The story of my conversion on gay-marriage issue

Rabbi Jonathan Miller

If you are a religious person reading this, it means that you have undergone a conversion.

If we embrace our religious traditions, we learn that we are meant to change the way we see ourselves in relationship to God and to each other. Religion is at its best when it helps us grow to be more kind, more understanding and more loving.

I have served as a rabbi for 31 years. I have had the obligation to preach the word on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings more often than I can count. Let me assure you that most of my messages are not memorable. And to be honest, as I prepare for the next week, I can’t remember what I said the week before.

But I do remember one sermon I delivered a long time ago when I was a young rabbi and I thought I knew a lot. It takes some time and maturity to gain wisdom.

Thirty years ago, I spoke about homosexuals from my pulpit. I saw myself as enlightened and ahead of the time. I taught that gays and lesbians should be treated with respect and with dignity. I taught that they should be welcomed into our synagogues and churches. I taught that they should have full civil rights and that, like all Americans, they should never have to suffer discrimination and bigotry. But I had a caveat: We should never consider a homosexual couple as equivalent to a heterosexual couple. It would be an insult to God and a violation of our faith to call their relationships marriage. They cannot procreate biologically with each other, and God intended for us as religious people to maintain the standard of holiness that is implied by the sacred covenant of marriage. As religious people, as people dedicated to our religious texts and traditions, we have to draw a line. And when it came to gays and lesbians, I drew the line at marriage. They deserve everything, but marriage.

I was proud of myself then. I am ashamed now.

I want to share with you about my conversion. Thirty years ago, all the gays and lesbians I saw were on TV. They were in your face and promiscuous, flaunting their sexuality at gay pride events in San Francisco and New York. I find public displays of sexuality, whether between the sexes or of the same sex to be crude and unwelcome.

God gave us our sexuality as an intimate gift between two lifetime partners. I also didn’t know anybody who I knew to be gay. Gay people stayed in the closet and led a painful private existence. They were aliens to my world view. They stayed out of my sight. As a happily married and fulfilled husband, I could not imagine how two people of the same sex could love each other as my wife and I are dedicated to each other.

And then slowly, I had my change of heart. I ministered to couples of the same sex who are raising children.

Their children were no different from mine. I met people at hospital bedsides who were being attended to and nursed by partners who have loved them for a lifetime.

And the devotion and the love and the prayers didn’t matter whether the couple was heterosexual or homosexual. I stood at the graveside of people who passed away, and I knew that they had devoted their lives exclusively to loving their samesex partner. And sometimes I even wished that the heterosexual couple who had come to me late in the afternoon for counseling might have the same commitment and dedication as a samesex couple who I had met with earlier that day. I gradually came to realize that marriage is not an expression of sexual activity, but is instead devotion between two people who have pledged their lives together through thick and thin. I have learned from the gays and lesbians who have shared their lives with me that their love is as pure and as complicated and as frustrating and as fulfilling as the love can be between a man and a woman.

Jewish sages taught that God’s word was given in human language. I cannot conceive of receiving God’s word in anything except for human language. I have thought a lot about what this means. Human language defines the way we see the world and express ourselves in it. And, I suppose, that is what I have learned from gay and lesbian people who have become my friends and whom I have come to admire. They, too, share the same human language that I speak. They too can share the language of love, longing and devotion.

The Bible was given to us in human language so that we human beings can see a loving God in the love that people share with each other.

God has given us the charge to be blessed by all people and to see every human being as a blessing.

That is the story of my conversion.

Jonathan Miller is rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham. Email:

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