Harvey Milk and Me

August 25, 2009 | 9:10 pm

Harvey Milk and Me

Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky

Last Saturday night, I finally saw “Milk” on DVD. I had been wanting to see it when it was in theaters last year, both because of the critical acclaim that it had won, and because the film’s trailer yanked me back to a memory from teenager-hood, of hearing the breaking news that the Mayor of San Francisco and a County Supervisor had been shot and killed. It was that news flash which introduced me to a world and to a set of issues about which I had known nothing before. 

Despite this however, I never made it to the theater. In large part because it’s always hard to find time to get out to the movies. But possibly also because I was not looking forward to dealing with the inner conflict that watching the film would generate. As an Orthodox rabbi and Jew, I knew I’d be on the “wrong side” of the film. 

Not because Orthodox Jews should oppose equality in housing and employment for gays and lesbians, the issue around which the movie is centered. Quite to the contrary, there is no basis in Halacha for favoring such discrimination. But having been produced in 2008, the film was really about the ongoing struggle for full legal equality for gays and lesbians. And especially here in the land of Proposition 8, this means the struggle for the legal recognition of gay marriage.

I cannot and will not perform a gay marriage, just as I cannot and will not perform the marriage of a Jew and a Gentile, or a Kohen and a divorcee. When I received my Orthodox ordination, I signed up to lead my community by the strictures of Halacha (and at Sinai I personally accepted the same commitment.) But when Harvey Milk poses the question to Californians as to whether or not homosexuals are also included in the declaration that “all men are created equal” and are therefore deserving of equal treatment under the law, I am left awkwardly and unpersuasively claiming clergy exemption. Why would I have paid 10 bucks plus parking and a babysitter only to wind up feeling like that?

Now that I have seen the movie though, I am reminded that there is a reality that I can not, and do not desire to deny. I am an Orthodox Jew and rabbi .And I am also a human being. A human being who deeply appreciates the spiritual values of human dignity and civil rights that are the foundation of our democracy.  Almost all of the time these two essential components of who I am reinforce and encourage one another. Here though, they are in conflict. I know what the Torah says of course, and its words are binding upon me. But as a human being reared on democracy, I cannot articulate for myself a convincing argument as to why the legal recognition of civil marriage should be withheld from citizens who, by dint of how they were born, are only able to form bonds of love and commitment with members of their own gender.

As an aside, I know that the domestic partnership laws afford almost all of the same rights and privileges that marriage does. But domestic partnerships belong to that category of “separate but equal”, suffering from the same kinds of unofficial inequalities that racially segregated schools did. It seems to me that we’re still left with a straightforward claim for “equality under the law”.

In the end, I’m glad I watched the film, despite the fact that it produced a solid sleepless hour later that night. Thank God we have a tradition in which we can – and do – live with tensions that we cannot resolve. We can come to the end of a discussion and say, “kashya”, “I don’t know what to say”.  It is tempting to think concluding this way renders the entire preceding discussion a waste of time. But this could not be further from the truth. The lives of human beings are ultimately the subject of this discussion, and there is nothing more religiously irresponsible that to not recognize that the tension exists. The discussion is important to have, even when the final word is “kashya.”

3 Responses to Harvey Milk and Me

  1. Thank you Rabbi for your honesty, I happen to be a non-practicing Jew, and also openly gay. I knew Harvey Milk, as a friend who was also Jewish and gay… but I did not support him when he ran for the S.F. Board of Supervisor…because my conscience led me to support and vote for someone I thought was better qualified. Terry Hallinan was a mensch…and a lawyer. He was a freedom rider, and spoke out for civil rights before it was fashionable, he also defended G.I’s who did not want to go back to the Vietnam war. I understand why religious people would not want to perform or accept gay weddings… but marriage is also a civil matter. I have seen loving people denied insurance, and even the right to visit their love-one’s in hospitals. I have seen good people kicked out of the armed forces… We pay taxes and in most cases… are good citizens… but we are 2nd class citizens. Like most movies and history… the “Milk” movie was not accurate… with changes in locations, and time lines… but it did introduce Harvey, and that era in the early S.F. gay rights movement to millions of people, young and old,gay and straight, here in America and around the world. I have seen great progress in gay rights… but it has been slow, and we still have a great way to go to get our equal rights. It is hard to believe, that other countries have given their gay citizens the same rights they give all their citizens. I hope,, that other religious leaders… like yourself can make room in their hearts to understand why we are asking for the same non-religious rights and maybe someday… changes might come for those gays who consider themselves religious,too.

  2. Rainy says:

    I believe that this is a civil rights issue; as with the original civil rights movement, the GLBT community will ultimately be awarded fundamental, human and equal rights. As a voter and an activist, I really only care about the civil side of this battle. That’s where laws will change and equal rights will be awarded. I have found Dr. King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” to be profound, though not comfortable, when read in the context of the issue of gay marriage.

    Civil rights and religion are totally separate and should be, yet our religious leaders and institutions do influence the civil world. Most voters vote according to morals and values, and who helps us define those values? What do we base them on? As a Jew and one who is admittedly just learning about my faith, I am struggling with this aspect of Torah. The conflict makes me feel fractured, at odds with G-d.

    Religious communities are going to have to continue to struggle with this issue, I think, because it isn’t going to go away. Nor should it. Your willingness to do so in just such a compassionate and thought provoking fashion is, I think, a fine example. Thank you for letting people have a window into your thoughts on this. They are very good thoughts.

  3. Daisy says:

    This is a wonderful post. I’m a Jewish lesbian, raised Reform. I just wanted to say that I have complete respect for this position. Legal equality and religious freedom and diversity can and must coexist.

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