A few years ago I officiated at a marriage that I never thought I would as a rabbi in the Conservative branch of Judaism. I married together two Orthodox Jews. Given my sense of tradition and how foreign such a wedding seemed to me then and still does on some level now, only a radical shift informs why I was in that situation, but not for the reason you may be thinking.
I married them because their rabbi wouldn’t. Their rabbi couldn’t even be asked; he didn’t even know it was taking place. That’s because Orthodox rabbis don’t marry two men, and some Conservative rabbis don’t.
Since performing this wedding, the subject that has been marinating in my soul relates to how I arrived at that spot, and what it meant and means for me as a leader committed to Jewish values.
When I used to think about this issue, I thought to myself the same way many of my peers and colleagues did: My heart aches, but there is no way to meld gay marriage with what I understand to be explicit Jewish law. Received tradition can sometimes be painful even when it remains authoritative.
Then I began watching society and myself change. The truth is that modern religionists are in a symbiotic and intense relationship with evolving civilization. Sometimes we take stances that push against the direction that society is going. We do teach values back to the society. But sometimes we have the humanity of the world, and the truths that come from science and others’ faiths, shaping our own traditions and norms.
Back when I applied to be the rabbi of Temple Beth Am, I was still torn on the issue. I remember giving answers that I knew were equivocating during interview sessions, probably making many people wonder what my religious leadership on this topic would be.
But what brought me to that gay wedding at which I officiated happened to be my cousin. He had been with his partner for years, bringing him to family events. He said that after his home state opened up the possibility for gay men to marry, he wanted, finally, to marry the man who was already his devoted life partner.
How could I not want love for him? And how could his Judaism, which he loved so much, deny him and his partner, whom he loves so much?
When I think back to what it was like for me that day, I felt a mixture of emotions. I felt proud. I felt confused, wondering how I had gotten there. I felt great joy for my cousin. And seeing the lack of acceptance by his partner’s Orthodox parents, and their discomfort with being there, it reinforced to me how much love this couple needed from me and from Judaism.
Another narrative that impacted my shift in stance was that of someone who was part of my community. He grew up in a “small-c” conservative family and came to Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Given how the Jewish community was structured back then, he understood being gay to be mostly incompatible with his being Jewish. He met and fell in love with a non-Jewish man, with whom he’s been in a partnership for nearly 30 years.
A few years ago, this man’s mother died. No matter how far he felt from Jewish life, no matter how far Jewish life had pushed away from him, he needed to mourn his mother in the Jewish way.
When he walked into Temple Beth Am, it was his first time in a traditional synagogue in decades. He felt at home, and heard words and sounds reverberating from his childhood. He was welcomed, and no one knew he was gay or would have cared either way. This person rediscovered community and Jewish ritual, and became an active member of the congregation. His being gay coupled with his longing for meaningful and, yes, traditional Jewish living represents a synthesis that must not only be acknowledged and tolerated, but embraced and supported.
Where does this shift put me on the religious spectrum? Throw out the spectrum that is all too convenient for how you size people up and judge them. I cannot be summed up simply and neither can you. I embrace the oddity of being a rabbi who will officiate at same-sex weddings but not at Sabbath services with musical instruments. I have traditional tendencies when it comes to prayer and what I think works for Jews who are soaring and seeking, and I have an open mind and an open-ended theology and sense of God which I believe is strengthened because of its attendant doubt.
So I come out of the closet as a traditional Conservative Rabbi who has and will officiate at same-sex weddings. I do it to welcome others out of the closet into our community, into a Jewish life that has a place for them, and expects no more perfection in their worship of God’s complicated laws and system than from anyone else in this flawed community.
And so I’m here and open for business. Sacred business.
Adam Kligfeld is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.