The law enacted last week, allowing same-gender couples to legally marry in the District of Columbia, is a governmental matter. Yet, as a member of the clergy, I’ve been asked over and over again about my religious opinion on the matter.
Of course, the spheres of spiritual and civil life often overlap. The Hebrew Bible includes many laws, such as those governing commerce or damages, which would be considered civil law in today’s society. Further, the text demands its adherents step into the public sphere when the rights of historically oppressed groups are threatened. Members of the Jewish community have a long history of supporting – and working toward – civil rights for many who were once considered voiceless in society.
The rabbinic body of Reform Movement in Judaism, the denomination through which I was ordained, voted, in 1977, to oppose any legislation that would limit the civil rights of gay men and lesbians, quite a bold move at the time. In 1996, a smaller body of the same group, while denying religious marriage as it was traditionally understood, encouraged its members to welcome homosexual individuals and couples into their congregations and work toward inclusiveness at a time when parity seemed impossible. During this same year, the movement’s leaders affirmed the rights of gay men and lesbians to have access to the institution of civil marriage.
Four years later, in 2000, the Reform Movement’s rabbis voted overwhelmingly in favor of allowing the movement’s clergy to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies. It’s important to note that the Reform movement is not the only Jewish denomination that is supportive of either civil or religious marriage (or both) for same-gender couples. Members of the Reconstructionist Movement in Judaism as well as some Conservative Jewish leaders have also affirmed and worked toward civil and religious rights in this area.
Even if you’ve never read the Bible, you’re likely aware of the verse from Leviticus (18:22) widely understood as banning male homosexuality. The verse is often translated: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” Though the word abomination is an imperfect, and perhaps somewhat harsh, translation of the Hebrew original, the verse is correctly understood in its sociological context as placing homosexuality on the category of things that ought not be done.
With Jewish law so firmly in the “no” column, why have I and many of my colleagues said “yes” so loudly and clearly? I can only answer for myself, though I know that at least some of my views are shared by colleagues.
In the stage version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the main character, Tevye, in lamenting the encroachment of modern life on his small, yet comfortable existence, laments to his wife, “It’s a new world, Golda.” Judaism, though steeped in tradition, is an evolving religion. It is impossible for me, as a 21st century American Jew, to live by a strict interpretation of laws that were first introduced in a societal context completely foreign to modern experience not to mention current knowledge of gender and sexual identity formation.
I support civil and religious marriage not despite my understanding of Jewish tradition but because of it.
In the biblical story of creation, human beings are said to be made btzelem elohim, in the image of God. If we are all created to reflect God’s goodness, then I believe we should all have equal access to God’s bounty. Loving relationships are part of that bounty. In the second telling of the creation story, a partner is formed for Adam, the first man, because “It is not good for a human being to be alone.” Though not all in our society have found partners, it seems like unspeakable cruelty to deny some who have the right to live and affirm that partnership.
Judaism is a religion based on a covenantal relationship – one between God and a people – and highly values covenants and oaths. In Judaism, marriage is known as kiddushin, or holiness. If two people, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, choose to sanctify their relationship and publicly and legally affirm their commitment to one another, it not only strengthens their individual bond, it serves to make our community stronger as well.
Rabbi Toby Manewith is with Bet Mishpachah. Reach her via betmish.org.