Within Judaism, there are many shades of LGBT acceptance and rejection.
Rabbi Denise Eger, the rabbi of the West Hollywood Reform synagogue Congregation Kol Ami, is one of the first openly gay or lesbian rabbis. She was ordained in 1988, and came out publicly the same year; in 1990 Reform Judaism began ordaining openly gay and lesbian rabbis.
Eger says that Judaism has evolved on the issue of LGBT inclusion, particularly with the Reform movement’s long record of support for LGBT rights.
“There’s such a rapid change of pace,” says Eger, who next year will become the first openly LGBT president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which has endorsed marriage equality since 1996. She says liberal Jews want “to welcome all people and to speak out for human rights and LGBT rights.”
The primary branches of Judaism vary in their views on LGBT people:
Reform rabbis can officiate at ceremonies recognizing same-sex relationships, and most will perform same-sex weddings. The most liberal branch of Judaism, Reform is also the largest one in North America, Eger says. About 80 percent of Jewish people on the continent are either Reform or Conservative.
Whereas Reform Judaism is broadly affirming, Conservative Judaism is “still in transition,” Eger says. Gay and lesbian rabbis can be ordained in Conservative Judaism, she says. Some Conservative rabbis will officiate at same-sex weddings; others will not.
As an illustration of where things stand in Conservative Judaism, Eger mentions the story of Gil Steinlauf, a rabbi who came out this year and was supported by his board. An Atlantic piece posited that Steinlauf’s tale “fell into an odd liminal moment in history”:
“If he were a 25-year-old rabbi, there would be no drama here, no nothing, in fact, because he would simply be a rabbi who happens to be gay. The Conservative movement of Judaism has changed over the past decade or two in unimaginable ways. I have trouble picturing a synagogue that wouldn't hire a gay rabbi. On the other hand, if he were 60 years old now, with the same identity, he most likely would have been able to glide toward retirement, his secret intact.” Steinlauf, however, is coming out mid-career, is his 40s, but it appears he will still be welcomed in Conservative Judaism.
Orthodox Judaism, the smallest branch of Judaism in North America, includes synagogues that reflect different degrees of acceptance. Most Orthodox rabbis oppose marriage quality and would not officiate at a same-sex wedding or affirm same-sex relationships, Eger says. In fact, some would reject LGBT members or even endorse discredited “reparative therapy.” However, some Orthodox synagogues would welcome LGBT people to be part of the community.
From a theological standpoint, Jewish people face some of the same questions as Christians when it comes to scriptural interpretations. There’s the “man who lies with a man” verse in Leviticus. There’s a part of Noah’s story in which one of his son’s “saw his father’s nakedness,” which could be a euphemism for incest or molestation.
For Eger’s part, she has criticized the “very literal fashion” in which religious texts are often viewed.
“Bring your critical, insightful mind to whatever text you’re reading,” Eger said during a recent panel of pro-LGBT religious leaders. “Do not check your mind at the door.”
LGBT Clergy Retreat
Nehirim, an LGBT Jewish organization, is hosting a retreat for LGBT clergy in San Francisco beginning Saturday. Like Eger, Nehirim officials note that things have changed markedly for LGBT people in Judaism.
“We are thrilled that so many will clergy will join us for four days of meaningful dialogue about theology, leadership, and how we can help heal the wounds created by religion around sexuality in the Jewish world.”
Right: Rabbi Denise Eger