Attitudes toward same sex marriage in Judaism have undergone a dramatic change in the last quarter century. The prohibition recorded in Leviticus 18 has been affirmed by some, negated by others and reinterpreted by still others. Did the Torah intend loving same sex relationships? Did it understand homosexuality as a fundamental orientation rather than a choice?
For many traditionalists such questions are essentially irrelevant if not marginally blasphemous. That which God has decreed cannot be set aside. For most Jews however, Judaism is a tradition that is both evolving and eternal. The role of women, to take the most obvious example, has changed in dramatic ways in the past century. A female colleague of mine, rabbi of a synagogue for many years, had a young girl approach her and ask, “Can men be rabbis too?”
If you are a partisan of the infallibility of tradition there is no room for accommodation. There are many, however, who would permit the tradition to change in many other ways but draw the line at LGBT acceptance. The question of same sex marriage is admittedly new: it has been a scant twenty-five years since the first arguments appeared arguing for its recognition. But the velocity of social change reminds us of the comment that Hillel once made on a question of Jewish law — go out and see, he said. Trust the people. If you observe what they are doing, you will know what should be done. The rapid acceptance of same sex marriage affirms an American people with open arms.
Those who argue for civil unions but not religious ceremonies, proposing some ritual short of marriage, often ask why a different sort of ceremony is not sufficient. Clarification comes if we turn the question around: the same reason that opponents wish to call it anything but marriage is why proponents demand it be called marriage. A man in love with another man — or a woman in love with another woman — wants love acknowledged and sanctified, not merely tolerated. For many of us this is new and jarring but underneath is something we all treasure: commitment, passion, love.
As a rabbi I cannot countenance sitting before people who can fully love one another and insisting that the Jewish tradition has no place for them simply because they are of the same sex. Surely no people understands rejection and marginalization better than the Jewish people. The Torah repeatedly advises us to care for the stranger precisely because he is strange — that is, we react with suspicion or distance or uncertainty to one who is not like us. Fight against that feeling, teaches the Torah. All of God’s creation is holy and every human being in God’s image. K’vod Habriot, the dignity of all, is a fundamental Jewish principle.
When I sent a letter to my congregation stating that the clergy had unanimously decided to perform same sex marriages I received a good deal of reaction. Some people were angry, some bewildered, some hurt. The letters I most treasure were those from women and men who had felt marginalized, who were grateful that their home was at last welcoming them home. Reading those letters and having those conversations, witnessing the healing after hiddenness and estrangement I could only recall the reaction of my 16 year old daughter when I told her I was sending the letter: “What took you so long?”