David Ellenson, the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion speaks at the Harvard Hillel’s talk on “Same-Sex Marriage in the Jewish Tradition”.
A case for supporting gay marriage based upon the Jewish religious tradition was presented to two dozen students, faculty and community members yesterday afternoon at Susan and Richard Smith Family Hall at Harvard Hillel.
Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said in a literary, humorous and at times quite personal discussion that the Jewish concepts of dignity and equality that stem from the creation of man in God’s image trump any other specific biblical mandates against same-sex marriage.
While he presented his views as religious arguments in favor of same-sex marriage, he was also careful to point out that his reading of scripture does not reflect those of the Jewish community as a whole.
“I think it is a plausible reading, albeit a unique one,” Ellenson said.
His argument, which he said was inspired by New York University law professor Ronald Dworkin’s Law’s Empire, centered on the prominence of the interpretive process in Jewish tradition and the need to reevaluate ancient Jewish principles and rules continually in the context of contemporary civilization.
Ellenson drew a distinction between this position of “Liberal religion” with the Orthodox Jewish position that the Scripture is the literal word of God.
But he also suggested that the Orthodox tradition is inherently interpretive because the rules and principles of the past are always evaluated in some present context.
As an example of this interpretive tradition, he cited the decision of Talmudic scholar Johanan ben Zakkai to end the practice of requiring women accused of adultery to drink “bitter waters” in order to determine their guilt because it did not apply in a contemporary social context.
While he admitted that homosexuality is always portrayed in a negative light in Jewish texts, Ellenson looked at tradition in a broader sense.
“Jewish tradition wants to assert that a relationship between two people who are in love physically as well as emotionally can be consecrated,” he said.
He also said that any scriptural passage that degrades humanity cannot be truly divine—a notion he credited to Catholic feminist scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza.
In his talk yesterday, Ellenson also explained his personal reasons for his views.
“I had the same views most heterosexual teenage males had about homosexuality, and never really even thought about these issues,” said Ellenson, who grew up in Newport News, Va.
He said his views began to evolve when, as a professor, he got to know some of his students, who were openly gay.
He was also influenced by Steven Greenberg, an Orthodox Rabbi from Wisconsin who recently came out of the closet.
While he has held these views for years, Ellenson said his choice to speak out was prompted by this year’s State of the Union address, in which President George W. Bush called for the protection of the institution of marriage by denying same-sex couples the right to marry.
Having grown up in the South during the years of the Jim Crow laws, Ellenson said that the issue of gay marriage is “virtually identical” to that of civil rights in the South.
“To deny [gays and lesbians] the bonds of matrimony strikes me in my day as simply cruel, given the knowledge we have of human sexuality and the nature of the relationships that can be attained between two same-sex individuals,” he said.