The creation of community is a basic function of organized religion, allowing people to set aside personal differences and focus on common beliefs. But sometimes there are members of the congregation who feel silently separate. A new film has reinvigorated an old conversation about Jewish identity as reflected in a controversial piece of scripture. 90.3 WCPN's David C. Barnett prepared this report.
Rachel Rembrandt: The Leviticus verse says that for a man to lie with a man is "an abomination". And for those who believe in a more literal interpretation of the Torah, they believe a homosexual orientation is an abomination.
David C. Barnett: Rabbi Rachel Rembrandt says her synagogue - Chevrei-Tikvah - follows a less literal line. For the past 18 years, Chevrei-Tikva has served Cleveland's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans-gendered community. Members of that community have long felt alienated by some of the ancient scriptural prescriptions found in the first five books of the Old Testament - collectively known in Judaism as the Torah. Nancy Huntsman is the synagogue's president.
Nancy Huntsman: Judaism is life-affirming. That verse is not. You have to analyze it in the context of the time. This congregation is life-affirming in terms of my sexual orientation and my religion.
DCB: Issues of faith and sexual preference are at the core of the new documentary Trembling Before God, which tells the stories of gays and lesbians who belong to the Orthodox branch of Judaism, which interprets the dictates of Leviticus in stricter terms than the more liberal Reform movement.
Barry is the founding President of the Reform Chevrai-Tikva synagogue.
Barry: Looking at the film, some Jews aren't fortunate enough to have a welcoming spiritual group. Some fall into depression, or even suicide. It makes you appreciate being in a group that affirms you for what you are.
DCB: But, Barry adds that there can also be a sadness over what you are not.
Barry: I think the hardest thing is that you don't have progeny, so you are left out of the tradition family rituals and celebrations - no bar mitzvah, no bat mitzvah... no Channukkah or Seder.
DCB: Which only adds to a sense of exclusion.
Melvin Granatstein: First of all, we don't exclude anyone from a synagogue. On the contrary, any Orthodox synagogue wants the participation of Jews.
DCB: Melvin Granatstein has been the spiritual leader of Cleveland's Orthodox Green Road Synagogue for the past 28 years.
MG: The issue is only that the Torah itself has certain prohibitions in terms of certain forms of sexual relations. But, certainly, we don't exclude people based on their orientation.
DCB: Gay Catholics argue that some church officials are using the excuse of the priest abuse scandal to conduct a witch hunt aimed at keeping homosexuals out of the clergy. Barry says that maybe true, but it's nothing new.
Barry: You're always going to find people pointing fingers at gays, Catholics, blacks... I always go to the Bible verse: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."
MG: Look, homosexuality is not the most common sin that I have to deal with in my congregation. None of us come to a synagogue, or come to stand before God totally perfect in terms of observance of all the laws of the Torah. We all have our flaws. We can't be judgmental of people who want to serve God. We invite all and we want all.
NH: I respect Rabbi Granatstein's thoughts, but there's a difference between it being okay to be gay, versus being life affirming toward gays.
DCB: Filmmaker Sandi Simca Dubowski came to town to screen Trembling Before God before a mixed audience of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox people, both gay and straight.
Sandi Simca Dubowski: The first orthodox showing of this film happened in Cleveland.
DCB: So, for a couple of hours at least, a diverse group of the Jewish faithful shared a common spiritual experience and ended up talking to each other about their differences.
This year's 18th anniversary of Chevrei-Tikva has it's own spiritual resonance. The number 18 is pronounced "Chai" in Hebrew, which means "life". 18 years of a life spent affirming the lives of people looking for community. In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN News.