Judaism & Homosexuality - A missed opportunity

by Barry Drogin

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Dear Rabbi,

Recently you wrote in the newsletter concerning your presence on the Conservative movement's law committee and its plans to consider the movement's positions on homosexuals. As spiritual leader of a congregation that encompasses the West Village, I think you have a special relation to this matter. As a congregant of this synagogue, I would like to articulate my views which, I would hope, many others would, or should, share.

I am not, myself, homosexual or bisexual, but I have had a gay first cousin die of AIDS, one of my very best friends, now married, was (is?) bisexual, many of my friends and acquaintances in my building and in my neighborhood are homosexuals, and throughout my schooling and career, in Boston and New York, in music and in theatre, I have known and worked with many homosexuals. I have helped and had contact with the People With Aids Coalition, the Gay Men's Health Crisis, and God's Love We Deliver, which have large homosexual contingents on staff and as "clients," and I've always given vocal support to the Gay Pride March and the Halloween Parade. And, of course, I voted for and am now served by a lesbian NY assemblywoman and a gay City Councilman.

I am aware that many of the rabbis on your law committee may share absolutely none of these experiences or situations with me. I hope it has been the committee's policy to seek the views of actual Jewish homosexuals and Jewish homosexual congregations (we have one in the Village) before sitting in judgement on this matter --- surely, they will be able to express themselves much better than you or I. Also, it will take special care on everyone's part to recognize that many anti-religious and anti-mainstream convictions of many homosexuals today is probably the only legitimate response to the religious and mainstream culture around them; i.e., condemning a homosexual "lifestyle" for being theologically unsound is perhaps as much a consequence of the theology as it is of the individual's choice. When the theology clarifies its reasoning and legitimizes the homosexual, the homosexual will be in a position to choose to believe in the theology.

As background, I must say that I am continuously offended by how our culture, especially the movies, have portrayed homosexuals as murderers, psychopaths, criminals and child molesters. It is, of course, heterosexuals who have been mass murderers, rapists, wife beaters, incestuous child abusers, macho bar fighters, and so on. If you have ever been in a room with gay men, then you know that, by contrast, they are virtual pussycats, and even the most militant of lesbians is militantly against violence of all sorts. Considering the utter horror of gay-bashing and the blatant indifference of the government to the ravages of AIDS, it is amazing that homosexuals have not done more to fight back --- their recent moves toward angry empowerment and confrontation are fully justified, but have yet to spill over into indiscriminate het- bashing or what-have-you.

In short, I think any Jew would be able to clearly see the parallels to indiscriminate anti-Semitism in word, deed, violence and government action that the homosexuals of today are being subject to, and could not be anything but sympathetic to their plight and their struggle.

This is the context in which the law committee must, I think, consider their moral responsibilities and opportunities, in addition to their considerations of Halacha.

I am sure the rabbis of the law committee are aware of the disapproval with which we would approach certain passages in the Torah. I recently was reading a book in which the author cited Lev. 21:18, which holds that the blind, or six-toed, or broken- footed, shall not be priests or approach the altar. In fact, the list of "disabilities" making someone "unclean" is embarrassingly long.

I realize that the Torah's stance on homosexuality is particularly strong; it is an "abomination," and all that. I understand the theological stance on procreation, and largely agree with it.

I personally feel, however, that we should separate the fact of the sexual act from the consequences of a person's relation to the community, his "lifestyle" and his beliefs and relation to G-d.

I don't believe the Conservative Movement believes that all sex must be procreative. I also don't recall the Conservative Movement ever having a stance against oral and anal sex between married heterosexuals. And I assume that the Conservative Movement is not interested in making sex outside of marriage a litmus test for membership, wearing a tallis, reading from the Torah, etc. Therefore, I have difficulty understanding how the Movement can in any way justify objecting to the fact of a homosexual act, past or future, by one of its members.

We are left, then, with "lifestyle" issues, and here I think the argument turns circular. Definitely, the Jewish community wants to support monogamous, mutually-supportive relationships as theologically and halachically sound and desired. Certainly, there are homosexuals who laugh at such notions, and I disagree with them. But this is not inherent in the homosexual community. There are monogamous homosexual couples in my building. In your letter to the congregation you imply that a homosexual is, by definition, living a different "lifestyle." But these couples go to movies and dinner together, argue and share housework, sleep together every night and visit sick friends --- in short, I can't pinpoint any difference at all between their lives as a homosexual couple and my Jewish marriage.

Granted, there are also homosexuals into bar-hopping, and there are, out there, transvestites and transsexuals. But there are many more varieties of strange heterosexuals out there in the world, from wife-swappers to S&M lovers and group sex fanatics. It is my belief that, just as the heterosexual sex deviants are either going to hide their practices from the Conservative Jewish movement or, more likely, not be members at all, so the same will be true of some homosexuals.

There are self-proclaimed homosexual spokesmen who, having created, in thought, a "homosexual community," then presume to tell homosexuals what to believe and how to act. But this community does not exist (in fact, they even refer to "homosexual communities, the diversity within is so great), and the homosexual who is interested in joining the Conservative Movement is going to be the homosexual who values the Movement's ideals and beliefs, embracing a Jewish lifestyle independent and separate from the act of homosexual sex.

I would have no objections to a homosexual rabbi or cantor. I would have objections to a radical feminist butch-punk lesbian cantor pushing her beliefs in my face, but such a person wouldn't be a cantor, so what does it matter?

I would have no objections to a homosexual bringing his/her lover to synagogue, just as I would have no objections to a blind or lame or otherwise disabled person coming, or a converted Chinese American or Black American, or even a non-Jew wishing to observe our rituals. Their presence is not disruptive to my prayers.

I think the only criteria that anyone should use to refuse Jewish "rights" to ritual are age (under 13), circumcision (for males), and, the hardest to prove and so relatively worthless, non-Jewish parentage and insufficient conversion.

Consequently, I would have no objections to rabbis officiating at homosexual marriages, with the assumption of the marriages being monogamous (tell that to King David...). With the assumption that such marriages can still be blessed with children by adoption, foster parenthood and artificial insemination, I see no need to change the liturgy as it refers to blessings of children. Obviously, some creativity may be needed in facing sexist issues raised by the Ketubah and other gender specific rituals.

Does the Conservative Movement consider barrenness of one of the partners of a heterosexual marriage grounds for divorce? Is the movement against officiating at marriages between childless widows and widowers (or never-marrieds) over the age of 50? More importantly, does it consider such issues as important as other, more pressing, concerns?

I think homosexuals are suffering horribly from discrimination, prejudice, violence, social stigma and disease. As you have written, I think it is much more important that the Conservative Movement face the theological questions of compassion and humanity than concentrate on textural literalness. It was Yitz Greenburg, wasn't it, who made that comment about theological statements in the presence of burning children? The Conservative Movement should be careful to make theological statements that are appropriate in the presence of gay-bashing and AIDS. In fact, this is an opportunity that should not be missed --- as we know from the Holocaust, and as Sartre has reminded us, our silence implies our assent.

P.S. The whole issue, which requires me at end to use that word "our," makes me uneasy. The Jewish community is no longer the legal community. Rabbis do not punish congregants for committing murder or stealing from their neighbors or otherwise breaking the 10 commandments --- we have ceded all this to the secular, separated state. In what ways do the rabbis of today have any punitive power over any of the citizens, except, apparently in this case, against the most powerless --- the poor who cannot afford membership, and the homosexual whose presence makes some "uncomfortable." How can we treat the son or daughter of a Jewish mother, raised in a Jewish home, bar- or bat-mitzvahed, often highly educated, talented and loving, as a "them"? Shame on "us"!

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Last Updated: May 22, 2010