October 9, 1997
The Torah of Our Lives
Left to right, panelist Rabbi Elliott Dorff of University ofJudaism, Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim, moderator MarkLevine, panelist Rabbi Leila Gal Berner and lawyer and AIDS activistDavid Rephun, the panelist from an Orthodox background. Below,panelist Rabbi Allen Freehling.
In Leviticus, male sexual relations are considered an abomination,punishable by death. "A man shall not be with another man as if witha woman. It is an abomination," reads one passage. But, as with allthings biblical and Jewish, the Torah passages are open tointerpretation. And interpret they did last week at UniversitySynagogue at a panel discussion on Orthodox, Conservative, Reform andReconstructionist views on homosexuality and bisexuality.
The event, which attracted about 150 people, was sponsored by BethChayim Chadashim (BCC) and was the second in a six-part seriescelebrating BCC's 25th anniversary as the world's oldest synagogueserving the gay, lesbian and bisexual Jewish community.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, University of Judaism rector, representing theConservative movement, characterized his position on homosexuality asmore liberal than his movement's. He looked visibly pained at momentsas he described dilemmas he faced in applying Conservative laws thatgo against his personal beliefs. The movement has passed resolutionsthat prohibit discrimination against homosexuals, but hasn'tsanctioned commitment ceremonies and doesn't permit openly gay menand lesbians to enter rabbinical school or to be ordained. When hewas dean of the UJ rabbinical school, Dorff said that he didn't wantto know if someone was gay or lesbian, "because I didn't want toenforce the policy."
Still, there is hope for change in the future, the rabbi said. TheTorah only spoke of homosexual relations that were oppressive,cult-based or licentious, not about long-term, committedrelationships between people of the same sex. "We in the 20th centuryare free to legislate in favor of lesbian and gay relations," hesaid, as the audience clapped in appreciation.
Personally, Dorff said, he supports long, monogamous relationshipsand believes that the Jewish community has practical reasons tosupport marriage between same-sex couples, as well as those of theopposite gender, since marriage encourages monogamy. He estimatedthat about 14 or 15 of the 1,400 U.S. Conservative rabbis haveperformed commitment ceremonies, which aren't recognized by civillaw. Asked by an audience member whether he would perform suchceremonies, Dorff looked surprised. "I haven't been asked," he said."But I don't see why not." Still, he added in a later conversation,he has some hesitation about performing them without the backing ofhis community.
Rabbi Leila Gal Berner offered the Reconstructionist viewpoint. Aformer BCC member, she is the spiritual leader of Congregation BetHaverim in Atlanta, which describes itself as a Reconstructionistsynagogue formed for lesbians and gay men, and "embracing all Jewsand loved ones," and is now about 30 percent heterosexual. "I thinkwe're one of the few temples where bisexuals, lesbians and gays arewelcoming the straight folks," she said.
The Reconstructionist movement has been in the forefront of changeon the issue of homosexuality. In 1983, it was the first to admitlesbians and gay men into its rabbinical college. In 1992, itaffirmed its support for full acceptance of gays and lesbians asrabbis, lay leaders and parents, and sanctioned same-sex marriage.
"As we look at the Torah, it isn't a book of instruction but abook of interpretation," said Allen Freehling, senior rabbi ofUniversity Synagogue, who represented the Reform point of view. LikeReconstructionism, the Reform movement has accepted homosexuals intothe rabbinical and cantorial schools, and, last year, the CentralConference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical association,endorsed the civil right to be married of same-gender couples, butthey didn't vote on rabbis officiating at such ceremonies, accordingto BCC's Rabbi Lisa Edwards. Many Reform rabbis do officiate,including Freehling and Edwards.
Freehling sparked a buzz of surprise when he expressed the hopethat he would live long enough that congregations such as BCC mightnot need to exist, because gays and lesbians would find a home inmainstream synagogues such as his own. Many people joined BCC becausethey had the experience of being mistreated at other shuls, he said.
But Berner politely disagreed, saying that there is a specificgay, lesbian and bisexual culture that the straight community doesn'trecognize, but which is worth preserving. "We have a lot in commonwith the heterosexual Jewish American community, but there arespecific elements of gay and lesbian culture, music, liturgy andpoetry that are distinct," she said, as other panelists and membersof the audience nodded their agreement.
Although there are many different streams of Orthodoxy, frommodern to haredi, the movement is united on the issue ofhomosexuality, said David Rephun, a San Diego lawyer and AIDSactivist who was raised Orthodox, but, as a gay man, no longerconsiders himself to be part of the movement. (Moderator Mark Levinesaid that Orthodox rabbis he approached declined to appear on thepanel.) The Orthodox view, despite the fact that there are individualOrthodox rabbis who are sympathetic to the plight of gay and lesbianOrthodox Jews, is that it's wrong to be or act homosexual, Rephunsaid. But what does the Leviticus prohibition really mean in themodern world? The 11th-century scholar Rashi interprets the passageas saying "anal intercourse is wrong," Rephun said. "It says nothingabout being homosexual. Homosexuality didn't exist as a concept untilthe 19th century," he said, so those who say that the Torah forbidsit "must have some other agenda."
Several panelists and others were optimistic that the future wouldbring change to the Conservative movement's stance. "I really thinkit's only a matter of time before the Jewish Theological Seminaryordains gay and lesbian rabbis," Rephun said. Even in Orthodoxcommunities, there is change, he said. There are organizations forOrthodox gay Jews in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, New York and here in LosAngeles, he said. Such developments spell progress, he said -- slow,to be sure, but progress nonetheless.
In Support of Family
While liberal Jews may be supportive of gays and lesbians comingout of the closet, they often don't give a lot of thought to theeffect that this open-door policy may have on straight familymembers, particularly spouses and children. With this in mind, TempleIsrael of Hollywood is sponsoring a panel discussion on the issue onTuesday, Jan. 20, from 7 to 9 p.m., at Temple Israel of Hollywood.
The panel will include Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth ChayimChadashim; Onnolee Sullivan of the Straight Spouse Support Network;Tara Rose of Just For Us; Marcia Spike, LCSW, a clinical consultantto the Straight Spouse Support Network; and Gail Rolf, Impactcoordinator at Hamilton High School.
The event, which is free to the public, takes place at TempleIsrael of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., at the corner of MartelAvenue. For more information, call Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh at (213)876-8330 or Phyllis Sewall at (213) 936-9526. -- R.S.