This week’s parsha is called Hukkat, which is usually translated as statutes. Distinguished from the other terms for laws in the Bible such as mishpat and mitzvah, a hok is a law that is given by God that makes no logical sense to us. In fact, the Sages say that we could not understand the reasoning behind a hok and this makes observing it that much more important and holy. Why? I think that once something is explained and rational/logical to us we find it easier to observe and do it. It takes a strong sense of surrender, acceptance, and faith to follow a precept that does not make sense to us. So, following a hok is the Jewish path of surrender. The hok that is described in Numbers 19 deals with how to help someone who is in mourning get clean and be able to rejoin society spiritually. This is the purpose of the ritual of the red heifer. The red heifer is burned and the ashes are used in a mixture to help the person who is in mourning or who has had contact with a dead body become spiritually clean. The mourner needs some ritual because after a death, everything seems tainted and dirty. The laws of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, are hukim, laws that I observe as a sign of my acceptance of God as my commander-in-chief.
Biblical literalists, be they Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, look at the prohibition of homosexual acts stated in Leviticus 18 as hukim. I do not subscribe to this. Rather, based upon the teaching of Bible professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Chanan Brichto of blessed memory, I believe that the focus of the biblical author in Leviticus 18 was upon idolatry, not homosexuality. The verses prohibiting homosexual actions are part of a long litany of actions that were all associated with idolatrous actions of ancient Israel’s neighbors. Brichto made the point, nearly 40 years ago, that Leviticus 18 was not addressed to gay people but to people who were engaged in sexual activity associated with the idolatrous cults.
Based upon Rabbi Brichto’s teaching, I believe that in our own age – where considered scientific opinions question the once-accepted norm that homosexuality is a choice and where theologians assert that homosexual and heterosexual individuals are equally created by God in the image of God – we must exercise our right and responsibility as Reform Jews to embrace gay and lesbian individuals and welcome them into our community.
The 40-year journey since the beginning of the gay liberation movement reached the promised land of marriage equality in New York last week. For me this landmark legislation is profound. I have known family members and friends over the course of my life who because of their sexual orientation felt themselves as outcasts of society and of our own Jewish community.
The New York decision means that I as a rabbi licensed in New York State will be able to officiate at same-sex marriages between Jews.
What’s more important, it means that same-sex couples will have the same spousal rights and responsibilities under law as heterosexual couples do, at least in New York. However, just as Israel’s struggle for equality among the nations did not end with the entrance into the land of Israel at the end of the Torah, the fight for marriage equality and the spousal rights of same sex spouses here in New Jersey and elsewhere must continue.
I began this commentary with a mention of the distinction between mitzvah, mishpat, and hok. To me the New York legislature’s Marriage Equality Act falls into the category of a mishpat, a legal decision that permits but does not mandate action. This means that Jews Christians, and Muslims who continue to view Leviticus 18 as a hok are free to do so. As a Reform Jew who believes in pluralism I must respect the right of people who differ in their interpretation of Torah even as I rejoice in the fact that the Marriage Equality Act of New York will give me another tool in my “outreach tool box” to welcome Jews into our community, and in the spirit of July 4 extends to gay and lesbian couples the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.