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Miriam Lazewatsky

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Renewal and Rededication: Supporting LGBT Equality During Hanukkah

Posted: 12/22/11 01:14 PM ET

Hanukkah will always remain a minor holiday in the Jewish tradition, since its roots lie in a post-biblical military victory that established a greatly disappointing royal line. The holiday, however, has come to prominence in the United States due to its proximity to Christmas. Hanukkah is a festival of lights that commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was reclaimed from the Greeks. During Hanukkah's eight days, we celebrate the miracle that the Temple's menorah burned for eight days even though the scarce amount of available oil should have lasted just one. Hanukkah is a time for hope and faith, renewal and rededication.

Hanukkah traditions are based around family and community. We cook and eat latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), light the hanukkiah and play dreidel together. These remind us of the miracle of the oil and are celebrations of survival in the face of adversity. They remind us where we came from and give us hope that we can continue to move forward and live in a society that gives us the freedom to be who we are.

But not all people are fully free. As a straight ally, I want my LGBT family and friends to have all the same freedoms I have: The freedom to marry the person I love; the freedom to live without fear that my gender identity or sexual orientation make me a target for harassment or violence; and the freedom to be open about my gender identity or sexual orientation without worry that I could be putting my job or housing in jeopardy.

I see progress every day. In June, I celebrated with my fellow New Yorkers as our state legislators passed marriage equality. I have seen cities and states throughout the country enact laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination at all levels. These moves toward ensuring equality for LGBT people embody the Jewish concept of kavod habriyot, or human dignity. If we cannot treat all people with dignity, respect and compassion by virtue of their humanness, then we have failed to be moral, ethical people ourselves.

I was raised within the Conservative movement in Judaism. Our tradition does not reject halakhah (Jewish law), but recognizes that we should reconsider and possibly revise what we previously assumed to be true as we gain knowledge and understanding. The Conservative movement has historically revised its interpretation of halakhah based on our understanding of social changes. Indeed, the decision to lift the ban on women serving as witnesses in all areas of Jewish law was seen not as a change in Torah law, but rather as the reversal of an outmoded rabbinic prohibition. Our statement of principles, Emet Ve-Emunah, adopted in 1988, affirms that there can be multiple legitimate interpretations of the Torah. This is the basis of Rabbi Gordon Tucker's proposed reversal of the halakhic prohibition on relationships between two people of the same gender.

Rabbi Tucker's proposal, which remains a dissent to the more conservative majority opinions accepted by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, argues that "God's will is not infallibly represented in the Torah, but only imperfectly, in a form that awaits the engagement and honest searching of religious communities." Although we are still united as one movement, we have yet to come to a consensus on the place of LGBT people within our community. Yes, both Conservative rabbinical schools in the United States accept LGBT students, but many synagogues, including the one in which I grew up, are not yet openly welcoming of LGBT congregants. Some Conservative rabbis are willing to oversee commitment ceremonies and even marriages for gay and lesbian couples. As a movement, however, we have not yet positively supported marriage between all loving couples.

We must understand the influence of contemporary social dynamics on our reading of the Torah and on the evolution of halakhah. We must revise our opinions, as a movement, in accordance with changes in our understanding of the Torah and the social context in which it was written, revealed by God, but written by fallible human hands.

Hanukkah is a time for renewal, and perhaps this year it should be a time to renew our understanding about where the old readings of halakhah come from. We no longer live in the same culture in which the Israelites of the Torah or the medieval rabbis lived. Our understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation are richer and more complete. To ignore this understanding and to allow anything less than full equality is neither compassionate nor just. The Torah commands us to pursue justice (Deuteronomy 16:20); if we fail to do so because we are stuck in restrictive ways of thinking, then we are not fulfilling our duty as Jews or as loving people.

This year, I am encouraging my family and friends to see Hanukkah as a chance to renew our commitment to LGBT equality, both within our Jewish traditions and in the broader American society. The vast majority of Jews in the United States already support measures to ensure equality for all people, and it is my hope that if we rededicate our efforts, we can help to create change in our communities and in our country, and help to create a world in which LGBT people enjoy the same protections and equality as every other citizen.