Rabbi Stephen Weiss, senior rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike, has announced he has changed his position on the subject of gay marriage and that he will officiate at same-sex weddings.
Weiss explained his position on the acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage in Jewish law in a two-page letter mailed to members of his congregation June 3. The mailing also included a 5½-page responsum – a letter of Jewish law – that explains the basis and sources for the change and why he believes it is deeply grounded in tradition and in the core beliefs of Conservative Judaism.
“After many years of personal soul searching, research into Jewish texts and halachah (Jewish law) as well as study of relevant scientific papers, I have come to the conclusion that Jewish law and tradition should – indeed, must – wholeheartedly embrace homosexuality and same-sex relationships, and that same-sex marriage should be sanctified and embraced within tradition as well,” Weiss wrote in his letter.
Weiss, who has served as senior rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun since 2001, said the change is effective immediately.
“Ohio law does not recognize gay marriage, but that has little impact on me directly,” he said. “The law does not forbid me from performing a gay marriage; it just doesn’t recognize it.
“So right now, if I were to perform a gay marriage, it would not be registered in the state. But as a religious ceremony, it could go forward.”
Weiss said his synagogue will also recognize gay couples and families formally as family units, invite them to aliyot (the honor of reciting blessings over the Torah) and other honors as a couple, celebrate their anniversaries on the bimah and in all other ways involve them equally as couples in the life of the congregation.
“Beyond law and ritual, I hope that we as a congregation will embrace gay and lesbian members as our friends and part of our congregational family,” he wrote in his letter.
Weiss said he has discussed his decision with the other clergy at B’nai Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue with about 1,000 family units as members.
“This decision is my decision, as the halachic authority for the congregation, and it was made after considerable study of sources and reflection,” he said.
An email informing congregants of Weiss’ decision was sent to all congregants who receive email June 5, Weiss said. His letter and responsum were also posted on the synagogue’s website the same day.
In line with law committee
Weiss indicated the change is in line with the position of several decisions of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, which he described as “a highly regarded central body whose rulings serve as a guide and source for studying and determining issues of Jewish law.” Its decisions are not binding, unless passed unanimously by the committee and then by the entire Rabbinical Assembly, he said.
In 2006, the law committee passed a number of responsa embracing homosexual relationships as valid within Jewish law, Weiss said. Although some of those responsa call for sanctifying same-sex relationships in some way, such as “commitment” or “covenant” ceremonies, there is no official position of the committee that calls for gay marriage, he said.
Weiss said many Conservative synagogues and their rabbis throughout the country have taken the same position he has, although in some cases the halachic basis for the decision was different.
“The Jewish Theological Seminary (in New York) ordains openly gay and lesbian rabbis, so it’s a very mainstream position in the (Conservative) movement,” he said.
Weiss said he shared his decision with the B’nai Jeshurun board of trustees at its last monthly meeting and that the majority of the board “expressed strong support.”
“As president, I support the decision because it’s fully the rabbi’s to make as a matter of Jewish law and practice,” said Jody Katzner, B’nai Jeshurun board president. “The second lens I view it through is as a person and congregant. I and all eight officers who serve with me are supportive of the decision because it’s in line with our sense of what’s right.”
By the same token, Weiss said he realizes there may be some congregants who are not comfortable with the decision.
“There are a few (congregants) who have come forward to say they are not comfortable with it,” he said. “But I have received a flood of emails and messages from members supporting the decision.
“For those who are not comfortable with the decision, I would say to them that our synagogue is and always has been a very broad umbrella with a membership that spans a very wide spectrum of belief and practice. I hope they will still find a place within the congregation, sharing in our common spiritual life and our common goals and furthering Jewish life, and I look forward to continuing a deep relationship with them.”
Stephen H. Hoffman, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and a member of B’nai Jeshurun and its board of trustees, said in an email, “I support my rabbi's position to make our congregation a welcoming place for all Jews who seek to sanctify their love and mutual commitments.”
Leviticus source of disapproval
Historically, because of its commitment to Jewish law, the Conservative movement has disapproved of homosexuality. In his responsum, Weiss wrote that the core source for the prohibition of male homosexuality in Jewish law has been two verses found in the Book of Leviticus in the Torah.
“One reads, ‘Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman, it is an abhorrence,’” he wrote. “The second reads, ‘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.’”
The sages prohibited lesbianism as an extension of the male prohibition, Weiss wrote.
“Yet the reality is there is broad scientific consensus today, based on extensive research, that homosexuality is not a choice,” Weiss wrote in his letter. “Sexual orientation, though perhaps a mix of biology and early environment, is fixed by a very early age – some say as early as 3 or 4 – and cannot be changed.”
Moses Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar and codifier of Jewish law, taught that science and religion must be in synch with each other, Weiss said.
“This forces us to confront the question: How is it possible that G-d would create human beings who can only achieve fulfillment through a partner of the same sex and then prohibit that relationship, leaving them to live their lives in isolation and pain?” Weiss wrote. “There is no way to square such a concept with our belief in an all good, loving and compassionate G-d.
“The only answer then is to recognize that these two verses of Torah are not an expression of G-d’s will.”
To claim that a verse in the Torah is not valid is a dramatic step, but one that is recognized by the Talmud, Weiss wrote.
“In the end, full embrace of and acceptance of homosexuals and homosexuality is a matter of recognizing the sanctity of every person as being in the image of G-d, and recognizing our obligation to preserve and honor the dignity of each and every human being G-d created,” he wrote.
“Every being deserves to love and be loved. Everyone deserves to be in a meaningful, loving, intimate relationship with the person who completes them.”
Longtime supporter of gay rights
Weiss, a native of Chicago, said he has a sister who is gay and married to her partner, but that was not the basis for his decision.
“But I have seen over the years the depth of their love for each other and what that relationship means, and with many other gay couples, (I have seen) that this is a real relationship that brings them fulfillment and nothing else could,” he said. “So that certainly has weighed on me in making the decision.”
Weiss added he has been “an adamant and forceful spokesman” for gay rights and the right to marry during his entire rabbinical career.
“I have always felt that whether or not any religious group decides to recognize homosexual marriages as a religious matter, it doesn’t belong as a civil matter,” he said. “The separation of church and state should protect the right of every religious group to define that for themselves, and we as Jews have an obligation to fight to defend the rights of every minority group in this country and to fight against discrimination and persecution.”
When asked if he thought the other Conservative rabbis in Greater Cleveland may follow his lead on this issue, Weiss said he would prefer to allow them to speak for themselves.
“It’s not my place to speculate on what they are doing or to comment about it,” he said. “I’ll leave that up to them.”
Weiss said no gay couples from B’nai Jeshurun have expressed a desire to have him officiate at their weddings.
“There are a few gay couples connected with the congregation,” he said. “None of them have approached me regarding any sort of ceremony.”
Weiss served as a rabbi for 11 years in Atlanta and Southfield, Mich., before coming to B’nai Jeshurun. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Jewish and Western civilization from the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) in Los Angeles, and he was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.