I was substituting for our rabbi in our 10th grade confirmation class. Homosexuality is not a curriculum subject. The student asking the question, though, obviously struggled with conflicting messages.
On the one hand, Leviticus says when a man lies with another man like a woman, it is an abomination and they shall be put to death. On the other hand, the Union of Reform Judaism, the denomination in which our synagogue affiliates, officially responded in 1989 to "gay rights' as a civil rights issue and wrote a policy of inclusion statement.
Included in the statement was a specific reference to "gay" and "lesbian" Jews, inviting them directly to become future prospective temple members and potential Reform denomination leaders. The direct invitation indicated Reform Judaism was officially extending acceptance and equality to previously excluded Jews. How could Union leaders pass a resolution that contradicts the Torah? The question is easy to answer.
Reform Jews often do not read the bible literally. In the Torah (the first five biblical books) the death penalty is mentioned as punishment for a number of crimes no one would implement today. In Deuteronomy, the 'wayward and defiant son' (the teen boy disrespecting parents) should receive capitol punishment. In Numbers, the Sabbath violator should also lose his life. In these two cases, no one argues the punishment fits the crime. Why disregard or re-interpret the bible in these instances but take literally the sin of two men engaging in homosexual activity?
The Torah is a holy document. It is not, though, a perfect work. Reform Jews believe the sacred books in our literary cannon were written not by God but by people. In other words, biblical and rabbinic authors may have been divinely inspired but they were still fallible human beings. The written word, therefore, always reflects human imperfection. The context of time a text was written should always be taken into consideration.
Child sacrifices, animal cruelty, and inhumane slavery were inherent features of the pagan cult. In biblical times, it's easy to understand how our Israelite ancestors strived to disassociate themselves from nations that performed horrific cultic practices. It is easy, in establishing an ethical monotheistic covenant, to understand how our biblical ancestors could over-state their condemnation of particular pagan behaviors.
Rabbi Bradley Artson, a friend and mentor, is Dean of the Rabbinic School at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. When Bradley Artson was a student studying to become a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he did an interesting academic project.
He looked up every reference he could find to homosexual activity mentioned in ancient Greek and Latin writers. Every citation he found described an encounter between males where one party, the master, physically abused another, the slave. Rabbi Artson could not find a single example where one partner was not subservient to the other.
"Homosexual relationships today," Rabbi Artson says, "should not be compared to the ancient world. I know too many homosexual individuals, including close friends and relatives, who are committed to one another in loving long-term monogamous relationships. I know too many same-sex couples that are loving parents raising good descent ethical children. Who's to say their family relationships are less sanctified in the eyes of God than mine is with my wife and our children?"
"We are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us." Reform Jews frequently look to this popular refrain as guidance when making important ethical decisions.
On the one hand, by standing on our ancestors' shoulders, Reform Jews know we have roots to the past that help place in proper context our visions of the future. On the other, by standing on past shoulders, we can see further and clearer in their horizon's future than previous generations could imagine.
Proposition 8 is California ballot initiative that legally restricts marriage to only a relationship between a man and a woman, depriving gays and lesbians a state mandated constitutional civil right. In opposing this ballot-measure, I know I am optimistically standing on firm religious ground.
Elliot Fein, a graduate of the American Jewish University and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is Education Director at Temple Beth David in Westminster, California.