After responding to private inquiries sent to me over the last few weeks asking for my view on the Wolpe-Naim Affair, I’ve decided to express my thoughts in this essay. In a nutshell, Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in LA recently announced that his synagogue would begin performing gay marriages. In response, synagogue member Michael Naim circulated a letter harshly criticizing the rabbi’s decision. Mr. Naim also chose to leave the synagogue.
For the record, I happen to know and respect both men, and am sure that their parting was difficult. I recently dialogued with Rabbi Wolpe at Sinai Temple, and have had the honor of spending a Sabbath evening with Michael and his beautiful family. I agree with most of their views on Israel -- to the extent that they converge, I probably agree with all of them -- and on the issue of gay marriage and Judaism they both get points from me: Michael wins on substance, while the rabbi prevails on style.
I agree 100% with Michael that homosexual acts are condemned in Scripture, and that rabbis shouldn’t conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies. I’ve read every single Conservative responsum on this issue, and do not find the pro-gay marriage ones terribly convincing. Their basic argument is usually that a newfound respect for human dignity (one that apparently eluded biblical prophets and rabbis for centuries) allows for the sanctification of gay relationships and the setting aside of traditional Jewish teaching on sexual morality.
However, missing from the responsa and from Rabbi Wolpe’s public statements is a declaration that these progressive views represent God’s will. Media reports indicate that the rabbi has simply wanted to do this for a long time, and waited for the right moment to announce the policy change. Nowhere have I read that the good rabbi claimed to have received inspiration from God to make the change. While I appreciate his honesty, the truth is that if Rabbi Wolpe doesn’t claim to receive divine inspiration or sanction to perform gay marriages at his synagogue, then there’s no reason to back his decision.
Having said all of this, I remain baffled by Michael’s letter. His attack on Rabbi Wolpe’s support for gay marriage makes as much sense as criticizing a dog for barking. In the contemporary LA Jewish community, it is an axiom that Conservative pulpit rabbis strongly support gay marriage. I know exactly one Conservative rabbi here who opposes gay marriage, and he has not been a pulpit rabbi for years. Indeed, anyone who discussed this issue with Rabbi Wolpe prior to his announcement (as I did last fall) knew of his views on gay marriage. It cannot have come as a surprise to Michael that the rabbi wanted to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies at his synagogue.
Another reason that I find Michael’s letter puzzling is that Rabbi Wolpe went out of his way to show respect for others’ views on the subject. He did not demonize or condemn those who oppose gay marriage, and tried in recent public presentations on Judaism and homosexuality to make a clear case for his position using Jewish law and tradition. Like Michael, I think that he came to the wrong conclusion, but that doesn’t mean that the rabbi thinks that everyone who disagrees with him is a bigot. Now that I lead a congregation, I think that it might have been better for Michael not to publicize his disagreement but to speak privately with the rabbi, perhaps with a small group of like-minded people at his side.
I wish both of these men well, and I also wish Mr. Naim a swift (re)turn to Orthodox Judaism or to a traditional Sephardic synagogue (Michael is originally from Iran). After all, if he’s looking for a Torah-based shul in LA that will preserve traditional marriage, Orthodoxy is his best bet. Shavua tov.