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Why Jews Should Rejoice at the Overturning of Prop 8

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Homosexuals were with us in Auschwitz and were persecuted along with Jews throughout Western societies for the past several thousand years, so we stand with them in the struggle for full acceptance and full legal equality, including marriage equality, in the 21st century. But even had they not shared our fate, the denial of rights and the double standards used to justify such denials are always a threat to Jews as well as to everyone else on the planet!

The rights of homosexuals are supported by an overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community. That support is not only based on a memory of shared victimhood, but also on the core values of our own Jewish tradition. The Torah's command to "love our neighbor" and "love the Other [or 'stranger,' Hebrew ger]" are intrinsic to how most American Jews understand our Jewish obligations today. The current (July/August) issue of Tikkun magazine has as its major focus "Queer Spirituality & Politics" with a powerful essay by Jay Michaelson on "Why Gay Rights Is a Religious Issue" plus other essays by Starhawk, Jay Bakker, Yvette A. Flunder, Emi Kyami, Joy Ladin, Parvez Sharma, Andrea Smith, Dean Space, Ruth Vanita and other GLBTQ writers and thinkers. In fact, Tikkun was the first place to publish an essay by a then-closeted homosexual rabbi discussing his struggle, and we have severely criticized those parts of the Jewish religious world which still do not sanctify gay marriages. As a rabbi, I've had the honor to conduct many such marriages in the San Francisco Bay Area, as have many of my colleagues around the country in the Jewish Renewal movement, in the Reform movement, and in the Reconstructionist movement.

The claim by some fundamentalists that gay love is forbidden by the Bible is itself an interpretation and a selective reading of Biblical text. Few of those fundamentalists demand that their society take literally the command to forgive all loans every seventh year (the Sabbatical Year) or to redistribute the land every fiftieth year (the Jubilee) or to not light a fire in their homes on the Sabbath, or for that matter, the command to not destroy the trees of your enemy when engaged in warfare, but they selectively choose this command for special attention.

As to the literalists, well, then be literal: the command says, "Thou shalt not lie with a man the way thou liest with a woman." Ok, fine, but that doesn't say thou shalt not lie with a man, but only that one must do so in a different way than one lies with a woman. The contrast is clear in Leviticus, because all of the other commands about sexual behavior in the same section are unconditional "thou shalt not lie with x or y or z," but only here is the command extended in that way to qualify how it should be applied. While this interpretation is not the only one possible, it demonstrates why Jews have been involved in transforming the meanings of Biblical texts in accord with our own evolving understanding and evolving ethical sensibilities. So, for example, the rabbis of the Talmud, when faced with the Biblical injunction to stone to death a rebellious son, were so uncomfortable with the morality of that command that they proclaimed, shamelessly transforming the literal meaning of the text, that "a rebelious son never existed and was never created," i.e., that whatever the Torah was referencing was fine, but it was in fact not to be confused with what we mean in our daily life experience by a rebellious child. The point is that Judaism has always found a way through creative re-interpretation of texts to hear God's voice afresh in every generation and to recognize that re-hearing as "the oral Torah given on Mt. Sinai and passed on from generation to generation." I detail this perspective in my 1994 national bestseller Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation.

So if it's not about Biblical constraints, what is it about? Fear or hatred of gays is one level of understanding, and certainly correct. Yet for many male homophobes there is another level: the fear that homosexuals remind them of a part of them that was repressed as they adopted their male identity in their early years (ages five to 15): the part that loved and identified with their own mother and hence with the desire to embody and be nourished by that love-oriented and generosity-oriented part that became sex-stereotyped as "female." Because this "femaie element" had to be rejected by young boys in order to be accepted as "a real man," there was an intense need to repress that part of them which identified with their mother and with the loving element she represented. The harder it was to give that up, the more intense the repression that young boys have had to incorporate into their being in order to fit in to the emerging male identities which they are offered by the other kids at school and by the media and the ethos of a patriarchal culture.

This is not the same as saying, as is commonly asserted, that they were all "really" homosexuals to start with. I don't believe that there is an essentialist sexual identity in that way. Rather, I'm claiming that boys have constructed their sexual identity by having to repress their most loving parts, and the more vulnerable they are to the pain of that abandonment of part of themselves and their mothers that they really loved, the more they have been forced to become super-macho, one of whose dimensions is to repress anything that resembles a "girlie" part. (Remember how Gov. Schwarznegger accused Democrats in 2004 of being "girlie men," and how the Dems were unable to respond in the way they should have, by affirming that it is a compliment to be compared to a girl, and that those who don't understand that are deeply troubled human beings?)

Since homosexual males are equated by the homophobes as girlish and weak, those afflicted by the need to repress that part of their identity, usually starting at a very young age, are most fearful of homosexuality and then of homosexuals.

Please note that this analysis avoids putting down the homophobes -- I see them as themselves victims of patriarchal society, and people who need psychological and spiritual help, not people to be ridiculed, though I and Tikkun have been consistently committed to fighting the policies that they would impose on the rest of us. One must be compassionate and forgiving toward others with whom we disagree on ethical issues, but forgiveness does not require us to stop struggling against the policies and institutions that wounded people have created to dominate our lives, and against their oppressive beliefs and behaviors.

Tikkun magazine also recognizes that the decision to overturn the ban on gay marriage is a victory for all of us who support separation of religion and state, since those who seek to impose that restriction are simply trying to impose their particular religious beliefs on the society as a whole. Avoiding that was a major reason for the First Amendment to the Constitution. So we hail the decision by Judge Vaughn Walker and hope that it will be sustained in the appeal process through the federal courts, though we share the concern of many that this most reactionary Supreme Court in 70 years may end up siding with the homophobes and haters.

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And if you happen to be in the Bay Area during the Jewish High Holidays, please consider registering to come to our religious services for Rosh Hashanah and/or Yom Kippur (others have come from around the country in past years just to attend these services). The services will be held at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Ca. Information on dates, costs, and registration can be found at www.beyttikkun.org, or call Mike Godbe at (510) 528-6250 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (510) 528-6250      end_of_the_skype_highlighting. I think you will find our services a unique spiritual experience.