of heterosexual behavior." (Artson, page 12). "The Bible knows of homosexual acts, but not of homosexual orientation or persons. As such its designation of a homosexual act as a to’evah may be understood as referring to a homosexual act outside of the context of the entire person. Anonymous or coercive homosexual acts, for example are, indeed, abominations. To’evah still applies to sexual relations with minors, bath house sex, rape, sado-masochistic sex. Indeed, all sexual acts which are coercive, morally degrading, or violent were prohibited by the Torah. That prohibition has not changed at all."

The Reconstructionist movement report mentioned above states:

"Traditional Judaism spoke of the widow, the orphan, the deaf, and the blind as those most in need of protection. Justice for the vulnerable is a test of the ultimate values of a community or society. Jewish sources, prayers and rituals continually remind us that we were once vulnerable as a people, enslaved in Egypt. We speak of having been strangers in the land of Egypt .At various later points in Jewish history, we have been vilified and oppressed for no reason other than our identity as Jews. As a consequence, a major theme of Jewish tradition is the obligation to be sensitive to the needs of ... those that society views as outcast. The Jewish people has a special concern about just and fair treatment ..."

The 1995 report called upon Reconstructionist congregations to become "welcoming communities" for gay and lesbian Jews and rabbis, and they indeed, in the greatest measure, have succeeded at doing so.