Same-Sex Commitment Ceremonies

Rabbi Kamins. First published in Temple Time magazine, Sept 2008. Reproduced here with kind permission.

In May, 2007, the Council of Progressive Rabbis of Asia, Australia and New Zealand (the Moetzah) passed a resolution to enable its rabbis to officiate at same gender commitment ceremonies as follows:

“In keeping with our deep concern for the abiding Jewish principles of justice (Tzedek) and human dignity (Kavod haB’riot), we affirm the resolution adopted at the 111th Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, March, 2000, that states:” the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual”. Therefore, the Moetzah hereby resolves to permit but not require, its rabbis to officiate at same gender commitment ceremonies between two Jews. We commit ourselves to ongoing discussion of the nature of such ceremonies.”

While the resolution was made public at that time, it remained in the world of the theoretical until two Jewish couples from Sydney recently approached this congregation to arrange for a commitment ceremony. In the Australian Jewish News of July 11 it was reported that, “two former Moriah College students plan to become the first lesbian couple to make a commitment to each other in a Jewish ceremony officiated by a rabbi. Nicky Glover and Michelle Sanders celebrated a secular commitment ceremony last month… The couple has planned a second commitment ceremony at Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney, towards the end of the year.” Meanwhile, our congregants, Scott Whitmont and Christopher Whitmont Stein (who also have had a secular commitment ceremony) have scheduled a commitment ceremony at our synagogue in the next few weeks. Now that the theoretical has become real, it is important that our congregants, as well as the broader Jewish and Australian community, understand our reason for officiating at these ceremonies.

The reason we officiate at same gender commitment ceremonies goes to the core of our understanding of God, Torah and the organic development of Judaism and the people of Israel. We deeply believe in God as the one being that has created (and continues to create) the universe of which each of us is part. This belief we share with all other religions. Accordingly, each and every human being is a divine creature of God – a belief also shared by every tradition and often phrased in the axiom that whoever saves the life of a single person has saved an entire universe and whoever destroys a life has destroyed an entire universe. (This teaching is found in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 as well as in other faith traditions.) Knowing that each person is a “divine creation”, we endeavour to treat each person with equal rights, responsibilities and especially dignity.

However, Judaism is set apart from other religions in that we draw down the creative intelligence or consciousness of God through the words of the Torah and its applications through the tradition. The Torah has mitzvot, commandments that the Jew is to follow. One of them in Leviticus 18:22 states, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” Later rabbinic tradition understood this prohibition to forbid lesbian relations as well. To this day Orthodox Judaism interprets the halakha (Jewish law) regarding homosexual relations as unchanged. Nevertheless, while Orthodox Judaism would not sanction same gender relations, it would consider “the violation of the mitzvah” on the same level as the violation of any other mitzvah. Orthodoxy would not endorse the violation of Shabbat or kashrut, but neither would it shun a person who drove on Shabbat or ate non-kosher food.

For a variety of reasons, both the Conservative and Progressive movements of Judaism have understood our Torah and tradition differently and have accordingly reached different conclusions. First, we believe that the Torah is a record of our ancestral communication with God as opposed to the literal word of God transcribed by Moses. While the Torah forms the core of Judaism, its teachings are not absolute. The Progressive movement believes that traditions can be changed when they contradict ethics. The right and good at the essence of serving God must supersede a teaching of Torah that violates the Torah’s core principles. Conservative Judaism is more cautious, following a path of halakha, evolving Judaism according to traditional methods of legal and literary interpretation.

Most Jews would recognize that the Judaism we live is not the Judaism described in the Torah but one that has adapted over time. Some Torah teachings of Judaism have been expanded, others curtailed. For example, the teachings in the Torah regarding Shabbat and kashrut are sparse, but the applications of them so immense that they have been described by the Talmudic rabbis as “mountains hanging from a thread.” The development of ritual that binds us closer to God and community has been a cornerstone of Judaism. Living those rituals brings one closer to God, to deeper understanding of Torah and to Jewish community.

On the other hand, ethical or practical aspects of Torah that have had negative consequences have been limited by our rabbis for thousands of years. For example, the great sage Hillel established a prosbul or legal formula whereby a creditor could still claim his debts after the Sabbatical Year despite the biblical injunction against doing so. Similarly, the rabbinic sages reasoned away the law of the rebellious son (which provided the death penalty for such a person) stating that the teaching was only in the Torah to encourage legal reasoning.

The question facing our people today is to what extent we can continue to develop Judaism. The well known Orthodox Jewish thinker Blu Greenberg has stated, “where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way.” Nevertheless, Orthodoxy has been more comfortable expanding ritual than curtailing problematic ethical passages for a variety of reasons. For most rabbis of the non-Orthodox movements and indeed most Jews these days, the reasons to officiate at same gender commitment ceremonies require us to revisit the prohibition against homosexuality. Our understanding of contemporary ethics makes us question the received tradition about homosexuality. Contemporary knowledge, from biology, psychology and other fields has led to a far deeper understanding of human sexuality. The range of sexual orientation is not merely heterosexual or not. Gay or lesbian relationships are not “deviant” but part of human behaviour.

The voice of tradition could respond that nevertheless, non heterosexual relationships should not be honoured because they “undermine family life” or “violate the commandment to be fruitful and multiply.” These concerns no longer have validity. If (and it could be questioned in a world of overpopulation and dwindling resources) it still is a command to have children, it must be acknowledged that lesbian and gay couples often do so through surrogacy and adoption. The families that they raise have all the potential for blessing as any other family. In fact, a commitment ceremony provides that couple with the recognition and dignity that will enhance their family life and their deserved place in community.

Those in the non-Orthodox movements who endorse officiating at commitment ceremonies do so in the fullness of belief in God and that the Torah must always be applied to fulfil its deepest values, tzedek (justice) and chessed (compassion) . When a mitzvah contradicts those principles, it is being incorrectly applied and must be re-evaluated and re-interpreted. This is precisely the process our sages have been applying to Torah for thousands of years, keeping it a living document and Judaism a vibrant, organic way of life. In this sense, we recognize that the prohibition against a “man lying with a man like a man lies with a woman” comes from a time in which polygamy was practiced, a man had full authority over a woman in marriage and all other aspects of life, and homosexuality was often connected with pagan, cult rituals.

We read the prohibition within this context and therefore see the contemporary relationships of same gender couples in a different light. In this light, we feel compelled to honour the holiness of their commitment through a Jewish ceremony. We see this ceremony as an aspect of serving God as the Torah requires, pursuing justice, acting with compassion and enhancing human dignity.