Circumcise your heart: Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)


A friend who works for the federal government wrote recently to say that because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), she was able to add her wife to the family’s insurance plan. “I never thought I would get emotional while on the phone with an insurance company, but I did.”

The same month the U.S. Supreme Court made it possible for gays and lesbians to once again legally marry in California (by saying the defendants of Proposition 8 had no standing to appeal) and receive the same rights under federal law as other married couples, the same court made it harder for employees to sue employers for discrimination and challenged the idea that voter discrimination still exists in significant forms (immediately paving the way for more discrimination to be put into place). Meanwhile, across the way in Washington, D.C., Congress put immigration reform and gun-law reform on hold. And in Florida, the jury verdict exonerating George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin sparked protests, marches, demonstrations and a rebirth of discussions on racism and the legal system. 

Yet, as we turn to this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, we see Moses — close to death and anxious to instruct the Israelites in everything they need to know before entering the Promised Land — reminding the Israelites about one of the most oft-repeated mitzvot: 

“[God] loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).

In the Book of Exodus, in another of the many times in Torah we encounter instruction about how to treat the stranger, we are reminded that having been strangers in Egypt, “you know the soul of the stranger” — atem yadatem et nefesh ha-ger (Exodus 23:9).

This week, the reminder about strangers comes in a larger context: “And now, Israel, what does God ask of you?” V’atah Yisrael, mah Adonai elohecha sho-el mei-ee-makh? 

Only this: to revere God, to walk only in God’s ways, to serve God b’chol l’vavkha u’vakhol nafshekha “with all your heart and all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Moses and God know this won’t be easy. They’ve seen for 40 years already in the wilderness that it’s not easy, perhaps not in the nature of most human beings. Moses advises an odd remedy: “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts, stiffen your necks no longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16). What could it mean to circumcise one’s heart? Perhaps it means to cut away a metaphorical outer coating, whatever prevents the heart’s tenderness from coming through, whatever keeps us fearful of others, of strangers, and prevents us from showing another what is in our heart. Perhaps the foreskin of the heart is what keeps us from wanting to know the heart of someone else, be it a friend or family member, or a stranger walking down a street in our neighborhood. Perhaps this commandment makes being tenderhearted a non-gender-based “sign of the covenant,” a kind of brit milah we must perform repeatedly on ourselves, as adults.

The 15th century Spanish commentator Abravanel, himself a survivor of the Inquisition who went to Italy in 1492, wrote: “A stiff-necked person cannot look behind to see how his actions have led him to where he finds himself” (Abravanel as quoted in Etz Hayim Torah commentary, p. 1043).

There is something so poignant in this coincidence of court cases, failed legislation, protests and demonstrations while Jews continue our annual reading of the Israelites bidding farewell to Moses and preparing to make their way into the Promised Land. There’s something powerful in reminding ourselves that God long ago called us to do exactly what these marchers and protesters, commentators and demonstrators are doing — to circumcise our hearts, to trim away the tough shell of fear and defensiveness, and to open our hearts to others; to remind ourselves that we know how it feels to have governments turn against us but also to accept us; know how it feels to be mistreated by human beings, even ones who teach that all of us are beloved children of God.

This week is the second of the seven Sabbaths of consolation and comfort, the Sabbaths between Tisha b’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, and Rosh Hashanah, one of the most optimistic of our Holy Days. Our sages say the destruction of the Second Temple — one of the destructions we commemorate on Tisha b’Av — was caused by sinat chinam (senseless hatred). On Tisha b’Av, we remember how easy it is to be too stiff-necked to look behind and see what brought us here, even our own actions. But as we walk together toward Rosh Hashanah, we work to open our hearts and look around — and within — that we might better come to know not only the souls of others, but each of us our own soul, too.


Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (

The Conservative gay marriage debate


On Rosh Hashanah in 1992, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis stood before his Conservative congregation at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino and declared that despite the words of Leviticus, homosexuality is not an abomination. He argued that the same understanding and compassion Jews afford all human beings should be extended to those attracted to others of their own sex, and he told his congregation: 

“More than compassion is involved. Jewish wisdom and the morality of Jewish law are at stake. … Jews have the right, and the tradition, to interpret the text so that it sanctifies God’s name, our lives and that of our children. This is no heresy.” 

Schulweis spoke long before the arguments over gay marriage became prevalent in public discourse. He spoke well after gay pride had been established, but six years before the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager. It was also a year before the enactment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which would bar harassment of closeted soldiers serving in the military, while preventing gays and lesbians from being open about their lives. The rabbi had heard many tragic stories from gays in his congregation, but he did not know how his congregants might react to his words. 

They gave him a standing ovation.

Not all congregations, even ones in the same denomination, work according to the same clock. More than two decades later, just one month ago, Rabbi David Wolpe wrote a letter to his Conservative congregation at Sinai Temple, a prominent Westside synagogue less than 10 miles south of VBS, and told them that the rabbis at Sinai had “unanimously decided that it is in accordance with the great halachic [Jewish legal] principle of kavod habriot, honor due all of God’s creation, to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies, once this possibility is afforded by California law.”

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High fives


Jewish embrace of LGBT people recognizes the dignity of all


Attitudes toward same sex marriage in Judaism have undergone a dramatic change in the last quarter century. The prohibition recorded in Leviticus 18 has been affirmed by some, negated by others and reinterpreted by still others. Did the Torah intend loving same sex relationships? Did it understand homosexuality as a fundamental orientation rather than a choice?

For many traditionalists such questions are essentially irrelevant if not marginally blasphemous. That which God has decreed cannot be set aside. For most Jews however, Judaism is a tradition that is both evolving and eternal. The role of women, to take the most obvious example, has changed in dramatic ways in the past century. A female colleague of mine, rabbi of a synagogue for many years, had a young girl approach her and ask, “Can men be rabbis too?”

If you are a partisan of the infallibility of tradition there is no room for accommodation. There are many, however, who would permit the tradition to change in many other ways but draw the line at LGBT acceptance. The question of same sex marriage is admittedly new: it has been a scant twenty-five years since the first arguments appeared arguing for its recognition. But the velocity of social change reminds us of the comment that Hillel once made on a question of Jewish law — go out and see, he said. Trust the people. If you observe what they are doing, you will know what should be done. The rapid acceptance of same sex marriage affirms an American people with open arms.

Those who argue for civil unions but not religious ceremonies, proposing some ritual short of marriage, often ask why a different sort of ceremony is not sufficient. Clarification comes if we turn the question around: the same reason that opponents wish to call it anything but marriage is why proponents demand it be called marriage. A man in love with another man — or a woman in love with another woman — wants love acknowledged and sanctified, not merely tolerated. For many of us this is new and jarring but underneath is something we all treasure: commitment, passion, love.

As a rabbi I cannot countenance sitting before people who can fully love one another and insisting that the Jewish tradition has no place for them simply because they are of the same sex. Surely no people understands rejection and marginalization better than the Jewish people. The Torah repeatedly advises us to care for the stranger precisely because he is strange — that is, we react with suspicion or distance or uncertainty to one who is not like us. Fight against that feeling, teaches the Torah. All of God’s creation is holy and every human being in God’s image. K’vod Habriot, the dignity of all, is a fundamental Jewish principle.

When I sent a letter to my congregation stating that the clergy had unanimously decided to perform same sex marriages I received a good deal of reaction. Some people were angry, some bewildered, some hurt. The letters I most treasure were those from women and men who had felt marginalized, who were grateful that their home was at last welcoming them home. Reading those letters and having those conversations, witnessing the healing after hiddenness and estrangement I could only recall the reaction of my 16 year old daughter when I told her I was sending the letter: “What took you so long?”

What indeed.

Rabbi: Only messiah can straighten out gay ruling


A few stragglers took a bit longer to formulate their responses to the landmark Supreme Court decision this week on gay marriage.

The National Council of Young Israel wasn’t quite as eloquent as the Orthodox Union, nor as elegiac as Agudath Israel of America, but the essential view is the same.

We oppose homosexual marriage and are disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision that strikes down portions of the Defense of Marriage Act. Pursuant to the tenets of the Jewish faith and in accordance with Torah law, we believe that marriage should only be recognized as a union between a man and a woman, just as it always has been throughout history.

Someone also forwarded me the video response below from an unidentified-yet-very-disappointed Orthodox rabbi with a talent for metaphor. After rehearsing the biblical story of Bilaam — the lesson, if I understand correctly, is that if a donkey engages you in conversation, don’t talk back — he gets to the point.

Any carpenter will tell you that if you want to wed two pieces of wood, you take a zachar and a nekeiva, you take a male and a female, and they fit — one couples with the other. And that’s how you fit two pieces of wood together. You have a male and a female board.

OK, fine. But what if those pieces aren’t wood, but metal? What then?

We can’t speak of marriage, of a wedding. We can speak of a welding. You take two pieces and weld them together. Yes, but they’re not wed together.

But all is not lost. This decision, the rabbi says, has brought humanity so low that it can only herald the End of Days. Maybe, the rabbi says — and here I suspect his metaphorical instinct was entirely unintentional — the messiah will soon come and “straighten us out.”

Edie Windsor’s lawyer and the daughters of Zelophehad


Edie Windsor, who brought the lawsuit that this week felled the Defense of Marriage Act, is Jewish. So was her wife, Thea Spyer, who died in 2009.

The federal government’s insistence on ignoring the spousal exemption and taxing Windsor for Spyer’s estate — despite the fact that New York State recognized their Ontario marriage as valid — is what led to this week’s decision.

 

Windsor is a member of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, New York’s gay synagogue. Here she is celebrating the court’s decision with its rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum, near Stonewall, the New York club where the gay struggle spilled into the streets in the late 1960s:

Here’s Windsor’s statement to the media:

Because of today’s Supreme Court ruling, the federal government can no longer discriminate against the marriages of gay and lesbian Americans. Children born today will grow up in a world without DOMA. And those same children who happen to be gay will be free to love and get married — as Thea and I did — but with the same federal benefits, protections and dignity as everyone else.

Windsor’s lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, is also Jewish and also a member of CBST. When she learned of her client’s victory, Kaplan called her mother, according to the New Yorker. “Total victory, Mom: it couldn’t be better,” she said.

What couldn’t be better? Kaplan will elaborate in the drash she delivers this Shabbat at CBST.

She argues that Judaism, contra its most rigid adherents, is susceptible to change. Her evidence is this week’s parsha, Pinchas, and its narrative of the five daughters of Zelophehad and how they stood up for their inheritance rights — and how God heeded them.

Kaplan suggests she brought the lesson of Zelophehad’s daughter with her into the courtroom, when she pushed back against Roberts’ intimation that politics drove the change she sought. She countered:

What truly has driven the change we have all experienced is not the so-called political power of gay people, but instead “a moral understanding today that gay people are no different, and that gay married couples’ relationships are not significantly different from the relationships of straight married people.

Here’s the whole drash:

Shabbat shalom. If it is OK with you, I would like to spend some time this evening talking about the fundamental change that I believe led to the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Edie Windsor vs. the United States of America — change at the level of the individual, change within our nation, and change in both secular and Jewish law.

Perhaps the dominant view in our popular culture today is that religion, or belief in God, is inimical to the concept of change. That, after all, is the sense one gets when the media talks about Christian evangelicals – that they preach a vision of life and law that cannot tolerate any deviation from the explicit Biblical text. The same, of course, is true within Judaism as well. Not only do certain groups of ultra Orthodox Jews hold a similar theory about Jewish law, or halachah, but some even refuse to tolerate change in even the most mundane circumstances – for example, by refusing to use the internet or by insisting on wearing a particular type of hat in today’s Jerusalem that their ancestors wore in 17th century Ukraine. The very idea that I, as a woman, not to mention a lesbian, am standing on this bimah talking to you tonight would be utterly inconceivable to them.

But what I hope to be able to demonstrate to you tonight is that that is not the only way to be religious or to believe in God. And it certainly is not the only or even the proper, interpretation of our tradition. Inherent in Jewish belief is the view that people, communities and even the law must and should change when times and ethical circumstances require it. Indeed, both the torah and the rabbis teach that such change is actually a positive value.

Let me start at the level of the individual. That is perhaps the easiest argument to make in the context of Judaism. After all, a mere few weeks from now (on August 7), we will begin the month of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy days, when positive change and growth, is not only encouraged, but is a positive commandment. During the month of Elul, we blow the shofar each morning. Maimonedes described this custom of blowing the shofar every morning as a wake-up call to sleepers, designed to rouse us from our complacency to grow and to change. It’s a kind of spiritual alarm clock.

And in the context of a certain Jewish lady by the name of Edie Windsor – there is no doubt that the change that she has experienced thus far in her 84 years, from getting married to and then quickly divorced from a male family friend in the early 1950’s, to meeting Thea Spyer in 1963 and falling in love with her, to becoming engaged in 1967, to dealing, as a couple, with Thea’s multiple sclerosis, to ultimately getting married and coming out to everyone in her life in 2007, was and continues to be what has brought her and us to this day. Indeed, without such change, Edie never could have become (and I’m using her words) “the out lesbian who just happens to be suing the United States of America.”

In terms of change at the level of the community, that is also pretty obvious. Every Shabbat, after we read the torah portion, we read the haftorah, which includes the poetry of the prophets encouraging, even demanding, change on the part of the nation of Israel. That, after all, is what the Hebrew prophets like Amos or Isaiah were all about. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has written that “The prophet was an individual who said No to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency . . .” It is surely no coincidence that Rabbi Heschel’s book on the prophets inspired Martin Luther King and that they worked closely together during the civil rights movement.

In terms of the LGBT community within Judaism, there can be little question that we have seen such change firsthand in the past year. Among other things, the Jewish Theological Seminary, for the first time in its entire history, submitted an amicus brief in a court case. Which case, one might ask? Edie Windsor vs. the United States, when JTS, along with the entire Conservative movement, joined an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down DOMA as unconstitutional. Think about this for a moment if you will – less than 10 years ago, any gay rabbi ordained at the Jewish Theological had to be in the closet. Today, JTS signed on to a brief at the United States Supreme Court arguing that the marriages of gay people should be respected under the law.

And I certainly don’t have to tell you that we have seen the same kind of dramatic change in our nation as well. According to a Gallup poll last month, 53% of Americans say that same-sex marriages should be recognized. A more recent ABC poll had the number at 58%. The current level of support is essentially double the 27% in Gallup’s initial measurement on gay marriage in 1996, when DOMA was passed. And we are now on the verge of electing an open lesbian to become mayor of the city of New York.

The change that has taken place in the context of Edie Windsor’s court case is illustrative of this phenomenon. When we filed our case in 2009, New York State did not permit gay couples to marry. That is why Edie and Thea had to go to Toronto to get married. In 2011, New York passed its own marriage statute, making it only the sixth state in the country to grant gay people the freedom to marry. This past March, when I argued the case before the Supreme Court, 9 states plus the District of Columbia permitted gay couples to marry. Today, only three months later, 12 states do. And those numbers will only continue to grow.

But where the proverbial rubber hits the road is change in the law. The question of whether and to what extent Jewish law can change is the central debate that divides religious Jews today and in the past. And that brings me to this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Pinchas (Numbers, Chapter 27), which contains the story of the daughters of Zelophehad and thus I believe explicitly makes the case that Jewish law is subject to change in accordance with the dictates of fairness, justice and ethical compassion. Let me explain.

The Daughters of Zelophehad were five sisters whose father died during the 40 years in the wilderness after the escape from Egypt. According to God’s prior decree, the land of Israel was to be apportioned according to the number of names counted in the census. Since only men were counted in that census, Zelophehad’s daughters literally didn’t count and could not receive any inheritance from their father.

As a result, Zelophehad’s daughters “came forward” to petition Moses and the priests for their right to inherit their father’s property. As they explained, “why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he has no son?”

Moses then took their case to God who told Moses that the plea of Zelophehad’s daughters was just and that they should receive their inheritance. God also told Moses to change the rule going forward so that “if a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter.”
This legal rule preferring men over women with respect to inheritance was later changed as well. The Book of Job, which dates from the fourth century, states that Job’s daughters were given equal inheritance rights to his sons. By the Middle Ages, the inequality between daughters and sons was avoided through a legal mechanism by which the father claimed that he was indebted to his daughter for a certain sum of money, and that this debt was due by him and his heirs. As a result, the daughter would either gain a share in her father’s estate, or a sum of money equal to its value. There are numerous other examples of the rabbis insisting on an ethical reading of a Biblical proscription when it comes to the actual execution of the law, particularly when dealing with the circumstances of people’s lives

I bet you know where I’m headed with this by now. The notion that Jewish law is fixed in stone, unbending and unyielding and not subject to change is simply not consistent with the story of Zelophehad’s daughters. It is not consistent with the text of the Torah portion, with God’s actions, or with Moses’ words. After all, it is God himself who changed God’s own prior rule when God saw the justice in the daughters’ argument. And it surely isn’t consistent with the actions of the rabbis centuries later, when, recognizing the inherent dignity of women as individuals, they gave them equal inheritance rights under Jewish law.

This same dynamic, but this time in the context of American constitutional law, was at play in my now famous exchange with Chief Justice John Roberts during the oral argument in the Windsor case on March 27. That exchange involved a debate about what really has been driving the dramatic transformation in American attitudes about gay people. The Chief Justice suggested that Americans were following the lead of elected officials. He asked me the following question: “I suppose the sea change has a lot to do with the political . . . effectiveness of people . . . supporting your side of the case?” I responded by explaining my view that the change was instead one of ethical perception, the result of an “understanding that there is no . . . fundamental difference that could justify . . . categorical discrimination between gay couples and straight couples.”

And then the Chief Justice pushed further, noting that “as far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case.” My answer then and my answer today is the same — what truly has driven the change we have all experienced is not the so-called political power of gay people, but instead “a moral understanding today that gay people are no different, and that gay married couples’ relationships are not significantly different from the relationships of straight married people.” That is the kind of change, the kind of tikkun olam, or repair of the world, that lies at the heart of our tradition. It is, I believe, what God commands of every individual, every community, even of the law, even of God.

So where does this all leave us? I think the best way for me to sum up on this historic, Pride Shabbat in year 5773 is with Edie’s own words on the steps of the Supreme Court when she was asked to explain why such dramatic change has taken place: “I think what happened is at some point somebody came out and said ‘I’m gay.’ And this gave other people the guts to do it.” Edie observeded.” Amazingly, Rabbi Heschel said almost exactly the same thing years before, when he wrote that: “All it takes is one person… and another… and another… and another… to start a movement.” In the context of our community and our nation, from Selma to Stonewall, from Rosa Parks to Harvey Milk to Edie Windsor, both Rabbi Heschel and Edie Windsor could not have been more correct.

West Hollywood rally celebrates same-sex marriage ruling


Thousands of people came to West Hollywood on June 26 to celebrate expanded rights for the LGBT community.

They came in groups, and they came pushing baby carriages. They came wearing button-down shirts, and they came in rainbow tutus. Some wore wedding rings and stood quietly with their arms around each other, while others roller-skated through the spectators.

What they all had in common: happiness, at least for the moment.

The 5:30 p.m. rally co-sponsored by Congregation Kol Ami at the intersection of San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards featured L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, among other speakers, and heralded the Supreme Court ruling granting married same-sex couples the same federal benefits as married heterosexual couples, including filing joint tax returns and Social Security benefits for surviving spouses. The courts also upheld the ruling by a lower court deeming Proposition 8, California’s gay marriage ban, unconstitutional.

“I had a lot of anticipation when I woke up,” said Tanya Sussman, who attended the Wednesday night rally.

“Tax season was always a reminder of how much farther we had to go,” she said. “You are always reminded that the law does not see you as the same.”

Still, Sussman said the battle is only partly won when it comes to complete equality for the LGBT community.

“We’re lucky to be in California,” said Sussman, adding that she was “completely overwhelmed” by the ruling.

States that still do not acknowledge same-sex marriage do not have to offer her relationship equal status, even after yesterday’s ruling. Her ultimate goal is equality for the entire United States.

When asked what this has to do with Jewish values, she said, “This is what it’s all about. The Jewish struggle to make things right for everyone, not just Jews.”

Tracy Moore, a member of Beth Chayim Chadashim, said she felt a combination of joy and somber recognition of how much further the country had to go for true equality.

“I felt absolutely ebullient this morning, but the whole thing was mixed, with the way the [Voting Rights Act] was kicked into the rubbish bin yesterday,” Moore said.

“Ebullient” certainly described the scene behind her, where hundreds of Human Rights Campaign flags — sporting pink or yellow equal signs on a red or blue background, respectively — waved as if heralding an army.

“It’s young people whose responsibility it is [now],” Moore said, looking around at the effervescent millennials cheering on the speakers.

“Marriage is not just symbolic, but it is a symbol,” she said, worrying that other urgent causes might not be lucky enough to get the publicity as the marriage equality movement. “There are no catchwords for Social Security or healthcare.”

For one of the younger members in the crowd, Jocelyn Berger, the next step is clear.

“Organize,” she said. “Organize, organize, organize.”

Noting the many organizations that work on marriage equality, such as Courage Campaign, Marriage Equality USA and Truth Wins Out, she emphasized even total marriage equality is not the ultimate goal.

“Beyond marriage, the Employee Non-Discrimination Act is one that is very important,” she said. “This is a symbolic and real victory but [the fight for equality] goes way beyond marriage.”

U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Defense Of Marriage Act in win for gays


The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a central portion of a federal law that restricted the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples in a major victory for the gay rights movement.

The ruling, on a 5-4 vote, means that legally married gay men and women are entitled to claim the same federal benefits that are available to opposite-sex married couples.

The court was due to decide within minutes a second case concerning a California law that bans same-sex marriage in the state.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that the Defense of Marriage Act violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.

“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy, often the court's swing vote in close decisions, also said the law imposes “a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia both wrote dissenting opinions.

By striking down Section 3 of the law, the court clears the way to more than 1,100 federal benefits, rights and burdens linked to marriage status.

As a result of Wednesday's ruling, Edith Windsor of New York, who was married to a woman and sued the government to get the federal estate tax deduction available to heterosexuals when their spouses die, will be able to claim a $363,000 tax refund. 

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham

Supreme Court issues two major rulings expanding gay rights


The Supreme Court upheld the federal rights of same sex couples in states that allow same sex marriages.

The first of two rulings Wednesday struck down a key part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which mandated that federal laws abide by a definition of marriage as a union between a man and woman. The ruling, a 5-4 split along ideological lines, requires the federal government to abide by the laws of individual states in its dealings with couples from those states.

In a separate ruling, the court ruled that individuals who sought to reverse a California Supreme Court decision that had overturned a ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage had no standing. A number of Jewish groups had filed friends of the court briefs on both sides.

The DOMA lawsuit had been brought by a Jewish woman, Edith Windsor, who was forced to pay federal taxes on the estate of her late wife, Thea Spyer, who was also Jewish, despite the fact that their Canadian marriage was recognized as legal by the state of New York, where they resided.

[From our archives: The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage]

“DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty,” Anthony Kennedy wrote in an opinion joined by the four liberal judges, including the three Jewish justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer. “It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper.”

Liberal Jewish groups were rallied by Wednesday’s decisions, which came a day after the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had mandated federal review of any changes in voting laws in areas and states where racial discrimination had been pervasive. Groups like the American Jewish Committee, the Reform movement, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Anti-Defamation League pledged to lobby Congress to reinstate the key language that would reinstate such review.

AJWS president Ruth Messinger applauds Supreme Court ruling on DOMA & Prop 8


American Jewish World Service President Ruth Messinger released the following statement today after the Supreme Court ruled in two cases related to marriage equality.

“We applaud today’s historic decisions by the Supreme Court to strike down discriminatory laws as a major victory for equal rights for LGBTI people in the United States,” said Messinger. “We believe that this is one of the necessary steps to ensure that the human rights of people of all sexual orientations are respected everywhere in the world.

“Too many people in too many countries are ostracized, threatened and assaulted just for living their lives and loving others of the same gender. In 76 countries, people can be arrested for having sex with someone of the same gender and in five countries the punishment is the death penalty.

“As the Jewish voice for LBGTI rights worldwide, we are proud to support LGBTI activists in Cambodia, El Salvador, Haiti, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Uganda and elsewhere. These defenders of human rights stand up for the dignity and rights of every person, and they put their lives on the line to defend the human rights of the LGBTI people,” said Messinger.

AJWS is the eighth largest funder of LGBTI rights worldwide. AJWS has granted nearly $5 million to support advocates for LGBTI rights and currently funds 50 organizations promoting the rights of LGBTI people in 18 countries.  


About American Jewish World Service:

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is the leading Jewish organization working to promote human rights and end poverty in the developing world. We support more than 400 grassroots organizations in Africa, Asia and the Americas that promote the rights of women, girls and LGBT people; rebuild societies torn apart by war and natural disasters; and seek to secure access to food, land and water. In the United States, we mobilize our supporters to advocate for U.S. policies that help create a just and equitable world. We are inspired by Judaism’s commitment to pursue justice and repair the world, and we believe that Jewish history teaches us to respect and fight for the rights of others.

Jewish groups ride roller-coaster week of Supreme Court rulings


A slight bump up on affirmative action, a plunge on voting rights, and on gay marriage, the mountaintop: federal legitimacy.

It’s been a week of roller-coaster highs and lows at the Supreme Court for liberal Jewish groups. Their collective pledge: Stick it out.

“These are critical decisions and it’s going to be a fight” on voting rights, said Sammie Moshenberg, the director of the National Council of Jewish Women, one of several groups that had weighed in on the recent cases with friend-of-the-court briefs.

The same tone — vigilance on voting rights, gratitude on affirmative action and gay marriage — informed statements from other groups.

On Monday, the court ordered lower courts to more stringently scrutinize the University of Texas’ affirmative action practices but did not otherwise reverse its earlier decision upholding the right of universities to make race a factor in accepting students.

Jewish groups praised the decision, with the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center celebrating it for upholding “the use of affirmative action, the principle of diversity, and the understanding that race conscious remedies may be necessary to ensure diversity, even as we are aware that the decision’s wording indicates the Court may welcome future opportunities to review and potentially restrict affirmative action.”

Tuesday’s decision on voting rights, a 5-4 call that split the court along its conservative-liberal lines, shocked Jewish groups. The decision kept in place the shell of the 1965 Voting Rights Act but gutted its key provision, which had mandated federal review of any changes in voting laws in areas and states — mostly in the South — where racial discrimination had been pervasive.

All three Jewish justices dissented from the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, which found that the 1965 rules were outdated. In a withering dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that Congress had overwhelmingly reaffirmed the 1965 rules as recently as 2006 and said the court was overstepping its bounds.

The decision drew strong condemnation from Jewish groups and vows to bring the case to Congress, although the likelihood is that current political realities — a Republican House of Representatives and a Democratic Senate — will preclude a review of the 1965 law anytime soon.

On Wednesday morning, the court issued two rulings on gay rights. One overturned a key part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which mandated that federal laws abide by a definition of marriage as between a man and woman. In the second ruling, the court said that individuals who sought to overturn a California Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex marriage had no standing to sue.

The first case stemmed from a lawsuit brought by a Jewish woman, Edith Windsor, who was forced to pay federal taxes on the estate of her late wife, Thea Spyer, who also was Jewish, although their Canadian marriage was recognized as legal by the State of New York, where they resided.

“DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty,” Kennedy wrote in an opinion joined by the four liberal judges, including the three Jewish justices: Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, as well as Sonia Sotomayor. “It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper.”

The marriage equality cases had Jewish groups filing friend-of-the-court briefs on both sides, with liberal groups defending the rights of gay couples and Orthodox groups seeking to push back against the California Supreme Court decision.

“Society’s mores may shift and crumble but eternal verities exist,” the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America said in a statement. “One is marriage, the union of a man and a woman. Its sanctity may have been grievously insulted by the High Court today, but that sanctity remains untouched.”

Liberal Jewish groups were elated.

“Having faced prejudice and bigotry throughout our history, the Jewish community does not tolerate unjust discrimination against others,” Alan van Capelle, the director of Bend the Arc, a Jewish group that advocates on social issues and that had joined friend-of-the-court briefs in both cases, said in a statement. “Personally, as a gay Jewish man who has long been fighting for LGBT rights, it means so much to see our highest court rule that my family has as much right to happiness and protection under the law as any other.”

Charedi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America on gay marriage


The first of what will likely be many Jewish responses to the Supreme Court’s decision today, the Charedi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America was brief and to the point:

Society’s mores may shift and crumble but eternal verities exist.  One is marriage, the union of a man and a woman.  Its sanctity may have been grievously insulted by the High Court today, but that sanctity remains untouched.

Los Angeles rabbis respond to Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and Prop 8


The Jewish Journal invited rabbis from throughout Los Angeles to contribute their thoughts and reactions to the Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage. The following is a sampling of what we have received and we will be adding more as we receive more responses.


Rabbi Ken Chasen, Leo Baeck Temple

I will always remember where I was on the day that marriage equality won its defining victories in the Supreme Court.

The news flashed across the screen on my phone as my congregants and I were ascending toward Jerusalem.  I took the microphone on our tour bus, announced the rulings, and was overcome with chills as the exhilarating sound of joyful cheers erupted spontaneously.  Very suddenly, the 7500 miles that separated us from Los Angeles seemed to disappear… just as a new layer of meaning in our pilgrimage to the Holy City was born.

To be sure, there is so much more work to be done.  There are so many states in the U.S. where same gender marriage remains under legal assault.  There are so many persistent forms of discrimination that continue to diminish the character of our nation.  But today, we can celebrate this reminder of the power found in the relentless yearning to affirm all of humanity as creatures fashioned in God’s image.  Could there be a more redemptive message to find its way to a group of Jewish travelers headed into Jerusalem?

I have made the uphill trek into this golden city many times in my life, but this was an arrival that I will never forget.  May this renewal of hope that the longest battles for justice can ultimately be won lift us ever higher – both at home in America and in our people’s long-treasured home.


Rabbi Laura Geller, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

Close to fifteen years ago I officiated at the Jewish wedding of two lesbian friends. Though legal marriage was not an option, they wanted their relationship to be blessed by our tradition. Both of them, thoughtful and serious students of Judaism,  wanted to create a ritual that was both authentically Jewish and at the same time acknowledged the difference between a heterosexual  and a lesbian ceremony. They carefully reflected on each part of the traditional wedding ceremony, determining what should be included, what needed to be changed and what should be added. Years later they reaffirmed their vows in another ceremony when gay marriage was legal in California. It was in their second ceremony that I first truly understood the significance of the words: “By the power vested in me by the State of California.”

Just last month I officiated at the Jewish  wedding of other lesbian friends, also serious and thoughtful students of Judaism.  Though legal marriage was again not an option because of Prop 8, planning their wedding with them was a very different experience from my first.  They chose to have a ceremony that  was exactly like every other wedding ceremony:  same words, same blessings, same symbols. The only change was that the references to “ bride and groom” were changed to “bride and bride.” I asked them why they were not more concerned about adapting the ceremony and their answer was clear:  “ours is a Jewish wedding pure and simple.  We don’t have to jump through any hoops or make any significant changes. This ceremony is our inheritance.  We want to claim it as ours without apology.”

Because I couldn’t say:” By the power vested in me by the State of California” they went to Washington State to sign a legal marriage license. Now, in response the  Supreme Court’s decision on Prop 8, I can invoke the power vested in me by the State of California and declare them married in accordance with the laws of the State of California and our Jewish faith. Now we are so much closer to the truth of their experience:  a gay or lesbian Jewish wedding, like a Jewish heterosexual wedding, is a Jewish wedding pure and simple. It is the inheritance of every loving Jewish couple.  


Rabbi Jocee Hudson, Temple Israel of Hollywood

A few months ago, I sat alongside two same-sex couples from my congregation, presenting to a room filled with 7th graders.  The couples, both legally married in the months preceding Proposition 8 and parents of young children in our schools, were talking with the students about their lives and experiences of being gay and Jewish.

When it came time to discuss the right to marry, I used my own life as on object lesson.  “I am engaged,” I told them.  They clapped and smiled.  “I am getting married in a Jewish ceremony and all my friends and family are coming.  But, I can’t get legally married, because I am a woman marrying a woman.  I don’t have the right to do that.  I can sign a marriage license as an officiating rabbi, but I can’t sign it as a bride.” 

The students’ looks of confusion, alarm, and outrage told me everything I needed to know about the next generation’s commitment to equality.  What a healing moment it was for me when their eyes met mine.  They are used to seeing me give directions, lead services, teach, speak, and direct.  In that moment, as in so many others, I felt the fullness of the humiliation, indignity, and inequality that yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions now reverse in the state of California.

Next year’s 7th grade lesson is going to be a very different conversation!


On this side of history
by Rabbi Heather Miller

Rabbi Heather Miller, right, and her wife Melissa de la Rama on their wedding, July 21.

What does it feel like
when a human-made law
tells you your relationship isn't worth as much as that of others
even when you've been together 10 years, 20 years, 60 years?
What does it feel like for your religious marriage ceremony to not be backed by your government?

Before today, I couldn't tell you, because I had nothing to compare it to.

But today, on this side of history, I can say
that it feels like sunshine breaking through the clouds.
That the Creator is shining down
renewing the covenantal promise
that we are indeed created in the Divine image.
It feels like a heavy rush hour traffic suddenly clearing
and all road blocks have been taken away.
It feels like we are 10,000 feet up and now free to move about the cabin.
It feels like news that a disease has gone into remission.

One of life's major obstacles have been removed
and instead of our government working against our family unit,
it is supporting it, rooting for us.

It feels like we are marching through the parted waters of the Red Sea,
on our way to freedom.

It feels like people have confidence in our ability to make the world a beautiful place,
instead of begrudgingly tolerating us.

It feels like justice.
It feels like intentional, sincere hugs and cheers.
It feels joyous, empowering and deeply affirming.

It feels like we are a true part of the community and that we are blessed.

Rabbi Heather Miller serves several congregational communities in Los Angeles, CA. Prior to ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2008, she majored in Peace and Justice Studies and Africana Studies at Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA. She and her wife, Melissa de la Rama, were named the 2013 Liberty Hill Foundation “Leaders to Watch.” Learn more at www.rabbiheathermiller.com.


Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Beth Chayim Chadashim

Today the chupah is up and reservations are once again being accepted!

I remember like it was yesterday — how blessed I felt and how busy I was — during the short window of time ( 4½ months) in 2008  when same gender marriage was legal in California.  And I well remember too how it all came to an abrupt and teary halt in November 2008 when Prop. 8 passed in California. 

Of course not all has been resolved with today’s interesting U.S. Supreme Court decisions.  Much remains to be done (including work to overcome some of the Court’s other decisions earlier this week).  But we can stop for a moment anyway from the ongoing struggle — stop to say a shehekhiyanu and celebrate this step forward.

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, 5 sisters — Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah — boldly step forward to plead their case for justice, and in so doing help change their society (Numbers 27:1-11).   How many plaintiffs, how many attorneys, how many brave souls through the generations followed in their footsteps, stepping up to make a case for justice?  We are their descendants and beneficiaries — and today we as a nation grow stronger because of them.  Mazel tov to us all!  Let the weddings begin!


Rabbi Denise L. Eger, Congregation Kol Ami of West Hollywood

Today is a true historic day! A moment when you can feel the chains of bondage breaking. The Supreme Court has ruled that DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act is dead.  The Gay and Lesbian married couples cannot be denied federal rights and benefits. And Proposition 8, the hateful ballot proposition in California that went into affect in November 2008 taking away the right to marry is also history.  The court ruled that the people who sponsored Prop 8,who took the case to court when the State of California Governor and Attorney General refused to sponsor the court case, had no standing to do so.  Thus Prop 8 is dead.

While the Supreme Court avoided ruling on a sweeping marriage equality platform across the United States, the ruling means that now in 13 states (including CA) and the District of Columbia where marriage is legal, the Feds must recognize that marriage in the over 1138 rights and benefits and privileges at the Federal level. 

These include according to the Williams Institute at UCLA, the opportunity to sponsor a foreign born spouse for permanent resident status the same as heterosexual couples.  There are over 24,700 bi-national same-sex couples who can finally get out of limbo.

The Death of DOMA means that gay and lesbian couples no longer have to pay higher federal taxes on health care provided by an employer in the private sector.  Straight married couples do not pay income tax when the husband or wife is enrolled in their spouse health plan.  Gay couples have paid over $1000 in taxes previously.  The Death of DOMA means that surviving widows will be able to access survivor benefits through Social Security.  At present no gay and lesbian married couple could.  The Death of DOMA means  that couples will be married no matter where they go as the full faith and credit clause stands! 

The marriage equality fight isn't over in the United States. There are many places where gay men and lesbians cannot legally wed.  And there are 33 states in the US where you can still be fired for being gay!  That is why it is time for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to pass the House and Senate.  The marriage equality and adoption rights must still be fought state by state.

We aren't full citizens yet. But today for sure… a little more.  My congregants are celebrating tonight even as we understand that full equality is not yet here for everyone.  The gutting of the Voting Rights Act still puts our country at great risk. We must live up to the promise of liberty and justice for all.  Even as we celebrate today, the state of Texas is moving to make it more difficult for people of color to vote and only yesterday tried to take away women's reproductive freedom. Until all are free-no one is free. 

But for today I will rejoice a little even as there is still work to be done.

I am grateful to God for this day.  A day of blessing for sure. A day where we feel God's justice showering down upon us and encouraging each of to continue the work of Tikkun Olam-repairing a broken world.


Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B'nai David

With today’s decision, America becomes truer to itself and to its founding values. In order for this nation to truly be a sweet land of liberty, it must bestow the protections and privileges of citizenship upon all citizens, without regard for creed, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. President Washington promised the Jews of the United States of America that they would live in a land which “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”.  And as Jews, we can appreciate the Supreme Court’s affirmation of this principle today.

Significantly, today’s decision does nothing to infringe upon the right of each religious community to practice according to its own beliefs. This too is an expression of the protections and privileges of citizenship being bestowed equally upon all. Within the Orthodox Jewish community, religious marriage will continue to be only between a man and a woman, for this is the sole definition of marriage that our religious tradition gives us. And at the same time, our community will continue the sacred work of balancing our dual commitments – our commitment to read the entirety of the Torah as God’s word, and our commitment to embrace as deepest theological truth, that God created all people in His image.


Rabbi Zachary R. Shapiro, Temple Akiba of Culver City

Many years ago, a couple arrived about a half hour late for their wedding appointment.  The bride to be said, “Would you believe we had to wait an hour in line to get our wedding application?”  The groom to be said, “It's insane having to go through that to get married.”

At once, they both looked at me and blushed.

For some it takes an hour.  For others it has taken years.  Today, however, we move forward as equals.


Rabbi John Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood

I could not be happier to learn of the Supreme Court decision today ruling unconstitutional a 1996 law denying federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples and clearing the way for California to legalize same-sex marriage. This decision enfranchises all loving couples who want nothing more than to enjoy the full benefits of committed marriage relationships that heterosexual married couples enjoy in California. As a Rabbi who believes in the sacred character of love between committed partners regardless of whether they be same gender or heterosexual, I consider this to be an affirmation of all that is truly important for the perpetuation of Jewish family in today's world.

ADL welcomes Supreme Court decision on DOMA


The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) welcomed today’s landmark decision by the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Windsor declaring Section 3 of the 1996 “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) unconstitutional.  In its 5-4 decision, the Court found that same-sex couples who are legally married are entitled to equal treatment under federal law.  ADL filed amicus briefs in both cases.

The Court’s procedural ruling in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case arising from the challenge to California’s Proposition 8, should be interpreted to allow same-sex couples to marry in California.

Barry Curtiss-Lusher, ADL National Chair, and Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director issued the following statement:

We have long believed that that the principle of equal treatment under federal law means equal treatment for all.  The Court’s landmark decision in Windsor affirms the principle that legally married same-sex couples are entitled to all of the federal rights, protections and benefits of civil marriage.   

The Court’s second decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry is good news for same-sex couples in California.  We welcome that result and will continue to work towards the day when all states in the nation will allow civil marriage for same-sex couples. In this 100th anniversary year, we rededicate ourselves to ensuring, in the words of our founding Charter, “justice and fair treatment for all.”

The League had filed in both cases on behalf of a broad, diverse group of religious organizations – emphasizing that there are many different religious views on marriage and that no one religious understanding should be used to define marriage recognition and rights under civil law. ADL was joined on the briefs by Americans United for Separation of Church and State; Bend the Arc – A Jewish Partnership for Justice; The Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Women of Reform Judaism; Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST); Hadassah – The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc.; The Hindu American Foundation; The Interfaith Alliance Foundation; The Japanese American Citizens League; Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN); Keshet; Lutherans Concerned/North America; Metropolitan Community Church; The National Council of Jewish Women; Nehirim; People for the American Way Foundation; The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Truah: Rabbis for Human Rights-North America; and Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.

The law firm Ropes and Gray LLP prepared the Windsor friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of ADL; the Perry brief was prepared by the law firm of Hogan Lovells US LLP.


The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, is the world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry.

Feeds and reads: Jewish responses to same-sex marriage decisions


Much of the Jewish world is celebrating today’s Supreme Court ruling on two same-sex marriage cases.

But two Jewish groups aren’t joining the party. We devoted a separate post to the brief response of the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel. The Orthodox Union weighed in with this longer and more balanced take which, while noting that that Judaism “forbids homosexual relationships and condemns the institutionalization of such relationships as marriages,” concludes thus:

We also recognize that no religion has the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic and we do not expect that secular law will always align with our viewpoint. Ultimately, decisions on social policy remain with the democratic process, and today the process has spoken and we accord the process and its result the utmost respect.

The Orthodox Union is proud to assert its beliefs and principles in the public forum, and will continue to do so in a manner that is tolerant and respectful of all of our nation’s citizens, but which is also authentically based upon our sacred ancient texts and time-honored traditions.

Beyond the Orthodox world, though, the rulings were cause for celebration. At Tablet, Wayne Hoffman wrote a poignant response which he ends, “Why is today different from all other days? Today I am legally married. Truly. At last.”

At the heart of the DOMA case is Edith Windsor, a Jewish widower who was forced to pay extra taxes because the federal government did not recognize her marriage to the her partner, Thea Speyser. New Yorker contributor Ariel Levy was with Windsor when the news broke and captured emotional pictures that you can see here.

The Twitterverse has blown up in response, and so far, perhaps this subject line from an email from Bend the Arc takes the cake: ”Now Everyone Can Marry a Jewish Doctor”


TWEETS


Jewish Community Relations Council celebrates Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality

JCRC Supports Supreme Court Decision on Proposition 8 in California and Defense of Marriage Act; This is a Historic Day for Civil Rights and Equality in the United State.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013, The Jewish Community Relations Council, 121 Steuart Street, San Francisco – The Jewish Community Relations Council applauds the Supreme Court’s decisions to strike down the key provisions in the Defense of Marriage Act and leave standing California’s ruling that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. These are landmark decisions for the State of California and the United States as a whole, and an important step toward ensuring equality, liberty and justice for all American citizens.

JCRC President Jerilyn Gelt and Executive Director Rabbi Doug Kahn celebrated the decision, saying: 

 “The organized Jewish community overwhelmingly supports marriage equality out of an abiding commitment to civil rights in our society and therefore applauds today’s Supreme Court decisions as a major step forward. The Jewish Community Relations Council has advocated for same-sex civil marriage for many years as an essential step to eliminate discrimination faced by same-sex couples.   We are also committed to maintaining the right of religious denominations to set their own requirements for religious marriage.   

The Court’s decision that will permit same-sex marriages to resume in California will, we believe, lead to many more states recognizing that denial of such rights is incompatible with our society’s commitment to equal rights for all citizens.   The Supreme Court’s companion decision striking down the key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act eliminates a major barrier to equal rights protection.   

It is bittersweet that the ruling comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision to significantly weaken the Voting Rights Act – an act that has played an historic role in safeguarding one of our society’s fundamental rights.   Today, however, we join with many communities in celebrating the end of discrimination for same-sex couples seeking to marry in our state.”


Rabbinical Assembly celebrates Supreme Court’s rulings on gay marriage

In response to the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions today calling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and dismissing an appeal supporting an anti-gay marriage law in California, the Rabbinical Assembly, the international umbrella organization for Conservative rabbis, released the following statement:

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, RA executive vice president, said,

Judaism views marriage as a sacred responsibility, not only between the partners, but also between the couple and the larger community. Our Movement recognizes and celebrates marriages, whether between partners of the same sex or the opposite sex. We therefore celebrate today’s decisions on gay marriage by the Supreme Court.

RA president Rabbi Gerald Skolnik added,

On behalf of the 1,700 rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly, I Join with Jews across California and the United States in acknowledging today’s Supreme Court decisions as opening the way for loving and committed same-sex couples to enjoy the rights and privileges of marriage. This is most clearly modeled in the case of Edith Windsor, a Holocaust survivor who enjoyed a loving relationship with her wife of many decades, and had been unable to inherit her partner’s estate as her spouse.

The Rabbinical Assembly is the international association of Conservative rabbis. Since its founding in 1901, the Assembly has been the creative force shaping the ideology, programs, and practices of the Conservative movement, and is committed to building and strengthening the totality of Jewish life. Rabbis of the Assembly serve congregations throughout the world, and also work as educators, officers of communal service organizations, and college, hospital, and military chaplains.  More information is available at www.rabbinicalassembly.org.


OTHER LINKS: 

L.A. Jewish LGBT community reacts to same-sex marriage decisions


Leaders of the area’s Jewish LGBT community rejoiced today after the Supreme Court ruled that part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples, was unconstitutional. The court also paved the way for a return of same-sex marriage to California in a separate case by dismissing an appeal to Proposition 8 that banned such marriages.

“It’s a historic and wonderful day,” said Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform congregation serving gay and lesbian Jews in West Hollywood. “It means marriages are restored in California It means federal protection.”

Kol Ami is a sponsor of a rally tonight in support of the rulings. It will take place at 5:30 p.m. at San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards.

According to Eger, the ruling gives married LGBT couples 1,138 benefits that were previously denied to them, including Social Security benefits for surviving spouses, the ability to file tax returns together and hospital visiting rights for spouses.

Other examples abound.

“Let’s say there is a binational couple,” Eger said. “A heterosexual couple can apply to have one spouse have permanent residency status in the United States. [LGBT] people were hanging in limbo, where one spouse was forced to live in their country of origin while other, say, finishes school here in America.”

Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world’s oldest gay and lesbian synagogue, pointed out that the court’s rulings do not address prohibitions against gay marriage in other states and that prejudice remains. But, she said, “It will take us a long way.”

Edwards’ congregation on Pico Boulevard has been involved in many of the efforts to bring about marriage equality, including Equality California, GLAAD, and the Courage Campaign.

To celebrate today’s court rulings, BCC has planned two events. On Friday night, a chuppah will be placed on the bimah as a symbol. Two days later on June 30, David Codell, who was involved in the litigation for the 2008 California Supreme Court ruling that struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, will speak from 2-4 p.m. The event will be streamed live on the Web at bcc-la.org.

Codell, who received BCC’s Humanitarian Award this year, is currently the visiting legal director of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

“These are exciting steps forward. The court’s ruling invalidating DOMA is monumental. It enables same-sex couples to finally experience equality under the law,” Codell told the Journal.

“Exactly 10 years ago today, the Supreme Court ruled that the states could not make it a crime for gay people to have intimate relations. The progress in 10 years is remarkable. Today the court recognized that the families that same-sex couples formed are entitled to the same dignity as other families.”

Codell predicts that it will take some time to determine how today’s ruling will apply to same-sex couples in states that do not currently recognize same-sex marriage. In California, however, same-sex marriages could resume in as little as a month. Even then, there are more important decisions to be made.

“Is the Supreme Court’s decision effective as of now, or is it retroactive to the date a couple was married?” Codell asked. “It will likely take time to sort out these questions.”

Both Eger and Edwards already have begun scheduling same-sex marriages. Edwards says that many people planned their marriages after the election in 2008 and then got “left out.”

Eger said, “The Supreme Court did not give us a sweeping marriage ruling, which means we have to continue to fight for equality… but I believe we will be successful.”

Edgar M. Bronfman: Jewish values dictate protecting gay marriage


In the early 1970s, while I was CEO of the Seagram Company, public dialogue about gay rights was largely nonexistent in corporate America. Social discourse had not yet even evolved into the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ethos that dominated the following decades. Homosexuality was simply not discussed and therefore, by implication, was shameful.

During that time, as the head of a company with thousands of employees, personnel issues often came across my desk. One day, the director of human resources came into my office with a recommendation to terminate one of my brightest executives. I found myself puzzled that anyone would want to fire such a promising young man until the director leaned in and confided in a hushed tone, “Well, you know, he’s a homosexual.”

The declaration did persuade me — but not in the way he had hoped.

The promising young executive continued on to a distinguished career at Seagram, and the HR director was soon let go. Although my choice was shocking to the director, the decision was obvious to me: to fire a person because of their sexual orientation was not only wrong, it was bad business. It was discrimination, plain and simple, and would not be tolerated in the company I ran.

More than 40 years later, I still feel such discrimination to be unequivocally wrong, but my views on the subject of gay rights have evolved. Particularly today, as we celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to recognize the legality of gay marriage, I now see marriage equality as a moral imperative because of my Jewish roots.

Just as the high court has shown moral bravery in its recognition of gay marriage, the Jewish community should follow its example in our myriad communities. As Jews, we should remember that our tradition upholds the bond between two loving people and the families they create as a source of strength and commitment to the betterment of the world.

“Justice” is a word we are taught early in life, and we are reminded constantly that it is a principle we should uphold and promote. In Hebrew, the word tzedek is used to promote acts of loving kindness and righteousness. Its diminutive, tzedakah, is translated as charity, but it is much more. We are taught in the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” In Hebrew, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdorf.”

It is a vital, active imperative for the Jewish people to be on the front lines of issues protecting and promoting the rights of any group being treated unfairly. To take approximately 10 percent of the U.S. population and tell them they are second-class citizens is clearly unjust. As Jews we are instructed to seek justice for the stranger, the widow and the orphan because too often society discriminates against and takes advantage of those without advocates.

I have come to see the protection of gay marriage as a manifestation of the Jewish value of seeking justice for those who are enslaved. To those who cover their prejudice with reference to biblical injunctions against homosexuality, I ask if they are willing to live by every other law listed in the Torah. For such literalists, I submit that the very Torah portion of Leviticus that they so often quote also enjoins us to harbor no hatred against our brother and our neighbor.

To freeze Judaism in time because of ancient biblical edicts is to deny that Judaism is a mighty river that moves forward through time, a living entity that changes course and becomes renewed through what it meets on the banks. Like a river, it retains its essential character although it is constantly renewed and evolving.

Today, the Jewish pursuit of justice must channel itself against the denial of marriage equality. For Jews, who have suffered so much throughout history at the hands of prejudice, to stand idly by while any group is treated so unfairly is unequivocally wrong.

I have been inspired in my thinking on gay rights and marriage equality by a woman I have known since she was a teenager. She is now the leader of Keshet, a group that promotes equality for the LGBT community in the Jewish world.

Idit Klein first came to my attention when she was in high school. She was a student on a program I founded called the Bronfman Youth Fellowship that targets Jewish teens of exceptional promise from an array of backgrounds. In my conversations with her over the years, I have learned that the issues facing LGBT Jews are ones on which all Jews need to speak out.

Within the Jewish community we must endeavor to include and celebrate the diversity of families and couples within all aspects of religious, communal and institutional life. When our communities continue to open their tents as our forefather Abraham did, to include all who wish to participate in Jewish life, our people’s possibilities expand and gain strength.


Edgar M. Bronfman, the former CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd., is president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life. He is the author of “The Bronfman Haggadah” (Rizzoli Press) created in conjunction with his wife, artist Jan Aronson.

Gay rights response: Let us eat (wedding) cake!


Doors opened early this morning at the Abbey, a gay bar in West Hollywood where people gathered to watch the Supreme Court rule that part of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional by denying federal benefits to same-sex couples.

The watch party began at 6:30 a.m. Champagne was flowing and free wedding cake was available throughout the day. 

Anne Chamberlain, who celebrated after watching the decision at home, recalled how more than 20 years ago when she was a gay-rights activist in college, a reporter asked her what she wanted to achieve.

“I told them I wanted the rights for gays to marry, serve in the military and protection of violence, and I saw all of this in my lifetime,” Chamberlain said.

She married Megan Cavanagh in 2008 during the period of time when gay marriage was legal in California before voters approved Proposition 8. (The high court paved the way for a return of same-sex marriage by dismissing an appeal to Prop. 8) They take comfort in knowing that their marriage is now recognized federally.

Emily Reitz and Maureen Carroll at the Abbey in West Hollywood.

Some couples, like Troy Taylor, 44, and Teador Balog, 26, said the ruling means they feel more comfortable starting a family in this country. They were married in Washington D.C. but were worried that their marriage wasn’t federally recognized. Balog is a Hungarian citizen and now it will be easier for him to gain citizenship if he ever seeks to do so.

“The decision allows us to build a life together as a family,” Taylor said.

Emily Reitz, 28, and Maureen Carroll, 37, have been engaged for just over a year and plan to get married on Sept. 1.

“We had been planning on getting married no matter what, and we wanted it to be recognized,” Reitz said.

Reitz was raised Jewish although she no longer goes to synagogue. She plans to have a nondenominational wedding but said that they will definitely break the glass after the ceremony.

Reitz and Carroll said they look forward to celebrating tonight at 5:30 p.m. at a rally at San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards.

Is DOMA doomed? Supreme Court indicates it may strike down marriage law


Several Supreme Court justices on Wednesday indicated interest in striking down a law that denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, presenting the possibility of a major change in a few months in gay marriage law.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a potential swing vote, warned of the “risks” that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) infringes upon the traditional role of the states in defining marriage.

The 1996 U.S. law denies married same-sex couples access to federal benefits by defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Kennedy referred to DOMA as “inconsistent” because it purports to give authority to the states to define marriage while limiting recognition of those determinations.

The court is expected to issue a ruling by the end of June.

On the liberal side of the bench, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan echoed some of Kennedy's concerns about the states' rights issue.

“What gives the federal government the right to be concerned at all about the definition of marriage?” Sotomayor said.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also raised concerns about the law, stressing how important federal recognition is to any person who is legally married.

“It affects every area of life,” she said.

Comparing marriage status with types of milk, Ginsburg said that a gay marriage endorsed by a state, but not recognized by the federal government, could be viewed as the equivalent of “skim milk.”

The law is the focus of a second day of oral arguments before the high court as it tackles the gay marriage issue.

It is possible the court would not reach the wider issue in the DOMA case because of preliminary legal matters relating to whether the court can hear it.

On that issue, conservative justices criticized the decision by President Barack Obama to abandon the legal defense of DOMA and called into question his willingness to defend other laws passed by Congress and challenged in court. “It's very troubling,” Kennedy said.

While the criticisms may not affect how the justices eventually rule, it showed frustration with how Obama has walked a difficult political line on gay marriage.

Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, said in February 2011 they would cease defending the law because they believed it to be invalid under the U.S. Constitution.

In the place of the U.S. Justice Department, Republican lawmakers have stepped in to argue for the law.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, David Ingram and Joseph Ax; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Eric Beech

Jewish groups ready to weigh in as Supreme Court considers same-sex marriage


With public acceptance of same-sex marriage growing, liberal Jewish groups are hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will strike down the Defense of Marriage Act that they have long opposed.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases related to same-sex marriage: an appeal of a federal court ruling that struck down a California ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage, and one of the federal court rulings invalidating provisions of the act, known as DOMA, which prevented federal recognition of same-sex unions.

Since DOMA was passed in 1996, Jewish groups such as the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women have been among the liberal religious groups arguing against its provisions. At the time, they were pushing against the widespread perception that religious groups almost by definition were opposed to same-sex marriage.

That is no longer the case, said Rabbi David Saperstein, the Religious Action Center’s director and a witness during congressional hearings on DOMA.

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“There is an increasing religious consciousness across an ever wider spectrum that providing legal protection and religious sanctification to two people who want to create their lives together reflects our highest values,” Saperstein told JTA.

Saperstein said the RAC was planning to file or sign onto an amicus brief in support of same-sex marriage.

Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women, said that recent victories for same-sex marriage in state referenda vindicate NCJW’s activism against DOMA.

“We saw in the last election popular support for marriage equality, with wins in Maine, Maryland and Washington, and voters in Minnesota rejected” a law that would have entrenched the ban on gay marriage in that state, she said. “We've seen tremendous popular support, and we see it’s growing.”

Orthodox groups, active also during the 1996 congressional hearings before the passage of DOMA, are considering amicus briefs since the Supreme Court agreed last week to consider the two cases.

Orthodox groups have opposed same-sex marriage, maintaing that marriage should be defined as union between a man and a woman. They also have expressed the concern that the push for same-sex marriage will end up infringing upon their religious liberties.

“We do plan to file and let our views be known in reference to DOMA and Proposition 8,” the California referendum that banned same-sex marriage and that was overturned by a federal appeals court in January, said Abba Cohen, who directs the Washington office of Agudath Israel of America. “We don't know whether we'll file on our own or with others — it’s too early for us to make that decision.”

The Orthodox Union was still considering whether to file, said Nathan Diament, the group’s executive director for public policy.

An array of liberal Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, NCJW, Hadassah, Bend the Arc, and a number of Reform and Conservative bodies had joined in an amicus brief filed for the lower court appeal of the DOMA case, U.S. v. Windsor, in which the widow of a New York woman is appealing the taxes levied on her late wife’s estate that would have been exempted had she been married to a man.

Now that the Supreme Court is considering the cases, the groups and others are considering whether to join others in amicus briefs or file on their own.

Marc Stern, the associate general counsel for the American Jewish Committee, said his group would file a brief backing same-sex marriage but cautioning against a ruling that would be too sweeping and compromise the rights of religious institutions that oppose it.

“You could imagine theories that would lead to that result that would preclude the possibility of protection of religious institutions,” he said.