Minister’s forum: Showing compassion for same-sex couples
August 24, 2005
American culture seems focused on the nature of the family, and, for the last few years, one of the most important aspects of this discussion has been the struggle over how, or how not, to include same-sex couples into a notion of family. Many of the most strongly religious leaders of our nation have also identified themselves as heartily against such a broadening of the definition of family, and often their argument finds support in biblical passages, namely one in Leviticus.
Here is the passage in question, from the Hebrew Bible, Leviticus 20:13, from a translation that closely expresses the intent of the original Hebrew: “A man who lies with a male as one lies with a woman – abomination have the two of them done, they are to be put-to-death, yes death, their bloodguilt is upon them!” At first glance this seems relatively definitive upon the issue of same-sex relationships between men, although not between women. However, there are at least two questions I wish to raise about this text.
First, what does the text mean by a “man who lies with a male as one lies with a woman?” Some studies of ancient culture have discovered that some peoples living around the times of the ancient Israelites may have practiced a ritual in which male priests dress up like women and perform intimate acts with male worshippers. This would definitely fall into the “abomination” category as early Israelites wrote laws to help them distinguish themselves quite clearly from their neighbors.
One can easily imagine that our modern notion, which many of us hold, and to which there is plenty of supporting evidence, that two men or women could live together and build a healthy family was unknown to our ancient ancestors, and that therefore what is being prohibited here is something else entirely.
Second, no matter how serious a religious person one is, none of us live by the letter of the biblical law. We are not offering up sacrifices, nor are we stoning rebellious children (which of us would have survived?) or those who don’t follow our rules about the Sabbath. Judaism follows an interpretive tradition, one that has always frowned upon death penalties that contradict our teachings about compassion and community-building, for example.
So the question here needs to be what are our values, and how do we best teach and promote them?
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I, for one, am very committed to the notion of a healthy family as the building block of society. I want to help people find life-partners, if they wish to, so that they can live the most fulfilling lives possible.
If someone cannot have a fulfilling relationship with someone of the opposite sex, but can have a fulfilling relationship with someone of the same sex, then we ought to facilitate that healthy relationship, welcoming them and enabling them to commit to each other.
Our traditions teach compassion and caring – let us turn that compassion and caring to all who wish to build families, and help them do it even when it may seem uncomfortable to us.
– Jonathan Freirich is rabbi of Temple Bat Yam in South Lake Tahoe.