My wife and I have been blessed with four beautiful children, but we lost a number of pregnancies along the way. During those difficult times years ago, when we sometimes wondered whether we would ever realize our dream of a large family, or even have children at all, I developed a deep personal antipathy for the cavalier use of abortion as a form of birth control.
It seemed to me the height of arrogance, and it still does, to regard a potential life with such disdain. But never, not even for a moment, did I then, nor do I now, think it the business of government, state or federal, to tell a woman whether or not she has the right to abort a pregnancy. How a woman treats her own body, and an unborn child, is not the government’s business. Government has no place in this most personal choice. The decision she will make must represent a spirited discussion between her and her conscience, her faith community and its teachings, and hopefully her partner … but not the government telling her what she may or may not do. Whatever struggles of conscience or ethics might be involved in the voluntary termination of a pregnancy are not the government’s business. I am, to use the political term for it, unabashedly “pro-choice.”
As the sages of the Talmud might have said, al ahat kammah v’khamma … If it is true that the government has no place where an intensely personal choice in involved, how much more so must it be true that the government has no place regulating the right to marry of people whose sexual orientation towards partners of the same sex is almost surely not a matter of choice, but rather of genetic hard-wiring. What the Supreme Court did with its landmark decision last week was to remove a barrier that should never have been there in the first place, and is not in the Constitution. If government has no place in the personal choices that a woman must sometimes make regarding her own body, then surely it has no place in the bedroom of consenting adults. Once again, the matter of sexual orientation is a valid discussion for faith communities to engage, as they have been doing over many years. The government has finally done the right thing and opted out of that discussion.
As a rabbi and teacher, I represent a faith tradition that is outspoken on matters of sexual orientation. Many in the most traditional wing of Judaism see the Court’s decision as nothing less than a major attack on the institution of marriage itself, not to mention of western civilization as a whole. After all, Leviticus 20:13 explicitly refers to male homosexuality as a to’e’vah, an abomination. On this, many Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians are in agreement. Leviticus, in its relentless effort to define what constitutes a holy life, clearly does not see a gay lifestyle as part of that construct. From their perspective, there is nothing left to discuss.
Setting aside what I wrote earlier on this not being a matter for government to be deciding, on purely religious grounds, I profoundly disagree.
I was raised as an Orthodox Jew, and received a classical Orthodox Jewish education, from Yeshiva day school straight through my BA at Yeshiva University. But I trained for the rabbinate at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and as a Conservative rabbi (capital C), I now represent (comfortably and completely) a movement that reads the Bible critically, as a document that developed over time, very much within a variety of historical contexts. That is to say, despite the Bible’s own iconic account of its revelation in Exodus 19 and 20, we understand the Bible not as one divinely revealed-at-Sinai unified document, but rather as a product of different Biblical authors. Through varied historical experiences and cultural influences at different times, they endeavored to translate the nature and content of the revelation at Sinai, whose exact content we are not privy to, into a system of behavioral and moral guideposts for the Jewish people. The fact that we are still reading and studying their work, and revering it as sacred text, is the most magnificent testimony to the genius of their work, and its great success. But its very existence as an historical product must of necessity involve its continued dialectic with both culture and history.
However precious, and, ultimately timeless, the Torah’s unwavering commitment is to understanding sexual relationships as a vehicle for holiness between partners and God, and on this point I wholeheartedly agree with my more Orthodox colleagues, contemporary understandings of the complexity of sexual orientation and how it develops, if it indeed “develops,” cast the ancient categorization of a homosexual orientation as a to’e’vah– an abomination, in a very different light. As a rabbi, I can see no defensible way in which men and women should be denied a path to holiness, and full partnership in the sacred community that the Torah tries so hard to create, merely on the basis of sexual orientation.
Though crafting a judicial opinion that was also political, Supreme Court Justice Kennedy said it correctly. All are entitled to the dignity that a truly loving relationship confers upon its partners. The government has no right to dictate who is entitled to that status, but in the twenty-first century, religion shouldn’t either. Whether homosexual or heterosexual in orientation, all loving partners should share an equally available path to marriage, divine love, and the respect and recognition of community.
It is no secret that change comes hard to people, and change in the religious arena is much, much more difficult. Religion represents tradition, and tradition, to most of us, represents sameness. Change is the opposite of sameness, and that rankles many people. But there comes a time when change is necessary, particularly when maintaining tradition because it’s a tradition, with apologies to Tevye, becomes an injustice in and of itself. I see this as one of those times. So kudos to the Supreme Court, and here’s to hoping that the entire Jewish world will ultimately see its way clear to recognizing the dignity of loving gay and lesbian marriages.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.