2016-06-30
Several years ago, Reform Judaism's Responsa Committee, in charge of matters of Jewish law, was asked to offer an opinion on the subject of same-sex marriages. While a majority of the committee decided against supporting gay marriage, the committee was divided and offered a particularly detailed description of its deliberations and decisions. The following is an excerpt from Part I of the committee's three-part majority opinion:

We begin by suggesting that, in this argument, the burden of proof does not rest with us. This is no mere debaters' quibble. Frequently, in discussions of this sort in liberal circles such as ours, one hears the question posed as "Why not?" That is to say, "Why shouldn't we, as liberals who are open to new ideas, adopt this change?" To frame the issue in this way is to declare that, at least on this subject, the cumulative weight of millennia of Jewish tradition hardly counts. That tradition, as we have seen, condemns homosexual behavior in no uncertain terms, and even the Reform Jewish tradition has to date spoken negatively to the subject of our she'elah [inquiry]. As members of the Responsa Committee, we take tradition seriously and consider it prayerfully. Even on this subject, so often (and, to some of us, falsely) presented as a stark contrast between the values of the present versus those of an outdated past, tradition serves as our interpretive starting point. Those who advocate a revolutionary transformation of Jewish marriage law and practice rightly shoulder the burden of proving that theirs is the better position. .

Those who advocate homosexual marriage have not, in the opinion of our majority, met their burden of proof. That is, their arguments do not succeed in overcoming the opposition to this practice found in both the Jewish and the Western traditions. We do not accept the suggestion that the ritual category of to`evah [abomination] is irrelevant to the question under discussion. While we Reform Jews have departed from traditional practice in many areas, we continue to "abhor" virtually all the sexual prohibitions listed in Leviticus 18 and 20 as destructive of the Jewish conception of a life of holiness and morality. While it may be true that we as a community no longer look upon homosexual behavior, as we once did, as a revulsive act, the fact remains that no Jewish community has ever gone so far as to sanctify as marriage a sexual relationship which the Torah defines as ervah [sexually forbidden]. Not even we, with all our liberality, have ever done this before. To do so now would be a revolutionary step, one which would sunder us from all Jewish tradition, including our own, down to the most recent times.

At this point, we raise the delicate issue of Jewish unity. The extension of kiddushin [traditional marriage] to gays and lesbians would break so sharply with the standards of religious practice maintained by virtually all Jewish communities as to wreak havoc upon our relationships with most of them. A decision of this nature would continue a trend, which many Reform rabbis find quite troubling, of pushing the Reform movement toward the margins of our people, of the Jewish community as a whole. It would have dramatic and negative effects upon the standing of our progressive colleagues in Israel and elsewhere.

We know that the slogan "Kelal Yisrael" [the community of Israel] has often been used to intimidate us, to urge us to compromise our Reform Jewish principles to mollify those who will never compromise their own. We also know that the Ad Hoc Committee on Homosexuality and the Rabbinate has already addressed this issue, declaring that while we ought to be sensitive to this concern, we must make our decision independently of it, in the context of the North American situation, according to "the principles and practices of Reform Judaism." Given, however, that our majority believe that the principles and practices of Reform Judaism do not require that we sanction marriage for homosexual couples, we would not set aside our concern for Jewish unity--which, we submit, is itself a "Reform Jewish principle."

Reform Judaism, as most of us understand it, does not mandate gay/lesbian marriage. Yes, we recognize that the attitudes of our community and society toward homosexuals and homosexuality have undergone a profound transformation in recent years. All of us are encouraged at the signs that a long history of repression and hatred is at last beginning to give way to a spirit of tolerance and inclusion. All of us stand as one behind the statement of the Ad Hoc Committee that "all human beings are created betselem Elohim ('in the divine image'). Their personhood must therefore be accorded full dignity. Sexual orientation is irrelevant to the human worth of a person." But this affirmation, which demands that we work for full social and political equality for gays and lesbians, does not logically require that we must also support a Jewish religious "right" to homosexual marriage. From our acknowledgement of the right of gay and lesbian couples to arrange their financial affairs in the way they see fit, it does not logically follow that we must declare that their relationship partakes of the same religious sanctity as does traditional marriage. Similarly, we recognize that the understanding of homosexuality as an orientation rather than an intended choice leads to the conclusion that the act of homosexual intercourse cannot be understood in traditional legal terms as a punishable sin. Again, however, the fact that a pattern of behavior is in some way involuntary does not necessarily mean we must sanctify it. Indeed, given the prevailing uncertainty as to the causes and development of sexual orientation--genetic or environmental? constitutional or socially constructed?--some of us are quite hesitant to draw the kinds of conclusions which need to be drawn in order to justify the institution of homosexual marriage.

We are, all of us, committed to enabling gays and lesbians to live full Jewish lives within our communities. And since we acknowledge that gays and lesbians are as capable as heterosexuals of forming monogamous, stable, and loving relationships, this commitment might--or might not--suggest a ritual response that reflects the spiritual reality which shapes the lives of these Jewish human beings. We shall consider this question in detail in Part III of this responsum. In itself, however, this commitment does not require that we endorse the creation of a religious institution of marriage for homosexuals when the entirety of Jewish tradition suggests that "marriage" is an exclusively heterosexual phenomenon. Again, it does not logically follow that our concern for gays and lesbians demands that we officiate at marriage ceremonies for them.

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