More debate please – Pluralist panel offers too much agreement
By Yaakov Gorr
Parsha Korach is a great reminder that Judaism is known for its great debates and great debaters – not only debates between Moshe and Korach but debates between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Hillel and Shammai, Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz, Emma Goldman and Bella Abzug. We aren’t like the Catholics – there’s no infallible leader for us. On the contrary, Judaism has flourished because of contests, verbal battles and political controversy.
So I have to say that I was disappointed by the recent meeting (3 June, Monash Caulfield) “A Pluralist Panel on Homosexuality and Judaism” organised by Hineni (Melbourne) and the Monash Jewish Students Society. A well-attended event to be sure, and Kol haK’vod to the event organisers for organising what was apparently the first public discussion in the Melbourne Jewish community on anything to do with homosexuality. However, you’d expect that even in a toned-down and respectful discussion, panellists of differing backgrounds would have a machloket (debate).
It is about disputes such as these, where each side (we’re Jews, an argument can have at least twice as many sides as it has disputants) is striving for the “sake of heaven,” that Pirkei Avot says that both sides of the argument will endure forever, because both the one and the other side of the argument are the words of the Living G-d (Elu V’Elu Divrei Elokim Chayim). But in this panel, the argument had only one side; perhaps this was because the haredi community reject pluralist thought and declined (I am told) an invitation to have a representative on the panel.
Former Deputy Principal of Bialik College, Michael Cohen, with Hineni’s Yardena Prawer, moderated the protagonists, who included Rabbi Shamir Caplan (Orthodox), Rabbi Ehud Bandel (Conservative), Rabbi Fred Morgan (Progressive), and Aleph’s Michael Barnett, who spoke of his personal experiences.
Michael Cohen noted that Reconstructionist Judaism has ordained gay and lesbian rabbis since 1985, and in 2007 it elected its first openly gay president in Rabbi Toba Spitzer. The Liberal tradition has ordained gay and lesbian rabbis since 1990 and allowed same-sex unions since 2000, while the Conservative tradition accepted both in 2006.
All three streams of Jewish thought represented by the Rabbis on the panel seemed to agree that gay Jewish women and men were equal within the community and their sexuality needed to be taken into account and not ignored. The three rabbis seemed to concur that Judaism outlaws only one male-to-male sex act, that of anal sex. None condemned relationships that did not include that act. R’ Morgan went further – I heard his message as being more supportive of same-sex relationships, which were loving and supportive, than of heterosexual relationships which did not produce children.
R’ Morgan’s position seems similar to that of Baroness Neuberger, the president of Liberal Judaism, who supported amendment to the UK Equality Act, passed by the House of Lords in March 2010. “Liberal Judaism has always stressed the importance of a loving, monogamous relationship, whether it is a same-sex or opposite-sex”. Liberal Judaism believes that any such relationship deserves “kiddushin”, the ‘sanctification’ that is part of the Jewish legal relationship between two members of a couple.
Perhaps even more radical is lesbian Rabbi Ariel Friedlander’s position on the pasuk, “lying with a man as if with a woman” is an “abomination” (Lev. 18:22). R’ Friedlander’s view appears to be that if we interpret that pasuk literally, it is not relevant to exclusively gay men given that they don’t have sex with women at all. R’ Friedlander however takes a very free position on torah interpretation: “[The Torah provides…] the legal code of our Jewish ancestors. It was the rules, [but]… it was written for primitive people, who were often nomads. We just don’t live like that anymore. The job of the Rabbi is to reinterpret those ancient texts so that they are still relevant to our lives and faith. … How can you identify with something that was made for nomads in the desert?”
In the absence of a true machloket in the panel, I’ll quote the departed Rebbe Ronald Lubofski z”l, “The core of the philosophy, the religious philosophy, the political philosophy of being Jewish, is in the written word… Some would reduce it to the Ten Commandments etc. and that excludes the notion of homosexuality, and as a consequence it’s a contradiction in terms. You simply cannot consider the two ideals as being compatible…. You’re talking here of fundamentals of life, you’re not dealing here with a sporting organisation where people make a choice to do this or to do that. These are individuals who do not produce families, these are individuals who perform sexually in a way which is aberrant, to say the least, with regard to Judaism. It is something which runs counter to the fundamentals of Judaism, that is the family unit.” (ABC Radio National Religion Report 19/05/99 ).
Sadly the real debate is yet to be had, that with R’ Lubofski’s followers on the one side and R’ Friendlander’s on the other. At the centre ought not be the mere interpretation of the text, but whether our faith ought to have traditional family life at its centre. I myself have difficulty in identifying with an approach which “seeks to reinterpret those ancient texts so that they are still relevant to our lives and faith”. I thought that the job was to reinterpret our lives and faith so that they are still congruent with those ancient texts.