This posting is a summary of this week’s edition of my podcast, Wrestling and Dreaming: Engaging Discussions on Judaism. You can hear the podcast at wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com or other sources for podcasts.
The Haftarah reading for Parashat Balak comes from the book of Micah and it ends with Micah’s famous statement in chapter 6 verse 8:
“He has told you, O Man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with your God.”
There is, however, a beautiful interpretation of this verse which changes the meaning significantly by replacing the word “and” with the word “but”. This is perfectly reasonable as the Hebrew letter vav as a prefix can mean either of those two words.
The interpretative translation is: “Human beings have told you what is good but what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with your God.”
This understanding of the verse proposes a distinction between what some people consider to be “good” and what God truly wants from us. It is a particularly meaningful approach to the verse when we consider that there are so many voices speaking words of arrogance, injustice and a lack of compassion for others. Seen this way, Micah’s words compel us to analyze our voices and our actions to consider whether they reflect the positive qualities of justice, goodness and humility.
This past week, the United State Supreme Court handed down a decision supporting the right of a website designer in Colorado who refused to provide services to a same-sex couple based on her religious beliefs. I believe this decision was terribly misguided and presents a serious threat to equality in this nation.
In her dissent, Justice Sotamayor wrote:
“Today is a sad day in American constitutional law and in the lives of LGBT people. The Supreme Court of the United States declares that a particular kind of business, though open to the public, has a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class.”
I agree with her statement and the characterization of this decision as marking a sad day. This sets a very bad precedent for LGBTQ individuals and their families as well as for others in this nation who face bigotry and persecution.
This nation has taken some very important steps for equality and respect for LGBTQ individuals and families, and polls show that the majority of Americans support these steps. But increasingly we read of state legislatures which attempt to hinder this progress and this decision gives fuel to those who seek to roll back the protection that our current laws provide.
In addition, the ruling begins a slippery slope as it seems to set a precedent that would provide legitimacy for a business to discriminate against anyone on religious grounds. For example, can a restaurant or hotel now refuse to extend service to a same-sex couple? Are bi-racial couples and families in danger of being excluded? Can the owner of a business refuse to serve a Muslim or Jewish or Asian-American individual or a person of color? While some may argue that the ruling is very limited in its scope, it does open the door for further exclusion.
There are two other factors in this case which disturb me. First, from what I have read, the woman who brought the case against the law in the state of Colorado had not yet set up her business and had not been approached by a same-sex couple. She wanted to prevent such couples from coming to her for her services.
It is particularly sad that this is the case since it reflects the reality that it is much easier to treat someone as unequal and not deserving of your respect if you have not met them face to face.
For many of us — and I include myself — our thoughts about homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage have evolved over the years. For me, the critical factor in this evolution was the fact that I began to talk with LGBTQ individuals and couples face to face. In doing so, I learned not only of the challenges they face but of the beauty of their lives and their relationships, seeing the same qualities that I respect in any individual and family. I began to realize that these qualities supersede any issue of sexual orientation or gender identity.
But you need to open yourself up to seeing the common humanity. If one closes one’s eyes and just thinks of individuals as “the other”, it is easier to discriminate against them.
And finally, there is the “religious” issue.
Any religious group or denomination has the right to its teachings on any issue and while I would disagree, it is completely within the right of a religious community to exclude LGBTQ individuals or families.
But, by making this decision, the Supreme Court has given people another reason in this country to see “religion” as promoting exclusion, lack of respect and compassion. This is so sad as there are so many approaches to religion in the nation and the world which at least attempt to model themselves according to Micah’s principles of justice, goodness and humility. None of us is perfect and no approach to religion is perfect but the idea that religion can be seen as providing justification for exclusion of others is a terribly sad result of this ruling.
As we see the situation faced by the LGBTQ members of our communities growing more tenuous and threatening, we need to raise our voices not only in support of these individuals and their families but in the firm conviction that religious voices can, in fact, be voices of humility, goodness, compassion and justice.