It’s been nearly twenty years since my dear friend, colleague and classmate, Rabbi Victor Appell, made us face the gay elephant in the room. As a first-year rabbinic student in Jerusalem, he chose as his very first sermon topic the Levitical prohibition against sex between two men as “an abomination.” He urged us to look at the verse in the context of the full Scriptural reading, which also includes the command “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I’m paraphrasing here, but this is the message as I remember it: Surely, he reasoned, God did not mean for gays to be ostracized, vilified and condemned. Surely, he urged, God meant for all of us, gay or straight, to be respected equally as creatures made “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God.
Two decades after Victor and his partner Colin met during that year in Israel, they finally – recently – were legally wed in New Jersey. But for all this time, they and their two beautiful, bright sons have fashioned a home full of love, faith, and meaningful Jewish life.
But while we celebrate with them, and with all gay couples who finally have had their marriages legally recognized for the first time, we have watched as an anti-gay backlash has crept across the country. In more than a dozen states, lawmakers have attempted to blunt the civil rights of gays with legislation that would make it permissible for merchants and restaurant owners to refuse public accommodation to gays and lesbians, simply because they are gay. That such bills as the one just vetoed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer are even under serious consideration is loathsome. That they are being proffered under the guise of “protecting religious liberty” is, in itself, an abomination.
Let’s be clear about this. These gay discrimination bills have nothing to do with freedom of religion. They are not being proposed by people of faith who have given thoughtful consideration to the implications. They are a product of right-wing think-tanks and advocacy groups who prey on fear and ignorance to advance a particular political agenda. That they have popped up in a dozen states or more, in rapid succession, is the result of a coordinated campaign to restrict civil rights nationwide in a method we’ve seen before, such as the campaigns to restrict voting rights and those that deny women access to reproductive health services (the latter, also, purportedly in the name of “religious liberty”).
As a person of faith, and as a faith leader in my community, it is my responsibility to bring to bear the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of Jewish tradition- a tradition that Hillel the Elder stated two millennia ago boils down to one statement: “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.” Would those who promulgate such laws agree to live by them if they allowed merchants to refuse service to white Christians? Parents with children? Veterans who walk with canes, or elderly people who need wheelchairs? Judaism recognizes the doctrine of “dina d’malchuta dina,” an Aramaic expression that states “the law of the land is the law.” We acknowledge the role and importance of civil laws to maintain the social contract we all have agreed to as Americans. We recognize the need for enforcement of rules that prohibit one person, for whatever reason, from violating the basic rights of another. Human dignity and the inherent and equal worth of each human being are fundamental both to religious doctrine and to American democracy.
It is unconscionable for religion to be hijacked by those who are concerned first and foremost with power, who believe that they have some God-given right to control others’ lives – be it by turning away gays at the restaurant door, closing women’s health clinics, or restricting the ability of poor people and minorities to exercise their legal right to vote. They may be frightened by the changes in our society that are – socially, economically, and legally – empowering people once disenfranchised. But they must not be allowed to renew the oppression of the “other” in the name of religions that teach the opposite.