Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg
February 21, 2005 – Number 5765-21
I received an E-mail this week from Beryl Glansberg that warrants some extensive comment. Not because Beryl’s letter has any problems, but because it speaks to the way many people look to Jewish Law and Halacha. So while Beryl has raised an important issue, I want to pause this week to address the larger issues that she raises, issues that many people raise about Halacha everyday. Here is her letter:
(Last week I wrote:) “Homosexuality is forbidden in Jewish Law. There is a full review of this stand taking place in our movement as this is written.”(Beryl Replies:) I certainly hope so. This is an archaic view that truly alienates people that are born Jewish and want to be accepted into the Kehillah. As a people in crisis, with staggering intermarriage and divorce rates, logic would dictate that we do not chase people away and discriminate against them because of their sexual preference. I am not interested in Rabbinic Jewish law that was written to be applicable to a culture long ago.I certainly hope that our Conservative movement gets with the times and accepts these members of our Kehillah and supports them, just as they would a heterosexual.
While there are many good comparisons between the Torah and the Constitution of the United States, there is one fundamental difference between them. The Constitution was written by human beings and their words can be amended in times of need. The Torah, however we received it, is considered to be the word of G-d. It cannot be amended. The Torah also does not allow for any legislative body to create new laws or to change old ones. G-d’s law is as perfect as G-d. This is one reason we are so careful about every letter in a Torah scroll. We must not change one dot of the divine revelation. Therefore when the book of Leviticus calls homosexuality an “abomination” we have to deal with the law as it has been received. We cannot just change it to suit our needs. We cannot erase it because it makes us uncomfortable. We cannot ignore it because it is the word of G-d. We have no choice but to follow its teaching.
And yet, the Sages of the Talmud did have one way of keeping the Torah from becoming a stagnant law. For a law to be alive, it has to be able to adapt and change. As any good lawyer or lawmaker can tell you, there is yet one way to change even the Law of G-d, and that is through the actions of Rabbinic courts. It is these courts over the centuries, that have ruled on how laws are to be followed or not followed. Which ones were “qualified” out of existence, and which ones were magnified in order to effect an important change in society. People change, society changes and the law must change as well. Otherwise we would be saddled with laws that could be considered immoral or unethical. It has been the role of the Rabbi, and of the Rabbinic deciders (called “Poskim”) to make the rulings that keep our Torah alive and meaningful.
There are many considerations that go into this process. I classify them into four categories. 1. What is the law as we received it? 2. What are the modern issues it raises? 3. What are the implications for the individual Jew? And 4. What are the implications for Jewish society? These four categories must be in balance. If not, the poskim need to address the issue to bring them back into balance. The issue is not “a law applicable to a culture long ago” the issue is if the law is meaningful today. The issue is also not “getting with the times” but what is good for Judaism and for the Jews who take Halacha seriously.
What really got my attention was the notation, (and please Beryl, I don’t mean to pick on you, there are at least two dozen people who would easily agree with you and I address myself to them as well, you were just the one who wrote, and I do thank you for this opportunity to clarify the issue) “As a people in crisis, with staggering intermarriage and divorce rates, logic would dictate that we do not chase people away and discriminate against them because of their sexual preference” In fact, we could make a very compelling case that homosexuality would add nothing to the Jewish people because this particular sexual preference would not help in the least the growth of the Jewish people. Judaism depends on heterosexual families for the growth and continued viability of our people. And even these families are not having enough children to replace themselves. Jewish Society is very concerned with our low birthrate and our losses from the holocaust. Homosexual behavior will help little or not at all with this crisis in our society.
What are the issues? Why does the Torah condemn homosexuality as an “abomination”? What was it about this sexual behavior that warrants this strict terminology? Is it similar to other laws that forbid idolatry? If so, than perhaps we are talking about a different kind of homosexuality than the one forbidden by the Torah. If not, perhaps as a form of sexuality that has no hope at all of procreation, it is to be forbidden as one forbids other, non-heterosexual forms of sexual activity (Leviticus is full of such laws). What would be the impact on Jewish Society if homosexuality was permitted? Would we only permit monogamous homosexuality and shun promiscuous behavior as we do with heterosexuals? Should there be a “commitment ceremony” for these relationships and could we call it “kiddushin” (holy)? What is the impact this will have on individual homosexual Jews? Will changing this law help or hurt the vision that all Jews have toward Torah and Halacha? These are all important questions and these are the kinds of discussions now taking place at the Rabbinical Assembly’s Law and Standards Committee.
One thing is very clear. While homosexual behavior is not permitted in Jewish law, discrimination against anyone who is a gay or lesbian is also very much against Jewish law. Halacha is quite clear that the law applies to everyone equally. A homosexual Jew may not, according to Torah, be permitted to engage in homosexual behavior, but he can still hold a job, buy a home, and has the right to live without fear. Discrimination against anyone for any reason, including sexual orientation, is antithetical to Halacha and to any Jewish sensibility. Gay and Lesbian Jews are still Jews and have all the rights and privileges that come with being Jewish including being called to the Torah, leading services, serving as Rabbis and serving as Synagogue officers. Jewish Law may have a problem with their sexual orientation, but not with their humanity. Discrimination and hate are out of the question. There are many resolutions in Conservative Judaism that affirm this position. We do not discriminate against those who violate Shabbat and Kashrut in their daily lives, why should sexual orientation be any different?
Whatever may be my personal understanding of the law, I will wait until the poskim of our movement will publish their positions and then I will comment on what they have to say. It would be unfair for me or any other Rabbi to make rulings while the discussion is still underway. It is my hope that G-d will guide their discussions to an acceptable conclusion (or conclusions – it is very possible that there will be more than one opinion on this subject). I can assure everyone, however, that the discussions are being done with great sensitivity and great respect for people and for Halacha.
Next week we will continue with our series.
Next week: Judaism and Sex IV: Teaching Sexual Values to the Next Generation