I recently officiated, the wedding of one of my Temple’s preschool teachers. I wasn’t nervous about the ceremony because I was well-prepared, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the emotion that was going to overwhelm me. As I took my place on the bima and saw our preschool teacher, dressed in a white tuxedo, walk toward me, the power of the moment became overwhelming. Then as the bride emerged, dressed in a traditional white gown, I felt tears well up in my eyes, and I kind of wished I had hidden a tissue in my Rabbi’s manual.
Why was I so emotional? Because what I didn’t tell you is that the preschool teacher in the white tuxedo was also a bride. I was officiating for the first time, a completely legally recognized same-sex wedding, and I was honored to do so.
In the afterglow of that event, I started reading that week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot to prepare for a sermon I was to give, and there it was… Chapter 18, verse 22. “Do not lie with a male as you would with a woman, it is an abomination.”
Now, I knew this passage was in our Torah. I just didn’t realize it was in that week’s portion and that I would read it the same day I officiated a same-sex marriage. But I also know many beloved, gay Jewish clergy, and therefore there has to be a way to be totally committed to Judaism and Torah and be peaceful with the idea of same-sex relationships. What I didn’t yet know was how.
In the portion, before verse 22, God gives a long list of “shall nots,” to ensure we don’t act as other peoples do. Then God warns, “…That the land not vomit you out also, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For whoever shall do any of these abominations, even the souls who do them shall be cut off from among their people.”
So, what effect is the author of the Torah (regardless of what you believe about its authorship) looking for here? Fear. Plain and simple fear. However, as someone who believes that the Torah is at minimum interpreted, if not completely written by man, I don’t believe in a God of fear. I can’t. I have to believe in a God of love. I believe it was our ancient teachers, not God Him/Herself, who felt they needed to frighten us to ensure we behaved as they believed we needed to in order for our people to survive. So our people were told that varying from what was thought to be God’s word would lead to misery, destruction, and isolation in order to keep us together.
Commentators before me have noted that the statement that man should not lie with man is not presented in the context of love or relationship, but in the context of blending with foreign ways or worship. The author (or authors) of the Torah could not have possibly understood, as we do now, that homosexual love is the result of deep, true, God-given emotions and desires. The belief that it was an act only of idolatry or simple sexual promiscuity was all they knew. The Torah never addresses homosexual activity as a result of love because they never considered the possibility of that kind of love. If our ancient teachers could have known then what we know now, verse 22 may have been written very differently.
In the Central Conference of Rabbi’s online responsa (written scholarly response on a Jewish topic) on homosexuality it says:
“The Talmud states that Jews are not ‘under the suspicion of homosexuality.’ In other words, the opposition to homosexuality was more than a Biblical law; it was a deep-rooted way of life of the Jewish people, a way of life maintained in a world where homosexuality was a widespread practice.”
It wasn’t even a consideration at that time, then, that homosexuality could be present in the Jewish community. Yet knowing what we know now about the nature of homosexual love, it just isn’t possible that there were no Jewish people in Talmudic times who felt that kind of love. I imagine the horror of a man or woman realizing how his/her mind, heart and body reacted to another of the same sex. I picture them wishing it away, trying to pray it away, asking God why God would have made them this way if it is an abomination. I see miserable marriages with men and women who are desperately trying to physically love their spouses and just can’t do it. I feel their pain as they succumb to the reality that they are who they are and believe they can tell no one because, “Jews are not under the suspicion of homosexuality.”
But, here we are, in 2015, with same-sex marriage legal in many states and the issue currently being heard by the supreme court. For me, as a heterosexual spiritual leader of progressive Jewish thought, I believe I must support my gay sisters and brothers by saying: Torah is not necessarily the word of God, and not necessarily an accurate interpretation of God, but Torah is our ancient teachers’ best understanding of God at that time, and please excuse them, for they knew not, yet, enough about human love or God’s love.
I wish for us all, a love for Torah, a love for all of the possible interpretations of Torah, and the ability to love in all the ways God created us to love.