Countering the Family Values Monopoly
By Rabbi David Ellenson
President of Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion
February 6, 2004
In his State of the Union address, President Bush signaled his intent to make “family values” a centerpiece of the 2004 presidential campaign.
His belief that “the sanctity of the family” needs to be defended from the “threat” that gay and lesbian couples ostensibly pose to heterosexual family units is hardly surprising. After all, when asked about same-sex unions after a court decision that affirmed the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, the president commented, “We are all sinners.”
The very language the president employed then indicates that his religious views play a significant role in the public-policy position he has adopted on this matter, and the role that religious fundamentalism has played in setting the terms for this debate in the public square is unquestionably considerable. In taking the stance he did, President Bush displayed the impact that the Traditional Values Coalition and allied conservative religious groups — including Jewish ones — that have long been at the forefront of the fight against the advancement of rights and options for gays and lesbians in our society has had upon him. I regret that this is so and I feel obliged to speak out lest religious literalists claim a monopoly in speaking on behalf of religion on issues concerning gay and lesbian rights in our country.
These religious literalists justify their refusal to accord full rights to gays and lesbians by pointing to Leviticus 18:22, which condemns male homosexual intercourse as an “abomination,” and there is little doubt that the influence of this biblical verse has been decisive in shaping the attitudes of many in our society toward this question of gay and lesbian rights — including the president. Yet, such a reading of this text represents the most literal interpretation possible of this passage. This reading also completely removes this scripture from an ancient social context that could not envision the possibility or appreciate the reality of loving same-sex relationships.
I see no reason why such negative judgments regarding gays and lesbians should go unchallenged from a religious perspective. As the Catholic feminist scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza has maintained in her powerful “In Memory of Her,” the divinity of any passage in Scripture that diminishes the humanity of another — as this one does — can surely be questioned. The thrust of one such passage should not override an overarching biblical ethos that teaches us that God loves and affirms the full humanity of each human being.
As a Jew, I feel this even more strongly. After all, Judaism does not base its religious teachings on the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). Instead, Judaism assert that moral truths emerge out of an interpretive process that requires Jews to recognize that God has called on the Jewish people to serve as covenantal partners in the unfolding expression of divine truths, and this obligation can only be fulfilled through an ongoing exegesis of the written text. This notion allowed the rabbis of the Talmud to declare in one instance that the “stubborn and rebellious son” identified in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 “never was and never will be” (Sanhedrin 71a) and in another instance this process caused the talmudic sage Johanan ben Zakkai to assert (Sotah 9:9) that as a result of contemporaneous conditions, a woman accused of adultery would no longer be subject to the “ordeal of bitter waters” (Numbers 5: 11-31). In these ways, great rabbis — depending upon their own wisdom and in light of their own judgments regarding social and ethical contexts — either muted or obviated the application of teachings found in the Written Law.
All Jews should recognize that this interpretive approach characterizes our tradition, and we should assert that this is so within the Jewish community as well as in the public square. This approach has allowed Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism to ordain gays and lesbians as rabbis, and has led to a vigorous discussion of this issue in Conservative Judaism. Such Jewish understandings have also permitted a number of rabbis to perform same-sex unions. From these perspectives, legislation against same-sex unions can be viewed as not only discriminating against gays and lesbians. It also discriminates against those of us whose religious beliefs mandate us to perform same-sex weddings.
In Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” when young Oliver approaches the wardens of the orphanage where he was housed and, after a scant meal, asks for “more,” the wardens are scandalized. Yet, as one commentator upon this passage has pointed out, Oliver said “more” when what he “really meant was this: ‘Will you just give me that normal portion which is necessary for a boy my age to live.’”
As a religious Jew, I assert that the gay community today seeks nothing more than Oliver Twist — the “normal portion” required to live a life of dignity and equality. Our society should be ashamed that gays and lesbians are subjected daily to indignity and prejudice in legal as well as social arenas, and religious persons must declare that position loud and clear in order to influence public opinion on this matter.
When I was a teenager, I was moved, as were millions of other people, by the vision Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed when he dreamed of a just world where people would be judged by the content of their character. This vision was inspired by the Bible and extends to express a simple truth — all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are equally beloved by God and are equally entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The desire that full rights be extended to lesbians and gays reflects the Jewish belief that gays and lesbians are human beings created in the image of God. The time has come for that truth to guide our culture, and religious Jews should not be hesitant in saying so.
Until the day arrives that our gay and lesbian friends enjoy full rights, we who are religious should not rest. When that day of liberty and freedom arrives, justice will at long last roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.