Sunday, December 10, 2006


This past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a conservative. First, I posted a blog entry on Governor Schwarzenegger and ex-Governor Bush, essentially standing up for the job they did as Republican-moderates (which is, after all, another term for a “conservative,” as opposed to a “reactionary” – a/k/a a whack-job).

Next, the attorney in my office furthest to the right – and we have 70 attorneys – repeatedly walked into my office and said “you’re no liberal.” This was prompted by the fact that he recently read The Creed Room and discovered that on a number of issues the philosophy expressed in that book didn’t fit with his stereotype of liberalism. I responded that I wasn’t a knee-jerk liberal, but that I was a liberal – at least my center of gravity was four-square in support of civil libertarianism and the principle that government is often needed to address market failures, and particularly inequities. But that didn’t convince him. “You’re no liberal,” he repeated, meaning that liberals don’t respect the free-enterprise system and they have no use for religion.

Well, maybe I don’t fit everyone’s liberal stereotype, but I sure don’t want to fit the conservative stereotype either – at least not if “conservative” is illustrated by Conservative Judaism’s latest gem.

Did you all catch what the Conservatives accomplished this week? They concluded years of debate within the movement and decided (a) to allow gay rabbis, (b) to celebrate gay commitment ceremonies (i.e., unions), and (c) that gay male sex should continue to be viewed as prohibited sodomy. Talk about loving the sinner but not the sin.

Was this a step in the right direction? Absolutely. The movement is extending new rights to gay people, and I’m all for that. But how can the movement possibly justify such an incongruous set of positions? The answer, of course, is that they want to treat gay people with dignity, but their commitment to “the law” requires them not to dignify gay sex. To me, it’s one more reason why the term “religious law” is an oxymoron.

Before coming down too hard on the Conservatives for continuing to condemn “sodomy,” think about the fact that this movement prides itself on following “Jewish law.” Given that fact, how can they not look askance at homosexual conduct, at least between males? Leviticus is as plain as day: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.” Blunt. To the point. Unambiguous.

So then why allow those who regularly engage in such “abominations” lead Conservative communities? That is certainly how many Conservative rabbis felt. The willingness of their comrades to ordain gay rabbis has, in fact, led some Conservative leaders to leave the movement, no doubt pushing them off the cliff and into the arms of the Orthodox. There, they will find a receptive audience for the idea that religion is all about discerning the original intent of the Torah, which was inspired (if not written) by God. And who can deny that the original intent of “the law” wasn’t to prohibit homosexuality, or that the term abomination wasn’t the strongest possible rebuke for an action?

You’ll forgive rabbis who take the words of the Torah as God’s own for making the following point: if homosexuality has been condemned as an “abomination” worthy of Sodom, how can we permit homosexuals to preach to our children about morality?

I would agree with them – if I ascribed the Torah to God, as the Conservative movement purports to do. To me, the Torah, like all other “scriptures,” should be ascribed instead to human beings. We wrote the book, and we wrote it 2 ½ millennia ago, when our understanding of matters like sexuality was rudimentary in the extreme. Did God not inspire the book, you ask? I’m willing to say yes. Then again, I could say the same thing about all books, from Mein Kampf on up. You see, I attribute all human conduct – and all animal conduct, for that matter – to God, for my God is that of Spinoza, not Michelangelo.

This week, in Conservative Jewish dinner tables across the country, thoughtful teenagers have been asking their parents to square the above positions. One answer is that the movement wanted to be as liberal as they possibly could without violating the letter of the law, which is aimed at prohibiting homosexual actions, not dishonoring homosexuals as individuals. Another answer is that the movement was torn and wanted to strike a compromise; the compromise it reached was skewed to the liberal side, since from a practical standpoint the prohibition against sodomy can’t be enforced, but the decisions to ordain gay rabbis and allow civil unions have obvious public ramifications.

Both of those answers are helpful. Helpful, but not satisfying. If I could answer that thoughtful teenager, I would say a bit more: “Conservative Judaism prides itself on straddling a fence between two fields. In one field we have tradition! By that, I mean a rigorous commitment to the letter of the law such that the specific prohibitions are given more weight than ‘fuzzy’ concepts like ‘love thy neighbor as yourself.’ In the other field we have modernity. That is illustrated by a morality based on a relatively liberal inner voice that can always override scripture whenever the voice of reason so dictates. Conservative Jews find value in wrestling with both of those approaches, much like Jacob wrestled with God. To a Conservative Jew, that straddling, that wrestling, is precisely the essence of Judaism, both as a religion and a culture.”

I can appreciate that response, to a point – but only to a point. At the risk of sounding overly modern, or – gasp – secular, I’m simply not willing to walk up to a homosexual friend and say that he is “sinning” or committing “sodomy.” Similarly, I’m not willing to walk up to a kosher-keeping, Sabbath-observing son of a Jewish father and gentile mother and declare that he is not really a Jew.

Tradition? Shmadition. Yes, it pulls weight, but should we allow it to undermine the fundamentally inclusive and loving spirit of ethical monotheism? I sure hope not.

Frankly, I won’t let the severity of certain Jewish laws disturb one iota my commitment to Empathic Rationalism. If that means that I’m not “wrestling” enough with God or my faith … so be it.

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