Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Rabbi supports LGBT causes?

OK, this is (for me) a long, somewhat rambling post. I had trouble getting it out, and didn't really have time to edit it. But I wanted to publish it today, because today is National Coming Out Day, and this is about LGBT issues. So, pardon any incoherence. But, please, give it a read!

A number of times on this blog, and quite often on my Facebook page, I've spoken out in support of same-sex marriage, as well as other LGBT issues. Depending on what religious background you hail from, you might find this somewhat surprising (or, maybe, very surprising), or completely expected. But, knowing that at least some people don't expect a rabbi to be on this side of the issue, I have been thinking for a while about posting my reasoning for being pro-LGBT rights and, especially, why I think it's a Jewish issue—why I support this not just as a person, but as a religious Jew, and as a rabbi.

Interestingly, I recently came across another blog post which explained why its author (who describes himself as "A Heterosexual, Married, North Carolinian Father Of Three") supports LBGT equality. It says so much of what I think, that I almost decided to just scrap my own blog post, and link to it. He debunks many common arguments against equality:
Religious arguments against same-sex marriage do not pass the Lemon Test, a three-pronged legal requirement which stipulates that a) the government's action must have a secular legislative purpose, b) the government's action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and c) the government's action must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion. I am not sure I have heard anyone make a case against same-sex marriage that did not invoke religion. 
Kids do just fine in families with same-sex parents. "All of the major professional organizations with expertise in child welfare have issued reports and resolutions in support of gay and lesbian parental rights" (Professor Judith Stacey, New York University). 
He also talks about some of the positives of acceptance:
Acceptance of LGBT folks helps protect against depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Why in the world would anyone want to cause suffering in others? If the answer lies in your religion, then you need to re-evaluate your religion. Its ancient morality is flawed at best. 
As always, there's lots more to read, and I recommend clicking through (it's not a long article, but it's a good one). But, not surprisingly, given his atheist identity, he doesn't talk about the religious reasons for same-sex support. So, that still gives me room to add something, right?

I'm clearly not going to be able to explain the entire matter, here. The question of whether it's appropriate for rabbis (or other religious leaders) to be pro-LGBT is complicated, to say the least. But, there are at least three interrelated reasons that I feel compelled to not only support LGBT issues, but to do so vocally and forcefully.

First of all, religion changes, and that's a good thing, If you're part of a religious tradition which believes that your revelation came directly, and perfectly, from God, then you probably won't see the world the same way that I do. But, as part of religious movement which embraces the fact that our texts, practices and traditions all have human origins, I have no choice but to also admit that those human origins have influenced our texts, practices and traditions. In other words, they don't only reflect God's will, but human biases and prejudices, as well. They reflect the society from which they came.

Well, society changes (thank God). Our values change. Our understanding of human nature changes. Trying to apply, uncritically and unwaveringly, an ancient set of laws and restrictions onto a modern world, without accounting for those changes—well, that's precisely the kind of thinking which got Galileo into so much trouble. Not exactly a shining moment for religion, was it?
Our understanding of the world changes, and a religion which doesn't change along with it, is writing yet another embarrassing chapter in its history. Religious leaders refused to see the world changing were the ones who tried to justify slavery. Who resisted women's rights. And so on. I really don't want to be part of the next round of that.

And that brings me to my second reason for feeling obligated (one might even say: commanded) about all this: I am part of a system which has been, throughout its history, and still continues to be, one of the single greatest forces against same-sex equality. Religion, especially organized religion, has been a driving force behind homophobia in our world. So, on the one hand I feel a need (which might not come from the most exalted place, I admit) to distance myself from the views of the religious homophobes. To put it simply (and honestly) I want to make sure that people know that I'm religious, but that doesn't make me homophobic. Call it apologetics, call it insecurity, but at least I'm directing it in a good direction.

But, in addition, I guess I also feel the need to do some makeup work. My own history of homophobia is minor and, thankfully, ended long ago. But, as part of the “religious world,” I guess I still feel I have some repentance to do. If religion has been so awful to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, and I'm religious, then don't I, at least a tangential way, share some of that guilt? Without becoming too self centered, or too melodramatic, isn't part of being connected to a larger group sharing responsibility, at least in part, for that group?

It's debatable. The same types of arguments happen around America's history of oppression of African-Americans, Native Americans and so on. And, as usual, I see both sides of the argument—on the one hand, I have benefited, indirectly at least, from those injustices. I am part of the institution which oppressed, and therefore somewhat obligated to make restitution. On the other hand, I did nothing wrong myself, so I shouldn't feel guilty or responsible. Both make sense, but there's not much harm in erring on the side of compassion, is there?

And, that brings me to my last religious point. There is no harm in erring on the side of compassion. Especially in Judaism (not comparing it to other religions, so feel free to insert your own here). One of my favorite teachings in all Judaism came (I believe) from Rabbi Irving Greenberg. The oft repeated ethical injunction to care for the stranger, because we were strangers, is a reminder that our own history of oppression is supposed to make us more sensitive to others. We have been treated badly, and we have been marginalized, and we have had our rights (and our lives) suppressed. And, because of that, we're supposed to look at others who are being similarly treated, and help them.

It's that simple. To be a Jew is remember how terrible it feels to be weak and oppressed, and therefore to act on behalf of the weak and oppressed. Right now, in our society, there is probably no group which is more openly oppressed than non-straight people. Gay rights has been called the next/last great frontier of civil rights. It's the last group about which it's ok to speak publicly about the desire to annihilate them, or deny them basic rights. If I were to do so, then I'd be accepted, and applauded, by large swathes of our society. I'd like to be a small part of changing that. It seems like an awfully Jewish thing to do.

Today is “National Coming Out Day.” Let's all pray for, and work towards, the day when that won't be necessary. The day that no one will feel unsafe, unloved, or disenfranchised simply because they love someone of the same gender. It really doesn't seem that complicated.

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