Barack Obama, Marriage Equality and Lag Ba’Omer

On Tuesday, October 28, 2003 I clicked “Publish” for the first time on this blog. This is my 1,000th blog post.

In my first blog post I simply wrote, “Welcome to my new Blog. I haven’t yet decided what I will use this forum for, but we’ll see. It will likely have some of my writings, as well as some news articles that I find of interest. Thanks for visiting and enjoy!” No one read it.

Now, over eight-and-a-half years later my blog has been visited over half-a-million times and each post averages 1,000 readers.

So, what should my 1,000th blog post be about I wondered. I decided to take the advice I give to would-be-bloggers all the time: “Write about what’s happening in the world and how it affects you and your community.”

Yesterday was Lag Ba’Omer, the thirty-third day of the Counting of the Omer. During this time of year almost 2,000 years ago, the Jewish tradition teaches, a plague killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students because they did not treat one another respectfully. According to a medieval tradition, this plague ended on Lag Ba’Omer. Thus, in modern times Lag Ba’Omer is treated as a festive day with celebration.

Yesterday, on Lag Ba’Omer 2012, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to fully endorse same-sex marriage. There will be those who will surmise that the President’s statements were made for political gain, but his words were powerful and historic and appreciated by millions.

Homosexuality is not an easy subject to deal with in Judaism. Based on a few words in the Torah, the issue is one of the most divisive in Jewish communities today. However, in very recent years and based on several monumental decisions, many in the more progressive Jewish communities have come to see this issue as a matter of human dignity (Hebrew: k’vod habriyot).

For gays and lesbians who have fought for marriage equality, Lag Ba’Omer 2012 was an epic day in which a plague ended.

Marriage in the minds of millions is the joining of a man and a woman in a holy union. We all have that traditional image of marriage because that is all we have known. However, times change. And with the changing of the times, the conventions we have long maintained change as well.

For many Jewish people, the Torah’s stance on homosexuality will continue to be clear, certain and immutable. However, for a good many people, there is much room for interpretation. And the interpretation of the Torah will be impacted by several factors including the dignity of real, living and breathing human beings who desire to love and be loved. Human beings who seek the equal rights of marriage regardless of their sexual orientation.

When I began my rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York in 1998, I believed that homosexuality was a sin in Judaism. Admittedly, I hadn’t spent much time studying the applicable texts in the Torah or the commentary on the subject. I also didn’t know any gay or lesbian people (or at least I didn’t know they were gay or lesbian at the time). Throughout the course of my time at JTS, I came to understand how our community’s treatment of gays and lesbians has real and lasting effects on people’s lives. I got involved in a group called Keshet (rainbow), which advocated for the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the rabbinical and cantorial schools of JTS.

During my final year at JTS I served as President of the Rabbinical School Student Organization. On the last day of my term in office, I signed off on a major allocation of funds to be directed to Keshet and used for programming to educate the Seminary community about LGBT issues. During my first years as a rabbi I watched with great interest as JTS students worked hard to encourage the Seminary to open its doors to gays and lesbians who wished to lead the Jewish community as rabbis and cantors. With great admiration and appreciation from afar, I witnessed change being implemented.

The passing of a teshuva (religious opinion) by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in December 2006 paved the way for gays and lesbians to enter JTS in the rabbinical and cantorial schools. The teshuva was co-authored by my teacher and friend, Rabbi Danny Nevins, who now serves as the dean of the rabbinical school there. It was his understanding that LGBT issues fit into the category of human dignity that served as the foundation of the teshuva.

Just as we’ve seen major change occur with regard to domestic partner benefits, the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors, and the ability for rabbis to perform commitment ceremonies, we are now witnessing the epic moment when marriage equality will be realized for the LGBT community. President Obama’s statement will be regarded as a watershed moment for this cause.

Same-sex marriage does not mean we no longer take the word of the Torah to heart. It doesn’t mean we are overruling God. It means that we are giving homosexuals the same rights to be in a committed, loving relationship that has been blessed and sanctified. That is certainly a matter of human dignity in my opinion.

Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, teaches that the appearance of a rainbow will bring redemption just as a rainbow appeared following the great flood in biblical times.

In addition to Lag Ba’Omer being the day on which the plague was lifted from the students of Rabbi Akiva and they stopped dying, it also corresponds with the date on which Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died. While the anniversary of a great sage’s death seems an odd time to celebrate, we learn that on the day Rabbi Shimon passed away a great light of endless joy filled the day. The happiness on that day was to the sage and his students “like that of a groom while standing under the canopy at his wedding.” In modern times, religious Jews flock to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the city of Meron on Lag Ba’Omer where they sing and dance.

Another tradition on Lag Ba’Omer is for children to play with bows and arrows. The “bow” symbolizes a rainbow because it is believed that a rainbow was never seen during the lifetime of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Tradition tells us that the sage himself was the sign of the rainbow.

And so, it is inspiring and meaningful that on Lag Ba’Omer, a day celebrated for a plague ending and the anniversary of the death of a great sage who was compared to a rainbow (Hebrew: keshet), the symbol of the LGBT pride movement, the President of the United States articulated his convictions that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry.

May the gentle radiance of the rainbow be a sign of God’s blessings on all of us who seek dignity and equality for all human beings. May the love that two people have for each other, regardless of sexual orientation, be blessed and made sanctified for the entirety of their lives together. Thank you Mr. President for helping to bring about this necessary freedom of equality.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Israel’s Conservative Seminary Accepts Gays and Lesbians on Yom Hashoah

The Schechter Institute in Jerusalem is the Israeli affiliate of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). It has publicly been holding out on changing its policy concerning the admission of gays and lesbians into its rabbinical ordination program (the only such program for the Conservative movement in Israel). That policy has caused much tension for rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary when they spend a year in Israel during the course of their study (gay and lesbian rabbinical students from JTS are allowed to take classes at Schechter). In fact, rabbinical students from the Conservative Movement’s West Coast seminary, the Ziegler School at the American Jewish University, study at the Conservative Yeshiva during their year abroad.

The big news coming out of Israel is that the Schechter Institute’s policy has just officially changed. It has been announced that at a board of trustees meeting last night, Schechter’s leaders voted to allow gay and lesbian students into its ordination program. That this policy change occurred on Yom Hashoah, the international day of commemoration for the millions who perished at the hands of the Nazis is especially meaningful as homosexuals were among those targeted by the Nazis in their extermination attempts.

While Israeli society in general is known to be tolerant of gays and lesbians, the Schechter Institute seemed determined to maintain its policy. JTS officially changed its policy concerning the admission of gays and lesbians following a vote in December 2006 by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

A seminary statement said the decision comes following a “long process”:

The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary views the serious process leading to this decision as an example of confronting social dilemmas within the framework of tradition and halachah, or Jewish law, Hanan Alexander, chair of the seminary’s Board of Trustees, said in the statement. “This decision highlights the institution’s commitment to uphold halachah in a pluralist and changing world.

Students are ordained by a beit din, or rabbinical court, made up of three members of the Rabbinic Advisory Committee of the seminary, all of whom are members of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Masorti/Conservative movement. The beit din members are chosen by the candidate and subject to the approval of the seminary’s dean. They have different opinions regarding the ordination of gay and lesbian students, according to the seminary.

This unique mechanism is an expression of halachic pluralism, one of the founding principles of SRS, the seminary said in its statement. The Seminary is a religious institution of the Masorti/Conservative Movement, bound by Halacha, whose inclusive approach allows for a variety of Halachic opinions.

The Conservative Movement’s Seminario in South America still maintains a policy barring affirmed gays and lesbians from matriculating in its rabbinic ordination program.

While it is odd that it took an additional five years from the time JTS opened its doors, I’m glad to see the Schechter Institute finally following suit.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Yes, An Orthodox Rabbi Can "Do" a Commitment Ceremony

Co-written by Rabbi Jason Miller and Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Our colleague and teacher, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, is an Orthodox rabbi who will go down in history as being the first Orthodox rabbi to officiate a Jewish commitment ceremony and civil marriage for two men. In a recent article in The Jewish Week, Rabbi Greenberg explained that this ceremony which took place in Washington D.C. was not a “gay Orthodox wedding” as was sensationally reported. He wrote, “I officiated at a ceremony that celebrated the decision of two men to commit to each other in love and to do so in binding fashion before family and friends. Though it was a legal marriage according to the laws of the District of Columbia, as far as Orthodox Jewish law (halacha) is concerned, there was no kiddushin (Jewish wedding ceremony) performed.”

Rabbi Reuven Spolter responded to Rabbi Greenberg’s actions in a blog post “Why Has My Yeshiva Not Revoked Steven Greenberg’s Semichah?” We write this as a response to Rabbi Spolter.

As two Conservative rabbis who were both ordained at the same rabbinical seminary, we also regard our semicha (rabbinical ordination) as a special honor whose legitimacy must be preserved. Like Rabbi Spolter and Rabbi Bernard Revel before him, we would hope that our rabbinical seminary would take back the semicha of a colleague who grossly violated either Torah law or civil law. However, Rabbi Spolter is mistaken in his characterization of Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s writings and actions.

Rabbi Greenberg has neither violated Torah law or civil law. He has used his rabbinate to help right a wrong. In officiating at a same-sex commitment ceremony between two men, Rabbi Greenberg may not have acted in a way that fits Rabbi Spolter’s belief structure, but he also did not violated any laws. The “to’eva” (abomination) in Leviticus speaks to a sexual act. No where does it discuss a life-cycle ceremony drawing upon the language of our sacred tradition to bless a relationship between two souls.

As to Rabbi Spolter’s concern with Rabbi Greenberg using the title “Orthodox Rabbi” (or more specifically: “Modern Orthodox Rabbi”), he should know that “Orthodox Rabbi” is not a halachic (Jewish legal) term. Rabbi Spolter would be hard pressed to point to any text in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) in which the term “Orthodox Rabbi” is used. We are certain that rabbis in Agudath Israel of American (Haredi) do not consider Chovevei Torah (Open Orthodox) musmachim (ordainees) to be legitimate “Orthodox Rabbis”. I’m sure that any graduate of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), like Rabbi Spolter and Rabbi Greenberg, wouldn’t want to be lumped together with the “Orthodox Rabbis” of Neturei Karta (anti-Zionist Haredi). These are political distinctions with religious implications, but they are not halachic categories.

Rabbi Greenberg IS an Orthodox Rabbi in the sense that he received his semicha from RIETS. The way he uses his semicha is not “vulgar,” as you put it. To the contrary. Standing under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with two men who have committed to spend their lives together, raise a family and grow old with each other in a loving way does not negate a person’s ability to call himself an “Orthodox Rabbi.” Yeshiva University or RIETS could certainly yank Rabbi Greenberg’s semicha, but it wouldn’t be for a violation of halacha. Rather, it would be for his violating a social norm that makes some Jews like Rabbi Spolter uncomfortable.

The role of Judaism has always been to raise the mundane to touch the sacred. God’s world is full of opportunities for holiness. When two Jews find each other, and are prepared to enter into covenantal relationship, there is more than enough guidance that halacha provides to frame the moment. Furthermore, it is a responsibility we each carry as rabbis to stand with our People, person by person.

We hope that Rabbi Spolter and others will read these words from Rabbi Greenberg and try to understand why this Orthodox rabbi chose to courageously do what no other Orthodox rabbi before him had done:

Last December my partner and I returned from India with our newly born daughter. During the year of planning for her birth, I began to feel that I was failing as a rabbi to give young gay people hope in a religiously coherent future. As friends and students found spouses and decided to make families, it felt increasingly wrong to provide no context for commitment and celebration. Naming our daughter in an Orthodox synagogue and celebrating her birth there sealed my resolve.

While the condemnation of many is strong, I have received the quiet encouragement (if not always agreement) of a number of my Orthodox colleagues. While I do not expect other Orthodox rabbis to perform a ceremony of this sort any time soon, I do expect that we come to earn their understanding and respect as we take the frames of halacha seriously in the constructing of our committed relationships. In my view, the ceremony was beautiful, halachically informed and religiously meaningful, and I do hope that through consideration of it, the Orthodox community (and perhaps beyond) will come to recognize the human issues at stake.

We offer our congratulations to the two men whose relationship Rabbi Greenberg has helped to make sacred in our Tradition. We also offer our highest praise to Rabbi Greenberg and pray that he will serve as a beacon of hope to those in the Orthodox gay community who never thought they could be in a committed, blessed partnership.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rick Perry Video Uses Aaron Copland Music

My video parody of Rick Perry’s “Strong” campaign ad on YouTube has been attracting a lot of attention with about 4,500 likes and under 100 dislikes, including close to 650 comments. It has been featured in USA Today, Daily Kos, Jewish Journal, JTA, Forward, Jewcy, and Spiegel Online (German).

There have been many video parodies of Rick Perry’s campaign ad turning it into a meme on the Web. But I’ve noticed that the best way to mock Rick Perry and his homophobic, “war on religion”-paranoid message is to do nothing. The video mocks itself.

When I was choosing the background music for my video parody with the video’s editor Adam Luger we tried to come as close as possible to the background music in the original Rick Perry commercial. However, we were unable to determine who composed the music. Well, it now appears that the joke’s on Rick Perry because that background music was inspired by none other than Aaron Copland. Jewish? Check! Gay? Flaming! Member of the Communist Party? You betcha!

Paul Schied writing in the Harvard Political Review first reported that the music heard in the background of Rick Perry’s “Strong” ad was composed by Aaron Copland, a prominent composer who was Jewish, outwardly gay, and a member of the Communist Party. It turns out that Schied’s music majoring roommate detected the Copland composed music. It turns out that the music was inspired by Aaron Copland, but is actually a “cheap knock-off of sorts of Copland’s Appalachian Spring according to The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross.”

The background music in Rick Perry’s ad was inspired  by composer Aaron  Copland who was gay.

So, for those of you keeping score at home, Rick Perry’s campaign ad (which was originally created for the Iowa television market but quickly went viral on YouTube) has him proclaiming that it’s wrong for gays to serve openly in the military when kids can’t celebrate Christmas in school, but has him wearing a jacket that looks like the one worn by Heath Ledger in the gay romance movie “Brokeback Mountain” and features background music inspired by a gay, Jewish composer. You just can’t make this stuff up!

Here’s my video response:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller