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Top: Jewish Mind Control: Homosexuality: Okay for Jews

`We Want to Live in a Pluralistic Country'

He was interviewed by Newsday reporter Stuart Vincent, October 2, 2021

Q: Why did you feel it was important to acknowledge publicly the union between Rabbi Karen Bender and Rachel Bernstein?

A: I think that gays and lesbians who choose a life partner should have the opportunity of having that relationship, that union, sanctioned by a religion. Many Jewish gays and lesbians are seeking to establish Jewish homes. They want to celebrate the Sabbath and the holidays together, to be part of the Jewish community and even to bond the children they may chose to raise to the Jewish community. Thus they want a religious sanction for their relationship and they want their commitment to be acknowledged by Judaism so they can feel they are living a Jewish life together, with the same values of the Jewish family that our religion has always espoused - integrity, love and mutual respect. I think when they want this we should be there for them.

Q: People often use the Bible to cite prohibitions against homosexuals. Is this a valid argument for Judaism today?

A: The Bible certainly does contain clearly stated prohibitions against homosexuality, but at the same time it contains such things as a person who curses his mother or father shall be put to death; or a man who touches a menstruating woman, even his wife, shall be cut off from the Jewish people; or a suspected adulteress is required to drink poison as a test of her guilt, or a leper has the infection because of his or her moral guilt. These are all ideas that Judaism has grown beyond. The important idea here is that biblical laws were amended or sometimes suspended by Orthodox Jewish authorities as Judaism developed. Judaism developed through an evolutionary process, as does any religion, school of thought. The Orthodox who say homosexuals must be eliminated from the community wouldn't say the same thing about stoning to death a child who had cursed her mother.

Q: Were you surprised by the concerns expressed by synagogue members, particularly the parents of interfaith couples and of children in the Hebrew school?

A: There was a group very uncomfortable with the subject of homosexuality being talked about and raised in such a public way. Another concern was about a homosexual being a role model, that it would somehow influence the choice of sexuality on the part of the young person. I was suprised and disappointed - but I understand - at the confusion people had over interfaith marriages and single-sex marriages. I gave a sermon on Rosh Hashanah on the subject; there were more than 2,500 people there and I was very nervous about the sermon, very concerned that people would be distraught, angry, divided. I was touched that the congregation - after I had explained the situation fully - was, I think, willing to rethink the matter. After the sermon, Rabbi Bender came over and gave me a hug and the congregation burst into applause. It was a very touching moment. It was a show of support. It was a healing experience.

Q: You have said you are rethinking the congregation's outreach to interfaith couples. What needs to be done?

A: Probably 75 percent of the children who are raised in inter-religious marriages where there is no religion are not raised as Jews. I'm not sure liberal synagogues have done everything we can do. It's a very delicate balance for a rabbi on the one hand to encourage marriage in the Jewish tradition and on the other hand encourage interfaith couples to enter synagogue life. How do you do both? I haven't officiated at interfaith marriages, because as a rabbi, of course, I believe that every marriage I perform should be the beginning of a Jewish home where Judaism is lived and shared and celebrated. The blessing of Jewish lesbians and gays isn't the same issue at all. They're looking for a blessing for a shared life together. The other issue deals with Jewish faith. What should be rethought are ways to be more open and forthcoming than we have been. We're thinking about ways to involve the non-Jew in the synagogue. In fact, we have a task force meeting on that issue. Maybe there is something we can do by way of welcoming interfaith couples even before they are married.

Q: You have initiated outreach programs to African-Americans, Christians and Muslims. Why is this important?

A: The future of the Jewish community is tied up with the future of American society and, as long as we want to live in a democratic, pluralistic country, we have to do everything we can to make sure not only that communication is opened between various groups but that there is meaningful contact. The greatest danger to a minority such as the Jewish people is that when the country splits apart and trouble comes and minorities are singled out and scapgoated for all of the economic and social problems around, it is by building coalitions that work for social justice, by people-to-people communication, that there will be a kind of fabric that a downturn in the economy cannot rip apart. Today the swing of the pendulum is to single out the "not normal" Americans someone such as Newt Gingrich talks about. It's crucial that the country remain a very open and liberal land where everyone is accepted.

Q: With a political and religious atmosphere that seems to be increasingly less tolerant and more conservative, do you feel pressure from your congregation or the Jewish community at large to change?

A: No. That's one of the reasons I felt so strongly about the gay-lesbian issue. When a presidential candidate gives back a contribution from a homosexual organization and at the same time is trying to save the skin of a colleague accused of sexual harassment - and gets away with it - this indicates how the mood of the country is growing increasingly intolerant of gays. That's why I felt so strongly that within the Jewish community they be treated as human beings. The Jewish community has not been really caught up by this attitude of narrowness and intolerance. Its voting has been strongly liberal. There are loud voices within the Jewish community, many of them Orthodox, right wing, who are reluctant to join in these programs of outreach, but the vast majority of the Jewish community is liberal in spirit. That's why Jews have always loved America and why Jews have been a part of American life like we have never been a part of any other country except Israel. And in some cases freedom of religion is even greater than in Israel because, unfortunately, the Orthodox do not offer freedom of religion to non-Orthodox Jews.

Copyright 1995, Newsday Inc.

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