Are We All Created in God's Image?
Rabbi Stephen Wise
Oakville , Ontario (Shaarei-Beth El Congregation)
According to tradition, Rosh Hashana is the anniversary of creation – Hayom Barat Olam. Genesis, tells us that after creating the world and everything in it, God’s final act was to create the human being. In a unique phrase used only once in the entire Torah, we read that each person was created “B’tzelem Elohim” in God’s image. Rabbi’s for generations have sought to understand what this means. Are we like God? Is it to be taken literally that we look like God? Or is there a touch of God inside each one of us?
While the text leaves us without clear answers, the consensus is that inherent in each one of us is a sense of godliness. We are all born equal, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Thus it is clear that Judaism recognizes the uniqueness of each human being. Unfortunately we often fail to appreciate this divinity in each other, a falure that can lead to narrow-mindedness, and intolerance. We make judgments about others based on how they look, their lifestyle or their religion. All of us have been guilty of jumping to conclusions about people we have met without getting to know them. It would seem that we’ve neglected to take to heart the first lesson we learned in kindergarten, not to judge a book by its cover.
We should be acutely aware of this behavior, because I’m sure each of us has felt the shame or embarrassment when we were judged unfairly. And as Jews, we certainly know the feeling of what is like to be an outsider, to see the scorn and hatred of our neighbors, which has led to suffering and countless attacks. Remember we were described as an erev rav, a mixed multitude, that departed Egypt with Moses. Ever since we have been a polyglot nation composed of Jews of different cultures, races, and nationalities, and sexual orientations, a “rainbow coalition”.
Abraham, our forefather, taught us that when strangers arrive we must open our tents and welcome them in as friends. Abraham would rush out to greet anyone sojourning through the desert, invite them in for food and water, providing rest and shelter. We must remind ourselves of Abraham’s example, and open our tent to all who wish to join us under the mantle of Torah and beneath the wings of the Shechinah, "God’s presence".
In other words, we must enlarge the understanding of the idea of the “traditional Jewish family.” A family is one whose members are united by love and loyalty to one another. There are all kinds of families within our synagogues today, within this community as well.
A few weeks ago I was called by one of my former campers, Mitchell Marcus from Camp Shalom, where I was staff for 5 summers. I met Mitchell when he was just 10 years old and I was a first year camper. In fact he was, and continues to be, the best friend of Cheryl’s youngest sister Alana. He was in every camp play and was the most talented singer I had ever heard. We’ve kept it touch and I’ve watched as he has fulfilled his dream of becoming a theatre producer in Toronto. He called me up over the summer with a really important question. “Stephen, I know you’re a Rabbi now and I was wondering, would you be able to officiate at my wedding”. I had known of his sexual orientation for a few years and had even met his boyfriend once or twice before. I answered confidently, “Mitchell, I’ve known you a long time, I am honoured you asked me and I would love to be there for you at your wedding”.
Over the past few years I have had to confront our tradition’s view of same sex marriage. I had to do a lot of studying and research into what Judaism has to say about it and what my role could be as a Mesader Kiddushin, a rabbinic officiant. This issue emerged for me when I first met my rabbinical classmates at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Israel. 5 students of the 40 in my class were gay. I learned that our movement has been ordaining openly gay Rabbis and cantors for over two decades. I was inspired by the foresight of our movement to be open to all students regardless of sexuality. But the issue of consecrating same-sex marriage under Jewish auspices was still a matter of contention.
Two female classmates who met in Israel on one of the very first days of class, fell in love and much to our delight, got engaged a few months later. Back in New York City the following year we were all invited to their commitment ceremony, as no state had yet legalized same sex marriage. The ceremony was held at a synagogue in New Jersey. I wondered what the liturgy would sound like, what two brides under the Chuppah would look like and how different it would be from the weddings I was used to. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful and moving wedding ceremonies I have ever had the honour to witness. To see two women in gorgeous wedding dresses compose their own ceremonial liturgy and walk down the aisle together was extraordinary.
It made me wonder, what is it about this monogamous, loving, long-term relationship that scares people? Will it really lead to the destruction of marriage?
If I could choose a perfect body for myself, would I be taller, stronger, more muscular. Maybe I could look like Olympic champion Michael Phelps, tall, good looking, strong and powerful, gold medals around my neck. But guess what? I had absolutely no choice whatsoever in the unique combination of genes that made me who I am. I did not choose to have brown hair and brown eyes. I did not choose to be heterosexual. I have never met anyone who has chosen to be gay or lesbian. We are simply born this way. Sometimes it takes us awhile to figure out who we are. That process can be sometimes painful. Once we understand who we are, there should be absolutely no difference in how society treats us.
Reform Judaism stands for inclusion, acceptance, and equal rights for all. Our synagogues, our rabbis, and our Reform community have worked hard, and will continue to work hard for an end to civil inequalities for the GLBT community. But at the same time, the Torah, which provides the guiding values for living a Jewish life, seems pretty clear on the issue of homosexuality.
In the book of Leviticus (18:22) - we read, "do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence (to`evah)." And 2 chapters later it continues "if a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing. They shall be put to death: their bloodguilt is upon them."
It seems quite clear that the Torah explicitly condemns the practice of male homosexual intercourse. To put these verses in context, it is part of a long list of sexual prohibitions including sexual relations with animals and family members, all of which are associated with the customs of the Cannanite people who are living in the land of Israel as the Jewish people arrive.
Some Rabbi’s therefore think that the Torah forbids same-sex relationships because they are associated with the ungodly pagan Canaanites who had no respect for their bodies or the value of family. This association makes them unholy and immoral relationships. " Thus some Rabbi’s feel they cannot sanctify a relationship between two people of the same sex, because they are prohibited to each other as arayot – sexually forbidden. In fact, a same-sex couple cannot fulfill the most basic mitzvah of marriage procreation – p’ru u’rvu, be fruitful and multiply. carrying out this commandment.
As I thought about it some more, I wondered. Does the Torah forbid loving same-sex relationships or just the forbidden sexual acts of the Canaanites thousands of years ago. Yes the Torah forbids sex between two people of the same gender, seemingly a casual encounter devoid of love and commitment. But what if there were two people who were in a long-term loving monogamous relationship. The torah does not lay value judgments on the types of relationships, but as modern rational Reform Jews, I think that is exactly what we must do. We must see each person b’tzelem elohim and ask ourselves, are these two people creating a loving union that God would want?
The Torah appears to define same-sex intercourse as Toevah – forbidden. Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, was quoted a few years ago as saying, “if the court says that you have a right to gay consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery, you have the right to do anything”.
He equates gay relationships with immorality. Yes our law system has defined certain sexual acts as immoral, such as sex between adults and minors or among family members. But I wonder, what is immoral about the relationship between two unrelated consenting adults of the same gender. Perhaps their relationship can be as holy and pure as that of anyone else.
In terms of procreation, being fruitful and multiplying, there are medical and legal possibilities unimaginable years ago for same-sex couples to have children, through adoption, artificial insemination, surrogate parenting or, as I spoke from this bimah just one year ago, the miracle of in-vitro fertilization that has helped so many infertile couples. No Rabbi ever checked with a hetero-couple about their infertility, can you imagine that. Would we stop an older, post-menopause woman from marrying? Why would we ask a same sex couple about that issue? Perhaps this concern should not prevent a same sex couple from marrying.
What about using the term Kiddushin at a same sex marriage? By Jewish law it is a term for Jewish marriage between two Jews, who cannot be prohibited to one another by the laws of arayot. I believe my priority in conducting weddings is to sanctify a union between people that expresses the deepest moral conceptions of marriage – of equality, love and a home that expresses Jewish values. I use the term kiddushin for every Jewish heterosexual wedding. If gay and lesbian couples can aspire to this goal maybe we must call it Kiddushin, a holy union.
These are important issues for our day. When we recognize that there are people on the fringes of society who are different from us, we must see the godliness in each of them. My sermon today is not to convince anyone to accept same sex marriage, whether as a legal issue or a Jewish issue. The more important Jewish value as stake here is how we recognize our differences. Even if you disagree, especially if you disagree with someone’s opinion or lifestyle or views on life, it is crucial to let everyone be who they are. As this holy day of Rosh Hashana reminds us, God is the true judge, so we must work hard to avoid judging people. The Gates of heaven are open to all.
It is also important to recognize that people have private, personal lives and the right to do what they want in their own homes. As Pierre Trudeau famously said in 1967, "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." Those unforgettable words caused a tidal wave of controversy that rippled across the entire nation, bringing issues like abortion, homosexuality and divorce law to the forefront, changing the political and social landscape in this country forever. As Trudeau declared, w e must recognize and understand that there are certain areas of life that are simply inappropriate for others to see. What goes on in the privacy of our own individual homes, unless hurtful or illegal, is not the concern of the community.
In the Mishnah the Rabbi’s decree that “Within a communal courtyard, a person may not open a door directly facing another door, nor a window directly facing another window.” Why was this concern to the rabbis? A community is a space, actual or imagined, in which people live together. They wanted to resolve the tension of protecting one’s individuality and privacy while living in community. They were concerned about protecting the tsniut, the modesty and the privacy of every individual.
Another example—on a monthly basis, according to the Torah, a woman may immerse herself in the mikvah, but only at night. Why at night? It is no one’s business, to see who is going to the mikveh after sexual relations. It is not the community’s business to view and make judgment upon another person. It is not our society’s right to infringe upon the tsniut of its members. Our great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote, “everyone born into this world represents something new, something that never exited before, something original and unique. It is the duty of everyone in Israel to know that they are unique in the world and there has never been anyone like him, for if so, there would have been no need for him in this world.
Friends, as a society and as a Jewish community, we should be interested in preventing loneliness and promoting loving and loyal relationships. We ought to find that kernel of holiness in everyone we meet and see them as b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. Tsniut and b’tzelem elohim are two primary Jewish values. The rabbis tell us that a community that espouses these values may lay claim to this most poetic of many blessings: Mah tovu ohelecha Yaakov, mishkinotecha Yisrael! How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! When our tents are open and inclusive, but our privacy is respected, when we see godliness in each person, then God’s Shechinah, will dwell in our midst. Kein y’hi ratson-- may it soon come to be.