Email message from Rabbi Joel Rembaum, Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles, March 2006
A member of Temple Beth Am who has served on the Beth Am Board of Trustees, who regularly worships at the Library Minyan and who is gay will be celebrating his commitment ceremony with his partner in the spring. Neither Rabbi Netter nor I officiate at such ceremonies, because it is the ruling of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) that Conservative rabbis not do so. However, it is also a CJLS ruling that the granting of honors to gays and lesbians is to be determined by the congregational rabbi, who always has final Halakhic (Jewish legal) authority for his/her congregation, in consultation with the appropriate lay leadership entities. After meeting with our member, who was seeking some way of celebrating his simcha with his Beth Am community, I determined that it was appropriate that, in advance of their ceremony, he and his partner, both of whom are Jews, have an Aufruf, that is be given an Aliyah to the Torah and receive a special Mishebeirakh prayer that I composed and will recite in celebration of their simcha.
I presented my ruling and the text of the prayer I wrote to the appropriate committees and forums in the congregation that represent our various worship communities, Shir Hadash, Library Minyan, Bait Tefillah and Daily Minyan, and the ruling and the prayer received strong support. They also have the support of our President, Executive Vice President, Ritual Vice President, Senior Staff and many rabbis who are members of our congregation. Most notably, Beth Am member, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Vice Chair of the CJLS, Rector of the University of Judaism, UJ Professor of Philosophy and one of the leading legal minds and theologians in America, is also supportive of it. The Aufruf will take place in the Library Minyan in May, and we wish a Mazal Tov to our two friends.
By coincidence, this process unfolded at the time that the CJLS was revisiting the issues of Conservative rabbis officiating at gay/lesbian commitment ceremonies and the ordination of gays and lesbians by the seminaries of the Conservative Movement. As it turns out, these decisions will only be made in December. As I intimated above, these are weightier matters than a gay or lesbian couple having an Aufruf, but there is no doubt that they are related. Because the Aufruf decision is part of the larger question of how Jewish law has dealt and ought to deal with the matter of homosexuality, I thought it would be important that I summarize my thinking on the larger question. What follows is only a summary. If you would like a full text of my ruling, please be in touch with me.
1. The Torah teaches us that it is prohibited for two men lie together as a man lies with a woman. This is an abomination, and the punishment for such an action is death (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13). The rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash affirm the Torah's rulings, and expand them in certain ways, including the addition of a prohibition of lesbian sex. What is interesting is that there are very few sources that address this matter, and it is always associated with pagans. There are no references in the Bible to actual cases of Israelites engaging in such behavior. It appears to be the assumption of both the Bible and the Rabbis that this is the way the pagan world operates, and that Jews should not behave this way. None of the ancient sources refer to homosexuals as a group, nor do they address the issue of homosexuality as an element of a person's character; they only condemn gay/lesbian sexual activity. By associating a punishment with this behavior it clear that the ancients held that people who behaved in this way chose to do so and, therefore, could be held responsible for their choices.
2. Today we know that homosexuality is an aspect of the natural makeup of certain human beings. It is the way God "made" them. It is understood universally that it is not something that is acquired or that people choose to do. It is the way they are. Consequently, when they behave in the manner discussed in the Torah they are simply acting in conformity with the natural impulses that operate within them, just as heterosexuals act in conformity with the natural impulses that operate within them. Thus, as Rabbi Dorff has noted, the real moral issue involved in homosexuality is not the sexual activity, but the context in which it takes place. Like heterosexual relations, homosexual relations can be monogamous, loving and caring - or the opposite. And, today we know that homosexuality is present in Jews just as it is in non-Jews and has nothing to do with one's national, ethnic or religious background.
3. Given all of the above, I offer an approach found in the Jewish legal tradition that can help us move away from the ancient Jewish approach to homosexuality. As a Conservative Jew, I believe that Jewish law is a constantly evolving process, and when new information or sensitivities emerge over time, the Halakhic process, even in ancient and medieval times, has ways to adapt to them. One such approach is the way the Rabbis handle the Biblical law regarding the rebellious son ( ben sorer u-moreh, Deuteronomy 21:18-21). This son is a glutton and a drunkard who consistently refuses to heed his parents. According to the Torah, he is to be brought to a judge, and if the judge ascertains that the charges are valid, the son is put to death by stoning. In Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud (68-72) the Rabbis analyze the law of the rebellious son, and they create so many conditions and qualifications for the case that it becomes, for all practical purposes, impossible to carry out the punishment. Toward the end of the Talmudic discussion one authority suggests that an incident of a rebellious son never took place and never will take place. The Talmud then asks: So why is it in the Torah? The answer given is: for us to study. The Rabbis felt that this was a law they did not want to implement. They probably assumed that it was too harsh and could lead to much pain and tragedy, so they rendered it inoperative. As a pedagogic tool, however, it continues to remind parents and children of the importance of establishing healthy parent - child relations. I suggest that the ancient laws regarding homosexual behavior be treated in a similar fashion. Given the contemporary understanding of homosexuality, we should create a framework of qualification around the Biblical and Rabbinic dicta and say: this is what the understanding of homosexual behavior was in the past, but it is based on inaccurate information and should not be applied today. Applying the ancient standards today results in cruelty and insensitivity. Rather, the ancient laws should remain with us as pedagogic tools, to remind us that if sexual behavior, hetero- or homosexual, is irresponsible, abusive or casual, it is an abomination and is to be avoided. Loving, caring sexual behavior, done in the context of a monogamous relationship that is based on mutual responsibility and commitment, however, is to be encouraged.
This is some of the thinking that has moved me to reach my conclusion. We in Temple Beth Am are not dealing here with a major ruling that will immediately change how we, as a community and as individuals, deal with a very significant and sensitive matter. It is, however, a first step in what has to be an ongoing community conversation that, over time, will change our views and opinions. What we have to remember is that our conversation must be respectful and operate within the parameters of the friendships and relationships that make our Beth Am family so special to us. We also have to remember that if Jewish gays and lesbians come to us as a Jewish religious community and ask us to welcome them, to help them celebrate and affirm their Jewishness and to stand with them as they create a Jewish home and raise Jewish children, it is a great mitzvah for us to say to them: Yes we are here for you; welcome to our family.
So, again, Mazal Tov to our dear friends who will celebrate their simcha with us.
Rabbi Joel Rembaum