Gay Marriage: The Mormon-Reform Divide

December 9, 2015

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

-Isaiah 55:8-9


As I return from a self-imposed blogging hiatus following a cross-country move from California to the Midwest, I find myself obligated to address the recent changes to the LDS Church's handbook for leaders. Mormon malcontents have taken to the bloggernacle (i.e., Mormon social media) yet again to criticize our church's teachings on gay marriage and same-sex relationships. As with so many other things, we have something to learn about the consequences of accepting gay relationships from the Jewish community.

A prominent Orthodox rabbi in Los Angeles told me years ago that he sometimes understood Mormons better than he understood Reform Jews. I often feel the same way about these vocal Mormon dissidents. However, my main objection to Mormons who publicly criticize their church over gay issues is not that I understand Reform Judaism better than I understand their thought processes (though that is undoubtedly true). It's the creeping feeling I have that those Mormons want their leaders to address LGBT issues like Reform rabbis do.  

Those readers who wonder what I mean need look no further than the Jewish community of nearby Bay City, Michigan. For years Temple Israel, the Conservative synagogue in town, was led by Rabbi Dov Edelstein (pictured), a Holocaust survivor and author from Hungary who was in Auschwitz at the same time as Elie Wiesel and wound up marrying a Holocaust survivor. He was a kind, elegant man who was invited to offer an invocation at a session of Congress. Indeed, he was so respected locally that we sent my brother to the synagogue's preschool, and our entire LDS congregation showed up when he offered to give us a personal tour of the synagogue.

Fast forward to five years ago, when Temple Israel merged with a Reform synagogue in neighboring Saginaw and became Reform congregation Temple Beth Israel. Who is the pulpit rabbi now? That would be HUC rabbinical student Simone Schicker, aka Rav Rainbow, who identifies herself on her Twitter account as “American. Jewish. Queer. Feminist. Southern. Texan. Activist. Bibliophile. Liberal. Student Rabbi.” [How fitting that she lists “student rabbi” last.] Judging from her recent tweets, Simone believes that Planned Parenthood (a profoundly un-Jewish group) is the greatest organization on earth, and Judaism is all about the promotion of gay rights. 

As pathetic and ridiculous as this current rabbinic assignment is (and I would bet my salary that the older Bay City congregants who remember Rabbi Edelstein would agree with those labels), it is the direct result of a Conservative congregation's unfortunate decision to set Jewish law and tradition aside in the interest of saving money and pooling resources with a shrinking Reform congregation. 

Although contemporary Reform Judaism celebrates gay relationships — indeed, the president of its rabbinical organization (CCAR) is a prominent gay activist — the CCAR itself did not sanction gay marriages until about 15 years ago. Don't take my word for it; here are quotes from the responsa themselves:

“The attitude of our tradition and of Reform Judaism toward homosexuals is clear… Judaism places great emphasis on family, children and the future, which is assured by a family… we cannot accommodate the relationship of two homosexuals as a ‘marriage’ within the context of Judaism, for none of the elements of qiddushin (sanctification) normally associated with marriage can be invoked for this relationship. A rabbi cannot, therefore, participate in the ‘marriage’ of two homosexuals.”—Responsum, Central Conference of American Rabbis, October 1985

“Those who advocate homosexual marriage have not, in the opinion of our majority, met their burden of proof. That is, their arguments do not succeed in overcoming the opposition to this practice found in both the Jewish and the Western traditions…While we Reform Jews have departed from traditional practice in many areas, we continue to ‘abhor’ virtually all of the sexual prohibitions listed in Leviticus 18 and 20 as destructive of the Jewish conception of a life of holiness and morality…[To sanctify a same-sex marriage] would be a revolutionary step, one which would sunder us from all Jewish tradition, including our own, down to the most recent times.”—Responsum, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1996

How did liberal Reform rabbis get around the Jewish law prohibition on what they wanted to do? By appealing to “justice,” “human dignity” and civil rights. Sound familiar? It should if you follow the public debate in the LDS community, because this is exactly what liberal Mormons want our church leaders to do.

As events in recent years have shown, there is a division (albeit a lopsided one) in the LDS Church between Mormons who believe that they are led by prophets and those who believe in substituting their judgment for that of the prophets.  The rest, as the Jews say, is commentary.

The consequences of going down this path don't seem to be apparent to those Mormons who call on church leaders to get with the times and ignore fundamental church doctrines and teachings. By way of example, I have heard a Reform rabbi proudly declare that his parents suffered at Bergen Belsen so that he could marry another man. Needless to say, his synagogue contract was not renewed.

Another Reform rabbi with whom I was dialoguing made the astonishing assertion in front of a large LDS-Jewish audience that the Abrahamic covenant actually requires Jews to refrain from eating mammals. When I asked him where this appeared in the Hebrew Bible, he said that he was a vegetarian, so he thought that it was important for all Jews to abstain from eating meat. It is an axiom in my mind that when religious laws are abandoned by spiritual leaders in favor of other principles, personal opinions quickly become the faith's driving force. Why this is a good path for Mormons to tread is quite beyond me.

I don't know about Mormon dissidents, but I want a church run by Dov Edelsteins, not Simones. I don't happen to know what the good rabbi's opinion on gay relationships is, but I do know that Jewish law and tradition, not liberal activism, were central to his rabbinate and his torah.

Reform Judaism will still be worthy of respect as long as it produces rabbis like David Woznica, but it often seems that progressive causes, rather than authentic Jewish principles, inspire many Reform rabbis' torah today.
For me all of scripture can be reduced to the few sentences in Isaiah that appear above. Mormons (and Jews) who refuse to believe that God can have an opinion that differs from theirs would do well to remember them.

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