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How come the various streams of Judaism differ on the question of same-sex marriage? Aren't the traditional Jewish texts the same for everyone?
Same-sex marriage in Judaism can be understood as the logical extension of a trend begun by the early Reformers granting men and women increasingly equal status in Jewish life.
It started in the 1800s when, for the first time, women were invited to sit in the main sanctuary so families could worship together. Next, the question of whether females would be counted toward a minyan was answered in the affirmative.
Was it coincidence that the suffrage movement was gaining support in Europe and the United States at about the same time? In the 1920s, the first girl was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah by Rabbi Mordechai M. Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism. A pattern was emerging - gender was no longer being considered a significant religious category. The ordination of the first woman rabbi in America in 1972 was seen at the time as proof of the equality of Jewish men and women.
If gender doesn't matter, then a same-sex couple is like any other couple.
This conclusion led many to reconsider the age-old Jewish view of homosexuality. It hasn't been an easy process, but the full implications of gender equality are now being acknowledged. The gender of one's partner is not a defining factor in liberal Jewish practice.
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has accepted and ordained openly gay and lesbian rabbis since 1984, followed by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform) and most recently, Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative). The Israeli campuses of these schools ordain gay and lesbian rabbis who serve congregations in Israel. Progressive, independent seminaries from Boston to California have also welcomed LGBT students and faculty.
All the major Jewish movements share the same texts, but Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism differ in how we apply them.
In traditional Judaism, decisions are always grounded in earlier precedents. Orthodox authorities base their rulings on the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch, the Codes, and the enormous responsa (question and answer) literature compiled over the centuries. Any new position would have to be consistent with the references found in the earlier traditional texts.
Although more gay-friendly voices are being heard, it is unlikely that we will soon see the Halacha reinterpreted in such a way as to change the majority Orthodox position banning homosexuality, and with it, same-sex marriage.
For the liberal, nonorthodox streams of Judaism, the historical legal rulings found in the Talmud and the Codes offer guidance in decision-making, but aren't taken as the final word.
Values that have been de-emphasized by the Halacha often form the basis of new positions. While all the nonorthodox branches of Judaism have taken positions recognizing and encouraging same-sex marriage, the Conservative movement has produced the most comprehensive discussion of the issue based on traditional texts. In 2006, it argued that the Jewish value of kevod habriyot (dignity) overrides the more familiar prohibition of homosexual activity.
The document, "Homosexuality, Human Dignity & Halakhah," by Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Daniel S. Nevins and Avram I. Reisner is available online and is worthwhile reading for anyone who wants to take a serious look at how Halacha can be applied to a contemporary question. More recently, the same rabbis issued a responsum permitting Conservative rabbis to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.
As congregations across the Jewish spectrum welcome LGBT members, couples and families into mainstream Judaism, a rift as old as Leviticus will begin to be healed.
As divisive as this process has been, all who have taken a position on same-sex marriage have done so in the name of Jewish unity. If we continue to hold high the goal of a diverse worldwide Jewish family linked by our past and committed to our shared future, the debates of recent decades will prove to be as fruitful as the rabbinic debates for the sake of heaven so faithfully preserved in our traditional texts.
Rabbi William L. Berkowitz lives in Prescott, where he serves as spiritual leader of Temple B'rith Shalom.