July 2, 2013
The Conservative gay marriage debate
On Rosh Hashanah in 1992, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis stood before his Conservative congregation at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino and declared that despite the words of Leviticus, homosexuality is not an abomination. He argued that the same understanding and compassion Jews afford all human beings should be extended to those attracted to others of their own sex, and he told his congregation:
“More than compassion is involved. Jewish wisdom and the morality of Jewish law are at stake. … Jews have the right, and the tradition, to interpret the text so that it sanctifies God’s name, our lives and that of our children. This is no heresy.”
Schulweis spoke long before the arguments over gay marriage became prevalent in public discourse. He spoke well after gay pride had been established, but six years before the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager. It was also a year before the enactment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which would bar harassment of closeted soldiers serving in the military, while preventing gays and lesbians from being open about their lives. The rabbi had heard many tragic stories from gays in his congregation, but he did not know how his congregants might react to his words.
They gave him a standing ovation.
Not all congregations, even ones in the same denomination, work according to the same clock. More than two decades later, just one month ago, Rabbi David Wolpe wrote a letter to his Conservative congregation at Sinai Temple, a prominent Westside synagogue less than 10 miles south of VBS, and told them that the rabbis at Sinai had “unanimously decided that it is in accordance with the great halachic [Jewish legal] principle of kavod habriot, honor due all of God’s creation, to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies, once this possibility is afforded by California law.”
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In recent years, Wolpe has been conducting classes at Sinai about inclusion and acceptance of homosexuals. He brought in speakers, including leading Jewish ethicist Rabbi Elliot Dorff, author of a 2006 responsum (legal tract) declaring gay men and women eligible for rabbinic ordination, and another regarding the creation of Jewish marriage rituals for gays and lesbians. He was preparing for the gay marriage debate.
Wolpe expanded upon his May 28 letter by offering two more classes to clarify his decision and to explain, as he told me, “We’re using the Torah to critique itself. That is: The principle of the dignity of all human beings being in God’s image — the overriding principle of the Torah of loving your neighbor as yourself. We’re using those principles in the Torah to critique other things in the Torah that don’t fit those.”
He readily admitted, “I don’t think we’re ahead of the curve here. I think we’re jumping on the snowball.” Nevertheless, the decision has made waves. Wolpe admitted that as senior rabbi at Sinai for 15 years, his own feelings about the importance of the issue, too, had evolved. This was not on the front burner when he first arrived at what was, as he put it, a “fractured and divided synagogue,” where the many Iranian immigrants at services did not mix with the rest of the congregation. But, he said, “I have felt this way for years — not decades, years. I would tell anybody privately, if someone came in to me to talk about it, ‘I have a fractured congregation, and I have to choose the timing of this with care.’ ”
Yet he did not know how his congregants would react to the letter mailed to all congregants just weeks before the June 26 decisions by the United States Supreme Court to overturn a key part of the national Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and to send California’s Proposition 8 back to an appeals court, effectively making gay marriage legal in California, as well.
As it turned out, reaction to the letter at Sinai has been mixed, most notably within the Iranian community, which makes up as much as half of Sinai’s 2,000 families.
Some Iranians fully support the decision, notably Pouran and Izak Parviz Nazarian, major philanthropists and business leaders, who wrote an e-mail in firm support of the rabbi’s decision. In a phone interview, Parviz Nazarian said, “Rabbi Wolpe is a man very strong in leadership, and we are supporting him for all he is doing for his beit knesset [congregation].” Dora Kadisha, the Nazarians’ daughter, added, “Our faith encourages us to evolve, and he is taking a courageous step.”
[Related: David Suissa on Sinai's gay marriage debate]
By contrast, one of the most strident negative reactions came from an Iranian-Jewish architect, M. Michael Naim, who wrote an open letter titled, “Let’s Go Home to Our Own Millennia-Long Sanctified Iranian Jewish Traditions.” Naim’s two-page letter says, in a boldfaced section, “To argue that some who want to engage in sodomy that is explicitly condemned in Torah should actually be accorded ‘honor due to all God’s creation’ and to be ‘sanctified’ by a Rabbi is a stretch of imagination.” Naim did not want to be interviewed, but wrote to me in an e-mail that his family had been congregants at Sinai for five years and their children attended Sinai Akiba, the temple’s affiliated school. In his letter, he calls upon other Iranians to return to the exclusively Iranian synagogues.
In addition, some members have complained to Wolpe and others at Sinai in person or by e-mail, and there have been threats from parents in the school that they will withdraw their children.
When I spoke to Wolpe last week, he said he had not yet heard of anyone formally quitting the synagogue, but added those numbers might not be clear until annual membership dues and tuition are paid up over the summer. He also said no one had yet called to set up a same-sex wedding date, though in the coming weeks he and his fellow rabbis will be developing standards for Sinai’s gay marriages and for the wording of ketubbot (marriage agreements).
He said he believes his decision to be so deliberate has allowed the issue to have “sparked a discussion within the Persian community, instead of monolithic opposition.”
In an earlier conversation, the rabbi told me he believes his congregation is considerably more conservative than VBS’, and not only due to the Iranian community — which also makes up a large part of VBS’ population. He said that whatever his own feelings on any issue, he believes in care and caution with regard to big changes like this one:
“Something that younger people don’t always understand is, the synagogue is people’s home. Sometimes for generations. And when you make people uncomfortable in their home, you have to have a really good and solid reason. Because one day, I’m going to be gone, and they’re still going to be here. And their kids are going to be here, and their grandchildren are going to be here. And their parents were here. And so, you owe them a responsibility of stewardship as well as challenge. The idea that a rabbi is all about challenging people all the time, I think, is a half-formed idea. It’s also about comforting and understanding and stewardship.”
Each rabbi, he said, has to tend his own flock, and he believes his role is different from that of his colleagues at VBS, for example, or from that of a more progressive rabbi, such as Rabbi Sharon Brous at IKAR, who created a nondenominational synagogue known for breaking boundaries. Each rabbi’s role may be different, Wolpe believes, from any other congregational rabbi.
And yet, when I called again last Friday and asked Wolpe how he was feeling — given both the pushback and the praise he’d received, and in light of the court’s decision to light a path to gay marriage, he told me, “In the end, it’s not hard. It’s just a relief.” Then quickly added, “I am sorry for the people who are hurt by it.
“I’ve wanted to do this for years,” he said, “and just sort of got fed up with myself for not doing it. It just seemed to me that it was time.”