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THE CIVIL UNIONS DIVIDE


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Ancient views of gay 'sin' do not apply in modern era

By Rabbi Peter B. Schaktman

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LAST UPDATED: 05:06 a.m. HST, Jun 12, 2010



Gov. Linda Lingle consulted with ministers and others from the faith community about the civil unions bill that awaits her decision when she returns to Hawaii next week.

Lingle, who is Jewish, pointed out that even the two local rabbis have opposing opinions about the issue of extending rights to same-gender and heterosexual couples that are now held only by those who are married. The rabbis accepted an invitation to present their views. Rabbi Peter Schaktman is the religious leader of Temple Emanu-El, a Reform Jewish congregation. Rabbi Itchel Krasnjansky leads Chabad of Hawaii, an Orthodox Jewish organization. In keeping with traditional Jewish belief, Krasnjansky does not spell out the name of God.

The civil unions bill awaiting action by Gov. Lingle will extend to partners in such a union the same rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities that come as a matter of course to spouses in a marriage. Yet the bill itself clearly states that a civil union is not marriage.

Why then is this a religious issue at all? In many ways it is not. Civil unions create a legal reality, not a religious one. Clergy will not be obligated to participate in a civil union ceremony any more than they would be required to bless a legal contract.

Those who object to the bill on religious grounds tend to be literalists who justify their view by pointing to Leviticus 18. The problem is that by reading this text so literally, they completely remove this Scripture from an ancient social context that could not envision the possibility or appreciate the reality of loving same-sex relationships.

Such negative judgments regarding gays and lesbians cannot go unchallenged. The thrust of this verse cannot legitimately override an overarching biblical ethos that teaches us that God loves and affirms the full humanity of each human being.

It's important to note that Judaism does not base its religious teachings on the Protestant doctrine of Scripture alone. Judaism asserts that moral truths emerge out of an interpretive process that calls upon Jews to acknowledge that God has called on the Jewish people to serve as covenantal partners, and this obligation is fulfilled through an ongoing interpretation of the written text.

In 1996 the Central Conference of American Rabbis representing Reform Judaism, the largest movement in American Judaism, considered a committee's scholarly analysis that included just such an interpretation. Among the many insights were the following:

While the text of Leviticus does indeed refer to homosexual sexual activity as a "to evah," abomination, the meaning of that term has become ambiguous. They note that the Torah labels three categories of actions as abominations: idolatry, the eating of forbidden animal species and the sexual prohibitions of Leviticus 18 and 20. What these sins share in common is not the fact that they violate the "moral law." Instead, they violate the biblical boundaries of holiness that are meant to distinguish Israel from the other nations.

The problems with this concept in the modern era now become obvious. Although many Jews observe the kosher laws, even the most traditional among us do not say that those who do not adhere to these rules are committing an abomination.

Similarly, even if we do not share the beliefs or practices of other faith communities, we do not label their religious traditions as idolatry. Our attitude toward our neighbors' religions is one of tolerance, not abhorrence.

The Reform conference committee suggested that, given our contemporary understanding of the nature of human sexual orientation, it no longer makes sense to classify homosexual behavior as a sin, much less a "to evah," and that the biblical and rabbinic proscriptions of homosexual behavior do not speak to the situation as we know it today.

In 1996 the assembled membership of the Central Conference of American Rabbis affirmed in a resolution that stated, "Consistent with our Jewish commitment to the fundamental principle that we are all created in the divine image ... (we) support the right of gay and lesbian couples to share fully and equally in the rights of civil marriage."

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, writes, "In Dickens' 'Oliver Twist,' when young Oliver approaches the wardens of the orphanage where he was housed and, after a scant meal, asks for 'more,' the wardens are scandalized.

Yet, as one commentator upon this passage has pointed out, Oliver said 'more' when what he really meant was this: 'Will you just give me that normal portion which is necessary for a boy my age to live?'"

Ellenson said, "As a religious Jew, I assert that the gay community today seeks nothing more than Oliver Twist - the 'normal portion' required to live a life of dignity and equality. Our society should be ashamed that gays and lesbians are subjected daily to indignity and prejudice in legal as well as social arenas, and religious persons must declare that position loud and clear in order to influence public opinion on this matter."

 

Rabbi Peter Schaktman is rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Reform Jewish congregation.





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