Why I, a Rabbi, Support LGBT Equality
Marriage equality has been in the news, pretty much non-stop, for a couple of days now. First, North Carolina passed Amendment 1, banning any kind of legal civil union, other than heterosexual marriage. Then, President Obama came out in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, a first for a sitting U.S. President. It has been, to say the least, a busy few days in the marriage equality world.
That makes this as good of a time as any for me to speak out in favor of marriage equality. It’s something I’ve done before, as have many of my colleagues. But, I think it’s also important to say not just why I support same-sex marriage, but why I do so as a rabbi—why I believe that LGBT equality is a religious issue.
It is, to say the least, a complicated issue. It would be an understatement to say that not all rabbis, and certainly not all clergy, support marriage equality or LGBT rights. But there are at least three interrelated reasons that make me feel compelled to not only support LGBT issues, but to do so vocally and forcefully.
If you’re part of a religious tradition that believes your revelation came directly, and perfectly, from God, then you probably won’t see the world the same way I do. But, as part of religious movement that embraces the fact that our texts, practices and traditions all have human origins, I have no choice but to also admit that those human origins have influenced those texts, practices and traditions. In other words, they don’t only reflect God’s will, but human biases and prejudices as well. They reflect the society from which they came.
Well, society changes (thank God). Our values change. Our understanding of human nature changes. Trying to apply, uncritically and unwaveringly, an ancient set of laws and restrictions onto a modern world, without accounting for those changes—well, that’s precisely the kind of thinking which got Galileo into so much trouble. Not exactly a shining moment for religion, was it?
Our understanding of the world changes, and a religion which doesn’t change along with it, is writing yet another embarrassing chapter in its history. Religious leaders who refused to see the world changing were the ones who tried to justify slavery, who resisted women’s rights and so on. I really don’t want to be part of the next round of that.
2. We’ve got a lot to make up for.
And that brings me to my second reason for feeling obligated (one might even say: commanded) about all this: I am part of a system that has been throughout its history, and still continues to be, one of the single greatest forces against same-sex equality; religion, especially organized religion, has been a driving force behind homophobia in our world. To put it simply (and honestly) I want to make sure that people know that I’m religious, but that doesn’t make me homophobic. Call it apologetics, call it insecurity, but at least I’m directing it in a good direction.
But, in addition, I guess I also feel the need to do some makeup work. My own history of homophobia is minor and, thankfully, ended long ago. But, as part of the “religious world,” I guess I still feel I have some repentance to do. If religion has been so awful to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, and I’m religious, then don’t I, at least in a tangential way, share some of that guilt? Without becoming too self-centered, or too melodramatic, isn’t part of being connected to a larger group sharing responsibility, at least in part, for that group?
It’s debatable. The same types of arguments happen around America’s history of oppression of African-Americans, Native Americans and so on. And, as usual, I see both sides of the argument—on the one hand, I am part of the institution which oppressed, and therefore I feel somewhat obligated to make restitution. On the other hand, I did nothing wrong myself, so I shouldn’t feel guilty or responsible. Both make sense, but there’s not much harm in erring on the side of compassion, is there?
3. You can’t go too wrong by being compassionate.
And, that brings me to my last religious point: There is no harm in erring on the side of compassion. One of my favorite teachings in all of Judaism came (I believe) from Rabbi Irving Greenberg: The oft-repeated ethical injunction to care for the stranger because we were strangers is a reminder that our own history of oppression is supposed to make us more sensitive to others. We have been treated badly, and we have been marginalized, and we have had our rights (and our lives) suppressed. And, because of that, we’re supposed to look at others who are being similarly treated and help them.
It’s that simple. To be a Jew is remember how terrible it feels to be weak and oppressed, and therefore to act on behalf of the weak and oppressed. Right now, in our society, there is probably no group which is more openly oppressed than non-straight people. Gay rights has been called the next/last great frontier of civil rights. It’s the last group about which it’s OK to speak publicly about the desire to annihilate them or deny them basic rights. I’d like to be a small part of changing that. It seems like an awfully Jewish thing to do.
The Right Side of History
I firmly believe, and I pray, that LGBT equality truly is the next frontier of civil rights. And that means, among other things, that it won’t be long before we look back at this time and shake our heads. It means that our children will wonder how anyone could think that gays and lesbians didn’t deserve the right to marry, and they’ll wonder how anyone could allow others to argue, in a respectable society, against that right. We will, in short, look back at Amendment 1 and its ilk in precisely the same way that we now look back at Jim Crow.
Last week, the voters of North Carolina put themselves on the wrong side of history; President Obama put himself on the right side. I am proud to stand with him, and everyone who defends LGBT rights, at this watershed moment.
This year, we were slaves. Next year, may all be free.
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Tampa. He is a 2012-2013 Brickner fellow.