Rebecca Alpert, a rabbi and a lesbian, said the process of coming out proved liberating for her in many respects.
"By coming out, I finally found my voice," said Alpert, a Reconstructionist who lectures at Temple University in Philadelphia. "Suddenly, my 'rabbinic trip' included speaking out against the death penalty, and issues of poverty, racism and struggles in other countries such as Haiti."
There were six speakers at Sunday's program at the University of San Francisco, with presentations ranging in tone from the academic to the anecdotal. Titled "New Jewish and Christian Approaches to Homosexuality," the event was sponsored by USF's Swig Judaic studies program as well as 10 other Jewish and Christian organizations.
Dorff said his perceptions on the compatibility of homosexuality and Jewish tradition were influenced by an encounter he had more than two decades ago. An ordained Conservative rabbi, he was called in to "counsel" a rabbinical student who had a promising future as a religious leader but whose career was derailed when he came out.
Dorff went into the meeting without much exposure to the subject of gay and lesbian Jewish issues except for the oft-cited Leviticus verses 18:22 and 20:13, which say that a man should not lie with "a male as one lies with a woman."
The student, according to Dorff, told him about the trials and tribulations of being gay within the Jewish tradition, and how it was unreasonable to expect a choice to be made between a gay identity and a Jewish identity.
"This young man totally educated me about the subject," Dorff told the large crowd at USF. "Listening to this young man was the first and only time I've ever been ashamed of my tradition."
At the heart of Judaism's prohibition against homosexuality are the aforementioned biblical passage, which Dorff spent a considerable amount of time deconstructing. The professor pointed out Jewish Scripture, like Christian Scripture, was filtered through a committee of theological experts — each of whom had varying positions on the subject.
He added that a modern-day reading of Leviticus renders it "logically contradictory." You'd either have to interpret Leviticus as imposing impossible standards on someone who is Jewish and wants to identify as a gay or a lesbian Jew — or you'd have to read the biblical passage as the work of a "cruel God."
"I for one, do not want to believe in a cruel God — a God that creates people who can never have loving, sexual relationships their entire lives," he said.
Alpert, who wrote "Like Bread on a Passover Plate," said the book's title accurately reflected her experience as a Jewish lesbian.
"While it's not considered the worst sin in the world, there is an invisibility and a transgression associated with being a lesbian or gay man within Judaism," she said.
To prove her point, Alpert told the audience that the photo for her book cover initially contained a plate devoid of all Passover symbols.
"I told my editor that no one would know it was a Passover plate, and asked her why she couldn't get a Passover plate for the cover.
"My editor responded that, although she worked with numerous Jews in her office, none of them would let her use their Passover plates for the photo shoot."
Alpert, who was married and had children before coming out, will officiate at the upcoming wedding of her ex-husband. She expressed hope that journeys such as hers will be less arduous in the future, since "there are enormous changes for the better in the Jewish community concerning gay and lesbian issues."