A Jewish Way to Be Gay

5 Jul

jewishgaypride

It’s wedding season.

While normally those three words make me want to roll my eyes and make gagging gestures, recently they don’t.

I say this not because I’m engaged and can’t wait to marry my best friend and the love of my life (though this is true), or because I have a case of  so-called “wedding brain” wherein my wedding plans are all I can excitedly or nervously think about (this is not true).

To be clear: I don’t think this way. I won’t. Ever.

A wedding isn’t very important to me or to Steve (gasp! This is an entirely blasphemous thing to say when you’re engaged!) We’re not ones to care about it. I for one don’t look at wedding websites or blogs. I don’t buy wedding magazines. I don’t imagine my wedding day. The dress. The cake. The party decor. The band. The first dances. None of it. I just don’t. I know most people do, but I never have.

There is a difference between feeling indifferent toward weddings and feeling indifferent towards my marriage.

I am very happily engaged to Steve. I care deeply about being married to him. I care about being together forever and building a Jewish home. I care about going on an amazing honeymoon vacation. But, if I weren’t converting to Judaism, I’d have just gone to City Hall and married Steve a long time ago. (A Jewish wedding ceremony is newly important to me, however, so while a big wedding reception in the classic sense is not my idea of a good time, standing under the chupah with Steve, our families, and Rabbi C is a must).

All this is to say that while I am not one to care much about wedding season or what have you, I have more respect for the institution of marriage these days. I have a renewed appreciation for what a wedding represents and means to people.

I don’t have to tell you about the historic Supreme Court rulings last Wednesday that struck down DOMA and upheld the overturning of Prop 8 in California. These decisions were monumental, and in my view, right.

I am a straight American white woman who has had many advantages in life. The decisions don’t affect me in the same way they affect my gay friends, colleagues, or fellow human beings. But, for a long time I’ve stood in solidarity with the fight for marriage equality because I believe that I have no more right to love who I love and marry who I want to marry than any other couple.

That I am straight does not make me better or more deserving of civil rights.

The events last week make me happy and prouder to be an American. And, in a way, the rulings make me feel less guilty about getting married in the first place.

Empire State Building lit in rainbow colors for gay pride, New York City, June 2013

Empire State Building lit in rainbow colors for gay pride, New York City, June 2013

Just after the rulings last Wednesday, the New York Times posted a video of a gay couple and their family’s reaction to the Supreme Court’s decisions. It’s an emotional moment for the two men and their children. When one of them calls his mother to share the news, her response almost immediately is to say “mazel tov, mazel tov!”

Last Sunday the New York Times also published an article covering the Pride parade down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. At the end, Judaism is twice invoked. Here’s the excerpt:

Rick Landman, 61, of TriBeCa, remembered a longing even further back, expressed in Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue in Queens. The class was discussing marriage blessings, or brachot, when Mr. Landman, then 13, said: “I don’t like girls. Is there a bracha for boys to get married?”

Martha Shelley, 69, of Portland, Ore., has already married Sylvia Allen twice — once in Canada and again in California, during the brief period when it was legal there in 2008. They will be married again in their home state if they can.

But Ms. Shelley said she did not view marriage, or the right to serve openly in the armed forces, as the culmination of her work as an advocate for peace, racial and economic equality and abortion rights, among other causes. She currently assists homeowners who have lost their homes to foreclosure.

“Anyone who thinks people like me are going to be mollified by having the right to kill and get blown up, or the right to get married, is wrong,” Ms. Shelley said. “We have a huge struggle to fight.” After a pause, she paraphrased an ethical maxim from the Talmud. “You are not obliged to finish the work,” she said, “but neither are you permitted to desist in it.”

Mazel tov. Hebrew school. The Talmud. I guess this is New York City! In light of this truly momentous victory for gay rights, in recognition of the enormous gay pride parades that took place across the country last weekend, and as a nod to all the press coverage, I decided I’d take a look at homosexuality through the lens of Judaism.

Not surprisingly, the different sects of Judaism and Jews themselves differ in their stances on homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

In Orthodox Judaism the general belief is that homosexuality is an abomination and expressly prohibited in the Torah and the Schulchan Aruch, a code of law, citing the following verses and lines of text:

“A man who lies with a man as one lies with a woman, they have both done an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is on them” (Leviticus 20:13)

“For women to rub against each other in the position of sexual intercourse is forbidden…it is fitting for the court to administer lashes for this transgression” (The Schulchan Aruch – Even HaEzer 20:2)

When homosexuality is purely seen as an individual’s deliberate choice and homosexual actions have the sole purpose of spiting God, it is easy to understand why traditional Judaism prohibits it. Orthodox Jewish rabbis usually will not officiate at same-sex wedding ceremonies and gay men cannot become Orthodox rabbis (the same goes for lesbians, but they’re also excluded from the Orthodox rabbinate because they are women).

There is a fabulous documentary called Trembling Before God, which is about Orthodox Jews around the world who are gay. It documents their experiences and immense difficulties reconciling their belief in God and strong Orthodox Jewish identity with their homosexuality. When you meet these people, hear their stories, and witness their deep love of the Jewish faith, it’s hard to believe that ostracizing gay people from their families and communities is the holy thing to do.

It’s a heartbreaking film but very worth seeing. (You can stream it online for free here).

Though difficulties abound, today it is not hard to find Orthodox Jews and rabbis who are sympathetic to gay rights. Over the years, a few Orthodox rabbis have come out, and a few have agreed to officiate at same-sex marriages.

Just as there is a lot of variance of opinion and Jewish ritual and halakhic observance within Orthodox Judaism, the same is true with regards to homosexuality.

While as a general rule Orthodox rabbis and their congregations today tow the denomination’s party line and do not fully support gay people or gay marriage within Judaism, this is a little halfhearted. This may be the case at Steve’s parent’s modern Orthodox synagogue, for example.

For many Orthodox Jews, in their heart of hearts being gay is okay.

That there exists a paradox is not lost on leaders within Orthodox Judaism. Debate is fierce and far more complex than what I have outlined here.

Pride parade in Israel. According to some reports, gay Orthodox Jews see growing acceptance in Israel

Pride parade in Israel. According to some reports, gay Orthodox Jews see growing acceptance in Israel

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the central authority on halakhah for Conservative Judaism, the smallest of the denominations, ruled in 2006 to lift the prohibitions on homosexuality, allow rabbis to bless same-sex marriages, and ordain openly gay clergy.

Though this dramatic shift in position was announced, the CJLS left open the option for Conservative synagogues to form their own decisions on the matter. That is, if particular Conservative synagogues would prefer to follow traditional Judaism’s prohibition on homosexuality, that would be allowed. Now within Conservative Judaism there are congregations that support gay rights and gay marriage and there are ones that don’t.

Matzvah equality

Matzah equality

At its inception, Reform Judaism’s aim was to reinterpret Jewish law for modern times. Judaism, the denomination asserts, has always been made up of a series of reforms that reflect shifts in society as a whole. It’s always evolving. There is a way to be uniquely Jewish and also a fully assimilated member of greater society.

Living a Jewish life should be relevant to modern life. So, when Reform Judaism examines the modern-day issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage in light of what is written in the Torah, they don’t see outright condemnation of homosexuality. Reform Jews view the Levitical laws as referring to prostitution or as an archaic rule that no longer applies now that we know more about the nature of human sexuality.

As such, for a long time there have been Reform rabbis, congregations, and Jews that have accepted openly gay congregants and clergy and supported gay marriage. In 2000, the CCAR voted to allow Reform rabbis to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, stating “that the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”

I should note that Reconstructionist Judaism has fully supported homosexuality and same-sex marriage within the faith since the early 1990s.

Out in the so-called real world, it seems like people are more afraid to be homophobic than sexist these days. This is just my own casual quasi-feminist observation. It’s in vogue, in a way, to support gay rights–and not just in certain blue states and among the liberal-arts educated. I’ve read that a majority of young Republicans today support marriage equality. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s right to allow same-sex marriage and enforce legal fairness regardless of sexual orientation–but there’s still no Equal Rights Amendment for women in the U.S. Constitution. I’m just saying…

But, I digress.

In the past I’ve worried that with a Reform Jewish conversion I won’t be considered really Jewish by other Jews (and also non-Jews). Reform Judaism has the reputation of being the lesser and not-quite-as-Jewish of the denominations of Judaism.

I recently had a conversation with a man from our synagogue who told me he and his wife chose to have a Conservative Jewish conversion for their infant daughter when she was adopted. They have been members of this Reform synagogue for over 20 years and are very involved with the congregation. Still, they chose a Conservative conversion, he said, because they didn’t want people to have as much room to question her Jewish authenticity. (There is reciprocity between the Reform and Conservative denominations).

This gave me a moment’s pause.

I want to be authentically Jewish and I don’t want people–other Jews, Steve’s family, my family, friends, or anyone else to question it. I want to be–and be seen as–the real deal.

But I can’t set aside my (secular) beliefs.

Ultimately, I’m joining a religion because it adds something positive to my life. As such, the religion I join must be one that is consistent with the modern and progressive values I’ve developed through my lifetime, and not usurp those values.

I am reminded of a quote I once saw attributed to the late gay author, playwright, and political thinker, Gore Vidal:

“Always remember that it is of no consequence to you what other people think of you. What matters is what you think of them. That is how you live your life.”

As just another straight person who supports gay rights and marriage equality, among other progressive beliefs, Reform is the only choice. Other people’s thoughts be damned.

***

Your comments are welcome in the reply section below. Any advice for planning my Jewish wedding?

***

Last week I took a poll on whether Myles the cat should convert to Judaism. Here are the results:

  • 46% said Oy gevault! This is too weird!
  • 24% said Purr (yes)
  • 15% said Hiss (no)
  • 15% said Other

Notable suggestions from the “other” category include: “What does Myles think?” (I’m not sure, but I’ll ask) and “Only if you feel he needs to” (Hmm…I don’t really, but maybe if I run out of ideas for blog post topics…)

Thanks for voting!

***

{image credit: 1. Jewish Gay Pride flag from http://www.hmag.com/2012/04/italian-jewish-gay-pride-parade-set-to-replace-hoboken-st-patricks-day/ 2. Empire State Building lit up in rainbow colors for Gay Pride taken by Steve at Convert Confidential. 3. Photo of gay pride parade in Israel from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/13/gay-orthodox-jews_n_876296.html 4. Matzah image from http://blogs.rj.org/rac/2013/03/28/let-my-people-go-forth-to-the-wedding-chapel/}

4 Responses to “A Jewish Way to Be Gay”

  1. A Blue Thread July 8, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

    IN MY OPINION….Leviticus 20:13, as well as the accompanying verses, is pretty darned clear on what is and isn’t permitted, despite one’s personal urges and/or opinion on the matter. Having those homosexual urges isn’t prohibited, though, but *acting* upon them is where one runs afoul of the law. If one chooses to ignore the law and ‘do their own thing’ that’s up to them, but putting blinders on and saying the law isn’t clear (or doesn’t exist) is just being irresponsible.

    Again, this is my personal opinion; your mileage may vary.

  2. abluethread1963 July 8, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    (I haven’t posted on a WordPress blog in a long time; forgive me if this posts twice!)

    IN MY OPINION….Leviticus 20:13, as well as the accompanying verses, is pretty darned clear on what is and isn’t permitted, despite one’s personal urges and/or opinion on the matter. Having those homosexual urges isn’t prohibited, though, but *acting* upon them is where one runs afoul of the law. If one chooses to ignore the law and ‘do their own thing’ that’s up to them, but putting blinders on and saying the law isn’t clear (or doesn’t exist) is just being irresponsible.

    Again, this is my personal opinion; your mileage may vary.

  3. Vanessa July 11, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

    Many religious texts blatantly condone rape, incest, etc, but most religious people have found a way to feel comfortable ignoring these “laws”. I think that’s what Kate is talking about here, as I’m understanding it – how religious individuals struggle, not so much with the literal translation of a religious passage, but with reconciling their personal ethics with what the religion says. And it seems that ultimately, people try to interpret the text so that it resonates with their own morals, since most things are infinitely interpretable, particularly over thousands of years and translations. I think that the way someone tries to justify this interpretation says more about that person’s attitude than it does about the meaning of the text.

    I know many people who are religious who have also managed to be supportive of gender, racial, and marriage equality. I would love to hear more from these people about their thought process in working through these issues, and I really enjoyed reading about Kate’s process. It also seems that there’s something particularly progressive about the Jewish faith – Kate, as a future Jew and resident expert, do you have any ideas about why this is? I’ve always liked how connected Jewish people (at least, the ones I’ve known) seem to be with current events and social issues, but I don’t know a whole lot about the religion. It definitely contrasts with what I remember from church as a kid.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A (Jewish) Summer Reading List | Convert Confidential - August 8, 2013

    […] (mazel tov, Deb and Joe!). It will be our third (Jewish) wedding in one-and-a-half weeks. Yes, it’s wedding season. After this, our weekends will be wedding-less. Well, at least for a while. (Wedding season is […]

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