A deep Jewish ethical value is not like the piercing, intermittent light of a laser, cutting through hard metals, but it is like the diffuse, continuous light of the sun, warming our planet, a source of energy and life. “God created humankind in His own image, in the image of God he created them…” (Genesis 1:27). In the Jewish tradition, one of the main human values understood to be inherent in this verse is the aspiration of kavod habriyot, variously translated as individual honor or human dignity. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book, “To Heal a Fractured World,” “Judaism represents a highly distinctive approach to the idea of equality. … A society must ensure equal dignity … to each of its members.”
It follows from this that those members of society who are at its margins have an ethical right to invoke kavod habriyot in order to awaken their society to ensure that they are treated with equal dignity and honor. In turn, Jewish leaders, and the community at large, possess a corresponding obligation to respond to such a request. In many cases, perhaps even most, leaders and others may choose to simply ignore the marginalized group. The felt power of a deep Jewish value like kavod habriyot, however, makes this strategy unlikely to work over the long run. Like the light of the sun, kavod habriyot energizes those on the periphery, as they struggle to gain a degree of respect to which by virtue of their humanity alone they are already entitled.
A timely example of the power of Jewish ethics is the recent give and take between Orthodox Jewish gays and a group of Modern Orthodox rabbis and educators. Last December a panel discussion on the experiences of being gay in the Orthodox community took place at Yeshiva University, attended by about 700 people. Openly gay students and alumni from Yeshiva University took part in the conversation, which was moderated by YU administrators. The focus of the evening was on personal stories and not on Jewish legal issues. It marked the first time that an Orthodox Jewish institution was willing to listen to the unique difficulties faced by gay Orthodox Jews in a public forum.
A little more than a half a year later, a group of about 60 Modern Orthodox rabbis and educators have issued a “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community.” This statement is one of the most tolerant documents towards gays ever published in the Orthodox world. While reiterating the prohibition of homosexual acts, the principles state that Jewish law “does not prohibit orientation or feelings of same-sex attraction, and nothing in the Torah devalues the human beings who struggle with them.” Further, the principles also note that “various homosexual acts” are categorized in Jewish law “with different degrees of severity and opprobrium.”
The principles leave the decision to be open about one’s sexual orientation to the individual and see no prohibition in publicly acknowledging one’s homosexuality. Importantly, the document specifies in clear and unambiguous language that: “Jews with homosexual orientations or same sex-attractions should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community … they should participate and count ritually, be eligible for ritual synagogue honors, and generally be treated in the same fashion … as any other member of the synagogue they join.”
In addition, it is up to each synagogue, together with its rabbi, to determine whether or not “openly practicing homosexuals” should be accepted as members. Synagogue standards must be applied fairly and objectively to all “open violators of halacha.” This last phrase clearly implies that if a synagogue has non-Sabbath observant members it must allow for the possibility of openly practicing homosexuals to become members.
Tellingly, the first paragraph of the document states, “All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kavod habriyot).” What emerges from this process is a new understanding of what toleration implies in the Modern Orthodox world. And, while it is clearly something new, it is, in the end, merely a specific application of a piece of ancient wisdom, deeply grounded in the Jewish tradition.
Do these principles go far enough? Or, are the principles themselves subject to additional interpretation? In light of the Jewish call for universal human dignity, it is impossible to answer these kinds of questions with certainty. Nevertheless, I believe that it is the case that kavod habriyot represents even more than a demand for mere toleration.
A society must insure equal dignity to each of its members. With this document, are we there yet? Let us use our moral imagination to feel what it might be like to be taught over and over again that your sexuality is deeply flawed through no fault of your own. Let us imagine what it is like to be told that your community will not recognize or accept the one personal relationship in your life that most defines who you are as a person. Imagine being told that you can be a member of a synagogue as long as there are already members of the synagogue who violate the Torah. Beyond toleration is a pluralism that recognizes that everyone possesses part of a larger truth. Beyond toleration is an acknowledgement by the majority that what it takes as self-evidently true may in fact be wrong.
The last paragraph of the statement of principles introduces three additional Jewish “qualities of being: mercy, modesty and acts of loving-kindness,” qualities that prod us on beyond toleration. This is not meant as a criticism of the statement of principles but rather to see the document not as a still life but as a dynamic set of principles to guide us along on a new path towards new relational modes.
Moses L. Pava is a professor of business ethics at Yeshiva University.
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