The Texas Marriage Amendment: Nonsense in November

Sermon delivered October 21, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

This week, we celebrate Sukkot; we give thanks to God for the bountiful harvest that we receive through the grace of the Lord. The word “harvest” usually applies primarily to agricultural goods. Most of us here, though, are not farmers. Yes, we are grateful for the fruit of the Earth. At Temple Beth-El, our most important “produce,” if you will, are the children who grow up here, the young people who receive their Jewish education within these walls, the youth who find their religious community at the synagogue. We at Temple Beth-El have much for which to be thankful.

Since many of our young people go away at age 18 or so, the best time for us to count our harvest is in high school. What a rich bounty we celebrate! Our Temple youth are dedicated and involved in our congregation at levels unmatched in other congregations. They are active in SAFTY, our Temple’s high school youth group. They study in Pre-Confirmation and Confirmation. They are assistant teachers in our Religious School. Occasionally, they even come to Temple worship services, though admittedly, they prefer to pray at Greene Family Camp or at regional youth conclaves, among their friends. Our own Temple youth group regularly sends more kids to each Texas-Oklahoma gathering than any other single synagogue, though at least three of our sister congregations have more high school youth than we. Our kids are truly remarkable.

Until most recently, SAFTY’s programming consisted of study, worship, and good works, with a good deal of socializing mixed in, just as it should be. However, this past Wednesday night, SAFTY decided to meet with Matt Glazer, a field worker for the “No Nonsense in November” campaign who is a 22 year old Jewish man.

“No Nonsense in November,” is the catch-phrase for the organized opposition to Proposition #2 on the November 8 ballot. This initiative would add an amendment to the Texas Constitution, prohibiting both same-sex marriage and any kind of civil union for homosexual couples.

SAFTY, like the Temple Rabbis and our congregation’s Board of Trustees, has decided to oppose Proposition #2. With this issue, SAFTY makes its first foray into public activism.

Why has this matter galvanized our youth and our Board? Why are Temple Rabbis so vocally opposed to this Amendment? Why do I risk the criticism of those who would say that I have politicized this pulpit?

First of all, we are energized, because of some of the most cardinal commandments of our faith. Above our Ark, we read: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” a quotation from Leviticus. We oppose Proposition #2, because we love our fellow human beings, be they straight or be they gay.

We recall the words of that greatest of Rabbis of 2000 years ago, Hillel, who taught: “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.” Enshrining discrimination against Jews in the Texas Constitution would indeed be hateful to us; we will not be party to doing that to anybody else.

We live by the law of the Torah: “Remember the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” We remember how we were oppressed, when we were considered to be outside the mainstream of society. We learn from the words of Pastor Marin Niemoller, a German Lutheran hero of the Holocaust. He taught: “First they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak up. Then they came for the communist, but I was not a communist, so I did not protest.” Niemoller continued in that vein, until he concluded: “Then, by the time they came for me, nobody was left to speak up for me.” If we do not speak up for gays and lesbians because we be straight, will we then not speak up for immigrants because we be native born? If we do not speak up for immigrants because we be native born, will we then not speak up for those denied adequate medical care, because our own health insurance is good? We do not anticipate that “they” will come for the Jews in America, or even that we will again face the kind of anti-Semitism that we endured in this country decades ago. Nevertheless, we may neither forget our past nor abandon those who are not accepted in society today.

We feel strongly about Proposition #2, because we believe that God created every single human being in God’s image. As I shall explain next week, I do not read the Bible as a history book or as a science text. To do so would degrade our sacred scripture. However, I believe that Torah teaches a critically important value in the creation story of Genesis 1. God has created the world in such a way that some people are men and others women. God has made the universe in such a way that we all have different skin tones, for some are of European descent, others of African descent, still others come originally from other parts of the world, or have ancestry from many parts of the planet. And God has created the world in such a way that some human beings are straight and others gay, all in the image of God.

Admittedly, one biblical sentence in Leviticus might give us pause. We read: “You shall not lie with a man as you would with a woman.” Note that only men are commanded here. Biblical legislation nowhere forbids lesbianism. Admittedly, though, some homosexual activity is called “an abomination” in that one verse. Biblical scholars tell us that the text forbids engagement in an ancient idolatrous practice, a fertility ritual, in which heterosexual men would engage in homosexual activity. Indeed, the verse only forbids a man to lie with a man as he “would with a woman.” Homosexual men would not lie with a woman that way! Therefore, homosexual activity, by homosexuals, is not prohibited by this verse.

Even if the right’s interpretation of this verse were accurate, which it is not, the religious crusade over a single line of Scripture would be curious. Sadly, no similar effort has been unleashed to encourage observance of the greatest and more often reinforced commandment in Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This week, I received a letter from Rep. Frank Corte. In the letter, he told me that he supports Proposition #2, and he asks me to “preach about God’s plan for marriage and what the Bible says about it.” Tonight, I oblige the good Legislator.

God’s plan is stated clearly in Genesis 2: “It is not good that man be alone.” God does not desire for any man or woman to endure a lonely, loveless life, even if he or she is homosexual. God does not desire that a young person commit suicide, because society has taught that being dead is preferable to being gay. God does not desire that loving, monogamous couples should be denied rights of mutual health care decision making. God does not desire that children who desperately need foster care or adoptive families should be denied the nurturing of mature, stable couples, be they straight or gay. Families matter to God.

God does declare marriage sacred, so the folks who support Proposition #2 and I agree: Holy matrimony is threatened today. Too many married folks commit adultery. Too many young people eschew monogamy for the sake of sexual pleasures, shared with multiple partners, at the peril of their health and of their spiritual well-being. Marriage is in trouble, but not because gay men and lesbians are seeking to bind themselves in monogamous bonds that heterosexual couples all too often take for granted and abuse.

So why is this immoral Constitutional Amendment before Texas voters? Why is same-sex marriage the hot issue in Texas today? The answer may be found in yet another verse from Leviticus: “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind?”

A majority of Texas Legislators, the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House have conspired successfully to divert attention from issues that truly matter. The Legislature that sent us the Texas Marriage Amendment did not provide any mechanism to fund our public schools. The State government that is sending us to the polls to vote on same-sex marriage did not send poor people in Texas sufficient funds for medical care. Instead, our State leaders distracted folks with an unnecessary, evil Constitutional Amendment.

Yes, I have spoken about school funding and health care from this pulpit. Both are more important than the issue I address tonight. Unlike same-sex marriage, already prohibited under Texas law, schools, taxes and Medicaid are actually up for discussion. So, why am I talking about something that is not even at issue? I did not choose this topic. The gay and lesbian community did not choose this topic. The Legislature and the Senate, the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House chose the topic. They have placed a stumbling block, attempting to blind the people of Texas to their failures. Shame on them.

In churches across the State, pastors are speaking out, loudly and proudly, to urge their parishioners to go to the polls, to pass Proposition #2. They have every right to do so. But let not the people of the State of Texas believe that religion speaks with one voice on this matter. Mainstream religious leaders in San Antonio and throughout the State are speaking out on this issue, too. Others, including some prominent San Antonio clergy, do not feel that they can speak out. Please understand correctly: They are on our side.

Proposition #2 proponents will call us “relativists.” They will say that we are choosing our own values over God’s teaching. Tonight, though, let us affirm: Nothing is relative about our opposition to Proposition #2. Our Torah teaches, and we firmly believe, that discrimination of this form is a sin against God. We stand with Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel, with Rabbi Jacobson and Archbishop Lucey, all of blessed memory, as we charge that vocal non-violent dissent against discrimination is a holy war indeed. We oppose Proposition #2, even as those who went before us inveighed against the Arizona law, voiding “the marriage of a person of Caucasian blood with a Negro, Mongolian, Malay, or Hindu,” a statute brought to my attention by our past Temple President, Harry Levy.

Let us go to the polls in the days ahead. Early voting begins on October 24. Election day is November 8. And, when we do go to the polls, let us note that an item much more important than Proposition #2 is on the ballot. Let’s not permit the Constitutional stumbling block to blind us from the Alamo Community College District Bond Initiative. Education, like marriage, is sacred.