View from Glen Hill: All of us are created in ‘the divine image’

A month ago, the first annual Pride Shabbat took place at Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown. That uplifting service is a very tangible reflection of the process by which Reform Judaism has come to accept and celebrate LGBTQ Jews as fully equal and welcomed members of their congregations in North America.

In fact, Reform Judaism’s recognition of the role that LGBTQ people play in the practice of the Jewish faith demonstrates the key role that faith institutions can play in making sure that all feel, and are, welcome. Other denominations (both Jewish and Christian) have been pursuing a similar course with varying degrees of vigor and resolution.

Included in this moving service were a number of quotations from rabbis and others expressing that welcome and inclusion. The temple’s Rabbi Rachel Bearman carefully compiled those passages from many different sources. Among them were these:

“Bigotry and hatred keep people in their shells, afraid.… [By contrast], when we act with love and compassion toward one another, we become holy. But holiness is not enough. Being holy means we become aware of our task, to fix this broken world….” (quoting Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser).

"…when the world is telling us we have no worth, help us not to believe the lie and so too, steer us away from words that may diminish our neighbor.” (quoting the Rev. Jude Geiger).

“Spirit of Peace and Wholeness, open our eyes to the gifts and blessings we offer and receive from each other.... Let us walk together with strength, compassion and love.” (quoting from A Blessing from Keshet).

This institutional odyssey of Reform Judaism began in earnest in 1973, as Rabbi Bearman explained in her weekly class the morning following the service. She did so in engaging detail referencing multiple foundational documents from that time forward. Those documents principally take the form of (a) “responsa” that constitute answers of the leadership of the Reform movement in the U.S. and Canada (the Central Conference of American Rabbis — CCAR) to questions presented to them, and (b) formal resolutions adopted by the CCAR.

The 1973 responsum's opening passages were not very auspicious (“what conclusion is to be drawn from the fact that their homosexual acts are sinful acts?” — linking this assertion to Biblical and Talmudic sources). Nevertheless, it concluded that since everyone is a sinner in one way or another, it would be wrong to exclude people from the congregation on that basis. However, it would also be wrong “to officiate at a so-called ‘marriage’ of two homosexuals” since such a marriage would not be “Kiddushin,” meaning sacred in terms of “all that is respected in Jewish life.”

Yet only four years later, the CCAR adopted a resolution calling for “decriminalization of homosexual acts” and “an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians.” Then, a dozen years later in 1990, the CCAR endorsed a position paper urging that “all rabbis, regardless of sexual orientation, be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation that they have chosen” and affirmed that “all Jews are religiously equal regardless of their sexual orientation.”

And by 1998, a committee reported to the CCAR that marriage Kiddushin can “be present in committed same-gender relationships” and that those relationships can “serve as the foundation of stable Jewish families, thus adding to the strength of the Jewish community.” Thereafter, in 2000, the CCAR itself acted to permit marriages to be performed between same-gender couples but giving each rabbi discretion in choosing whether to perform those unions.

The CCAR continues to move forward and in fact celebrated “the installation of the first openly LGBT President of the [CCAR], Rabbi Denise L. Eger” in 2015. In resolutions that same year, the CCAR “affirm[ed] the right of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals to be referred to by the name, gender and pronoun of [their] preference.” It also applauded the denomination’s principal seminary “for having accepted and ordained the first openly transgender rabbis” and encouraged congregations “to advocate for the rights of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.” In addition, the CCAR moved “to create ritual, programmatic, and educational materials that will empower Reform institutions to be more inclusive and welcoming of people of all gender identities and expressions.”

The thoughtfulness given to this process is impressive and has led to major changes acknowledging the humanity of us all (reflecting that “all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim — in the divine image") and the need for each of us to respect, uphold, and indeed welcome, that foundational reality.