Jul. 4, 2012
The pursuit of holiness consumes a large part of the Torah. This spring we have been immersed in the Book of Leviticus, and at its heart is a section called the Holiness Code, containing some of the most lofty ethical teachings in our religious tradition. Particularly striking are the words in Chapter 19, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
I thought of these words as I read about two topics that have been prominent in the news lately: President Barack Obama's support for the recognition of same-sex marriage and the impact of bullying on our youth.
The subject of civil recognition of same-sex marriages is, to be sure, a contentious issue, and reasonable, intelligent people can arrive at different sides of this issue. Chapter 18 of Leviticus makes clear that sexual unions between men are prohibited: "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence."
On the other hand, for the biblical Israelites, a time could not have been imagined when, as in our current times, gay men could have long-term, committed relationships, much less raise a family together. Many interpreters feel the biblical verse was primarily focused on prohibiting sexual acts between men that were part of the worship practices of other pagan religions.
Our Union for Reform Judaism has long advocated that gays, lesbians, queer, and transgender human beings be treated with dignity and fairness and be accorded the same respect as the rest of society. That is why our movement has expressed that sexual orientation will not be a criterion for acceptance into the movement's seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and why sexual orientation is not to be an impediment to synagogue membership or leadership, for lay people, professionals, or members of the clergy.
This stand taken by the leadership of our movement has made it possible for many rabbis and cantors, including your own, to make the decision to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies.
More than anything else, our mandate as liberal Jews is to apply the tenets of our sacred texts and make them a prism through which we see our world. For many of us, that means taking the eternal ethical teaching of loving our neighbor as ourself and applying it to this current day situation, despite the fact that it means also acknowledging that such a stance is in conflict with the prohibition in the previous chapter involving homosexuality.
As our earlier reformers concluded, the Torah speaks with a wisdom of its time, but as Reform Jews, there a are some moments when we will speak with a different wisdom, reflective of our modern time.
Just as much societal thought has gone into the subject of same-sex marriage, our society has been grappling with the prevalence of bullying in our nation's schools, confronting the damage that bullying often inflicts on youth. At the risk of taking a complex subject and reducing it to a simple question, could a person bully another if he or she really thought of the victim as a child of God, created in the divine image? Wouldn't a person created in the divine image be worthy of respect and shouldn't that person be treated with dignity?
To bully another is to deny the other of the empathy and compassion that is so vital to a caring community. If God created us all in God's image, and if we are caretakers of the world, then it is incumbent upon us to fashion a society based on recognizing the divine in all.
It is interesting that Hillel, born around 110 BCE, presented what is known as the Golden Rule in the negative form: "What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor." It may be easier for many of us to learn to avoid hurting others than to be taught to love others. A century later, Rabbi Akiva taught that loving your neighbor as yourself was "the major principal of the Torah." From any perspective, caring for others is at the heart of what it means to live Jewishly.
This community is showing its care for me by offering me the chance for renewal and growth during my sabbatical. You are giving me the time to reflect and learn, so as to return as your spiritual leader with new ideas and a fresh vision. And it is with a peaceful spirit that I embrace this opportunity, knowing that all of you are in the caring and capable hands of Cantor Reich and Rabbi Stern, who will offer you their support and leadership in my absence.
May we continue to be an example of a liberal religious community, caring for each other, and trying to assure, by our own thoughts and actions, that all people are treated with respect and dignity.