Wednesday, April 12, 2000

Do The Right Thing:
Same-Sex Ceremonies and Reform Judaism

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Buffalo, New York

Sometime I think you can tell if you have been doing a good job or not... by the quality of hate mail you get. I mean, let's face it. A signed, typed, one- to two-page, well reasoned argument from someone who knows how to use a spel chekker is probably worth thinking about a couple of times. A handwritten, multipage, unmarked, unsigned diatribe with penmanship that deteriorates as the writer reaches the crescendo of excitement, especially one that uses arcane mathematical formulas adding up the numbers of chapters and verses in Biblical books to come to some inescapably certifiable conclusions, or which mentions the Trilateral Commission, the United Nations, the Kennedy assassination, or which refers in any way whatsoever to my eternal soul, hey, get a letter like that and there's a pretty good chance you're doing something right in your life.

The latest letter of the latter sort I received came a few weeks ago. I had just been quoted in the Buffalo News saying something favorable about same-sex commitment ceremonies. When the return address was replaced by a quote I knew I was in trouble. When the writer informed me about Biblical verses I might have overlooked, I began to grin. When told that Moses would be very angry with me, I was amused. And when told that "the great I AM used me to deliver this message to you," well, I admit it. By that time I had a full blown smile on my face.

You know, this is not too dissimilar from some e-mail I received the last time I made any kind of reference to homosexuality in a column I wrote here. It began in a kindly and informative tone. The writer gently wanted me to know that I was supporting sin. It took about three paragraphs to deteriorate to total rage.

To all of you who are reading these words, who don't agree with my liberal views on this issue: Hello! I already know the verses involved, thank you very much. And while I am tempted to mollify dissenters with a calmly stated, soothingly thoughtful "well, yes, this is a very complicated issue, you know," instead I have a growing sense in the pit of my stomach and the depth of my heart, that acceptance of gays and lesbians and the sanctification of their committed relationships is just and simply an issue whose time has come.

The arguments are played out in so many places I don't need to repeat them here. (I have written on the subject before as well. See my "In God's Image: Judaism and Homosexuality," available through the AOL Jewish Community OnLine.) There are just a few thoughts and impressions I would like to share, from the recent convention of Reform rabbis in Greensboro, North Carolina, at which we voted quite overwhelmingly that "the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual."

The first one relates to what I wrote about the quality of hate mail. It has to do with the company we keep. It is not a rational response. It is not a compelling argument. It does not clinch the case. But when the people who are arguing against you are the likes of those hate-filled protesters who stood outside the hotel with placards with a picture of the murdered gay man Matthew Shepard reading "He got what he deserved," when that is the face of the opposition, well, maybe we really are doing the right thing. Extremists on any side should not replace reasoned discourse altogether. But sometimes when you see who your enemies really are, your feelings for your allies grow deeper. For me, what started out as an issue on the cutting edge of religious ritual quickly grew to a basic demand of social justice and human decency.

The second impression to share is one of history. The Central Conference of American Rabbis -- the rabbinic association of Reform rabbis on this continent -- has an astonishing track record of vision and prescience. Time and again we have been the voice of the weak, the tormented and oppressed.  We were one of the first religious organizations on record in favor of Child Labor Laws. We spoke of reproductive rights long ago -- which at the time meant the legalization of contraception for married couples!! We defended the rights of workers to organize early on, and we have spoken out for civil rights, for women's rights and, now, for the civil and religious rights of gays and lesbians. I am at once both humbled and proud to be part of an organization that has been so right so early so often as to deserve the appellation "prophetic."

In Greensboro, in the city where the civil rights movement reached a new plateau of involvement at the lunch counter of a department store, we were all a part of history in the making again.  The final impression I want to share is about the resolution itself. It supports rabbis who choose to officiate at rituals of union for same-gender couples -- and, in a last minute compromise, also supports those rabbis who cannot in good conscience do so. There are those who say that the entire resolution was an unnecessary charade. That there was, before it was passed, nothing to stop rabbis from blessing same-sex ceremonies, nor anything to force a rabbi to do so either.

With this resolution, it is true, that nothing has changed. But everything has changed as well. There are times when a statement of values, of commitment, of principle is just the right thing to do. There was a service at the conference at which a special blessing was recited by our colleagues who are gay or lesbian. They rose to recite the words of the Kaddish deRabanan, the Rabbi's Kaddish. It was one of the most moving moments I have ever seen. What power there was in seeing colleagues -- friends -- able to literally stand up for who they were, as who they are, with the support of a caring community, sometimes for the first time.

I have never before felt the literal power of the words "taking a stand." If ever I had felt, as a heterosexual rabbi, that this was not my issue, that feeling is long gone. It is time to say: the monogamous and committed relationships of two people of the same gender is simply not a threat to my marriage. Or to my children. It is time to say: this is about right as much as rites. It is time to take a stand.

I am glad we did. And I am glad I was there.