Toward a New Jewish Sexual Ethic

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Late in March 2000, the Central Conference of American Rabbis — the Reform rabbinate — joined with the Reconsructionist Rabbinical Alliance and Ohalah/Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal in deciding to affirm and support those members who preside at the weddings of two men or two women.

Why is this happening?

At the most obvious level, there has been a great change in American mores and ethics about gay and lesbian sexuality. More and more people have actually discovered that some of their children, sisters and brothers, friends, and parents are gay.

So from direct observation they have realized how deep are the loving connections, how sensible it is to think of them as marriages, and how much a denial of equal rights it is to prevent gay people from exercising the responsibilities that our laws place on the heterosexually married.

That certainly helped the Supreme Court of Vermont make its decision to require the legislature to legaliuze either gay marriages or gay domestic partnerships, and moved the Vermont legislature to carry it out.

But then, as custodians of a three-thousand -year old tradition, let us go one step further: Why is THAT happening?

WHY are the ethics and mores changing?

Is this a mere fad, or something deep enough to change Jewish tradition?

For the Reform movement, which does not see itself as bound by halakha (the traditional Jewish law-code), the decision arose from a modern view of ethics and the modern sense of individual conscience. From this perspective, the verse of Leviticus 18: 22, which seems to proclaim gay male sex an abomination, is not decisive.

There are some Jews who, after wrestling with Leviticus and halakha, have decided to affirm the potential sacredness of gay and lesbian sexuality. Most of these people take one of three approaches to the tradition inherited from Leviticus 18:

1. Some argue that the text had no knowledge about, and therefore could not forbid, serious and stable gay or lesbian relationships. Leviticus is, perhaps, about idolatrous sexual rituals — and especially does not apply to gay marriage.

2. Some argue that gay people are "compelled" to their orientation by their genes or very early imprinting, and therefore come under the halakhic category (o-nes) in which people are not punished for disobeying mitzvot if they are being compelled to violate them.

3. Some say the text, on close examination, does not (cannot, anatomically) mean what it seems to say. "A male shall not lie with a male as with a woman" — How? So, the text must be midrashically reinterpreted: perhaps, "Do not pretend to be heterosexual when you are not. Come out of the closet."

But I want to suggest a much different view, which accepts what I think is the reality — that in our generation we are affirming a sexual ethic different from the one that is put forward in biblical and in rabbinic Judaism.

****And yet I argue that this new ethic is deeply rooted in Torah's intention for our generation. ****

Indeed, I would call my own view "neo-halakhic" rather than "non-halakhic." — That is, I think we have a positive obligation to encourage the use of marriage as one form of sacred expression of gay sexuality, just as I think we have the obligation to encourage marriage as one form of sacred heterosexual sexuality.

In my view, our forebears supported a sexual ethic that stood on three pillars:

1. Men rule over women in each household as they do in the society at large. Men are to act graciously and to please women (sexually, economically, etc.) but from a position of power.

2. The main intent of sexuality to procreate.

3. Sex is sacred and its pleasures are sacred (but only within the specific boundaries based on pillars 1 and 2).

Gay and lesbian sexual relationships are not as likely to lead to procreation as is male-female sex. So they may violate Rule 2.

And for different reasons, they break Rule 1. I believe that the Biblical and Rabbinic minds were boggled at the notion of two human beings, each of whom was SUPPOSED to be dominant, being thrown together in a relationship. Two parties each of which was SUPPOSED to be dominating the other would blow the ethics computer to smithereens. So gay male relationships were denounded as abominations.

At the same time, having two parties both of whom were supposed to be SUBMISSIVE would not turn the computer on at all. And indeed the Torah totally ignores lesbian relationships, and the Rabbis view them as a comparatively minor infraction.

But the human race has matured to a point at which neither Rule 1 nor Rule 2 should any longer be our guide — just as Rambam (Maimonides) asserted that animal sacrifices were God's teaching tool for those who were spiritually infantile, and could be/ had been outgrown.

In our era, I do not believe the first two of these rules are intended by God to continue to be upheld.

In fact, at this point in human and planetary history both male domination and hyper-procreation are dangerous to society and to the earth.

I believe that Torah itself has a sense of the evolving, emerging sacredness of the human race, and desires that we grow beyond the specific content of some passages of Torah, in accord with its deeper process and with prophetic aspects of its Teaching.

I believe that the "command" to "Be fruitful and multiply, Fill up the earth and subdue it," has been fulfilled at the physical and biological level. (Notice how intimately this "command" connects a sexual ethic with an ethic of dominating the earth.)

In our era, we humans have completed both multiplication and subdual. We can destroy life on the planet. We can create new species. We have multiplied so vastly that we endanger ourselves and the whole web of life.

This command must now be understood in a new way.

Collectively, we are in the life cycle of the human race at a place like the one an individual woman reaches at menopause: It is far more important to nurture and to teach than it is to have more babies.

And — just as Maimonides said we need to make the sacrifices inwardly, not physically — so we need to transmute the teachings about procreation and domination. We need to multiply not physical human beings but the fruitfulness of many honorable life-paths; we need to use our modern science not to shatter the web of life but to understand and protect its sacred complexity and its fragile grandeur.

Is there any Torah for a human race that has taken one more step toward growing up?

I suggest we take the Song of Songs as one pointer toward a grown-up sexual ethics both of sexual relationships and of earth-human relationships. The Song of Songs — itself a description of the Garden of Eden for grown-ups.

In the Song, God's Name never appears: God is not present to give orders. Ethics has become infused in the very paths and bodies of the human beings.

Sexuality is not shameful. as it became in Eden. It is not focused on multiplying children, but instead is a deliciously pleasurable expression of love. And the male is not "in charge" — nor is the woman. There is a delightfully playful equality.

And human beings are not at war with the earth, wringing food from it only with the sweat pourng down their faces as the earth brings forth thorns and thistles. Instead, they take joy in the fruitfulness of sun, rain, and soil.

So let us imagine a world in which half — just half — the ethic of sexuality is rooted in the Song. Families continue, but Rule 3 becomes Rule 1.

It is true that the Song is heterosexual. But since it celebrates a kind of loving pleasure in sexuality that is not focused on or delimited by family and procreation, paradoxically it is closer to what some gay and lesbian sexual forms have been like than to most heterosexual ones.

I am not saying that the Song encodes the whole of the "grown-up" sexual ethics that this planet needs. But I think it points the way to an ethic in which family, child-rearing, etc. have their place and in which a more fluid sexual ethic also has its place, and in which the two have become far more intertwined than in the past.

In the past generation, we have seen the ghetto walls between gay/ lesbian and heterosexual ethics break down. The two (or three) communities are much less insulated from each other than they used to be.

Even more important, many more people in the gay/ lesbian communities are affirming the values of family, while in heterosexual communities the values of loving pleasure without male dominance or focus on procreation have become more important.

I suggest that affirming and celebrating marriages of gay and lesbian couples will help us move toward a new sexual ethics that accords with God's continued unfolding in our world.

To do this does not mean just pretending that gay marriages are the same as heterosexual marriages. They cannot be — not yet — because the web of legal and cultural and emotional structures and definitions that undergird different-sex marriages do not yet exist for same-sex marriages.

So even the increasing numbers of rabbis and cantors who are willing to officiate at same-sex wedding ceremonies often do not yet have enough information to make effective decisions about such ceremonies, about special counseling the couple may need, about special legal steps they may need to take to protect their rights to rear children, care for a sick partner, etc.

For these reasons, New Menorah (the quarterly journal of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal) published a special cross-denominational issue on same-sex Jewish marriage. We are now making that issue available on the Web.

The special collection of articles include essays by Conservative Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, Reform Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, and ALEPH leader Susan Saxe on emotional and legal preparation for the rabbi or cantor and for the gay or lesbian couple; by Reform Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell and renewal rabbinical student Eyal Levinson on liturgies for a same-sex marriage; and by Reconstructionist Rabbi Rebecca Alpert on same-sex marriage and American law.

As we provide all this human expertise, do we forget that our covenant with God is at the root of our peoplehood?

No. We celebrate the God Who, appearing at the Burning Bush as Liberator, proclaimed the Name "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh," "I Will Be Who I Will Be, I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming."

That God brings joy and gladness to the chuppah of same-sex couples in our generation. That God is in the process of Becoming once again — and as S/He did long ago, is beckoning us to a new unfolding of our own sacred potential.


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