Friday, January 11, 2013

David Blankenhorn opinion: "Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld’s Sermon on Same-Sex Marriage: An Appreciation"

If you want to read a good sermon, I sincerely recommend “Same Sex Marriage in America,” delivered on December 15, 2012, by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue, an Orthodox Jewish congregation in Washington, D.C.
Check out this argument. Rabbi Herzfeld first argues that the Torah prohibits homosexual conduct and that, accordingly, gay marriage should not be institutionalized within Orthodox Judaism.  He goes on, however, to argue in favor of changing U.S. civil law to permit same-sex marriage, on the grounds that Jewish law and civil law are two different things, and on the grounds of basic fairness to gay and lesbian people and couples.
But he’s just getting warmed up.  He further argues that he can discern no good reason for moral disapproval of homosexual conduct; he doesn’t know why the Torah prohibits it.  And on those grounds, he argues that, from an Orthodox Jewish perspective, homosexual conduct is not a moral sin, but instead (using a word that is not familiar to me) a chok, or “a prohibition whose violation should not carry our outrage or moral disapproval.”  He compares the (to my mind, technical) violation within Orthodox Judaism of engaging in homosexual conduct to the violation of “a Jew who decides to wear a garment made of wool and linen.”

And what is the moral basis of Rabbi Herzfeld’s argument?  Well, let him answer:
Because who are these Gay people? They are not the other. They are not distant. They are our family.
In parashat Miketz the brothers of Yosef are distraught when their brother Shimon is held as a prisoner in Egypt. The ransom for Shimon is the appearance of their other brother, Binyamin.  Yaakov does not want to send Binyamin down to Egypt. Yaakov says, Shimon is in jail and Yosef is lost. I don’t want to lose Binyamin as well.
Then Yehudah, the father of the future Mashiach, says the words that qualify him to be the savior and leader of our people. He says: “Anokhi e-ervenu (Genesis 43:9), I will bear responsibility.” I am responsible for Shimon. I am responsible for Binyamin.
I know the folks of our congregation. I know that when we speak about persecution of Gay folks we are not speaking about the persecution of a distant other. It is the persecution of our friends, of our brothers and sisters—literally, of our sons and daughters, and of our parents.
Whose job is it to raise a voice against the persecution of our own family? The holiday of Chanukah teaches us that it is our job: Each of us must say, ‘Anokhi e-ervenu, I will bear responsibility.’

I am deeply moved by this sermon.   What moves me is not so much his conclusion, his “position” on the policy issue, but instead the way he argues, the way he appears to sees the world and his role in it.  (Yes, patient friends, we are back on the topic of epistemology.)  You have to read the whole sermon to see what I mean.

What I admire so deeply is his epistemological realism.  He says up front that he is offering his “opinion” on these issues, and that some people of learning and good will, including some within his congregation, are likely to disagree with him – a situation which he appears to view not only as acceptable, but normal and even healthy. (Already, as a reader, it’s becoming easier for me to breathe.)

Yes, he’s standing there in the pulpit, a man wearing the cloak of authority, a man of religion.  But he is not declaring, or explicating from on high for our edification, things that he insists are objectively true.  He does not ask us to believe that he is somehow channeling the voice of Nature and Nature’s God. He is not giving us comprehensive answers to all questions, and most of all, he’s not beating our heads with formal definitions and doctrines. On the contrary. He is a learned man offering his considered and serious view on a difficult set of issues.  He quotes from learned and famous dead men from his own tradition whose writings tend to support his views, but he also says that other learned and famous dead men from the very same tradition said quite different things, and that even who said what, and why, on these issues, are not matters of settled fact.  (Now, I am breathing free and strong.)

And what I admire most of all, I think, is his humanitarianism.  When all is said and done, when all the facts have been examined and the arguments laid out, what it comes down to, for him, is simply the recognition of the other as a member of his family.  

As a Christian (and I hope he won’t be bothered by me saying this), it reminds me of Jesus. I am not a scholar of religion and I’m a poor example indeed of Christianity, my own faith.  But I like to think that I can recognize, when I see one, a man who tries, in ways that others can admire, to do justice, loves mercy, and walk humbly with his God, and I think I just found one.

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