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5 Reasons Being an Orthodox Rabbi Compelled Me to Support Gay Marriage

12/19/2013 06:26 am ET | Updated Feb 18, 2014

I am coming out of the closet. I am an Orthodox rabbi and an advocate for gay marriage.

The history of the theological issue is complicated, but the moral issue is increasingly clear. Faith leaders must stand as public allies; private support is no longer enough. Fifteen states and counting have formally approved marriage equality. It's time that traditional faith leaders stand for gay rights, including the right to marriage.

As an Orthodox Jew, I believe the Bible was given by G-d, that Jewish law is binding, and that change in our religious practice cannot happen impetuously. It also means that I take the pervasive biblical call for justice very seriously. I am pro-gay-rights because I am an Orthodox rabbi, not in spite of it.

I only officiate at marriages between Jewish men and women according to the framework of the tradition, but I will argue (and advocate) adamantly for the political rights of gay people to marry. I believe the essence of religious conviction is that we must do what is right, not what is popular. As I have come to understand, there are five important reasons that my identity and values as an Orthodox rabbi compel me to support same-sex civil marriage.

I have empathy for those seeking loving relationships. The rabbis of the Talmud actually suggested that it is as difficult to find a life partner as it was for G-d to split the sea for the Israelites during their Exodus from Egypt (Sotah 2a). The most beautiful and blessed aspect of my life is my family. I cannot imagine the pain and suffering that I would feel if I were deprived of my right to return home, in full dignity, each day to my loving wife and the delight of my daughter. The thought of being legally denied the ability to commit to my wife or raise our own children is horrifying. How can I enjoy these freedoms and not advocate for those struggling to secure similar full rights for themselves and the ones they care for?

Granting basic rights to the LGBT community is an issue of basic economic justice, legal equality, and human dignity. Traditional Jewish law has no established model for gay marriage, but this is an entirely separate matter. We have no right to coercively prevent, by force of civil law, an individual from enjoying true happiness and fulfilling their life potential when it poses no harm to any other. Our stance on religious law and our stance on political law are not intertwined. This is not about any particular religious rule or custom but about the grander ethos of the Torah. Denying gay people the right to marry is contrary to basic justice and therefore contrary to Jewish ethics. We must support all safe families for children and build our society around strong, loving homes. The Jewish tradition cherishes values of love, intimacy, family, and creating sacred homes where G-d can dwell and mandates that we support them.

Our obligation is derived from our shared history as Jews, religious Jews in particular. We have been very successful change makers in the world because throughout history we have often been outsiders, and we can empathize with the plight others who have been, or are being, excluded or discriminated against. However, the Jewish people are today generally accepted in America, and due the comfort of inclusion, we sometimes lose sight of our tragic heritage and the sensibilities and responsibilities we ought to have as a result. For this reason, among many others, religious Jews should support those struggling for their basic rights in America and keep in the forefront of our minds the not-so-distant exclusion, violence, and vitriol we endured in our own struggle for basic human rights.

I know from my own personal relationships, many of my religious students have suffered from severe depression and have become suicidal because of harassment, bullying, exclusion, and cruelty that they have suffered for simply existing as who they are. Legal inequality is another part of the larger cultural oppression that subsequently leads to higher LGBT suicide rates. I will no longer sit on the sidelines stuck in moral paralysis while this crisis continues. Any alternative to allowing all to marry in civil law would feel anti-religious to me, as it continues to alienate and endanger a vulnerable population. Granting full and equal rights is the only moral option. But let us not delude ourselves: If marriage equality is granted, but nothing else changes, that suicide rate won't change much either. There is still a broader cultural ethos of treating all others with dignity that must be addressed, and on this issue, religious leaders must set the tone.

The focus on controlling civil marriage definitions distracts from more important religious issues of sexual ethics, such as adultery, modesty shaming, objectification of women, rape culture, sexual purity, and a responsible sexual ethic for intimacy. By focusing on gay marriage in a cultural context in which the nation as a whole simply does not and will not accept the premise that marriage needs to be defined by G-d and the Bible, traditionalists are losing credibility and causing people to ignore religious leaders when we discuss holiness in sexuality. This true and beautiful concept has come to be perceived as coded language for anti-gay sentiment as all meaning of sexual ethics has collapsed into anti-gay-marriage politic. The religious-sexual conversation has lost credibility, and that is a terrible misstep. Today it is critical that we emphasize our most important religious values such as tzedek (justice), rachamim (compassion), and pikuach nefesh (saving lives) as we further a discourse around the spirituality of intimacy. We have caused too many to turn from religious values or discount us as bigoted or no longer relevant.

I stand with tremendous fear before G-d, and struggle immensely, as I attempt to interpret certain passages of biblical and Talmudic wisdom. Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the 10th-century Jewish philosopher, explained that if we find a contradiction between faith and reason, then we have made a mistake, and we must reexamine the textual tradition and analyze our reason until they are consistent. The text is our starting place, but we must never neglect our crucial human faculty of moral reasoning.

One of my rabbinic heroes, Rabbi Avraham Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, explained that faith cannot require us to abandon our moral intuition, and that we dare not sacrifice basic ethics for the sake of piety or submission:

It is forbidden for religious behavior to compromise a personal, natural, moral sensibility. If it does, our fear of heaven is no longer pure. An indication of its purity is that our nature and moral sense becomes more exalted as a consequence of religious inspiration. But if these opposites occur, then the moral character of the individual or group is dismissed by religious observance, and we have certainly been mistaken in our faith.

As for traditionalist religious leaders, I'm sure many, from various faith traditions, struggle, as I have, with this question. It is with trepidation that we stand when the bulk of our communities shun engagement (or worse, engage with fiery vitriol), but now is the time for bold and decisive action. I've come to the conclusion that it is simply not enough that religious leaders be inclusive and encouraging of diversity in their house of worship. To be a religious leader means to stand with people through their struggles and be an advocate for the protection of human dignity and for equality. The eternal call from G-d to "seek justice" will always ring true and prevail, even during the harshest of struggles. We must be vigilant in our efforts to move prophecy to reality.

Many traditionalist faith leaders feel that our society is losing its moral base, especially regarding sexuality, and that changing the definition of (civil) marriage is yet another disruption of that moral order. There are good reasons for religious leaders to be deeply concerned about sexual mores today, with all of the abuse, adultery, obsession, objectification, and indecency that abounds. I sympathize morally, emotionally and spiritually with those making sexuality issues their key issue as traditionalists today. My colleagues are not bigots, as many proclaim them to be; they are but defending something deep and true in their concern about straying from traditional notions of sexuality. Many may disagree with traditionalists and their stance on gay rights, and this is OK; however, we must keep in mind that discussion is an integral part of progress, and that traditional religious leaders and thinkers have an important role to play. Let us remember that the foundation of faith is that we humans do not have the answers to the great theological quandaries, but that we endeavor, with humility, to do our best, in accordance with the laws and commentary that we are privileged to study.

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