A Yom Kippur Sermon: Gay Marriage and Our Evolving Relation to Torah

Tourou Synagogue

The Touro synagogue. Credit: Rabbi Alexis Berk.

There we were in Montgomery, Alabama—the Rosa Parks Museum—myself, Eileen, and our Confirmation class. We were standing right next to a full-scale replica of the very bus that Rosa Parks rode on that fateful day. Did you know she actually did not “refuse to move to the back of the bus”? We learned that she was actually already sitting toward the back—in the “colored” section of the bus. The unwritten but totally accepted non-law was that if a black person was sitting in the black section, and the white section was filled with white people, and a white person boarded the bus and was left without a seat, a black person was supposed to give up her seat to the white person. It turns out, Rosa Parks is famous for not giving up her rightful seat in the black section to a white man. She wasn’t even breaking the law. She just offended a white man’s desires for his comfort to trump her prerogative. Somehow, this makes her even more heroic in my eyes.

As we visited landmarks and monuments to the civil rights journey, we heard stories and saw sights that made our blood run ice cold. Shame. Deep embarrassment. How could a whole society have been talked into this? I remember standing in front of a display of actual artifacts—one pristine, gleaming sparkling water fountain labeled “White” and one rusty, dingy water spigot marked “Colored.” I kept thinking: How did this become OK to everyone? How did our own families see this reality and just wrap their minds and souls around the fact that this is totally normal? How did it make sense to a whole society? As one senior sage in our congregation recently admitted, “Back then, I didn’t even know what racism was. I loved my maid like everyone else.”

You know, every generation has museums and monuments to the previous generations’ ways. These museums and monuments often tell tales that lead us to deep repentance for serious human errors. I couldn’t help but wonder, what will the future museums of our generation display? What will the placards read? What will the artifacts reveal? In front of what exhibit will our children’s children stand—with mouths agape in painful disbelief?

Perhaps they will include an illuminated web page from nationformarriage.org, with the following actual talking points:

Strong majorities of Americans oppose gay marriage. Supporters of same-sex marriage therefore seek to change the subject to just about anything: discrimination, benefits, homosexuality, gay rights, federalism, our sacred constitution. Our goal is simple: Shift the conversation rapidly back to marriage. Don’t get sidetracked. Marriage is the issue. Marriage is what we care about. … It’s just common sense.

The museum sign of the future might state in large letters, backlit on the wall:

Extensive and repeated polling agrees that the single most effective message is:

Gays and Lesbians have a right to live as they choose, they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.

This allows people to express support for tolerance while opposing gay marriage.

Or perhaps the museum will have some actual 3×5 cards, as suggested by the same website, that real people carried with them to have at the ready these real perspectives from our generation:

• “We need a marriage amendment to settle the gay marriage issue once and for all, so we don’t have it in our face every day for the next ten years.”

• “Do we want to teach the next generation that one-half of humanity—either mothers or fathers—are dispensable, unimportant? Children are confused enough right now with sexual messages. Let’s not confuse them further.”

Or, perhaps an exhibit in our future museum might have a fascinating interactive dialogue module with frequently asked questions, such as:

What’s the harm from same-sex marriage?

A: (Actual voiceover from our generation’s activists) “Who gets harmed? The people of this state who lose our right to define marriage as the union of husband and wife, that’s who. That is just not right.”

(Different voice, representing the many who have this opinion) “If courts rule that same-sex marriage is a civil right, then, people like you and me who believe children need moms and dads will be treated like bigots and racists.”

(New voice)…“Public schools will teach young children that two men being intimate are just the same as a husband and wife, even when it comes to raising kids.”
“When the idea that children need moms and dads gets legally stigmatized as bigotry, the job of parents and faith communities trying to transmit a marriage culture to their kids is going to get a lot harder.”
“That’s not right.”

Maybe we would see an actual protest sign with two nooses painted on it, and the headline, “The Solution to Gay Marriage” with a biblical quote and the proud signature of a “faith community,” which reads: “If a man also lie with mankind as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” That’s from Cross Bearer Ministry of Indianapolis, Indiana. The fact that the sign is painted on wood will probably make it easy to preserve for future generations coming through to study our ways.

Wouldn’t these make a proud museum collection for our grandchildren and their children?

Rabbi Alexis Berk portrait

Rabbi Alexis Berk explains that the Reform Jewish ideology supports gay marriage. Credit: Rabbi Alexis Berk.

Just about a year ago, a great couple came to me inquiring about membership. They had really enjoyed their experiences at Touro and were interested in joining the congregation. But, they had to ask one question directly: was this synagogue open to gays and lesbians?

I said, of course! I didn’t want to be defensive, but we are a Reform congregation. We are the Reform movement, with openly gay and lesbian clergy and clergy who perform gay and lesbian wedding ceremonies, like me. We have many openly gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer individuals, couples, and families in our congregation. Frankly, I told them, I can’t imagine anyone would even look twice at you. That’s how open we are.

She looked me right in the eye, and kindly but clearly told me, “With all due respect, Rabbi, you wouldn’t really know what it feels like to be looked at that way, and you might not know if it happens or not.”

At that moment, I realized that we, together as a congregation, might have to have a clear and kind conversation like the one I just had.

In her new book Committed, an exploration of every aspect of every kind of marriage, author Elizabeth Gilbert writes:

I realize people have strong feelings on this topic [of gay marriage]. Then-congressman James M. Talent of Missouri … said in 1996, “It is an act of hubris to believe that marriage can be infinitely malleable, that it can be pushed and pulled around like Silly Putty without destroying its essential stability and what it means to our society.” The problem with that argument, though, is that the only thing marriage has ever done, historically and definitionally, is to change. Marriage in the Western world changes with every century, adjusting itself constantly around new social standards and new notions of fairness. The Silly Putty-like malleability of the institution, in fact is the only reason we still have the thing at all. Very few people … would accept marriage on its thirteenth-century terms. Marriage survives … precisely because it evolves.

Guess what? The exact same thing is true of Judaism. Judaism endures, survives, thrives precisely because it evolves. And so, there are several important, specific reasons that I believe that Reform Judaism, should, in fact does support and encourage and advocate for gay rights, including gay marriage.

First, what is written in Torah is the first record of our people’s struggle with God, one another, and ourselves. The Torah’s great sacredness comes from the fact that it links us in wonder and longing with our ancestors. After five years of seminary and ten years as a rabbi, much reading and study, no one has ever convinced me that Torah is or was ever meant to be the immutable word of God. And no one has ever convinced me that it has to be that in order for it to be a deeply holy, deeply valuable voice in our tradition. It is an echo of antiquity with time-honored relevance. It is a foundational tale of our coming to be a people, with a God.

But, in my rabbinic opinion, it has elements of the Divine and elements of the human. How do you tell the difference? My dear friend Rabbi Rami Shapiro has this to say: it’s easy to tell the difference between the Divine parts and human parts in Torah. All that is kind and good is Divine and all that is violent and disparaging is human. At first I dismissed this simplicity as a kind of joke. But Rabbi Rami was not joking. And, the more I consider this, the more simply true I have come to feel it is.

In other classes and sermons I’ve quoted one of my favorite polemics that went viral on the email circuit about ten years ago. It was when Dr. Laura was a big something. I can’t help it; I really love it:

Dear Dr. Laura:
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s law. I have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them. … [For instance] I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as it suggests in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?… I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself? A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 10:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? … I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.


Very confused.

In this shellfish capital of the universe, I feel that is enough said. The Torah itself has not changed, but we have evolved in relationship with it. We have evolved very much.

And, what about Jewish marriage? It too has evolved. And now we are asking questions such as: should a rabbi perform a same-sex marriage? If it is Jewish law that says no, that would mean that a rabbi should likewise never, ever perform an interfaith marriage. Or, for that matter, a rabbi should really never witness a marriage between two Jews who do not practice strict adherence to Jewish law according to the many codes of Jewish law. And, what defines a Jewish marriage according to strict codes of Jewish law?

The Hebrew word for marriage is kedushin. The word literally translates to “holiness” from the same Hebrew root as kiddush, kaddish, kedusha. What is to be accomplished in a truly Jewish union is holiness, not procreation (God knows we allow marriages where that is impossible—any marriages later in life or any marriages struggling with fertility would have to be Jewishly banned otherwise). Kedushin, sacred union, is quite a subjective thing. If the holiness of marriage cannot be realized, it is not kedushin. How is holiness measured? Well, in the Talmud, another very sacred voice in Jewish tradition, the terms are clear. For example:

The following [categories] of men my be reasonably expected to set their wives free [and pay her ketubah—the money owed to her upon divorce per her marriage contract]: a man who has boils [or leprosy], or who has a goiter, or who collects dog dung, or who is a coppersmith or tanner, whether these disabilities existed before they married or arose after they married (M. Ketubot 7:10).

Not quite the “in sickness or in health” that Americans have come to expect to hear.

Or how about this one from the same tractate of Talmud:

These are the duties which a wife must perform for her husband: grinding flour and baking bread, washing clothes and cooking food, nursing her child, making his bed and working in wool. If she brings one servant with her, she need not grind or bake or wash; if two, she need not cook or nurse her child; if three, she need not make his bed or work in wool; if four, she may sit all day in an easy chair.” [Bertinora – a main Talmudic commentator – adds, however that “even this most ladylike of ladies must mix her husband’s wine, help him to wash his hands, face, and feet when he returns from work, and make his bed ready for the night.”] (M. Ketubot 5:5).

I guess all I’m saying is this huge thing: our relationship with Torah has evolved. Our relationship with Talmud has evolved. Marriage itself has evolved. Judaism has evolved. And, Jewish marriages have evolved. Thank God.

So please don’t eat shellfish or have an egalitarian marriage (especially with someone who collects dog dung) while insisting that “Judaism” forbids homosexuality. That doesn’t work. We are meant to evolve. And, get it better than the generation before us.

So, here’s the deal: if you want to loathe homosexuality, that is a personal choice. If you want to judge gay, lesbian, transgender, queer individuals or couples, that is a personal choice. If you want to use your energy and soul to prevent gay marriage, that is a personal choice. But loathing, judging, and preventing gay, lesbian and queer couples’ marriages is not supported anywhere, in any way, in Reform Jewish ideology or practice. So, if there is ever a consideration of hanging bigotry or hatred on a Jewish—let alone liberal Jewish—hook, forget it. It won’t hold.

Same-sex marriage is totally legal in Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, and South Africa, just to name a few. Homosexual acts are punishable by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, parts of Nigeria and Sudan, to name a few, according to Human Rights Watch. In places where there are more religious and civil liberties, gay marriage is legal. In places where there is religious persecution and civil rights aren’t available… well, you see the pattern. Why is America not on the list of the sensible?

Last year, Newsweek reported:

When a federal Judge on Aug. 4 struck down California’s ban on same-sex marriage, it was a victory for gay rights. But the issue is likely to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, where its fate is uncertain. History shows the battle for equality can be long. But, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

It took 389 years from the time the first enslaved Africans arrived on U.S. soil to evolve through the Rosa Parks–triggered Montgomery bus boycott to evolve to our electing a black president. It took 184 years from the time that public high schools opened for girls to evolve through the Supreme Court banning gender discrimination in hiring to evolve to Elena Kagan’s confirmation rounding out one third of the Supreme Court filled by women.

In 1961 Illinois decriminalized homosexual acts. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association dropped homosexuality as a mental disorder. In 2009 Iowa and New Hampshire joined Massachusetts and Connecticut and Vermont in allowing gay marriage. In 2010 Washington, D.C., joined the evolution revolution and the Federal Court overturned Prop 8. We are trying to evolve. It’s trying to happen. I just think we just need to try a little harder, already. “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We are Jews. We do not delay justice. We pursue it. Time and again. Forever.

May it be God’s will. May it be our mission.

Click here to read a congregant’s reaction to this sermon.


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