Embracing Change: Welcome Transformations in my Family and Faith

by Amy Hirshberg Lederman

I sit at my computer with a coffee mug and my cell phone on silent for a while. Generally, I don’t move from my seat until my first draft is completed but today I keep getting up – to water the plants, fix a snack, check the mail. I have the writing jitters, which surprises me as I thought I had become immune to feeling vulnerable when I share my life with my readers. This story is different however, and I wonder about how to write it and even whether I should write it at all.

Because with these words I am officially coming out of the closet; not as a lesbian myself, but as the mother of a gay son. It’s taken me a while to “out” myself, primarily out of respect for my son’s privacy and the fact that it should be him, and not me, who decides if, when and to whom to disclose his sexual orientation. But he has been gracious and bold enough to give me permission to write this piece, in the hopes that what I write may open the hearts and minds of others.

Joshua came out to his dad and me the night before he left for college. We were not surprised; in fact, we were deeply grateful and relieved. Grateful that he trusted us enough to tell us, and relieved because we suspected he was gay for many years and it was wonderful not have to dance around the topic any more. For me this meant I could stop leaving magazines lying open to stories about gay marriage or the threat of HIV. For Joshua, it meant that he could begin to live his life out in the open, regardless of whether he was at home or at school.

“Out of the closet and into the street!” was one of the first rallying cries of the gay civil rights movement. Yet being openly gay requires giving up something we all value: our privacy. It means that your sexuality is a topic that others can, and most likely will, discuss – and often in unkind ways. Even if this openness has helped our society become more aware that many of the people we know and care about are gay, there is an undeniable social stigma for those who admit to being part of the LGBT community.

I grew up in a home where homosexuality was never discussed until I brought my best fri , Rick, home from college over winter break and learned the ugly meaning of the Yiddish word “fagelah.” My parents and I parted ways, with me fuming at what I saw as their ignorance and prejudice and them worrying that they had sent me to a college far too liberal for my own good. I was convinced that my father was homophobic and I was probably right, given the period in which he grew up and the prevailing attitudes of his time. And while he claimed to have several “fagelah friends” who were in the theatre when he was in college, I sensed his deep discomfort whenever he talked about them.

After Joshua came out, we asked him how he felt about us telling others that he was gay. He said it was fine with him, but then hesitated and said: “But I don’t want you to tell Grandpa, because I’m afraid it will change the way he feels about me.”

I nodded with a lump in my throat thinking, “Some things don’t have to be said to be understood.”

Time passed and I could tell my parents suspected Joshua was gay. A year or so later I asked Joshua if he still felt the same about me telling his grandfather. I knew that my father adored him, that he admired his intellect, curiosity and unique spirit. And Joshua must have known that too because he told me it was okay to tell him. And I did.

I began the conversation somewhat defensively, expecting to find the old dad of my college years responding to what I had to say. But when I told him that Joshua was gay, he responded simply and without hesitation.

“I love my grandson and as far as I’m concerned, his sexuality is a non-issue.”

And that was the end of the conversation. Thirty-five years and a grandson later, my father opened his mind and heart to loving someone so completely that he was able to set aside his previous feelings in order to stay close to Joshua. I sat still, moved beyond words, to be a witness to this transformation. Everything that I might have harbored against my dad, the pain and injustices of my own youth, was forgiven in an instant of his unconditional love.

But it is not only my own father who has changed. Thankfully, I can now look at the Jewish tradition and say that it, too, has evolved over time to acknowledge the reality of homosexuality as a way of life and part of the human condition.

Judaism’s traditional position on homosexuality is based on two verses in the Torah that condemn the male homosexual act as an “abomination,” or toevah in Hebrew. (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) While the Torah does not prohibit lesbian sex, later rabbinic commentators have condemned it as “indecent” and “immodest” behavior. It is important to note that nowhere in Jewish sources is the person who is a homosexual condemned, only the homosexual act itself. While this may not be a great comfort to a gay man who wants sexual intimacy with another man, liberal Jews have fully embraced gays and lesbians as congregants and leaders.

Jewish law or Halacha is the path that we are expected to follow in order to be closer to God and one another. Its foundation lies in the wisdom, laws and admonitions of the Torah, which are more fully interpreted by the Talmud and other rabbinic sources. But the laws of the Torah are meant for us to live by, not to die for or be unable to fulfill as a result of being human.

Some think that Orthodox Jewish law does not or cannot change. This is not the case, however, as anyone familiar with Jewish history or Talmud will affirm. When social, economic and political conditions shift, when scientific realities are uncovered, Jewish law has been “re-applied” to ensure the proper commitment to the Torah’s original purposes. Legal rulings concerning marriage, divorce, slavery, inheritance, mourning rituals and relations with non-Jews have all changed over time. It is Judaism’s ongoing commitment to both tradition and change that have kept it alive, meaningful and relevant over the past two thousand years. And while this commitment may vary in degree among the different streams of Judaism, it is present in all of them.

For many years, the Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements have recognized homosexual relationships and have permitted their rabbis to officiate at same- sex commitment/marriage ceremonies. In addition, they have admitted openly homosexual candidates into their rabbinical and cantorial schools, ordaining gay and lesbian clergy throughout the country.

On December 6, 2006, after years of debate, the Conservative movement voted to permit the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbinical students and permit same-sex unions. The decision was based on the Jewish commitment to pluralism, which recognizes that there is more than one way of authentically following our tradition and still be considered a seriously engaged Jew. In a move exemplary of the Conservative movement’s philosophy, it did not end the prior ban against gay unions, leaving individual rabbis and congregations to choose which ruling to follow.

I am the proud mother of a gay son and I am also a proud Jew. Proud that my son is who he is and proud that my religious tradition has evolved in such a way to embrace every member of my family equally.