Op-Ed: A plea for inclusion and religious liberty on LGBT rights


NEW YORK (JTA) — As a Reform rabbi and president of an institution passionately committed to the religious position that Judaism demands full rights for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender Jews, I read with great interest Lynn Schusterman’s call on Jewish organizations to adopt policies that would foster greater inclusion of LGBT Jews in our Jewish community and the counter argument from the Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament.

It should come as no surprise when I assert that I agree completely with the positions expressed by Schusterman regarding discrimination against LGBT persons, and that my own religious standpoint does not allow me to agree with Diament when he asserts that the “clear and firm teachings of Jewish law and tradition going back to the Bible” “cannot embrace or validate homosexual activity as legitimate.”

Instead, I hold that the values and principles of empathy and justice contained in our tradition demand an alternative Jewish religious standpoint that would require that the LGBT community receives the same privileges and entitlements enjoyed by heterosexuals as Jews seek to realize the moral obligations that the narrative and principles of our Torah impose upon our community.

I have publicly diverged with Orthodox spokesmen such as Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb and Rabbi Avi Shafran on this matter in the past, and it is clear that Mr. Diament and I disagree on this topic now. Further rehearsals of our respective religious positions on this matter would only be redundant, though those interested in my approach to this question from a Jewish religious standpoint should see my commentary on Parashat Mishpatim in the recently published book "Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible."

In this response to Mr. Diament, I would like to focus — as a historian of Orthodox Judaism — on his statement: “While the value of including all Jews within the community is important, Schusterman’s proposal, if fully implemented, would include some Jews by virtue of excluding others and trample upon a value that is at least as important to American Jewry — religious liberty.”

By framing his objections to the Schusterman position within a context of “religious liberty,” Diament has placed himself within a long line of Orthodox forebears who have employed the principles of “religious liberty” and “freedom of conscience” to defend Orthodox standpoints and attack non-Orthodox postures on matters of public policy during the past 200 years.  Examples of such stances abound and are too numerous to enumerate here in an opinion piece. 

However, the late historian Jacob Katz, former rector of the Hebrew University and an Orthodox Jew, asserted that this argument on the part of these Orthodox leaders in the 19th century often did not embody a genuine commitment to the principle of religious freedom on their part. Rather, Katz held, it was primarily a prudential tactic designed to gain secular governmental support for Orthodox positions whenever possible against liberal and Reform opponents.

He wrote that “as the conflict between the two Jewish groups was fought out before a non-Jewish forum, ideas current in the non-Jewish world became the terms of reference in the fight. It was the doctrines of liberalism, widely accepted in the sixties and seventies in [central Europe] through which, paradoxically, the Orthodox prevailed against their more modern adversaries.”

In making his argument against Lynn Schusterman, I cannot say whether Mr. Diament is employing a prudential tactic as his Orthodox predecessors often did more than a century ago or whether his commitment to religious liberty is absolute and principled. It surely appears principled from the argument he constructs. Mr. Diament maintains that the Orthodox Union supports “carefully crafted initiatives that seek to ensure principles of tolerance, anti-discrimination and the fair treatment of all citizens.” Indeed, “A hallmark of such initiatives is that they are balanced and do not expand some civil rights at the expense of others.” Furthermore, this is done “in the name of religious liberty.”

It is in this spirit of “religious liberty” that I would call upon Mr. Diament to promote a legal change in the laws of all states that would no longer tolerate discrimination either against LGBT couples when they desire to marry religiously, or against clergy like me who are proscribed from performing such religious unions with state sanction — even when we believe that an overarching biblical ethos that teaches us that God loves and affirms the full humanity of each human being calls upon us to perform such weddings.

In so doing, I am asking Mr. Diament to emulate Rabbi David Saperstein when, against his own religious views, he asked Congress in the name of religious liberty to provide for an exemption for the Orthodox in the Fair Employment Anti-Discrimination Act. In short, I am asking him to join in an alliance that would ask the states not to discriminate against those of us whose religious beliefs mandate us to perform same-sex religious weddings sanctioned by the government.

This stance would allow clergy like me and people like Lynn Schusterman to exercise our own religious conscience, and it would be consistent with the tolerance Mr. Diament calls for in asking the state to privilege the religious position the Orthodox champion as the government permits them to practice Judaism in accord with their own views. As a Reform Jew, I fail to see why I should be entitled to anything less.

(Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.)

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