Tucker explores Jewish legalism
By Nathan Swire, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, March 31, 2008
Although the Jewish legal tradition has a 2,000-year tradition of condemning homosexuality, Rabbi Gordon Tucker called for the acceptance of homosexuals based on the fundamental Jewish principals of companionship and love in a speech on Sunday. Tucker framed his argument in the context of the larger historical divide between legalistic and intuitive interpretations of the Torah.
As a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the central authority on the Torah and Jewish tradition within the Conservative movement, Tucker authored a text in which he argued that the committee should overturn the Biblical prohibition against male homosexuality. He noted a precedent in which rabbis abolished a Biblical rule prohibiting illegitimate children from marrying other Jews.
In the work he submitted to the CJLS, Tucker examined a Biblical story about five women who lost their land due to their gender. They said that, unlike mankind, "God's compassion extends to everyone" and they quoted Psalm 145:9, which says: "The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works."
"One of the central points of this [text] is to teach us that we are not necessarily entitled to claim that the discriminations we make are also God's will," Tucker wrote in his interpretation.
His opinion received seven votes out of the 25-member committee. Normally, this would be enough to qualify it as a dissenting opinion, but due to the radical nature of his opinion, the committee decided it would require 20 votes, so it was never officially endorsed.
"Judaism is a religion that has always conceived of itself as being based around law," Tucker said, but added that any law-based culture has to determine how to apply the law to a "changing, growing, historically developing society."
Most of his speech took the form of a sermon laying out the approach to the law that led him to this conclusion.
Tucker examined a Talmudic story to illustrate the conflict between legalism and intuitive prophecy. In the story, Rabbi Eliezer and a group of other rabbis argue over whether an oven is ritually pure or impure. Eliezer repeatedly calls forth miracles to prove his interpretation, but the other rabbis retort that these miracles do not prove the law.
Finally, Eliezer calls on heaven to prove him right, and a voice from on high declares Rabbi Eliezer is always right, to which one rabbi responds that even heavenly interventions do not prove Eliezer's point.
Afterwards, God is portrayed as smiling when this happens and says, "My children have defeated Me; yes, they have defeated Me."
Tucker explained that this story reflects the end of the prophetic tradition in Judaism. The story was foundational in the banishment of prophecy from the legal tradition, Tucker said.
He also described prophecy as inherently unstable, even dangerous.
"We had to take a dim view of those who say 'I am speaking to God,'" he said, "especially as some of them turned out to be mass murderers."
Tucker then discussed what had been lost in this transition. He quoted several scholars who argued that when religion becomes too obsessed with tradition and law it becomes mere dogma, severed from the source of its divine inspiration.
"These texts point out that there is something religiously risky about not doing this," he said. By merely following the law, he added, "you risk turning religion into formalism."
Despite the dangers of prophecy, Tucker argued that Judaism needs to move away from a purely legalistic understanding of the Torah in order to listen to the voice of compassion.