Barack Obama has been both praised and criticised this week after he became the first sitting US president to publicly support gay marriage.
Politically, the President’s statement seems to have been rather hurriedly conceived and contradicts his previous stance in 2010 of allowing his views on equal marriage to ‘evolve.’ His views seemed to have experienced a sudden, accelerated evolution, provoked by his Vice-President, Joe Biden’s outspoken support for equal marriage. Putting political expediency aside, supporters of the President may welcome the return to the ‘Hope and Change’ agenda which he based his election upon and it certainly makes the Presidential election campaign more exciting; with clear water on this issue between himself and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney.
It was reported that “social conservatives and religious leaders condemned his remarks.” I find this statement lazy journalism. I do not know enough about ‘social conservatives’ in the US to comment although the term logically suggests opposition on this issue. However, I do contend that not ‘all religious leaders’ in the States opposed him on this issue. This may be true of many American Christian leaders although, my conversation with Christian ministers in this country certainly challenges the notion of a homogenous response. Of the Jewish community in America, this is certainly not true. Over 50% of affiliated Jews belong to non-Orthodox movements that largely support equal marriage and the 50% of unaffiliated Jews tend to live lives and in areas of the country generally considered more progressive. In the Reform Movement - our sister movement - that represents approximately 30% of affiliated Jews, LGBT rights are more advanced than in this country.
Anyhow, apart from lazy journalism, one phrase struck me in comments quoted of ‘religious leaders’ this week. They were made by a Pastor who represents a community that Obama will be concerned with alienating, religious African-American voters. Amongst them a recent poll suggests that support for gay marriage among black church-goers remains lower than many other groups.
Pentecostal Pastor Charles Bargaineer, of the largely black New Fellowship Church of God in Florida, expressed his concerns in this way: "I don't think that's appropriate for the president," Mr Bargaineer told Reuters news agency. "The Bible's strictly against that."
The Torah portion that we are reading this week, Emor, contains a number of laws where, if we were to follow this Pastor’s line of thinking, we would be in direct contravention of laws of the land, whether the land be this side of the Atlantic or that, indeed in most lands on the earth: for crimes of stoning someone to death to complete discrimination against those with disabilities.
How is it then that we make sense of the Torah and the Biblical laws contained that command actions that are today illegal? Why is it still relevant to study a Scripture that contains what might be described biblically, as an ‘abomination’ to us today?
I would suggest that it is indeed our study of the Torah that provides us with a continuous desire to seek morality. It is not that other peoples do not have their ways that make for a consideration of morality; it is just that this is the way in which Jewish people approach it. Engagement with Torah can be a key to enlightenment to every generation.
Yet it is our striving to apply the enlightenment of Torah to the knowledge that we gain from the world around us, that sees us progress and gain greater understanding of God’s will in our time.
To me, that is why the Torah in this portion does not describe the key festivals that we maintain, albeit in dramatically different and evolving forms, as chagim – festivals – as we usually describe them. Rather it calls them moadim – seasons or time - or moadei Adonai – that we often translate as ‘the appointed times of God.’ These are the appointed seasons, the set times that we should engage with God, through Torah, through traditions developed through our families, religious or secular, that see us progress.
When asked whether he would vote again for Mr Obama, the Pastor, Mr Bargaineer said: "I'll have to pray about that." I sincerely hope that Mr Bargaineer does pray and engage with God. Yet I also hope that he prays with God and engages with God in his generation and not merely in the generation that provided us with Scripture.
As we engage with God at this weekly moed, this appointed time, may we use its moments or moments like these to feel close to God, close to the essence of our humanity, close to the society that we live in, through which all humankind will be able to enter a deeper and more harmonious relationship with the created world in which we live.