WHEN HINENI’S CONFLICT
I first started thinking about “this” particular sermon on June 25, 2013, an important day in the history of the 21st Century. Does anybody know what happened that day? It was the day the US Supreme Court struck down Proposition 8. The court proclaimed that the Defense of Marriage Act violated the constitutional rights of same sex couples to “liberty, equality, and equal dignity.” Let me repeat that last phrase “equal dignity.”
That phrase took me back to December of 2006, when the Conservative movement officially approved the Dorff-Nevins responsum on homosexuality, utilizing a similar expression in Hebrew, K’vod Habriot, which means the dignity of all creatures. This responsum allowed for openly gay individuals to be accepted by Conservative rabbinical schools, officially allowed rabbis to perform same sex ceremonies, and was a ruling which, as the responsum itself said: “effectively normalizes the status of gay and lesbian Jews are to be welcomed into our synagogues and other institutions as full members with no restrictions.” I devoted about 45 minutes’ worth of Shabbat sermon to parse it out, filled with all kinds of halachic intricacies. There are a lot details in that responsum that I don’t have 45 minutes to go over today, but the crux of the responsum was that sometimes commandments or mitzvoth conflict with each other, and you have to make a ruling for one or the other. Here you have the negative mitzvoth in Leviticus 18 and 20 which forbid homosexuality (or at least one type of homosexual act) conflicting with the Talmudic principle called “k’vod habriot,” which means honoring the dignity of all human beings. If forced to choose, the responsum says you have to choose the dignity of all human beings. The Talmud itself, in tractate Megila says that “so great is human dignity that it supersedes a negative commandment of the Torah.” The responsum then goes through several examples in rabbinic literature where rabbinic sages violate various commandments in order to preserve the dignity of another person, be it a poor person, a fellow sage, or even a king, as in one case.
After going through 45 minutes of explaining all that, I found myself, unsurprisingly, with a long line of people wanting to share their thoughts with me on the subject. I was in a conversation with a younger woman in the congregation who was a lesbian, when an older member interrupted us and said: “But Rabbi, if we let the gays in, how are we going to keep the Jewish people going with Jewish children?” I responded that that really wasn’t a valid argument, since gay couples can have children, and a lesbian couple could theoretically have two children a year! The woman I was talking to told the long-time member, “don’t worry, I plan to have lots of children.” The long-time member, incredulous, said, “but you’re not a lesbian?” And the younger woman said, “yes I am, and there’s my partner right over there.” Have you ever seen those Southwest commercials with similarly embarrassing situations and the line “wanna get away?” Well, that was me at that moment. Wouldn’t you know it, but at that moment, another long time member grabbed me and said, “Rabbi, I need to talk to you right away!” What this other person wanted to talk to me about was so relatively unimportant that I don’t remember it, and she swears she had no idea that she had interrupted a situation where I needed to be saved, but Baruch Hashem, God works in mysterious ways. The long-time member and the younger lesbian woman continued to converse, so a dialogue had begun. But I was still thankful to be pulled away right then. There’s at least one postscript to the story, but I’m not going to share it with you just yet.
We can laugh at that story or be offended by it, but if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us would have to admit that our thinking on this issue has evolved quite a bit over the years. I know it certainly has for me. We started in June of 2013, then went to December, 2006, and now we’re going to jump back into the time machine to circa 1982, at a BBYO sleepover, and I’m remembering the first time a friend of mine came out of the closet and told me he was gay. I am still somewhat ashamed of my reaction. But it’s Yom Kippur, the time for confession, so with some hesitation I want to share it with you (and, not to worry, I have his permission). My first response to his telling me he was gay was “are you sure? Maybe you’re just experimenting.” Almost every gay person will tell you they have experienced such a reaction. As I remember it, I spent the better part of the next two hours trying to convince him that he might not actually be gay. It didn’t make him any less of a friend to me, I assured him, but it took a few weeks or months for me to fully accept the sexual orientation of one of my best friends. There’s a postscript to this story, which I’m also not going to share with you just yet.
Let’s go back further into the time machine to 1973, just a decade before the BBYO sleepover, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and look at the Reform movement’s official responsum written by Solomon Freehof, Senior Rabbi of Rodeph Shalom in Pittsburgh. Remember that this is the Reform movement, the most liberal of the denominations, especially at that time.
To sum up: Homosexuality is deemed in Jewish tradition to be a sin–not only in law, but in Jewish life practice…It is hardly worth mentioning that to officiate at a so-called “marriage” and to describe their mode of life as “Kiddushin” (sacred) is a contravention of all that is respected in Jewish life.
It’s hard to imagine that this was the Reform position not so long ago. Well, maybe 40 years ago is a long time ago, but it doesn’t seem like such a long time ago to me anymore.
Now we get back into the time machine again and jump forward to last year, 2012, right here in this sanctuary, with me proudly officiating at my first same sex ceremony. I can tell you that not only did it feel Kiddushin, sacred and holy, but it felt shockingly normal, no different than any other traditional wedding ceremony I’ve ever done. Except that it had no legal standing, so I got to do the actual wedding a year later in my office when it became legal, so mazel tov once again to Li and Aimee.
And now we get back in the time machine again and we arrive to here and now, and to why I am talking about this issue on Yom Kippur of all days. The reason is that later this afternoon as part of the Mincha service we will read the very passage from Leviticus which seems to forbid homosexuality, at least between males. When I first arrived here we read the alternative passage from Leviticus 19, the very easy on the ears “You shall be holy for, I Adonai your God, am holy,” which then talks about the “nice” mitzvoth like leaving the corner of the field for the poor and not placing a stumbling block before the blind, and loving your neighbor as yourself. Yes, we love this part of Torah, because it reflects so positively on the Jewish people, but just a few years later, I changed us back to doing the traditional reading, which is Leviticus 18. Leviticus 18 is also a holiness code, a sexual holiness code, where it puts homosexuality on par with other sexual prohibitions, including incest, bestiality, and having sex during a woman’s period (funny how you never see state wide propositions about that one or signs saying “God hates it when couples have sex during a woman’s period!”). And it includes the line “v’et zachar lo tishkav mish’k’vei isha, a man should not lie with another man as one lies with a woman, for it is a to’eva, an abomination.” I am not going to get into the details of why this sentence may explicitly forbid only one type of homosexual act, but it’s clearly not an lgbt friendly text. So why did I switch us back? Because I believe our tradition demands that we struggle with even the most difficult and painful of our sacred texts.
And as I was thinking about the overall theme of Hineni (you didn’t think I would forget about the theme, did you?), which literally means here I am but really means being present for others within the context of relationships, I noticed that there was an essay in the back of the Norman Cohen book Hineni in Our Lives that I keep quoting from, that connected these seemingly disparate ideas—Hineni, Here I am, homosexuality, and Leviticus 18 which we will read from this afternoon. And the essay was written by none other than the great Rabbi Harold Schulweis. For those of you who don’t know who that is, Rabbi Schulweis was the iconic rabbi of Temple Beth Abraham from 1953-1970 until he left for Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He was a captivating speaker, a great scholar, a civil rights activist in the sixties right here in Oakland, and is really one of the rabbinical giants of his generation. Well now we jump back in the time machine to his office, where a painful story about this very subject took place. Whether this happened in Oakland in the sixties or in Encino some time later he doesn’t say. A woman entered his office with a large Bible in her hand, sat down in a chair across his desk, and pointed to the passage in Leviticus 18. She read the passage aloud, and asked him, “Rabbi, tell me, is this right? Do you yourself believe this? Is my son an abomination?” She then went on to tell the rabbi about how her son had been taunted and teased all his life, had been through what they called “reparative” therapy, lived a tortured life, and eventually, took his own life. She looked Rabbi Schulweis in the eye and said: “You knew my son, Rabbi. Was he an abomination?” Schulweis writes:
What did she want from me—exoneration, consolation? Neither. She wanted to know my rabbinic stance—where I stand as a rabbi and what I stand for on this issue. She wanted my hineni response to her cry. She wanted a rejection of the condemnatory mandate in Leviticus. She left the room sobbing and me in confusion. I was caught between the voice of an anguished mother and the verse of a sacred book. Both voices had claims on me. To whose voice should I respond? Can you answer hineni. to two contradictory imperatives?
Utilizing the Akeidah story as a paradigm, he talks about how Abraham’s first hineni in the story represents Abraham’s response of faith and obedience to God. The second hineni, when he responds to the angel who calls him twice to prevent him from bringing the knife to his own son, represents the Hineni of religious conscience, equally connected to God and to faith. When forced to choose, Abraham chooses the Hineni of conscience, and so, too, according to Schulweis, should we. He then talks about how religious conscience more than once moved the rabbinic tradition to circumvent or even nullify the plain meaning of the Torah text. He cites examples such as the laws of the rebellious son from Deuteronomy 21 and the ordeal of the Sotah, the wife suspected of adultery in Numbers 5, as texts which the oral tradition essentially overruled. This has to be one of them too, he argues.
Inevitably in discussions like this someone will bring up the slippery slope argument. Once you start working around the obvious meaning of the text, where does it end? But, as a moderate person, I have never fully accepted that argument. All of us, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox lie somewhere along that slope, and our sacred Jewish task is to struggle with that slope, using our heads and our hearts, our intellectual gifts and our moral consciences. We can’t be slaves either to the literal meaning of the text or to the prevailing fickle winds of contemporary thinking. Both have to be considered. Sometimes political correctness can go too far. Even on this particular issue I must confess that I sometimes find the language which surrounds it completely perplexing. A few years ago I could say gay and lesbian. Then an acronym developed, LGBT, which stands for for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. The latest acronym is lgbtqiq, which apparently adds queer, intersex, and questioning to the first four. Soon, I might have to learn a whole new alphabet just to talk about the issue safely. I find this to be political correctness at its worst. Then again, maybe I just haven’t evolved enough yet on this issue.
But sometimes the text can be too narrow, as in the case of Leviticus 18, where it violates our religious conscience and the dignity of actual human beings. As a rabbi who believes that the Torah and the Talmud are actually the word of God in some way, shape, or form, for me the text gets the benefit of the doubt, the extra weight in the equation. But it doesn’t weigh so much that the continuously evolving conscience of Jewish thought can’t give it some balance. We should be Hineni for the commandments of the Torah, but being Hineni for human beings is part of living the commandments of Torah.
A final thought and the postscripts to the stories I told earlier. For those who disagree with me, even vehemently, and disagree that Torah text can be stretched this way or who are not able to accept that Judaism accepts LGBT or homosexual relationships on par with heterosexual relationships, expressing my Jewish interpretation on the subject should not be interpreted to mean that you are not welcome here with your very different views on these subjects. First, this is a Jewish community, since when do we have to agree on everything? However, I want to point out that the varied individual opinions of our members and what gets said from the pulpit or gets taught in religious school are two very different things. Whether we’re talking about halacha, Israel, or sexual preference, it’s part of the rabbi’s prerogative, in consultation with the Board of Directors, to determine what gets expressed from the bima, either by myself or by invited guests, with all the privilege and tzuris that comes with that. If you know me at all you knot that it’s a responsibility I take very seriously and with the utmost caution. But I want to reiterate that everyone is welcome here, whatever your opinion on a variety of subjects.
Now, on to the story postscripts. The friend who came out of the closet to me when I was a teenager back in 1982? I saw him recently at a Bar Mitzvah and we recounted the story. We remembered the conversation very differently. My perception of the conversation was that I was trying to convince him that he wasn’t gay. All he did was thank me for being there for him in such a difficult time. He didn’t remember the words I said which I wish I could take back—only that I was there for him, hineni. This teaches us a few things. First, memory is a funny thing. Secondly, teenagers don’t listen to each other very well. But most importantly, it teaches us that whatever stupid words might happen to come out of our mouths are far less important than hineni, being there for someone.
As for the service where I nervously introduced the Conservative responsum on homosexuality back in 2006? That was the first Shabbat service for one of our future members, and he liked it so much that he came back—again and again and again. He was so hineni, in fact, that we invited him to be on the Board of Directors and now is the President of our congregation, one of the first openly gay men to serve as President of a Conservative congregation. As we read Leviticus 18 later today, may we continue to struggle even with our most difficult texts, remembering that we should always be guided by our religious consciences and the dignity of all human beings.