Countering the Family Values Monopoly

In his State of the Union address, President Bush signaled his intent to make "family values" a centerpiece of the 2004 presidential campaign.

His belief that "the sanctity of the family" needs to be defended from the "threat" that gay and lesbian couples ostensibly pose to heterosexual family units is hardly surprising. After all, when asked about same-sex unions after a court decision that affirmed the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, the president commented, "We are all sinners."

The very language the president employed then indicates that his religious views play a significant role in the public-policy position he has adopted on this matter, and the role that religious fundamentalism has played in setting the terms for this debate in the public square is unquestionably considerable. In taking the stance he did, President Bush displayed the impact that the Traditional Values Coalition and allied conservative religious groups — including Jewish ones — that have long been at the forefront of the fight against the advancement of rights and options for gays and lesbians in our society has had upon him. I regret that this is so and I feel obliged to speak out lest religious literalists claim a monopoly in speaking on behalf of religion on issues concerning gay and lesbian rights in our country.

These religious literalists justify their refusal to accord full rights to gays and lesbians by pointing to Leviticus 18:22, which condemns male homosexual intercourse as an "abomination," and there is little doubt that the influence of this biblical verse has been decisive in shaping the attitudes of many in our society toward this question of gay and lesbian rights — including the president. Yet, such a reading of this text represents the most literal interpretation possible of this passage. This reading also completely removes this scripture from an ancient social context that could not envision the possibility or appreciate the reality of loving same-sex relationships.

I see no reason why such negative judgments regarding gays and lesbians should go unchallenged from a religious perspective. As the Catholic feminist scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza has maintained in her powerful "In Memory of Her," the divinity of any passage in Scripture that diminishes the humanity of another — as this one does — can surely be questioned. The thrust of one such passage should not override an overarching biblical ethos that teaches us that God loves and affirms the full humanity of each human being.

As a Jew, I feel this even more strongly. After all, Judaism does not base its religious teachings on the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). Instead, Judaism assert that moral truths emerge out of an interpretive process that requires Jews to recognize that God has called on the Jewish people to serve as covenantal partners in the unfolding expression of divine truths, and this obligation can only be fulfilled through an ongoing exegesis of the written text. This notion allowed the rabbis of the Talmud to declare in one instance that the "stubborn and rebellious son" identified in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 "never was and never will be" (Sanhedrin 71a) and in another instance this process caused the talmudic sage Johanan ben Zakkai to assert (Sotah 9:9) that as a result of contemporaneous conditions, a woman accused of adultery would no longer be subject to the "ordeal of bitter waters" (Numbers 5: 11-31). In these ways, great rabbis — depending upon their own wisdom and in light of their own judgments regarding social and ethical contexts — either muted or obviated the application of teachings found in the Written Law.

All Jews should recognize that this interpretive approach characterizes our tradition, and we should assert that this is so within the Jewish community as well as in the public square. This approach has allowed Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism to ordain gays and lesbians as rabbis, and has led to a vigorous discussion of this issue in Conservative Judaism. Such Jewish understandings have also permitted a number of rabbis to perform same-sex unions. From these perspectives, legislation against same-sex unions can be viewed as not only discriminating against gays and lesbians. It also discriminates against those of us whose religious beliefs mandate us to perform same-sex weddings.

In Dickens’ "Oliver Twist," when young Oliver approaches the wardens of the orphanage where he was housed and, after a scant meal, asks for "more," the wardens are scandalized. Yet, as one commentator upon this passage has pointed out, Oliver said "more" when what he "really meant was this: ‘Will you just give me that normal portion which is necessary for a boy my age to live.’"

As a religious Jew, I assert that the gay community today seeks nothing more than Oliver Twist — the "normal portion" required to live a life of dignity and equality. Our society should be ashamed that gays and lesbians are subjected daily to indignity and prejudice in legal as well as social arenas, and religious persons must declare that position loud and clear in order to influence public opinion on this matter.

When I was a teenager, I was moved, as were millions of other people, by the vision Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed when he dreamed of a just world where people would be judged by the content of their character. This vision was inspired by the Bible and extends to express a simple truth — all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are equally beloved by God and are equally entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The desire that full rights be extended to lesbians and gays reflects the Jewish belief that gays and lesbians are human beings created in the image of God. The time has come for that truth to guide our culture, and religious Jews should not be hesitant in saying so.

Until the day arrives that our gay and lesbian friends enjoy full rights, we who are religious should not rest. When that day of liberty and freedom arrives, justice will at long last roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union-College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

How Jews, Christians See Gibson’s Film

Early this past summer, Mel Gibson invited me to see “The Passion,” his film on the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. The invitation was significant in that I was the first practicing Jew and active member of the American Jewish community to be invited.

He did so because he believed, correctly, that he could trust me. I have long worked to build trust between Jews and Christians, especially traditional Christians.

The increasing tension over this film has reinforced impressions I offered Gibson that day. When watching “The Passion,” Jews and Christians are watching two entirely different films.

For two hours, Christians watch their savior tortured and killed. For the same two hours, Jews watch Jews arrange the killing and torture of the Christians’ savior.

In order to avoid further tension between two wonderful communities that had been well on their way to historic amity, it is crucial for each to try to understand what film the other is watching and reacting to.

First, what Jews see: The Jews in the film (except, of course, for those who believe in Jesus) are cruel and often sadistic. One prominent Christian who saw the film along with my wife and me said that while watching the film, he wanted to take a gun and shoot those who had brought such pain to Jesus.

I couldn’t blame him. The Jews in the film manipulate the Romans — who are depicted as patsies of the Jews and in the case of Pilate, as morally far more elevated — into torturing and murdering a beautiful man.

Why does this bother Jews so much? Because for nearly 2,000 years, attacked as “Christ killers,” countless Jewish men, women and children were tortured and murdered in ways that often caused more suffering than even Jesus endured (e.g., not only tortured and murdered themselves, but also seeing their families and friends raped, tortured and murdered).

For Jews to worry that a major movie made by one of the world’s superstars depicts Jews as having Christ tortured and killed might arouse anti-Semitic passions is not paranoid. Even though Islam denies the crucifixion, it is difficult to imagine that this film will not be a hit in the virulently anti-Semitic Arab world.

It is essential that Christians understand this. Every Jew, secular, religious, assimilated, left wing, right wing, fears being killed because he is Jewish. This is the best-kept secret about Jews, who are widely perceived as inordinately secure and powerful. But it is the only universally held sentiment among Jews. After the Holocaust and with Islamic terrorists seeking to murder Jews today, this, too, is not paranoid.

However, what Jews need to understand is that most American Christians watching this film do not see “the Jews” as the villains in the passion story historically, let alone today.

First, most American Christians — Catholic and Protestant — believe that a sinning humanity killed Jesus, not “the Jews.”

Second, they know that Christ’s entire purpose was to come to this world and to be killed for humanity’s sins. To the Christian, God made it happen, not the Jews or the Romans (the Book of Acts says precisely that).

Third, a Christian who hates Jews today for what he believes some Jews did 2,000 years ago only reflects on the low moral, intellectual and religious state of that Christian. Imagine what Jews would think of a Jew who hated Egyptians after watching “The Ten Commandments,” and you get an idea of how most Christians would regard a Christian who hated Jews after watching “The Passion.”

Jews also need to understand another aspect of “The Passion” controversy. Just as Jews are responding to centuries of Christian anti-Semitism (virtually all of it in Europe), many Christians are responding to decades of Christian bashing — films and art mocking Christian symbols, a war on virtually any public Christian expression (from the death of the Christmas party to the moral identification of fundamentalist Christians with fundamentalist Muslims). Moreover, many Jewish groups and media people now attacking “The Passion” have a history of irresponsibly labeling conservative Christians anti-Semitic.

I cannot say that I am happy this film was made. Nevertheless, if the vast majority of Christians and Jews of good will try hard to understand what film the other is watching, some good can yet result.

The last thing Jews need is to create tension with their best friends. And the last thing Christians need is a renewal of Christian hatred toward Jesus’ people.

Dennis Prager hosts his nationally syndicated radio talk show on KRLA-AM 870
in Los Angeles. He is the author of four books, including “Why the Jews? The
Reason for Anti-Semitism” with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. To find out more about
Dennis Prager, visit or the Creators
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