From the Berkeley Hillel auditorium, the Rev. Mark Wilson looked out at his audience and asked all to imagine a world in which “gay love was the norm, the standard others tried to emulate. If you are attracted to the opposite sex, then you’re an abomination in the eyes of God.”
With a radical take on Leviticus, the gay Baptist minister and self-described ex-homophobe teamed up with Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley’s Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom to lead the workshop “Homosexuality in the Bible: Jewish and Christian Perspectives” at the Oct. 17 “Bible by the Bay” seminar in Berkeley.
It was one of dozens of seminars at the all-day event, which brought together world-class scholars from around the country.
In their 90-minute presentation, both clergymen offered a liberal reading of the Torah’s view of homosexuality, but both also admitted it would be an uphill climb to persuade traditionalists to accept their view.
Wilson, an African American, noted that virulently homophobic readings of the Bible (both Hebrew and Christian Bibles) didn’t start cropping up until the 1800s. “The way we look at Scripture has to do with how we see the world around us,” he said, “Liberation movements challenged those traditional interpretations.”
Kelman stated that there is no one Jewish view of homosexuality. “The Orthodox position is seen to be clear and unchangeable,” he said, “while Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal took on gay liberation as part of their mission. The Conservative movement is in its usual ambivalence, in the middle.”
He went on to cite three developments impacting current Jewish thinking on the subject of homosexuality, including the release of the controversial 2001 film “Trembling Before G-d,” which explores homosexuality in the Orthodox community. He also cited the publication this year of gay Orthodox Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s book “Wrestling with God & Men” and the publication of recent rabbinical responsa on the subject.
The source of the controversy stems from two passages in the Book of Leviticus. Chapter 18:22 says: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” Leviticus 20:13 says those engaging in this behavior “shall be put to death. Their bloodguilt is upon them.”
There are no other explicit references to homosexual behavior in the Torah. “That’s it,” said Kelman.
On the surface, that prohibition might seem unambiguous, but both clergymen pointed to alternate readings of the text.
According to Kelman, Greenberg saw the prohibition as one against “humiliation and domination, which should apply to heterosexual sex as well. It’s about the use and misuse of sex.”
He also said that as the prohibition is in the Book of Leviticus, some suggest that it applies only to the Levites, the priests.
Wilson spoke of his personal life journey towards being an openly gay Baptist minister. “I was a good Baptist kid,” he said, “with a Bible in my back pocket and the most homophobic kid in school.” The pastor at McGee Church in Oakland added that today he is rarely invited to address other Baptist congregations.
Kelman noted that he was one of the first Conservative rabbis in the country to perform a commitment ceremony for a gay couple. “The two women asked me in 1995,” he said. “I started sweating profusely, and said, ‘Let me look at my calendar.'”
He did find the time — and the chutzpah — to create the ceremony, and today a number of Conservative rabbis officiate at similar events. Many Reform rabbis perform commitment ceremonies for gay couples, while Orthodox do not.
Attendees seemed to have enjoyed the session. “I thought they addressed the issues now before Christianity and Judaism,” said Kevin Johnson of San Francisco, a member of the city’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. “I got a perspective from the two traditions I had not heard before.”
Added Hillel Lester of Berkeley, “As a community, we can’t ignore that we sideline some people. It’s good to know there are people dealing with these issues, and struggling with this within their tradition and Scripture.”