From Homophobe to Gay Rights Activist

by Rabbi Peter Knobel

One central theme of the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) is the ability of individuals and communities to change. The Machzor reminds us that it is easy to speak about making changes, but real change is very hard. Over the years, I have become committed to the principle that every position or belief no matter how long held is open to question, revision and rejection.

I want to share one example. In the 1990s, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) was asked by some of its members to support the admission and ordination of openly gays and lesbians to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and support non-discrimination in hiring. This was extremely controversial at the time. In fact, it was clear when I entered the college-institute in 1964 that the pre-admission interview with the psychiatrist was solely for the purpose of excluding homosexuals.

While much had changed in intervening years, especially the ordination of women in the rabbinate and our strong support for gender equality, our position on gays and lesbians had changed very little. The CCAR created an ad hoc committee on homosexuals and I was appointed to the committee with the explicit notion that I was “rational” – meaning I would help prevent anything “bad” from happening. My own attitude toward homosexuals was at the time, to say the least, quite negative. I had been taught by my father that homosexuals preyed on young children. I described myself at that stage as being homophobic. The next two years of my life were emotional hell. This was at the height of the AIDS crisis.

There was much fear and loathing. I read everything that I could on homosexuality, sexual identity and HIV-AIDS. I listened to the wrenching stories of my closeted gay and lesbian colleagues and closeted students at HUC-JIR. I participated in the very difficult and emotional debates in the committee. I did not sleep well for two years. I was angry at the heterosexual community and the homosexual committee.

Out of this experience, my attitude was transformed. I came to understand that we were not speaking about lifestyle choice, but about sexual identity. I had the responsibility of writing the committee report and had to satisfy both the majority and the minority. The report clearly called for the inclusion and support for ordination and admission of openly gay and lesbian Jews and seeing that they were not discriminated against in finding jobs.

The one compromise was our position on same sex marriage. The majority required that the report affirm that monogamous, lifelong procreative heterosexual Jewish marriage was the Jewish norm. While speaking positively about same sex relationships, the majority was opposed to religious marriage or commitment ceremonies for same sex couples. The minority called for recognition and sanctification of same sex relationships.

The report was adopted by an overwhelming majority of our colleagues at a CCAR convention. This was a major achievement but the battle for equality and inclusion was incomplete. The issue of marriage was sent back to another committee where it languished for several years.

During this period, I wrote two long papers describing what I understood to be Reform Jewish marriage and how gay and lesbian relationships were no different than heterosexual relationships and should be sanctified by Reform rabbis. Eventually, the CCAR passed a resolution calling for the civil recognition of same sex relationships and assigned the task of writing ceremonies for same sex marriages to the reform practices committee of which I was then the chair.

I have become an active advocate for the legalisation of same sex marriage. I have performed several same sex weddings in the sanctuary of my congregation with the strong support of the other clergy and the lay leadership.

However, it took me a while to move from a binary way of thinking about sexual identity. I now recognise the greater complexity of sexual identity. I am now an advocate for the GLBTQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered and Questioning) community. Change can be a long and arduous process.

For me, the most important verse in the Torah is Genesis 1:27, which states that we were created in the Divine image (betselem elohim).

Each of us is precious, unique and of inestimable value. The first principle of Jewish ethics is that we need to see the face of God in the face of every human being and then we will know how to treat them.

We are God’s partners in the ongoing creation and perfection of the world. Change and growth are part and parcel of what it means to be created in God’s image.

At this season of teshuvah (repentance) we have the opportunity, the ability and the obligation to change. Remember God does not create bad stuff. God created you and me.    □

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