Judaism believes that all people were created in the image of G-d. (Genesis 1:27) Because G-d takes no form, we understand that we have been created in the image of His values. The Talmud tells us, for example, that we should strive to emulate those values. (Tractate Sotah 14a commenting on Deuteronomy 13:5) As He clothed the naked, providing leather garments for Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21), so we should clothe the naked. As he visited the sick, when our Patriarch Avraham was recovering from the circumcision (Gen. 18:1), so we should visit the sick. As He visited the mourner to console him, when our Patriarch Yitzchak grieved the passing of his father, Avraham (Gen. 25:11), so we should visit and console mourners, as at a shiva home. As He attended to burying the deceased, as when Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) died atop Mount Nevo, where G-d buried him (Deut. 34:6), so we lovingly should attend to the final needs of the deceased.
Because we are created in His image, we also have capacities to express warmth, compassion, and love, as well as hate, anger, jealousy, rage. Some of these capacities initially seem wonderful, while others initially seem quite negative. In fact, upon reflection, each of these emotions and capacities can be good – or not – depending on how we exercise them. We wish, for example, that more people would hate terrorism and would be outraged at regimes that persecute innocents, as in Iran or Darfur. It is good to be angry when we hear of criminal misdeeds. “Those who love G-d hate evil.” (Psalms 97:10) When we sit around, lazily wasting our years, a bit of jealousy is a good spur to action when we learn of another person’s excellent achievements and suddenly decide: “Hey, I can do that!” Indeed, some of the greatest charitable acts have resulted from donors coveting the recognition that others have attained.
Thus, emotions are powerful forces, and G-d placed those feelings within us because they potentially are wonderful. Few of us would doubt that the most wonderful of all experiences – when exercised for good – are love, warmth, and compassion. G-d gave us those feelings, implanting them within us, because He loves us. And indeed we even recite His holy name at the wedding ceremony, reciting brakhot (blessings) to Him for being the One who gives happiness to the groom and the bride. (See, e.g., Tractate Ketubot 7b-8a) We are commanded to marry, to make our spouses happy, and to try having children. (Rambam, Positive Mitzvot 212-214) That happiness – the sounds of joy and gladness celebrated by grooms and brides in Jerusalem – even comprise the definitive signs of G-d’s return to His holy city. (Jeremiah 33:11; cf. Isaiah 54:1 and 62:5) His love for us, and His concomitant love for harmony and affection in marriages, even is reflected in the unusual Torah account of the laws of Sotah, in which He permits the knowing erasure of His holy name – something that always is forbidden – in order to bring harmony within a marriage and to allay strife occasioned by spousal suspicions of infidelity. (Numbers 5:23)
An accumulated body of science has brought to this generation’s perception that a small minority of individuals incline towards greater sexual passion towards someone of their own gender. Although the Torah, expressing the Word of G-d, expresses clearly that Jewish law can accept and recognize a marriage only when it is between a man and a woman, and also negates in strong terms the act of a man lying with another man as a man lies with a woman (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13), we distinguish between orientations and actions, between thoughts and deeds. Moreover, we do not inquire or seek to ferret out information we do not need to know. For example, the Torah Jewish community understands that driving on the Shabbat is forbidden, but it still warmly accepts with loving welcome the many Jews who nevertheless drive to shul on Shabbat. Naturally, there is a mutually respected understanding: one who drives to shul on Shabbat does not organize a public “Sabbath Drivers Society,” nor would he expect the shul to sponsor “Shabbat Carpools” to services. People intuitively understand that he has driven, particularly when he lives more than two or three miles’ distance from shul, and the matter is not addressed. No one judges. No one asks. And, in the best sense of holy indifference and non-judgmental acceptance, no one cares.
In much the same way, the synagogue is open to and welcomes all individuals. A person’s private sense of sexual orientation is not a matter that engages the community. Sexuality is a private matter. A Jew is a Jew, and the congregation is grateful for the opportunity to serve as a center for Torah learning, prayer, and spiritual growth for each and every Jew. A person’s sexual orientation is a private matter, much as the mainstream heterosexual population of Torah congregations also is obliged to speak and act with utmost modesty, as married couples speak with modest language, minimizing external demonstrations of physical affection for each other. Physical affection is a private matter in a Torah Jew’s lifestyle. We simply do not discuss or manifest this private subject in public.
Thus, because the Torah teaches us that marriage is between a man and a woman, those male-female unions are the only marriages or fomal public unions one finds performed in the Torah community, from time immemorial. Adam and Eve (the idealized pre-Judaism couple). Abraham and Sarah. Moses and Tzipporah. Rabbi Meir and Bruriah. One does not find same-sex marriages because such marriages would publicy run counter to the Torah’s explicit prohibition against the same-sex act. Thus, on one hand, the Torah tells us G-d’s standards for the way we conduct our lives, and G-d always is watching. (Psalms 33:13-15) Even so, what people do in private is beyond the scope of any Jewish community’s concern. If two single fellows in a congregation buy a house or condo together, if two women rent a home together, no one raises an eyebrow or asks questions – or even thinks a question is propmpted. If a single fellow rents-out a room to a woman, or vice-versa, that raises eyebrows and is deemed inappropriate. Similarly, if a single fellow in his 50s who has never married is asked why he still is single, the motivation is that some innocent is considering whether to “match him up” with a lady. No one in the Torah community assumes a same-gender orientation, and the tradition of sexual modesty that defines the lifestyle of the Torah community – from language to dress and beyond – leaves the community uninterested in discerning a person’s personal orientation.
In sum, the ideal relationship that G-d envisioned for His human creation is the embodiment of the original union of Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:8; Tractate Baba Batra 75b): a man and a woman bonding formally in love, recreating the original male-female bond of the Garden of Eden, which laid the foundation for bringing children into the world, rearing families to learn Torah and observe a kosher home and a Shabbat environment, and transmitting the Torah and its values to new generations of Jewish children. Any person whose personal orientation differs from that norm is welcome into the shul, the Torah Jewish community, and is never asked to discuss personal orientation. Although we do not institutionalize “Shabbat Carpools” or other actions outside Torah law, we respectfully welcome, teach, share, and invite into the Torah community all Jews.
What is Judaism's view on the current same-gender marriage debate? Is Judaism completely against homosexual relationships? Is it for only civil unions? Is it for complete marriage?
The Jewish tradition has a long history of wrestling with questions of how we define love, family and sexuality. It is impossible to offer a single monolithic answer to the question of same-gender marriage. Jewish scholars are deeply divided on this question.We find, for instance, that the Bible defined sexual relationship between two men as a to’eivah, abhorrence: “Do not lie with a male as one would lie with a woman: it is an abhorrence.” (Leviticus 23:22) This verse, however, is speaking about the act of sex and not necessarily a relationship between two men. (It is interesting to note that the Bible and later Jewish literature never even acknowledged the possibility of a homosexual relationship between two women.)
Bible scholars continue to debate the reason for this prohibition. Some have suggested that the biblical prohibition had more to do with pagan religious practices than it did with a loving relationship between two consenting people. Others have argued that the prohibition had something to do with the mandate for procreation – the Bible frowned on any relationship that could not produce children. However one chooses to understand this biblical verse, it seems clear that the Bible does not acknowledge the existence of same-gender marriage or relationships.
Since the 1980s there has been a considerable amount of discussion about homosexuality in the Conservative Movement. Our growing understanding of the human nature has led many people to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a homosexuality. “Sin” can only be used to define acts over which one has volition. If some human beings are ‘hard wired’ to same-sex attraction, then we must reassess how we understand such relations. Homosexuality is not a choice – it is who one is. This question is further complicated by the fact that homosexuality exists on a continuum – so we can not simply speak about people being gay or straight. In addition, sex is only part of sexuality (albeit an important part).There is more to relationships than prohibiting or permitting sexual relations.
Initially, Conservative Judaism addressed this issue institutionally by trying to encouraging congregations to be more welcoming to gay and lesbian congregants, without addressing the larger issues raised by Jewish law. In the past decade, this issue came to a head with a serious discussion of legal ramifications of homosexuality. Can Conservative rabbis perform same-sex marriages? Should people who are openly gay be admitted to Conservative rabbinical schools? Conservative Judaism is a pluralistic movement; as a result there is more than one position on these questions which has been affirmed by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.Some rabbis argued that while there are limits with regard to certain sexual acts based on the statement in Leviticus, accepting homosexuality in light of our changing understanding of human nature is a mandate based on the concept of kavod haberiot, showing respect for the diversity and dignity of all human beings. Others argued that this definition of the biblical prohibition was too limited: whatever the reason for the biblical law, the Bible was unequivocal in its prohibition of homosexual relations. While this second position argued for sympathy and acceptance, it was argued that it is beyond the prevue of Jewish law to condone homosexual marriage or openly gay rabbis.
If all this seems very confusing, you are right – it is! If nothing else, Conservative Judaism tries to be intellectually and religiously honest in addressing such issues and honoring our differences. Some issues are not black and white. I think it is fair to say that all Conservative Synagogues are open and welcoming no matter a person’s sexuality. As a movement, we are learning and growing in addressing what is for many a new question. While some rabbis feel that it is permissible to perform same-sex unions, others feel bound by Jewish law not to do so. The choice of whether we perform such marriages is not determined by rabbinic attitudes toward homosexuality but by the strictures of Jewish law. A same-sex couple will be welcomed into most of our congregations and embraced not on their sexuality but on their desire to be involved in Jewish life. Of course, the ability to perform same-sex marriages will also be determined by state law – we are bound to follow the laws of the region in which we live.
Conservative Judaism does not have an official position on civil unions: this is a question of American law. I believe most Conservative rabbis would argue that this is a question of civil rights and that we have an obligation to allow people in the public sector to make their own choices. They would, then, honor civil unions even if they could not perform a religious ceremony for the couple.
The Reform Movement’s views on same-sex marriage have evolved over the last twenty years, although the movement has always been committed to full equality and civil rights for all peoples, regardless of sexual orientation. In 1977, the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution calling for legislation decriminalizing homosexual activity between consenting adults, and prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals. In 1993, the Union for Reform Judaism (then called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) called for legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships. By 1996, the CCAR was calling for legal recognition of civil unions, although the resolution made a point of differentiating between calling for civil unions, and calling upon rabbis to officiate at religious ceremonies. (seehttp://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/resodisp.pl?file=gl&year=1996http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/resodisp.pl?file=gl&year=1996). This step was, at this point, still seen as moving further than the organization as a whole was willing to go.
However, it did not take much longer. The CCAR put together an Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality, and this committee issued a report in 1998, affirming that "kedushah may be present in committed same gender relationships between two Jews and that these relationships can serve as the foundation of stable Jewish families, thus adding strength to the Jewish community." The report recommended that the CCAR support rabbis who wish to perform same-gender religious ceremonies, and that educational materials be created to help rabbis and congregations learn about the issue. In March of 1999, the Women’s Rabbinic Network called upon the CCAR to bring this issue to the membership for a resolution, and thus, in March of 2000, the CCAR passed a resolution saying “that the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual” and supporting rabbis who perform such rituals. (see http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/resodisp.pl?file=gender&year=2000http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/resodisp.pl?file=gender&year=2000)
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