I’m not the same rabbi I was 25 or even five years ago. Back in 1999, when the Central Conference of American Rabbis debated whether Reform rabbis should officiate at same-sex marriages, I held strongly that Jewish marriage could only be between a Jewish man and a Jewish woman.
But that was then. Over the years, while satisfied that I was being true to Jewish tradition and its ways, I became vaguely discontent with my stance. Something wasn’t quite right.
I had no epiphany. Over time, I thought about same-sex marriage and the role of rabbis not in a systematic way, but episodically as the winds of change blew.
Bollixed about by my own internal ramblings and rumblings and influenced by periodic conversations with friends and colleagues, gay and straight, I came to realize I had taken the final steps of an intellectual migration. I no longer believed what I once had.
Upon reflection, I can identify three reasons for my shift.
First, the larger social reality is today so different from that of even a decade ago that liberal congregations refuse gay and lesbian weddings at their peril.
Second, I’ve more carefully considered the role and relevance of rabbis, the delicate art of employing power well, and the need to change when the facts – and sometimes, the people – stare you in the face.
Third, and most important, I believe deeply that freedom is an absolute necessity for all human beings. I believe in freedom’s redemptive and liberating capabilities for the individual. I believe that freedom is a religious value and right. Freedom is at the very core of our humanity and our dignity, our goodness and our God-ness.
You can’t have freedom in the abstract if you don’t have freedom in reality. You can’t have freedom for one or some without freedom for all. You can’t have one set of rules to recognize love and marriage for heterosexuals and another for homosexuals.
I believe that rabbis, Jewish tradition at our backs, should sanctify the love of Jewish gays and lesbians no less than that of any other two Jews. When any two Jews wish to formalize their love through the rites of kiddushin, the Jewish wedding ceremony, our place is under the chuppah, not at the gates.
So, let me say it clearly and loudly: I believe rabbis should officiate at gay and lesbian marriages and that such a marriage is no less holy than that of a Jewish man and a Jewish woman. No caveats, no exceptions, no footnotes.
I’ve not employed any Torah as a proof text to rationalize rabbinic standing at same-sex weddings.
The reason is straightforward. You, as easily as I, can find texts to buttress one side or the other. I believe that in the liberal milieu, it’s intellectually problematic to do so in this kind of context: One text is as good as another. Which doesn’t mean the tradition has nothing to say, at least with regard to how a mind changes and decides.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the pre-eminent rabbinic thinker of the second half of the 20th century, thought about how we humans make decisions, how changes emerge and from where.
Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote of the ratzon elyon, the higher will (as opposed to the ratzon tachton, the lower will) of the human being. The ratzon elyon makes decisions – and does so spontaneously, passionately, incisively and intuitively. It has no need to resort to the pragmatic part of the human intellect, the ratzon tachton, which weighs pros and cons and goes about its business laboriously.
Said Rabbi Soloveitchik: This upper will lights up from within with intuitive affirmations about the most important of human decisions: of marriage, of choice of profession, of acts of military genius – the pivotal resolutions that define and determine every human life.
Learning from the Rav: Sometimes, as if out of nowhere, you realize that you’ve been changing all along and now you finally have the words, because the light from within has shone through with an affirmation you intuitively know to be true, to be right. You’ve already decided even though you don’t quite realize it; you’ve changed within before you do so without. In retrospect, that’s exactly how I came to change my mind about officiating at same-sex weddings.
John Moscowitz is Senior Rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto and author of the blog From Jane Fonda to Judaism.