Author Archives: Rabbi Michael Gold

Rabbi Michael Gold

About Rabbi Michael Gold

Rabbi Michael Gold is the rabbi at Temple Beth Torah, Tamarac Jewish Center in Tamarac, Florida. He is the author of four books, and his articles have appeared in Moment, Judaism, Jewish Spectator, B'nai Brith International Jewish Monthly, and numerous other publications. He also served as co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly's committee on human sexuality.

Adopted Children, Conversion, and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah

The laws and rituals of conversion are among the most vehemently disputed issues in the Jewish community today. In the following article, Rabbi Gold–a Conservative rabbi–explains this difficult topic, making explicit the points on which he is expressing his own opinions and the policies he sets for his congregants. However, authorities from different denominations would disagree even with some of Rabbi Gold’s characterizations of who needs a conversion and how the conversion is done. These differences are made explicit wherever possible.

The bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies come week after week in my synagogue. But every month or so there is a bar/bat mitzvah that takes on a special meaning for me–one where the celebrant was converted to Judaism as a child. He or she may have been born of a non-Jewish mother and then adopted into a Jewish home, or perhaps he or she is the product of a mixed marriage where the mother was not Jewish. (Jews consider a child Jewish only if his or her mother is Jewish or if he or she underwent a formal conversion. In the Reform movement, it is left to the discretion of each rabbi whether they recognize a child born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jewish or only a child born of a Jewish mother as Jewish.)

For such a converted child, bar/bat mitzvah then takes on particular importance. It is not simply a ceremony for the coming of age; it becomes the completion of a conversion procedure often done more than a decade before.

Is Conversion a Requirement for Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

What happens when a child born of a non-Jewish mother reaches the age of bar or bat mitzvah without a proper conversion? In the more liberal Reform and Reconstructionist movements, such a conversion is not always necessary. Being raised as a Jew is sufficient and the bar/bat mitzvah can go ahead (unless your particular rabbi requires one). But this lenient approach may lead to problems later when the child would not be permitted to join a more traditional synagogue or to marry someone Conservative or Orthodox.

Rejecting Halakhah

A number of modern rabbis from various movements have attempted to interpret the traditional sources on homosexuality as they apply to gay Jews today. Three basic approaches seem to emerge: (1) a reaffirmation of the traditional prohibition, tempered by a call for compassion for homosexuals (i.e., reject the sin, not the sinner); (2) a rejection of the traditional prohibition in favor of fully embracing the sexual needs of gays; and (3) an attempt to rework the halakhah in light of our modern scientific understanding of homosexuality.

 

Rabbi Janet Marder of the Reform movement, who served as rabbi of the gay synagogue Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, takes the second approach:

“I believe, and I teach my congregants, that Jewish law condemns their way of life. But I teach also that I cannot accept that law as authoritative. It belongs to me, it is part of my history, but it has no binding claim on me. In my view, the Jewish condemnation of homosexuality is the work of human beings—limited, imperfect, fearful of what is different and, above all, concerned with ensuring tribal survival. In short, I think our ancestors were wrong about a number of things, and homosexuality is one of them.”

“…In fact, the Jewish values and principles which I regard as eternal, transcendent and divinely ordained do not condemn homosexuality. The Judaism I cherish and affirm teaches love of humanity, respect for the spark of divinity in every person and the human right to live with dignity. The God I worship endorses loving, responsible and committed human relationships, regardless of the sex of the persons involved.”

Rabbi Marder embraces gays by rejecting the halakhah.

Some commentators have gone even farther by saying that an authentic Jewish theology must reject any repression of the inner sexual drive. True spirituality, they claim, can be found only in relationships, which must grow out of authentic erotic urges. For gays to deny their sexuality is to remove themselves from God; to avoid relationships because the Bible forbids them is to live a life of incompleteness. The most articulate spokesman for this approach is Christian theologian James B. Nelson:

Tradition and Compassion

The following article is reprinted with permission from
Does God Belong in the Bedroom?
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A number of modern rabbis from various movements have attempted to interpret the traditional sources on homosexuality as they apply to gay Jews today. Three basic approaches seem to emerge: (1) a reaffirmation of the traditional prohibition, tempered by a call for compassion for homosexuals (i.e., reject the sin, not the sinner); (2) a rejection of the traditional prohibition in favor of fully embracing the sexual needs of gays; and (3) an attempt to rework the halakhah in light of our modern scientific understanding of homosexuality. 

One of the most articulate spokesmen for the first approach is Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of the Orthodox Yeshiva University. He contrasts four different attitudes toward homosexuality: repressive, practical, permissive, and psychological. The repressive approach calls for no leniency but rather social ostracism and possibly imprisonment to protect the moral fiber of society. The practical approach is neutral, avoiding any judgment of homosexuality. The permissive approach views homosexuality as a legitimate life‑style. The psychological approach sees homosexuality as a pathology which can be treated as an illness, thereby removing moral culpability.

Lamm definitely prefers the last approach. He writes:

“Homosexuality is no different from any other anti‑social or anti-halakhic act, where it is legitimate to distinguish between the objective act itself, including its social and moral consequences, and the mentality and inner development of the person who perpetuates the act. For example, if a man murders in a cold and calculating fashion for reasons of profit, the act is criminal and the transgressor is criminal. If, however, a psychotic murders, the transgressor is diseased rather than criminal, but the objective act itself remains a criminal one…To use halakhic terminology, the objective crime remains a ma’aseh averah (forbidden act) whereas the person who transgresses is considered innocent on the grounds of ‘ones’ (force beyond one’s control).”

Traditional Sources on Sex Outside Marriage

The following is adapted and reprinted with permission of the author from Does God Belong in the Bedroom?. One note of clarification: regarding contemporary authorities, the author writes that the rabbis of all movements forbid sex outside marriage. This is imprecise. While most Orthodox and Conservative rabbis do consider sex outside marriage inappropriate, most Reform and Reconstructionist (and some Conservative) rabbis are less severe in their language. The official position of the Reform movement is that sex outside of marriage is not ideal, but it is not considered “forbidden.” Few Reconstructionist rabbis would disapprove of all sex outside mar.

The written Torah never forbids sex outside the context of marriage, with the exception of adultery and incest. On the contrary, the Torah seems to assume that it is a natural part of life. For example, when Judah sleeps with his daughter‑in‑law Tamar, mistaking her for a prostitute (Genesis 38), he is never condemned for the sexual act, only for avoiding his levirate responsibilities. Similarly, when King David in his old age is unable to keep warm, a young virgin, Abishag the Shunammite, is brought to share his bed and wait on him (I Kings 1:1‑4). The Bible is natural and unembarrassed about the sexual activities of its major personalities. Although adultery and incest are explicitly forbidden, fornication is not.premarital sex 

It was the rabbis of the talmudic period who explicitly outlawed sexual relations outside marriage. One fascinating passage articulates the rabbinic attitude:

“Rab Judah said in Rab’s name: A man once conceived a passion for a certain woman, and his heart was consumed by his burning desire [his life being endangered thereby]. When the doctors were consulted, they said: ‘His only cure is that she shall submit.’ Thereupon the sages said: ‘Let him die rather than that she should yield.’ Then [the doctors said]: ‘Let her stand nude before him.’ [The sages answered]: ‘Sooner he should die.’ The doctors said: ‘Let her converse with him from behind the fence.’ ‘Let him die,’ the sages replied, ‘rather than that she should converse with him from behind a fence.’

The Purpose and Meaning of Sex in Judaism

Reprinted with permission of the author from Does God Belong in the Bedroom?

The Torah never explicitly lays out a sexual ethic; rather, it hints at certain attitudes in numerous passages. These attitudes are further explored in the rabbinic interpretations of these passages articulated in the Talmud and midrash.

 

The Torah sees the world and everything in it as essentially good: “And God saw all that He made, and found it very good” (Gen. 1:30). This goodness includes sexual activity. After creating human beings, God blesses them and tells them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it” (Gen. 1:28). Thus sexual activity is a basic part of God’s creation; as such it must be good. For the most part, Judaism rejected the negative teachings about sex that later became prevalent in Christianity. In fact, the rabbis throughout the talmudic period and the Middle Ages often spoke of sexual relations as a wonderful part of God’s creation. One famous passage teaches:

purpose and meaning of sex in judaism“We the possessors of the Holy Torah believe that God, may He be praised, created all, as His wisdom decreed, and did not create anything ugly or shameful. For if sexual intercourse were repulsive, then the reproductive organs are also repulsive…If the reproductive organs are repulsive, how did the Creator fashion something blemished? If that were so, we should find that His deeds were not perfect.” (from “The Holy Letter,” attributed to Nahmanides)

Sexual relations, at the proper time and in the proper context, are part of God’s plan and are essentially good.

In the Torah, human beings are portrayed as sexual creatures. When God creates Adam, God’s immediate response is that Adam has no fitting helper—that is, no sexual partner. Adam gives names to all the various animals, but none is found to be a fitting partner for him:

“So the LORD God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the LORD God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman, for from man was she taken.’ Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:21‑24).

Homosexuality and Halakhah

The following article is reprinted with permission from
Does God Belong in the Bedroom?
Two claims made by Gold in this article are disputable and should be noted. First, is the assertion that Judaism is not concerned with inner feelings. While it is true that in Judaism actions are more often than not privileged over thoughts and feelings, certain manifestations of Judaism, including hasidism and musar (a 19th century movement that focused on the study of Jewish ethics and values), do stress the importance of inner feelings. Second, is Gold’s assertion that natural law is a concept foreign to Judaism. While some scholars have assumed this to be true, others disagree.

An important point to make from the outset is that Jewish law does not teach that it is forbidden to be a homosexual. On the contrary, Jewish law is concerned not with the source of a person’s erotic urges nor with inner feelings, but with acts. The Torah forbids the homosexual act, known as mishkav zakhar, but has nothing to say about homosexuality as a state of being or a personal inclination. 

In other words, traditionally, a person with a homosexual inclination can be an entirely observant Jew as long as he or she does not act out that inclination.gay pride parade

The Biblical Sources

The basis of the prohibition against homosexual acts derives from two biblical verses in Leviticus: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence” (Leviticus 18:22) and “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” (Leviticus 20:13). The Torah considers a homosexual act between two men to be an abhorrent thing (to’evah), punishable by death—a strong prohibition.

The Torah gives no reason for this commandment. Some commentators have looked for a rationale in the story of Sodom, in which the men in the town attempt to rape the visitors to Lot’s house. (See Genesis 19; the word “sodomy” comes from this incident.) However, the occurrence in the story was a case of homosex­ual rape, hardly a legitimate precedent for the kind of consensual homosexual acts we are considering. Others see the root of the prohibition in the verse “No Israelite woman shall be a cult prostitute, nor shall any Israelite man be a cult prostitute” (Deuteronomy 23:18). Cultic prostitution, both hetero‑ and homosexual, was a common feature of idolatrous worship in the ancient Near East, but, like the story of Sodom, it is no longer a relevant precedent for modern homosexuality.