November 20, 2008
Marriage is a Jewish issue
Parshat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)
This week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, is the biblical equivalent of JDate. After Sarah's death, Abraham gets busy trying to find the right wife for his son, Isaac. He sends his servant, Eliezer, to Abraham's hometown to make the match. Eliezer prays that the right girl will show up at the well and that she will make herself known to him through her generosity, gentleness and beauty. And sure enough, everything unfolds the way it was supposed to, and Eliezer brings Rebecca home to Isaac.
As they approach on their camels, Rebecca sees Isaac off in the distance. The translation says: "And she alighted from her camel." But the Hebrew word can also mean: "She fell off her camel." I've always loved Rebecca for that -- just at the moment when you want to make the best impression, you trip. I can identify with that. Still, Isaac loved Rebecca from the moment he saw her.
A lot has changed since the biblical period about how we find a marriage partner. And our ideas about who might be an appropriate partner have changed, as well. But as we saw from the recent passage of Proposition 8, not everyone agrees.
Why is Proposition 8 a Jewish issue? After all, doesn't the Bible say, "One who lies with a male as one lies with a female is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22)? If we read the Torah as fundamentalists do, this and other verses would indeed present a problem. (Should we really execute people for working on Shabbat?)
That's not how most Jews read the Torah. We read it through the lens of commentary and with the understanding that certain laws, which might have made sense in biblical society, are no longer relevant now.
As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson wrote in "Gay and Lesbian Jews: A Teshuvah," "We have reviewed a range of rabbinic reasons given for opposing same-sex acts. We have concluded that homosexuality is not intrinsically unnatural ... destructive of family life, devoid of the possibility of children, or hedonistic. We are dealing, therefore, not with a previously considered and previously outlawed phenomena, but with a situation never before encountered in Jewish law. Modern homosexual love and stable homosexual couples are different in significant respects from anything known in Torah or rabbinic Judaism."
In other words, what the Torah proscribes has nothing to do with contemporary gay or lesbian relationships and therefore is irrelevant to the current discussion. What does matter are core values that emerge out of Jewish tradition, including the fundamental notion that all human beings are created in the image of God and mishpat ehat yihe'eh lachem, that law should be applied equally to all.
Proposition 8 is a Jewish issue because we know what it is to be victimized because we are different. We need to stand up and defend the civil and human rights of other minorities. And it is a Jewish issue because it is also about us.
Gays and lesbians are part of our family. They are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our cousins and nieces and nephews. Gay and lesbian families are in our synagogues, their children are in our day schools, our religious schools and our early childhood centers. They are part of our community. "They" are "us."
Reform Judaism has taken the lead in the Jewish community in supporting the civil and human rights of gays and lesbians. The Reform movement welcomed the first synagogue for gay and lesbian Jews into what is now the Union for Reform Judaism in 1974. The Reform movement began to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis in 1990, and, in 1996, the Reform movement went on record to "support the right of gay and lesbian couples to share fully and equally in the rights of civil marriage."
Thirteen years ago, I stood under a chuppah with my friends Rabbi Lisa Edwards and Tracy Moore. It was a powerful ceremony -- without a marriage license. They were and still are such fitting partners for each other, still in love after all these years. Last month I stood with them again under their chuppah, this time with speaker of the state Assembly, Karen Bass. This time with a marriage license.
When Bass signed the license and declared them married according to the laws of the state of California, the congregation burst into applause. It was a historic moment.
Now the status of that marriage is unclear. This is a Jewish issue. The right to marry is a Jewish issue because we believe that all human beings, male and female, gay and straight, are created in the image of God. The right to marry is a matter of civil rights; each of us has the right to choose a fitting partner for ourself and enjoy the same protection that the law provides to any married couple and their children.
Few of us meet our marriage partners at the well anymore. Our world has changed. But some things never change. God is present when two people commit their lives to each other and become one family. We need to continue the struggle for marriage equality, because it is a Jewish issue.
Rabbi Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation.