Friday, May 24, 2013

On Tuesday, the Rabbi Spoke Up

In a recent article in the New York Jewish Week (, my wife wrote a short summary of some of her experiences as a “Chaplain Spouse” in Okinawa and representative of the Jewish people to the military community of Okinawa having left the Jewish confines of New York City.

My turn.  Though I am not a New Yorker.

I came to New York immediately after attending the University of Maryland.  Having attended public high school in Virginia, UMD and its strong Jewish community was a haven from all that I hated about high school.  It's not that my high school years were any more filled with teenage angst than any other student, but mine had the added dimension of placing me in opposition to the Liberty Baptist contingent.

Just down the street from my home and on the way to school was a massive church.  With little crosses marking babies being killed in abortions and regular calls for dens of fornication to be closed, Liberty Baptist was in my mind exactly what you would expect from the spiritual off-spring of Jerry Falwell.   And my school had its fair share of church-goers who undoubtedly cared for my soul and were really worried about my impending damnation. 

They prayed at the pole before school.  They brought in lectures for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (my sister and I formed the Fellowship of Jewish Athletes, it wasn't nearly as popular).  Sometimes they asked questions of the kind that Leora mentioned in her article, and sometimes really offensive statements were made in my general direction.  I was the only kid in school wearing a kippah, so it was bound to happen:  I chose to be recognized as a member of the Jewish people and thus its representative to the world.  In 1999, when Jerry declared that “the anti-Christ is alive today, and he’s a Male Jew” – that was not a very good week.  When the freshman class read Elie Wiesel’s Night, and one of the kids asked, “What exactly is a Jew?” I was the person that they brought in to answer questions.  

But then I went to Maryland.  I had Jewish friends and non-Jewish friends, and people who asked questions about my Judaism. But I was hardly the only visible Jewish person on campus.  Kal v’chomer (Talmudic for “so much the more so), when I entered rabbinical school.  For 6 years, I was in a Jewish cocoon. Then I became a khaki-butterfly.

Outranking the vast majority of the people on this island, I don’t get any directly insulting statements made in my direction.  I think people are pretty cool with the rabbi thing in the Marine Corps; the 9 or so Active Duty rabbis in the Navy/Marine Corps and the many who have served before me have built a legacy of being quality chaplains to all faiths and a significantly funnier group than say the Assemblies of God chaplains.

(Side note:  That is not to say Assemblies of God don’t make good chaplains, just that I believe that the Jewish chaplains tend to be funnier people.  Retired chaplain Ibn-Noel is a funny funny guy, and might just bring the Islamic chaplain community into contention for funniest group of chaplains – but he’s retired so I don’t know if he counts.)

What is interesting however is the assumption that I encountered that I would naturally be more – and excuse the terminology – fundamentalist than your average “low church” (not in the pejorative, but referring to non-liturgical/evangelical) Christians.  The assumption being – “Those Jews are so fundamental, that they didn’t even take the New Testament! That’s Old School.”

And they are correct, while their religion was doing new fangled things like not getting circumcised and eating bacon, my people were holding on to the Pentateuch like it was gospel.  (See, I told you we were funny.)

This came to a head this week.  On Tuesday, the Chaplain of the Marine Corps came to speak with all the chaplains about changes to DOD policy and the role of the Chaplain Corps in the near future, especially if DOMA is overturned.  The statements made in the meeting are closed, and I will not be sharing any of them.  However, the many discussions afterward are not confidential.

Some chaplains are really pro-same sex marriage.  Many are not.  This is a reality, and there are a lot of valid reasons on both sides.  Many of the negative camp were surprised to find me aligned with the pro-same sex marriage camp.  And of course, I couldn't keep my mouth shut.

Regardless of how I stand and have stood as a rabbi on that subject (that is within the Jewish community), I have always said that I have no problem with Protestants having Protestant same sex marriages; just as I have no problem with Catholics having hetero-sexual weddings.  If two gay Wicca gentlemen desire to wed, I would never dare stop them.  If two transgender-Athiest desire to tie the knot, what right do I have as a rabbi to tell them no?  If they desired to live their life as the Southern Baptist Convention would like them to live said life, they could easily become Southern Baptist.  They choose not to do so, and I make the same choice.  Therefore, I will not have the rules and rites of Jewish Marriage dictated to me by the SBC.

But the discussion opened up a whole new bag of questions that Leora doesn’t usually get (but maybe she will now that I write this on the blog):

“Rabbi, Haven’t you read Leviticus?”  Yes, in the original Hebrew, too!  And with the troupe, at that!  But I’m also drawn to Genesis where God says that its not good for a person to be alone.  And that God gave the human an ezer k’negdo.  A partner who challenges, completes and otherwise makes the human a better, holier person.  Just as I believe that Leora is that to me, I have no right to doubt that Steve isn't Adam's ezer k'negdo.  For me, if God created them for each other - than humanity has no place in over-ruling the Holy One Praised Be He.  If two humans are supposed to be together, than I want them to make God a part of their relationship.

“Rabbi, What about Sodom and Gomorrah?”  Where?  There is something about the English pronunciation of biblical names and cities that drives me up a wall.  But simply put, having read the story, I don’t believe they are punished for being gay.  I think it’s pretty clear that they are punished for being truly horrible people who want to rape strangers.

“Rabbi, do you perform gay marriages?”  I have never performed a gay marriage, and thus, my convictions have never been put to the test.  Honestly, I’ve never been asked to do any marriages.  I’ve been asked to perform one sometime in the future, and I would like to say yes – but because I am endorsed by an agency that includes a beautiful coalition of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis, I am not authorized.  To tell the truth, I am most comfortable with the Conservative Movement Responsa allowing for “Commitment Ceremonies”.  It is more or less the same thing, but there are some legalistic issues related to Leviticus that make me happier when I call the act, “A Commitment Ceremony”.

Sometimes my rabbi beliefs are complicated and nuanced, and this has angered even some of my congregants.  But they are my beliefs and I'm still working to perfect them.

That said, these are my rabbi beliefs.  My chaplain beliefs are simpler.  Every Marine, every sailor – regardless of race, religious affiliation, or sexual preference - that walks into my office is a soul that I am challenged by God, by Torah, and by SECNAV 1730.1D to facilitate for, to fight for, and – above all – to care for.  I support my all of my Marines (even the ones who grew up in Liberty Baptist churches).

On this weekend, when we remember those who gave their lives in noble service: It is my prayer that as the military opens it’s doors to “Same Sex Domestic Partners” in the coming months, that all will feel comfortable in raising their hand and serving in the United States military.

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