Rabbi Akiva referred to the Torah command “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) as an all-embracing principle in the Torah (Sifra, Kedoshim, Chapter 4:12). An expansion of this directive is the teaching of Hillel that one should not judge another until you have arrived in their place (Pirkei Avot 2:4). If we are all created B’Tzelem Elokim “in God’s image” and “God saw all that God had made and found it very good” (Genesis 1:31), then it follows that we should view all human beings as sacred.
In October last year the Department of Home Affairs called a meeting with religious leaders to discuss their planned restructuring and streamlining of the Marriage Laws of South Africa. Currently there are three separate laws: the amended Marriage Act of 1961, the Civil Unions Act of 2006 that covers same-sex marriages, and the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998 that covers polygamous traditional African marriages. The DHA wants to incorporate all three in one Act that will make it easier for the citizens of South Africa and marriage officers.
I was appalled and upset by the venomous homophobia expressed by many members of the attendees who claim to worship a Merciful and Loving God. Instead of a rational and practical discussion of the marriage laws of the Republic of South Africa, the level of discourse descended into hate speech against members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Many religious leaders expressed their fear that they would face jail time if they refused to officiate at a same-sex marriage and some even stated that people who do not conform to the heterosexual stereotype are doomed to eternal damnation.
While I understand that many conservative religious people view Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as a strong prohibition of homosexuality, and the Talmud (Shabbat 56a and Yevamot 76a) has teachings, which many Jews interpret as a prohibition against Lesbianism, hatred of people is surely a worse offence. Many liberal theologians and religious leaders (including this author) disagree with such views. Progressive Jews and liberal Christians and Muslims see all loving relationships as valid expressions of individuals’ sexual orientation gender identity and expression that should be celebrated and sanctified by a religious wedding ceremony. Our belief in a Just and Merciful God cannot be reconciled the fact that many people judge others based on their sexual preferences. History has shown that many people question their gender identity and for centuries these individuals have lived in torment because of societal stigmatisation.
As we enter the third decade of the 21st century the secular world and secular law has given transgender and other sexual minorities dignity and freedom from prosecution in many countries around the world including South Africa. There 73 countries where homosexuality is criminalised, and 12 where the death penalty is instituted for same-sex relations. Surely religions who preach that all people are created B’Tzelem Elokim should take the lead in eradicating any form of persecution and discrimination against all minorities.
As a Progressive and Liberal Rabbi I believe that everyone has a right to their own beliefs and opinions and I respect the right for individual religious observers both lay and professional to disagree with me on the issue of same-sex relationships and marriages but I also strongly hold the view that all religious leaders must demonstrate compassion and love to everyone no matter their sexual and gender orientation. I ask these more conservative religious leaders to recognise that there are more liberal forms of their particular religions and that instead of speaking hatefully about members of the LGBTQIA+ community they refer them to religious leaders who are willing to assist them to celebrate their love and help raise a religiously observant family in a congregation that will provide them with a spiritual home.
Our secular democracy enshrines the human rights of all residents of South Africa. These constitutional rights supersede religious law. Jews have suffered anti-Semitism for millenia, culminating, in the murder of six million Europeans simply because they were Jews. The treatment of members of the LGBTIA+ community with dignity and compassion is a human rights issue, cause that we should all cherish and pursue. Let us all follow Hillel’s dictum that we should not judge another until we have arrived in their place.
By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani
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