Dr. Michael Freckleton, a personable radiologist, is an innovative stake president (stake = LDS diocese) in San Antonio, Texas. For the second year in a row he organized a two-day religious education conference (a mini-Limmud, if you will) featuring speakers from several states. On the first day, I had the honor of interviewing Reform Rabbi Barry Block, senior rabbi of the city’s largest synagogue. We drew the largest crowd of the conference, and I wish we had allotted more than 30 minutes for questions. Liberal Judaism was on display for a Mormon audience, and the contrast in theological reasoning could not have been more marked.
I often struggle with the question of whether to consider Reform theology as an authentic expression of Torah-based Judaism, and my discussion with Rabbi Block did not lead me to a conclusive answer. Some of his views seemed to come from Judaism, others from secular sources. The rabbi said several times that he does not adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible, and it showed. For example, when asked what a Jew’s responsibilities are under the covenant that God made with the Israelites at Sinai, the rabbi responded that he does not eat mammals. I’m not an expert on the Torah, but I suspect that vegetarianism was probably as popular at Sinai as it is in Texas.
The most striking example of our divergent views on scripture and morality came during a discussion on same-sex marriage. I really wanted to know how God’s will was expressed in the marked shift in the Reform movement’s position in the last 20 years. For some reason Rabbi Block was unaware that the Reform movement officially opposed any kind of marriage for gays until the 1990s and only began sanctioning ‘rituals of union’ for gay couples in 2000. This gap in his knowledge caught me by surprise, considering that the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a responsum in 1985 stating “Judaism places great emphasis on family, children and the future, which is assured by a family. However we may understand homosexuality… we cannot accommodate the relationship of two homosexuals as a ‘marriage’ within the context of Judaism, for none of the elements of qiddushin (sanctification) normally associated with marriage can be invoked for this relationship. A rabbi can not, therefore, participate in the ‘marriage’ of two homosexuals.”
I decided not to argue chronology with him, and repeated my original question: How was God’s will reflected in the Reform movement’s evolution on gay marriage? Rabbi Block’s three-part answer left us all somewhat perplexed. First of all, he outlined a difference in scriptural interpretation between the Reform and Orthodox movements. Reform Jews think that the Bible was written by men, not God, and the ancient prophets obviously didn’t understand homosexuality. Secondly, Leviticus contains lots of prohibitions that we don’t follow today. Last, but certainly not least, his third point undoubtedly left mouths agape: even if the Reform are wrong about the scriptural interpretation, their theological trump card is that we are all created in God’s image. I don’t know whether this is considered to be a serious argument in Reform circles, but this final point answers exactly nothing. After all, adulterers and their mistresses, adulteresses and their lovers, and parents and children are all created in God’s image, but no moral person would advocate sexual relations between them. I would still like to know the answer to my question, so I plan to inform my next Reform dialogue partner in advance that I will be asking him/her about God’s will and gay marriage in Reform theology.
While I find myself agreeing more with the Orthodox in terms of doctrines and interpretation of scripture, an understanding of liberal Jewish thought and theology is indispensable in a country where the majority of Jews are liberal in both politics and pulpit. I am grateful to Rabbi Block for sharing his passion for tikkun olam with us, and wish him and all of my Jewish readers a hag sameach.
Those readers wishing to peruse a comprehensive list of documents on homosexuality and Reform Judaism can go to the following link: http://huc.edu/ijso/PoliciesResponsa/
I will be the keynote speaker at an LDS singles conference in Santa Barbara on May 21.