In Fourth, moscowitz

En route to Los Angeles not long ago, I noticed that the customs agent at Pearson Airport wore an interesting name tag: McCarthy-Quiroz was her surname. “Wow” I said to her, “McCarthy-Quiroz — what a great name!”

“Yeah,” she said, “You can imagine how hot-blooded our children are.”

What an interesting time and place ours is.  The sense of freedom is unparalleled, the possibilities as how to live, where, and with whom multiply daily.  The boundaries — social, political, religious, sexual — are porous and shifting, some disappearing all together.

When a McCarthy marries a Quiroz and kibitzes with a rabbi in a customs line composed of a rainbow of people scattering to the four corners of the earth, we are now worlds removed from what once was.  Only two or three generations ago, the McCarthys, the Quirozes, the Moscoviccis — they were in Ireland, Mexico and Romania; they had virtually no likelihood of encountering one another.  In Canada, we live cheek by jowl, if not with one another. Our social reality — how we organize our lives, how we relate to one another, the groupings we join or are born into, how we fit into and understand the larger society, even how we think – our social experience is no longer divided, but shared.

Social reality is like an amoeba.  It morphs from one thing to another in front of your eyes.  You don’t necessarily perceive the changes except at certain moments: a red- headed, green-eyed, pale skinned woman, whose name half claims and half belies her look, signals the world isn’t what it once was.  By the way, as our social reality changes, so do we.

One example: several months ago at a meeting of the Reform Rabbis of Toronto, a visiting rabbi from the States requested that each colleague share an observation about the Toronto Reform community – the better to understand us, he said.

Here was mine: Despite the fact that the Reform Rabbis of Toronto have cultivated, within the larger Reform Rabbinate, a collective personae as the guardians of the Tradition (No rabbis here officiate at interfaith weddings; we employ more strict standards for conversion; we express strong disagreement with the patrilineality stance of the Reform movement — and so on); nonetheless, I said, within five years, we should assume that one or more of us will perform interfaith weddings.  The days of The Toronto Reform Rabbis being known as the defenders of the faith, the guardians of the gate – those days are numbered.

I added that neither was I judgmental about rabbis performing interfaith weddings, nor was I making a veiled announcement as to my own intentions. Rather, our social reality is in flux and so are rabbis. We shouldn’t kid ourselves, and neither should we judge those rabbis who will break ranks for whatever reasons. As well, we should anticipate that the reasons will be thoughtful, and resulting actions quite possibly in the best interests of the Jews, and of the Jewish future.

If McCarthy can readily marry Quiroz, don’t you think Reform rabbis in this town will, before long in some circumstances, marry a Goldberg to a McCarthy or a Quiroz with nary a beit din or mikvah in sight? And don’t you think the people are often ahead of the rabbis — for better and for worse?

Modernity, as Arthur Hertzberg famously put it, is the solvent of tradition.  Tradition literally dissolves, is swept away by the power and the rapidity of the changes in contemporary society.  But it’s more than that, as a very personal dimension is involved here: When social reality changes, so do people, rabbis included. And, as people change, so do their minds.

It’s not entirely clear how that happens. Perhaps you arrive at a better way of doing things; or, you perceive the world more clearly from before; or you listen to different voices from previously; or, all of a sudden, old voices announce themselves with new clarity. Sometimes your own voice emerges more forthrightly, or you learn more and vary your reading… Regardless, it’s not just that the social reality has changed — so have you.

I’m not the same person, the same rabbi, as upon my arrival here 25 years ago. In those days I was thrilled to join a coterie of rabbis on the traditional side of things, colleagues who accorded significant status to Jewish norms. No longer a rabbinic fish out of water on conversion, patrilineality and other matters, I now swam in a more compatible rabbinic stream.

But, you know, things change. Over the next fifteen years or so, I grew rather less comfortable at what had come to feel like posing as a guardian at the gate. I grew too accustomed to saying no without wondering whether yes might not serve better. While satisfied at being true to the tradition and its ways, I grew vaguely discontented with my stance. I couldn’t help but picture myself as a sentry at the gates. Something wasn’t quite right, even if I couldn’t put words to it.

However, and now I come to the heart of the matter for this Shabbat, I still had the words of the defender of the faith. I had them and — to be fair to myself — I believed them.

So, in 1999 as the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) debated rabbinic officiation at same sex marriages, I believed that kiddushin is just that: a marriage ceremony between a Jewish man and a Jewish woman. Here is exactly how I worded my own decision (and by virtue of my stance once I became Sr. Rabbi a year later, that of my colleagues, rabbinic and cantorial, at Holy Blossom Temple):

“All human beings are made in the image of God; that sexual orientation is irrelevant to the human worth of a person; that the issue in Judaism is not sexual orientation but sexual responsibility; that demonization of gays and lesbians is not tolerable — not in public, not in private, not in word, not in deed; and, finally, that gays and lesbians merit full civil and legal rights as accorded all citizens.

However, kiddushin, Jewish marriage, is not of a civil category; but of a religious one. Rooted in the religious concept of covenant and in the related imperative of procreation, kiddushin reflects the historic understanding of the destiny of this minority people.

Jewish marriage requires a Jewish woman and a Jewish man to propel and fulfil the destiny of our people: to be God’s partners in the ongoing work of Creation. Therefore, Jewish marriage carries with it the hope — actually conveys the blessing — that children will result.”

“So I do not officiate at ceremonies for same-sex couples or for interfaith couples, because the Jewish ideal is of a marriage between a Jewish woman and Jewish man, with Jewish children resulting. We promote this ideal – even as we also make dear that those who, for whatever human and real reasons, make other choices are not to be discriminated against.

Second and related, I officiate only at marriages between a Jewish woman and a Jewish man, because whatever involves the totality of the Jewish people — its unity, its identity, its collective destiny — is of the highest priority to support and promote. The very core matters that define and maintain our sense of peoplehood and destiny require that we must not sunder ourselves from the body of the Jewish people.

Finally, I will officiate only at the weddings of a Jewish woman and a Jewish man because my ordination as a rabbi is rooted, not in the civil authority of today, but in the religious sensibility of the past of our people. My rabbinic ordination, not my provincial clergy wedding permit, ultimately provides me license to marry a couple.”

(November 1999)

But that was then. I’ve changed my mind. I did so a couple years ago now.  Not all at once. I had no epiphany. Rather, over some time, I thought about same sex marriages and the role of rabbis, not in a systematic way, but episodically as the winds of change blew by. Those blowing winds were the social reality in transition. It dawned on me at some point that I was in intellectual flux.

It was two or three years ago now, having been bollixed about by my own internal ramblings and rumblings, and no less influenced by periodic conversations with friends and colleagues, gays and straights, that I came to realize I had taken the final steps of an intellectual migration. I no longer believed what I once had. I held back from saying so until now, as I didn’t wish to entangle this matter with other issues internally at play here.

So, let me say it clearly and loudly:

I believe rabbis should officiate at Gay and Lesbian marriages; that such a marriage, while arguably different, is no less kiddushin, sanctification than that of a Jewish man and Jewish woman. No caveats, no exceptions, no footnotes.

More about the implications for Holy Blossom in a moment.

But first, permit me to share how I changed. I do so precisely because it’s not terribly profound or dramatic. I can’t claim to have climbed toward the high moral ground. As President Obama said last week about his change of mind, it’s more personal than political. My shift, like that of the president’s, is reflective of a significant transformation in our social reality, and no less — and no less important — in ourselves.

Upon reflection, I realized that I’d changed my mind for three reasons. Here they are, in order of the lesser important reason first, the most important one last.

First, the larger social reality is today so different from that of even a decade ago, that liberal congregations refuse gay/lesbian weddings now only at their own peril. It simply runs counter to the interests of Holy Blossom Temple that when two Jewish men, or two Jewish women — our members or those who wish to be our members — seek our support as they sanctify their love, that we not say yes with the same enthusiasm we express to a heterosexual Jewish couple. My first reason, then, is pragmatic, and in the best interests of this congregation, its members and its future.

My second reason returns me to a previous matter. It’s about rabbis, our role and our responsibilities. Here I speak for myself alone.

While rabbis enjoy less authority these days than it appears (and, by the way, more responsibility than it seems), nonetheless, we do have authority, even power. Employing power is a delicate matter: it’s all too easy to yield it, and it’s not simple to wield it — not these days in this radically levelled world of ours. You go too far one way or the other and you find yourself in harm’s way. Especially so in communal institutions.

As for myself, then, as the years went by, more and more I felt like the guardian at the gate saying no entry, no way — even as the gates no longer held, and had been broken through.

How does the saying go? The only thing worse than having to change is becoming irrelevant. As the winds of powerful and positive change swept past me, I felt not only irrelevant, but wrong, at least in some of my stances.  What I grew to believe about gay marriage and weddings, likewise, I came to feel about conversions and rabbis: too much no, too much posturing and policing; not enough yes and welcoming and affirmation.

My second reason then is about rabbis — at least about this rabbi.  About our roles and our relevance; about the delicate art of employing power well. And, frankly, about the need to change when the facts — and sometimes, the people — stare you in the face.

My third reason for changing my mind is the most important one. When he apparently forced the hand of the president last week, Vice-President Joe Biden said, “Freedom for one means freedom for all.”

Freedom is a philosophical stance and a human necessity. Biden is right: 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 for whites and another for blacks, one way to recognize love and weddings and marriages for straights and another for gays and lesbians.

And here, my own political/philosophical ways prevailed. If I align myself most comfortably with conservatives on matters of Israel and Foreign policy, because they largely get it right, I believe; and if I align myself most often with those on the left on economic matters, because they largely get those matters right, as I see it; then, on personal and social matters, I’ve grown to strongly identify as a libertarian. 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 godliness.

You simply cannot afford full freedom to one group without doing so to all groups; to one person and not all people. I believe that rabbis and cantors, the Jewish tradition at their back, 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.

You see why this last reason is the most important one. It’s the most religious, the most Jewish in its essence, the most personal in its impact and reach. Personal for gays and lesbians most of all, but also personal for all in our community, rabbis included.

What does this mean now in our small community at Holy Blossom Temple? Just this: each of our rabbis, each of our cantors will decide on an individual basis whether to perform same sex weddings. Each colleague will be respected as he or she chooses — period.

Let me conclude this way. You would have noticed that 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 our liberal milieu, it’s, at best, intellectually problematic to go there: One text is as good as another. Which doesn’t mean the tradition has nothing to say about this. Quite to the contrary; I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Likewise, I came to understand over the past decade, that in 1999 I tilted toward the tradition for reasons as much to do with my own worldview, as anything else. Today I can say the same: I’ve chosen this decision, this way of regarding same sex marriages, in significant part, because as the world has changed, so have I. My worldview today isn’t what it once was.

How does one capture personal change? How do you explain it to others and to oneself? Permit me one more try at this, first through a recent email exchange, and then with the aid of the pre-eminent rabbinic thinker of the second half of the twentieth century.

Ten days ago, when President Obama announced his own change of mind regarding same sex marriages, Debra Bennett sent me a link to president’s announcement — Debra with whom I’ve discussed this issue, and who knew what I was planning to say today.

I replied, “Well, nice, but why is he so late?” To which Debra shot back, “Why is he so late?! Why are you so late?!”  And, she added, “Just because Obama beat you to it, don’t change your mind!’

It happens that Debra had also copied Rabbi Karen Thomashow in the exchange — she who also knew what I was going to say today. After approving of the humour, Rabbi Thomashow summed up this way: “It’s rather powerful when the perspectives, the ideas, the faith of leaders change — and those leaders publicly share their (intellectual and religious) evolutions. It’s very moving (to hear and know that).”

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, to whose writings I habitually turn when in search of something akin to answers, also thought about how we humans make decisions, how change emerges and from where.

Borrowing from the Jewish mystical tradition, Soloveitchik writes of the ratzon elyon, the higher will (as opposed to the ratzon tachton, the lower will) of the human being. This will is an endowment, claims the Rav, which separates the human from the remainder of creation. More than that, the ratzon elyon makes decisions, and does so spontaneously, passionately, incisively and intuitively. And all the while, 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.

Says 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 which 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. 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 yet; you’ve changed within before you do so without.

Important as the intellect is, as much as it too is an instrument of holiness, the ratzon elyon, that upper will of ours, is the deepest and most Divine part of Adam, this creature of God’s. Each one of us — of whatever stripe, of whatever background, of whatever sexuality, whatever gender — each one of us is of
equal standing before God. And not before God alone, but also before one another. Each one of us is worthy of the rites and the rights of kiddushin, of the opportunity to sanctify our love of another under the chuppah — and to do so with the very other of our own choosing.

May 19, 2012 / 27 Iyar 5772.
Rabbi John Moscowitz.
Holy Blossom Temple.
Toronto.

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