Gay candidate blazes new trail in Israel mayoral race


As a candidate to become the Middle East's first openly gay mayor, Nitzan Horowitz is hoping his bid to run Israel's famously liberal city of Tel Aviv will help homosexuals across a region where they are widely frowned upon.

The left-wing legislator is not predicted to defeat the incumbent, the well-established ex-fighter pilot Ron Huldai, in an October 22 municipal vote.

But the 48-year-old remains upbeat, pointing to an opinion poll his dovish Meretz party commissioned last month that gave Huldai only a five-point lead.

A survey in the Maariv newspaper last week predicted a Huldai victory, but found 46 percent of voters were still undecided.

“I'm going to be not only the first gay mayor here in Israel, but the first gay mayor of the entire Middle East. This is very exciting,” Horowitz told Reuters.

Horowitz's prominence in Tel Aviv is not altogether surprising. In a region better known for its religious and social conservatism, it is dubbed the “city that never sleeps”.

With a population of 410,000, it was also ranked in a poll by Gaycities.com last year as a top gay destination.

By contrast, more than 800,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews wearing black coats and hats poured on to the streets of Jerusalem last week for the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a divisive figure whom critics called “Israel's ayatollah.”

Huldai, Tel Aviv's mayor since 1998, already apportions city budgets for its annual beachfront gay pride parade, and there is a gay film festival and municipal center for the gay community offering cultural and athletic programs for teenagers and young adults.

“You can't take away the fact that gay life has blossomed in the city under Huldai,” said Itai Pinkas Pinkas, 39, a onetime city councilor who worked with the mayor.

DISCRIMINATION

As a measure of how far Tel Aviv has come, rabbis who held sway in the Mediterranean city in 1955 blocked a bid by a woman to win election as mayor. Golda Meir later went on to become Israel's first woman prime minister.

“That's why his (Horowitz's) candidacy is not raising a firestorm, because many already see Tel Aviv as the gay capital of the Middle East,” Israeli political blogger Tal Schneider said.

But Horowitz, a former television journalist who as a lawmaker has largely championed social issues and advocated for African migrants who have flocked to Tel Aviv, says discrimination against gays in the city lingers on.

Just last month, Horowitz said, a landlord cited a party colleague's gay lifestyle in refusing to rent him an apartment.

The task of improving policy toward gays in the Jewish state is “very challenging, because this is a country, a region with a lot of problems concerning the gay community, discrimination, even violence,” the candidate said.

Israel's military made inroads decades ago by conscripting gay men and women alongside other 18-year-olds for mandatory service.

And even the holy city of Jerusalem, with a large ultra-Orthodox Jewish population, holds an annual gay pride parade.

But the gay community hits a roadblock when it comes to the issue of marriage.

Gay marriage — and civil ceremonies in general — that take place in Israel are not recognized by the authorities. Horowitz, who has lived with his partner for more than a decade, wants that to change.

“I hope once I'm elected this will contribute to tolerance and understanding, not just in Israel, but in the entire region,” Horowitz said.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mike Collett-White

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.

The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage


Last year, I officiated at the first same-sex wedding in the 145-year history of my synagogue.  For a Conservative congregation, this was quite a break with tradition.  Nevertheless,  I was proud to stand beneath the wedding canopy with this couple, who affirmed the sacredness of their union “in accordance with the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.”  Before I chose to officiate, I studied the texts, teachings, and arguments in my tradition.  I didn’t make this decision lightly.  Today, I am unfazed by the apparent biblical injunction against homosexuality as an “abomination.”  I am confident in my stand, despite a 3,000-year-old tradition that has no precedent for such a marriage.  In fact, it is from a place of humility and awe before my tradition and God that I have chosen take this stand.

The Hebrew word for wedding is “Kiddushin,” which means ‘Sanctification,’ or ‘Holiness.’  A wedding is the formal declaration of the holiness of love.  All the blessings and rituals and formulae under the wedding canopy affirm one idea:  when two human beings find each other and love each other, it is Godly:   a taste of the World to Come, a world of perfected justice and joy.   It is in our capacity to love that we are holy, and most fully in the image of God.  If there’s anything that 3,000 years of Jewish history has shown us—3,000 years of so much exile and persecution—it’s that the only hope for humankind is to strive toward ever-more loving and just societies. 

We Jews are a people who have never quite fit into the same categories of peoplehood or religion that other nations do.  We are a distinct people, even as we bear a message of God’s universality.  We affirm that we are different from other peoples, even as we know that we are no different than any other human being.  Our presence in the world has often been a source of anxiety for other nations, religions, and people.  In this way, we Jews have always been a queer people .  And yes, I use the term ‘queer’ deliberately.  To be queer is to be troubling, unsettling, not meeting expectations of the way others might want things to be.

It is, in fact, the Jews’ queerness in the world that captures our particular Divine message to all humanity.  As Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, creator of Queer Spiritual Counseling teaches, the existence of God is the queerest thing about the universe.  God, too, cannot be categorized or boxed in. The inexplicable mystery of God is a source of unspeakable anxiety to so many of us who long to reduce God to our simplistic categories.  Finally, we declare the love of a wedded couple to be holy because love, too, defies all classifications and can never be bounded–it’s a feeling, but not just a feeling; it’s a state of being that “have,” that we “are,” but it is larger than any one individual or relationship.  Love is queer, and in recognizing this, we find its holiness, its Godliness.

It is no accident that the famous Levitical injunction concerning homosexuality appears in a section of the Torah called “Kedoshim,” meaning “Holy.”  When seen in context, the homosexual act described comes amidst a series of many kinds of human couplings—all of which are abusive because they are not loving acts.  When one man rapes another man simply because he does not have access to a woman, such an act is indeed an abomination, a desecration of God’s holiness, a desecration of love.  Such an act is the farthest thing from the love of two human beings—of whatever gender—that we can and must sanctify whenever it arises in our human condition. 

I reject the idea that the Bible declares that the only sacred love that can exist is the love between a man and a woman.  Love is queer — it can never be limited to our categorizations of roles and gender.  Love is commitment, presence, and kindness so awesome and mysterious that nothing in our power can contain it.  We must, in our very imperfect world, celebrate, sanctify, and lift up love wherever we find it; because our loving relationships are the only way that we will bring Godliness to this world.  For these reasons, I proudly stand for the evolution of Judaism,  in awe of the wisdom of my Jewish people and tradition, the of holiness God and the queerness of  love.


Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

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.

[Related: A more modern view of homosexuality]

“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.

A more modern view of homosexuality


The American Modern Orthodox community has just entered uncharted territory. Last week, our largest rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) formally withdrew its support of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality). JONAH has long been the Orthodox community’s address for reparative therapy, a process that is intended to cure people of their homosexual attractions and to replace these with heterosexual ones. The recently announced lawsuits against JONAH brought by four of its former clients, accusing JONAH of both fraud and abusive practices, was apparently the last straw for the RCA. 

Strictly speaking, the RCA’s statement rejects only JONAH. It, in fact, goes on to say, “We believe that properly trained mental health professionals who abide by the values and ethics of their professions can and do make a difference in the lives of their patients and clients [and that these professionals] should be able to work on whatever issues [their] clients voluntarily bring to their session.” This is, of course, indisputably correct. But the statement’s acknowledgement of  “the lack of scientifically rigorous studies that support the effectiveness of therapies to change sexual orientation” represents a paradigm shift. It is a rejection of the very premise that JONAH and all reparative therapy is built on, namely that sexual orientation is subject to change, and that any client who works hard enough at it can become heterosexual. This may not strike many readers as being a revelation at all. But through this RCA statement, the Modern Orthodox community has formally crossed into a brave, new world. 

[Related: Israel gets same-sex divorce before same-sex marriage]

Any discussion about what the practical implications of this might be needs to be grounded in an understanding — even an appreciation — of the context out of which it emerged. Any of us who grew up in Orthodox institutions in the 1980s or earlier knows firsthand that homosexuality, and, in particular, male homosexuality, was spoken of with disgust and revulsion, and that homosexual slurs were de rigueur. (In our own defense of course, the larger social landscape wasn’t much different.) And even as the campaigns for gay rights and recognition played out over the ensuing decades, Orthodoxy remained largely unmoved and unchanged. There was only one serious grappling with the issue during this period, and that was the essay written by Rabbi Norman Lamm in 1974 which, while utilizing language that is offensive in today’s context, took the unprecedented step of distinguishing between the “sin” and the “sinner,” asserting that while “the act itself remains an abomination, the fact of illness lays upon us the obligation of pastoral compassion, psychological understanding, and social sympathy.”  

Though Rabbi Lamm’s words undoubtedly, and with good cause, arouse anger, pain and resentment in many contemporary readers, understanding why he used them is crucial to understanding the true significance and implications of last week’s developments. The “illness” paradigm for explaining homosexuality (which was, indeed, the American Psychological Association’s paradigm as well until 1973, just one year prior) was Rabbi Lamm’s — and Orthodoxy’s — legal and theological lynchpin. Legal in that it provided access to the legal category of “transgression as a result of compulsion,” a category that elicits a more generous judgment. Theological in that it provided a response to the conundrum that God, who is all-knowing, just and kind, could not possibly prohibit that which cannot humanly be resisted. As long as homosexuality was an illness, a person’s failure to resist its temptations need not be ascribed to a Divine failure, but to an unfortunate human one. Needless to say, the “illness” paradigm also led inexorably to the obligation to seek therapeutic intervention. And while the most modern end of the Orthodox spectrum began to eschew reparative therapy some years ago — see, for example, the July 2010 “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews With a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” (http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com/) — the balance continued to insist upon it. (See, for example, the 2011 “Declaration on the Torah Approach to Homosexuality” — www.torahdec.org.)

The statement of the RCA however, quietly, boldly and courageously breaks new ground. In recognizing that there is no evidence that reparative therapy is effective, and that there is, consequently, no obligation to pursue it, our community is acknowledging that homosexuality may very well be simply part of the human condition. Accordingly, we have decided that homosexuals should not any longer have to pay the psychological, emotional and even physical price for our theological comfort. We have effectively designated our theological question as a teyku, one whose answer still needs to be determined. But one that will, meanwhile, not prevent us from seeing the human truths in front of our eyes. 

It is not realistic to expect that Orthodoxy will some day recognize homosexual relationships as being equal to heterosexual ones, or to authorize gay marriage, or even to drop the idea that gay sex is a transgression of biblical law. Orthodoxy’s foundational beliefs concerning the Divinity of Torah and the authority of halachah (received Jewish law) preclude such developments. In other words, if the Torah declares a particular action prohibited, it’s not within our authority to say otherwise. But we can regard homosexual acts as we do other forms of nonobservance, as we do, for example, the nonobservance of kashrut, both in the sense that it doesn’t carry the charge of immorality and also in the sense that it doesn’t harm our ability to have a normal familial relationship with someone. The shift from Rabbi Lamm’s “sympathy” to the RCA’s recognition of the reality of sexual orientation can and should bring us to a place in which we can accept our friends and children and siblings for who they are, grant them the dignity and respect that any person deserves, and love them as our own. 

Within our community, it’s a brave, new and better world.


Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Israel gets same-sex divorce before same-sex marriage


An Israeli court has awarded the country's first divorce to a gay couple, which experts called an ironic milestone since same-sex marriages cannot be legally conducted in the Jewish state.

A decision this week by a family court in the Tel Aviv area “determined that the marriage should be ended” between former Israeli lawmaker Uzi Even, 72, and his partner of 23 years, Amit Kama, 52, their lawyer, Judith Meisels, said on Tuesday.

Legal experts see the ruling as a precedent in the realm of gay rights in a country where conservative family traditions are strong and religious courts oversee ceremonies like marriages, divorces and burials.

While Israel's Interior Ministry still has the power to try and veto the decision, it would likely have to go court in order to do so, Meisels said.

A 2006 high court decision forced the same ministry, headed by an ultra-Orthodox cabinet member, to recognize same sex marriages performed abroad and ordered the government to list a gay couple wed in Canada as married.

Same sex marriages are performed in Israel, but they have no formal legal status.

“The irony is that while this is the beginning of a civil revolution, it's based on divorce rather than marriage,” newly divorced Kama, a senior lecturer in communications in the Emek Yizrael College, told Reuters.

He and Even, both Israelis, married in Toronto in 2004, not long after Canada legalized same-sex marriage. They separated last year, Kama said.

It took months to finalize a divorce as they could not meet Canada's residency requirements to have their marriage dissolved there. At the same time in Israel, rabbinical courts in charge of overseeing such proceedings threw out the case, Kama said.

By winning a ruling from a civil court, Kama and Even may have also set a precedent for Israeli heterosexual couples, who until now have had to have rabbis steeped in ancient ritual handle their divorces, legal experts say.

“This is the first time in Israeli history a couple of Jews are obtaining a divorce issued by an authority other than a rabbinical court, and I think there is significant potential here for straight couples” to do so as well, said Zvi Triger, deputy dean of the Haim Striks law school near Tel Aviv.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Michael Roddy

Winnipeg to host first Conservative gay ceremony in Canada


A Winnipeg synagogue is about to become the first Conservative shul in Canada to host a same-sex wedding ceremony.

Shaarey Zedek Synagogue will be the scene on Jan. 21 for the “renewal” of marriage vows between two men wedded in a civil service in Vancouver in 2004, the Winnipeg Jewis Post and News reported.

Canada did not legalize same-sex marriage until 2005.

The service will be held under a chuppah and conducted by Rabbi Larry Pinsker.

The ceremony is the culmination of a three-year process intended to welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) people into the congregation.

The first stage, said Ian Staniloff, the synagogue’s executive director, was to allow same-sex couples to buy joint burial plots in 2009. The second was to welcome them as members.

While the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, in Dec. 2006, approved extending blessings to same-sex unions in commitment ceremonies, Staniloff noted that same-sex couples in the congregation were not satisfied with that. They want their unions to be sanctified.

“The Shaarey Zedek has been talking the talk,” one of the men, 67-year-old Arthur Blankstein, told the paper. “Now it is time for the congregation to walk the walk.”

Preparing for Same-Gender Weddings


All eyes will still be on New York in the coming weeks as the state prepares for marriage equality. I learned a lot in the run-up to wedding mania here in California in 2008, so I thought I would share some tips with those in New York.

Clergy, officiants and recorders: Meet together with your county registrars, who will issue the licenses. Help form a task force to work out the first days, when the big rush will happen. Help them think through their own bureaucracy and, yes, how the forms should and must change. We did that here in Los Angeles County. Our County Clerk Dean Logan and his team met with us and worked directly with a group of us to help ease the rush of the first weeks.

Clergy and other officiants: Know how you will change or modify the words of the ceremony. Will you say husband and husband? Partners for life? Spouses? Will you keep antiquated vows, like love, honor, cherish and obey? Does anyone really still use obey? I certainly don’t.

Couples who plan to get married: Consult an attorney and a tax professional.  There are many fiscal implications in getting married. Sign a prenuptial agreement; it doesn’t mean you don’t love each other. In fact, just the opposite. It does mean you love one another enough to imagine that if it didn’t work out, you have the basics outlined.

The federal government doesn’t yet recognize our unions, and so while you might be married in New York, your federal income tax is as a single. Being in love and getting married doesn’t mean you have to be financially stupid.

Even if you have been together for a long time, consider some premarital counseling. That piece of paper and that ring change things. Don’t just assume it will all be the same. It won’t! You will see yourselves differently, and others will see you differently.

One of the most interesting phenomena of the marriage ceremony is that it takes two unrelated people and makes them next of kin — like blood family. So, poof! You are related! It is a different way to think about this marriage bond. That is why others see you differently. You are a family in a new way, even if you have been together for decades.

Remember, if you are having a wedding ceremony — complete with flowers and cake and maybe a rented hall and caterer — your officiant should be given an honorarium as well. Don’t just assume the local pastor will be available. He or she will have many weddings to perform. The officiant may have a fee. Be prepared. It is not a free service. This is how people make their living, just like the baker, the travel agent who books your honeymoon and the guy in the tuxedo shop who rented you the tuxedos. There is paperwork that has to be completed.  So don’t bristle if your rabbi, cantor, minister or priest has a financial requirement for this service.

Expect everyone to want to attend! In my almost 25-year experience of being a rabbi and performing hundreds of weddings for gay people (both legally recognized and not), the gay weddings are better attended than the straight weddings. Everyone wants to be there! So plan your numbers and your guest list accordingly!

These are just a few tips. But there are many others. On my blog, which can be found at rabbieger.wordpress.com, I will cover a few more. Happy weddings!

Judaism and Same-Sex Marriage


While voting to keep intact the marriages of approximately 18,000 Californians, including many Jewish couples, the California Supreme Court voted today to uphold Proposition 8, an initiative that amended California’s Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.  Another chapter in the longer story of same-gender marriage in California has ended, and yet another is already beginning.  Here in Los Angeles County, demonstrations against the ban are already underway in Leimert Park and more are planned for East Los Angeles and West Hollywood.  Activists on both sides of the issue are mobilizing in anticipation of another ballot initiative in 2010 or 2012.

Meanwhile, the broader discussion will continue.  To get an early start, let’s examine just one of the charges made by those who oppose equal rights to civil marriage for same-gender couples: Such marriages would “change the traditional definition of marriage.” Well, chevrah, we of Judaism’s Reform movement have lived, for generations now, with an earth shattering “change to the traditional definition of marriage,”—only our world hasn’t shattered yet. Despite the staggering shocks that today’s economy has dealt to most of us, Reform Judaism remains the United States’ largest Jewish denomination. Reform Jews continue to marry and to create families and new Jewish generations.

What is it that we’ve done?  Effectively and ritually, Reform Judaism has transformed marriage from a kinyan (an acquisition) to a brit (contract). For years, Reform Jewish marriage has not been the transfer of a bride from her father’s stewardship to her husband’s. It is a contract between two Jews who are absolutely equal in their right to give themselves to each other. For such Jews, the kiddushin (sanctity) in marriage is not about setting a woman aside for one man only, but rather in setting aside a couple for each other. For Reform Jews, says Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, “sanctity only exists in the context of equality.”

Sanctity. Not license, not ‘anything goes,’ but a deep, moral sense that each competent adult Jew has equal status—and that only her Creator can trump a human being’s ownership of her own person. Judaism’s understanding of human dignity is very old—the first thing we learn about ourselves in the TANAKH is that the human was created in the image of God. However, our association of this understanding with bone-deep moral outrage at the idea of human chattel is pretty new. In the days of our country’s Civil War, both Reform Rabbi David Einhorn and Conservative Rabbi Sabato Morais were hounded by their respective communities for their staunch opposition to human slavery—an institution that our Rabbis mitigated but did not condemn unequivocally. This horror of enslavement and fierceness for equal rights under the law is part of the heritage of modernity that Reform Jews have embraced—as an expression of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

As Rabbi Denise Eger, newly installed president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California said when asked if lesbian or gay marriages are l’daat Moshe (according to the Law of Moses), “What is daat? Tradition. Since the 1820’s, Reform Judaism has been developing Jewish tradition to include mutuality and equality.”

This emphasis on equality may be expressed in ketubot that depart from the traditional assignment of different roles in the marriage based on gender. Some Reform Jews, who marry under a chuppah, sign innovative ketubot that commit them to mutual responsibilities. Others make a brit ahuvim, a partnership pact and set of rituals developed by Dr. Rachel Adler for Jews who wish to “acquire a partnership.” Like many Reform Jews who find ourselves reaching back across a paradigm shift to an engagement with Jewish law, Adler is concerned that such concepts as holiness and separation have not been sufficiently explored in a Reform context and wants to be very deliberate about the meanings behind the rituals we perform.

Conservative Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor at the American Jewish University and leader in Jews For Marriage Equality points out that, long before the issue of lesbian and gay marriage arose, there have been Jews who have not recognized Reform marriages anyway—let alone marriages performed by secular authorities. Dorff reminds us that, “Rabbi Isaac Klein, of blessed memory, long ago wrote a responsum that was approved by the CJLS [The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards] that states that although Jews should get married with chuppah and kiddushin, if they got married through civil law alone, retroactively that is considered a marriage, and the couple would need a get to dissolve their marriage in Jewish law. Rabbi Klein reasoned that is even more evidence than their sexual intercourse that they intended to be considered as married.”

In other words, for traditional Jews, marriage “through civil law alone,” along with Reform marriage, has been considered to be the same as shacking up. Traditional congregations only recognize such marriages if they are between Jews who are permitted to one another, as having been effected through intercourse. Furthermore, even though civil law permits, say, the former Mrs. Schwartz to marry Mr. Cohen at City Hall—and they could marry in a Reform congregation—no Orthodox synagogue has ever been made to perform such a ceremony or to recognize the resulting marriage.

It’s just wrong to claim that civil marriage equality would force changes on religious institutions. No rabbi has ever been forced by civil law to conduct a marriage between a divorcée and a Kohen, just as the availability of non-Kosher food in the general marketplace doesn’t force cheeseburger onto anybody’s plate.

Robin Podolsky is a writer and former press secretary to State Senator Sheila Kuehl

State Court Upholds Prop. 8


On Tuesday May 26, 2009, we stood in Leimert Park, together with clergy of many faiths, awaiting our fate, awaiting a verdict on our humanity.  Outrage, sorrow and a renewed sense of purpose swept across the crowd as news spread that the California Supreme Court had made a Solomon’s choice – upholding as legal the marriages entered into by same-sex couples last summer while preserving the travesty of justice that is Proposition 8.  In effect, the Court had abandoned its constitutionally designated responsibility to protect a minority from having its most basic civil rights put up for populate vote.
Like the Israelites who received the blessing of Torah at Mount Sinai yet continued to wander in the wilderness before arriving in the Promised Land, LGBT Californians and our struggle for Marriage Equality live on.  Another day of justice delayed, justice denied.
What a difference a day makes.

Last year, on May 15, 2009, the California Supreme Court courageously embraced its legacy as a leader in the pursuit of justice, equality and civil rights.  The Court wisely recognized that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, have the fundamental right to official recognition of their families. The Court proclaimed that any restrictions on access to the civil institution of marriage are impermissible forms of discrimination prohibited by the California Constitution just as they did when, in 1948, California was one of the first states in the nation to overturn laws against interracial marriage. 
It was the first of many historic days last year.

On June 17, 2008, California began issuing marriage licenses free of discrimination.  The two of us stood that day in a long line that snaked in front of West Hollywood City Park. We will forever remember the sights and sounds of that day:  Groups hovered in clusters, LGBT Jews under a Chuppah blowing the Shofar, parents with their children, traditional white wedding dresses dotted the lawn. Couples together for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years became unlikely newlyweds.  One of us, the rabbi, officiated many weddings that beautiful day.  The other and her wife served as witnesses, smiling so hard our faces hurt, singing Mazel Tov and Simin Tov until we grew hoarse.

The days between June 17 and November 4 filled California with a euphoria that transformed millions. 18,000 couples married. 36,000 people, each of us touching wider and wider concentric circles of friends, family, colleagues, neighbors.  We became part of a giant wave of inclusion, justice and most of all hope.  Our families were finally able to protect and honor one another with all of the same rights and responsibilities as loving couples everywhere.

Each day was a gift.

Then came Election Day.  Some angry, some in shock, we went about our lives- walked our dogs, waited in traffic, worked, bought groceries, paid bills –wondering as we met neighbors, co-workers and strangers who among them had used the power of the ballot box to strip us of our civil rights.  Parents struggled to explain to their children how some people, a slim majority, had decided their family did not deserve the rights and recognition as other families.
From then on, we began to count the days to the time when the California Supreme Court would restore our dignity and quality.  If only the counting of those days had yielded the same blessings as the counting of the Omer.

Now that the Court has failed to live up to its Constitutional promise of equality and dignity for all, what can we as Jews do?  We can roll up our sleeves and get to work.  We can reach out to other communities of faith to explain why the calling of b’tzelem elohim requires us to recognize God’s image in all people.  We can speak out from the bimah, in the press and on the streets about how our heterosexual marriages have been unaffected by the loving union of our LGBT friends, family and colleagues.  We can tell the tale of how dangerous it is to give people the absolute power to strip a minority of its civil rights, knowing all too well the dark road down which a society can run if given such authority. 

And we can remember that, although Proposition 8 passed with 52% of the voting public, young people of all races and religions opposed it in overwhelming numbers.  May that generation carry us forward into a time when all people who love and seek to build a life together will have the full and equal legal right to do so. 

Elissa Barrett
Executive Director, Progressive Jewish Alliance

Rabbi Denise Eger
Congregation Kol Ami, President – Southern California Board of Rabbis

Gays get married and I’m still single


I hate gay men. OK, so I don’t literally hate them — some of my best … no, actually my best friend is a gay man — but I hate that there’s yet another group of guys who are unavailable to me. Married people, actors, Republicans and other men who don’t like women: Gay men.

In this town, it’s not like you run into that many — I’m talking about Republicans and married men. But gay men are everywhere. Forget the regular challenges of being single amid the bevy of anorexic beauties who migrate to Hollywood. The single woman’s real plight is: Who among the available men is gay? And who is just really, really good looking?

Right now, at this very moment, I am staring at a pleasant man in what could only be described as a lime green polo shirt — with the actual polo player guy in lavender. His collar is flipped up, his sunglasses are tucked into the open collar, and peeking out beneath his loose and trendy Joe’s jeans are brown leather flip-flops with a flower on them.

“You or me?” I ask Jeff, my best friend, who is gay. It’s a game we play: Guy walks by, we both look, and I — of no gay-dar whatsoever — must ask in coded language if the man is gay or straight. Is he for you (gay) or me (straight)?

“You, you, you!” Jeff proclaims. How can he tell? Apparently gay men have a secret Spockian eye-blink language that communicates “I am gay. Death to straight people. Wanna play?”

Jeff is right, because despite the outfit, the man walks over to a pretty, peppy woman with a baby carriage. His girlfriend. Wife. Baby Mama. Whatever: He’s taken, so I don’t care.

One of the beautiful things about having a best friend who is gay is that it lets me witness an alternate dating world. It’s as if the rules of gravity there have been suspended.

For example, some gay guys don’t want committed relationships, and they date just to have fun (unlike straight women who say this, they actually mean it).

Or they have a boyfriend and date at the same time (none of this staying-with-the-wrong person thing because you are worried about never meeting someone else — you already have someone else).

Or maybe “Fidelity is just a goal,” Jeff says. “Not a rule.”

It’s quite refreshing for someone like me, coming from the very straight-laced Jewish community where you date, you become exclusive, you get engaged, you get married (hopefully you fall in love along the way) — and it lasts forever and ever, till death — death! — do us part. It’s a lot to live up to, if you think about it.

So maybe that’s why I’ve found it somewhat disconcerting these last few weeks, witnessing the gay community’s response to the California State Supreme Court’s ruling allowing gay marriage. As a civil libertarian, I am all for it. I truly believe that every human being should have equal civil rights, especially in the United States of America, which prides itself on it.

So of course I believe gay people have the right to get married.

But, after meeting, talking and waiting in line with couples to get their marriage licenses, my question is, do I believe in marriage at all?

“This is something that every woman has dreamed of since the day she was born!” one woman in a white dress told me as she waited in line for her marriage certificate at West Hollywood Park last week.

I nodded, but I didn’t agree.

Dream about marriage since the day we were born? Not I. I am glad that she can have something she has always dreamed of. I am glad people can fulfill a right that has always been denied them (making it even more desirable).

But after witnessing the sheer joy of the couples waiting to get licenses, I realize it’s not marriage I’m against but the whole wedding culture. The whole hoopla, the pomp and circumstance, the dressing up, the everyone-has-to-wear-whatever-we-tell-them and the play-whatever-silly-bridal-shower-and-bachelorette-party-games-no-one-likes kind of attitude.

I’m like Mr. Big in the “Sex and the City” movie, who is all for getting married but doesn’t want to get carried away by the obnoxious bad taste of a big wedding.

But wait. There’s hope. Not to be stereotypical, but (many) gay people don’t often have bad taste. Maybe there won’t be any let’s-make-a-fake-hat-out-of-bridal-paper-wrappings games. Maybe there won’t be any more you-must-look-uglier-than-the-bride turquoise bridesmaid dresses you’ll never wear again.

Think “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” meets “Bridezillas.” Maybe gay marriage is just what the world needs to make weddings sane. Maybe it’s here to remind us what commitment is all about — not a wedding, but a license.

Last week I met two men in their 80s who had just gotten their marriage license.

“Mazal tov,” I told them, and they laughed: “People are only now wishing us congratulations, but we’ve been together 43 years.”

Same-sex marriage and the fabric of society: What does it all mean?


If you look at the fine print, last month’s landmark Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage doesn’t change much in practical terms. Domestic partnership, available to Californians since 2005, gave couples nearly all the same legal rights and responsibilities as marriage, outside of a few arcane legal details. And calling it marriage in California still does not trump the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, which since 1996 has defined marriage as between a man and woman.

At the same time, no one denies that the ruling changes everything.

For some, it is a spiritual moment of human dignity finally resting upon everyone. For others, it is a sign that society is being sucked into an eddy of moral dissolution.

Many who are not directly affected are still processing and digesting the new reality, with the long-term implications up for grabs. As people begin to take the word “marriage” out of quotes when referring to same-gender couples, many questions come up. What do the ceremonies look like? What about divorce? Intermarriage? How will this affect the November ballot initiative to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage? And there are the larger philosophical questions of what marriage means and who makes the rules for a whole society.

What’s the Difference?

Although the actual legal differences are scant, attorney Jenny Pizer says the implications are more than symbolic.

“In practical terms, domestic partnership has resulted in confusion, and the status has not been respected the way it was intended,” said Pizer, senior counsel at Lambda Legal and one of the members of a team representing couples in the Supreme Court case. “People are familiar with marriage, and having same-sex couples be in a different system has often caused people to err on the side of not respecting rights, which is not what we had hoped would happen.”

Using the same nomenclature can help others understand that gay and lesbian couples want the same thing as straight couples — the ability to express their love in a way society understands, under the protection of the law, providing a strong family structure.

The May 16 Supreme Court decision was sweeping in its language, saying that like all other rights, marriage couldn’t be limited to only a portion of the population. The broad decision put discrimination against gays and lesbians into the same legal category as race or gender discrimination.

That inclusiveness also made many gays and lesbians see this as a spiritual moment, whether or not they plan to marry.

“It been such a fight for civil rights over such a long period of time, that this is an affirmation of our humanity and our dignity,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, rabbi of Kol Ami Synagogue in West Hollywood, a Reform congregation with a large gay and lesbian population. “Something that we have always talked about is the notion of b’tzelem Elohim, being created in the image of the Divine, and for the same notion to be echoed in a secular court, I think for many people has been uplifting and has been affirming of their humanity.”

Gay Marriage Ban Could Alienate Jews


It’s a familiar calculus in the relationship between the Jewish community and the Bush administration: a social issue that divides the country 50-50 has the Jewish community split 75-25 against where President Bush stands.

On Monday, Bush strongly endorsed the federal marriage amendment to the U.S. constitution, which would effectively ban gay marriage.

“Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization, and it should not be redefined by activist judges,” Bush said after meeting with supporters of the constitutional amendment. He was referring to the 2004 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court to recognize same-sex marriages.

The bill, which was likely to be considered by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, has virtually no chance of passing. Constitutional amendments need 67 of the 100 Senate votes to pass, and no one anticipates the vote breaking 55.

That makes it a win-win for Bush in his effort to keep evangelical conservatives on board ahead of the November midterm congressional elections. The reasoning is that the amendment will still resonate with the GOP’s conservative base five months from now, but will likely have disappeared from the memories of Republican-leaning social moderates.

However, Jewish Republicans, who have been trying to lure Jews away from their solid 3-to-1 support for Democrats, might have been dealt a blow, at least according to the amendment’s opponents.

“It’s unclear to me how the Republican Party will gain ground in the Jewish community by bringing forth a centerpiece of the religious right’s agenda,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “For a large section of the Jewish community, this is an issue of fundamental rights and they will be watching closely to see how their senators vote.”

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements oppose the amendment. On Tuesday, the Conservative movement’s leadership joined in the opposition, in a statement that referred to a 2003 United Synagogue resolution opposing any such discrimination. Also in opposition are major Jewish civil liberties groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.

The National Council of Jewish Women has taken a lead in opposing the legislation, organizing clerical lobbying against it and leading an alliance of liberal Jewish groups in urging senators to vote it down. Orthodox groups, led by the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, support the amendment.

The most recent polling on the issue, by Gallup, found 50 percent of Americans in favor of the amendment and 47 percent opposed. A 2004 American Jewish Committee survey of American Jews found 24 percent in favor and 74 percent opposed.

Jewish supporters of the amendment suggested they would sell the amendment to the Jewish community as one that would guarantee religious freedoms.

Proponents of gay marriage were “pursuing a deliberate plan of litigation and political pressure which will not only redefine marriage, but will follow from that to threaten the first freedom enshrined in the First Amendment — religious liberty,” said Nathan Diament, the director of the Washington office of the Orthodox Union.

Diament, the only Jewish participant at the meeting with Bush on Monday, said the Massachusetts ruling already had a negative impact on religious freedom. He cited as example the state’s Roman Catholic Church decision to drop out of the adoption business because it would be required to consider gay couples as parents.

“They’re trying to impose their position on society at large,” he said of proponents of gay marriage. “How a society defines marriage affects everybody.”

That view had some backing from at least one Jewish civil rights group, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).

Marc Stern, the AJCongress’ general counsel, cited the example of an Orthodox kosher caterer who could face a lawsuit for refusing to cater a same-sex wedding.

A successful compromise would “recognize the marriages in the context of a secular economy, for instance by not discriminating on domestic partner benefits, but it would not force people to act in areas they find morally reprehensible,” Stern said.

Chai Feldblum, a Georgetown University law professor and an activist for gay rights, said such arguments had no place in the public arena.

“There are lots of ways in which a religious organization can run its business as it wishes,” Feldblum said. “Rabbis don’t have to perform a marriage that they don’t agree with, a religious organization does not have to allow lesbians as rabbis. The problem is when religious organizations are operating in the public arena, with lunch banks, day camps, shelters. Then it’s very difficult to allow a religious organization to go against the public policy of the state.”

Republican Jewish spokesmen turned down requests for comment, but the amendment was not likely to help their efforts to appeal to Jews on domestic issues.

The emphasis before the 2004 election on Bush’s friendship with Israel and his tough reputation on security issues failed to make much of a dent on the Jewish Republican vote, which crept up to between 23 percent and 25 percent from about 19 percent in 2000.

Since then, Jewish Republicans have learned the lesson of emphasizing foreign policy too much and have carefully calibrated a social message designed to appeal to younger Jews. In Jewish newspaper advertisements and in stump speeches, Bush’s pro-business record is pitched to Jewish voters who may be more fiscally conservative than their parents.

And spokesmen like party chairman Ken Mehlman, who is Jewish, bluntly acknowledge to Jews that the Democrats were on the right side of history when they backed civil rights in the 1960s; but they say that Bush has inherited that mantle with his efforts to promote democracy abroad and force education reforms at home.

The most prominent Jewish Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would vote against the amendment. He cited classic Republican small government philosophy: government “ought to be kept off our backs, out of our pocketbooks and out of our bedrooms,” Specter said, according to The New York Times.

Democrats said the marriage amendment would help cripple such efforts.

“The Republicans are saddled with an agenda that’s horrific to the vast majority of American Jews,” said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Supporters of the amendment said they believed momentum was on their side. A similar effort in 2004 garnered just 48 Senate votes; this effort will top 50, they believe.

Abba Cohen, the Washington director of Agudath Israel of America, said he believed all Americans would eventually internalize the amendment’s moral arguments.

“This battle will be won in stages,” he said. “It takes time for the nation to fully absorb the implications of allowing same-sex marriage and the effect it will have on traditional families.”

The Reform movement’s Pelavin said his impression was that time was on the side of opponents of the amendment.

“This isn’t a fight that we picked, this is a fight that the president and the Republican leadership have picked,” he said. “This is an issue of fairness.”

 

Conservative Minyan OKs Gay Blessing


Members of Temple Beth Am’s Library Minyan voted on March 15 to allow a gay couple to receive a special blessing on Shabbat in anticipation of the couple’s commitment ceremony, marking the first time the Westside Conservative congregation has officially addressed how to handle a gay lifecycle event.

While the blessing — a Mi Sheberach akin to a prewedding aufruf for straight couples — does not itself raise serious questions of Jewish law, the vote was widely viewed as a referendum on how the Library Minyan weighs in on gay issues. The 73 to 11 vote in favor of the rite was an overwhelming affirmation by the minyan, a lay-led prayer and learning community founded in 1971 that is affiliated with Beth Am and is home to influential academics and rabbis in the Conservative movement.

The vote came as national leaders are debating the rights of gays within Conservative Judaism. On March 8, the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards delayed until December 2006 a much-anticipated decision on whether the movement should ordain gay rabbis and/or allow its clergy to officiate at gay commitment ceremonies.

The Conservative movement walks a precarious middle ground on this issue, officially affirming the civil rights of gays and welcoming them into congregations, but not ordaining gay rabbis or blessing same-sex unions, according to a 1992 policy.

That internal conflict played out last week at the Library Minyan, which is among the first Los Angeles Conservative congregations to host gay aufruf.

The debate was heavily one-sided, according to those present, and Rabbi Joel Rembaum, senior rabbi at Beth Am and a founder of the Library Minyan, supported the measure. Rabbi Rembaum authored the Mi Sheberach — a short blessing recited during an aliyah to the Torah — after he was approached in December by a member of the congregation who is having a commitment ceremony with his partner in May at the Reform Temple Kol Ami in West Hollywood.

“I didn’t ask Rabbi Rembaum to perform the ceremony, because I didn’t think he was ready,” said R., who has been a member of the minyan for seven years and who asked not to have his name made public. “But I told Rabbi Rembaum that I would like to involve the community in some way, and I didn’t think there would be terrible issues.”

Rabbi Rembaum’s thinking on the matter has evolved. He said he believes that homosexuality is not a choice, but the way God made a person. He interprets the biblical prohibition against a man lying with a man as part of the Bible’s war against paganism, since homosexual sex was seen as an expression of Caananite ritual. While he still holds traditional marriage as the ideal, he believes that when two men, or two women, want to sanctify their love and frame their lives in Jewish values, Judaism should support that.

Rabbi Rembaum said that, if the law committee approves it, he would consider officiating at gay commitment ceremonies.

“I think I have come around to the point where I am ready,” he said. The question of the Mi Sheberach is much simpler. The Conservative movement calls for synagogues to embrace gays and leaves the doling out of synagogue honors to the rabbi.

Beth Am’s ritual committee unanimously approved the Mi Sheberach, and the Library Minyan’s ritual committee decided to bring it before a full plenary of the Minyan.

The March 15 meeting attracted about 100 members. Rabbi Rembaum presented his views, and so did Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a minyan member who is a rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism and a member of the national Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

Rabbi Dorff, long a proponent of gay rights, also summarized the opposing position, since efforts to fly in a speaker who supports the status quo were unsuccessful. Some were concerned that the opposing side did not get a fair shot. The overwhelmingly pro-aufruf sentiment, some present say, intimidated the opposition.

“I was disappointed in the way it was handled,” said Larry Weinman, a minyan member for 10 years. “I thought people who were on the opposing side were treated impolitely.”

Some in the opposition simply did not buy the reinterpretation of a seemingly clear-cut biblical prohibition against male-male sex. Others were undecided but had a problem with the curtailed debate and quick vote, which they say did not comport with the Library Minyan’s acclaimed democratic process.

But even the opposition acknowledges that if the process were different, the result would still have been the same.

On the national level, the outcome is still up in the air.

In the last three years, the committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which interprets Jewish law and sets legal policy for the movement, reopened the 1992 policy against commitment ceremonies and ordaining gays.

Last week, the 25-member committee was presented with four responsa — two for retaining the status quo and two for changing the policy. It takes six votes to approve a responsum, and the committee can issue multiple responsa. After a two-day closed meeting, the committee decided to delay the vote, because it wanted to leave time for revisions.

But Dorff, who will take the leadership of the law committee after this issue is decided, believes the decision was delayed because four of the five members who rotate off the committee this week favored liberal interpretations.

“My guess is that people knew that if they could delay a decision, by next December it would be much harder to get liberal teshuvot [responsa] passed,” Dorff said.

But he sees change on the ground. He estimates that 50 Conservative rabbis currently perform gay marriages.

For R. and his partner, such a sign of change is welcome news.

The debate and vote were “a trying and terrible experience that took away from what should have been a joyful part of my life,” said R. “But I believe that it made a point and that the synagogue will grow stronger for it.”

 

Same-Sex Marriage Poses Key Questions


I can’t prove that allowing same-sex marriage would be bad for society.

Of course, people terrified of global warming can’t even prove it exists, but that doesn’t stop former Vice President Al Gore from delivering a grave warning on the coldest day of the year.

If he can speculate, so can I. So why might someone oppose same-sex marriage?

My first question would be, is marriage important? Important, that is, to society. Most proponents of same-sex marriage seem to think it’s not, that it’s the grownup equivalent of going to the prom — if boy-girl couples can go, why not boy-boy or girl-girl couples?

To them, marriage is just another form of self-expression. This is evident in the overused question: How does so-and-so’s same-sex relationship threaten your marriage?

That question regards marriage as purely personal: You’ve got yours and I’ve got mine. What’s missing is any sense of marriage as a social institution.

Because if marriage isn’t important, if it’s just a way for couples to show their love to the world, then denying it to anyone would be cruel and pointless. So how do we answer the question? How do we know if marriage is important?

Because every human society, ancient or modern, religious or secular, Jewish or Christian or secular has had the institution of marriage. I guess I’m a Darwinist: If every society has evolved an institution, then I’m reluctant to tamper with it, just as even if I had no idea what the heart did, just the fact that every animal has one would make me very, very cautious about cutting into it.

A society’s evolution is for survival just as much as an organism’s is. Compare marriage to friendship, for example. Society lets us form friendship without a ceremony and dissolve it without going to court. Why? Because while my relationship with my buddy may be very important to the two of us, it’s just not all that important to society, unlike my marriage to my wife.

What does marriage do for a society? I can think of two things.

The first benefit is often discussed: Marriage seeks to provide the ideal situation for raising children, a stable household with a father and a mother. To say that two men — or two women – can raise a child just as well is to say that mothers — or fathers — are irrelevant, a dangerous message when studies suggest that boys raised without a father are more than twice as likely to end up in prison, and girls raised without a father are more than four times as likely to get pregnant as teens.

The other benefit of traditional marriage, little-discussed even by opponents of same-sex marriage, is society’s huge interest in curbing the aggressive energy of men and channeling it into productive activities. In segments of society with an overabundance of unattached men, we see crime, promiscuous sex and fatherless children.

Marriage channels male energy into things like raising children and supporting families and away from things like crime: Unmarried (heterosexual) men are more than five times as likely to end up in prison as married men.

Maybe allowing men to form marriages with other men could help society by stabilizing their relationships. But why, then, didn’t marriage evolve that way in the first place, as a union of any two people?

Because society’s idea of marriage has always been to tame men, not by hooking them up with someone but by hooking them up with women. Women bring a different energy, a different point of view to marriage, and it’s their energy that tames men, domesticates them, if you will. Without that domestication, society is in big trouble.

Finally, advocates argue that allowing same-sex marriage might not help society, but it would leave the benefits of opposite-sex marriage in place. After all, the vast majority of men will still marry women, excepting only gay men who — in this day and age — wouldn’t marry women anyway. I don’t think so.

Allowing the unimportant will dilute the important. Allowing men to marry men and women to marry women will make marriage more like simple friendship. Because of the importance or raising children and taming men, society is wounded whenever a traditional marriage breaks up. But if two married men were to divorce, society would suffer no more than when two friends call it quits.

If we allow same-sex marriage, there won’t be two sets of rules: All marriages will have to be treated the same. The traditional marriages that are so vital to society will be treated like the same-sex marriages that are not. It would become less important.

We didn’t build our society. We’re like people who have inherited a house built long before we were born, and every now and then we walk around and decide we want to change something — the décor is old-fashioned or it fails to reflect our unique style.

Right now we’re thinking about working on the wall called marriage, but before we do we should ask an important question: Are we just repainting or are we tearing down a structural wall that’s holding the building up?


Sandy Frank, a former Wall Street lawyer and Emmy-winning comedy writer, is still waiting for his invitation to join the vast right-wing conspiracy.

Gay Marriage


Just married in San Francisco, Mindy Blum and Pam Postrel returned home to Pasadena to find that their kids had decorated the house in balloons and signs congratulating “Mom and Mommy.”

For days after, Eve, 7, shouted in playground sing-song, “I have married parents! I have married parents!”

“Coming from her, especially, it really just hit us where we live,” said Postrel, who has been with Blum for 16 years. The two are also mothers to Matt, 5.

It hit them, in fact, much more than they had anticipated.

“For some reason, the societal recognition is important to both of us. We kind of felt like it shouldn’t be — like who cares — but it is a big deal,” Postrel said.

Amid a flurry of legal activity and political posturing, the topic of gay marriage has moved with lightning speed from being an obscure issue reserved for advocates and their seasoned respondents to the forefront of political, emotional and intellectual debate.

Advocates and opponents of gay marriage are in agreement about what is at stake here: giving same-sex marriage equal status as heterosexual marriage. Where they differ is on the impact. Gays and their supporters say marriage is the only way to guarantee their constitutional right to equal protection under the law. Opponents say gay marriage will lead to nothing less than the unraveling of society.

At the heart of the debate is an intertwining of the social, religious and legal fibers that combine to form marriage and questions regarding to what extent those fibers can or should be untangled.

Opponents of same-sex marriage say that trying to separate the spiritual and legal definitions of marriage is a disingenuous exercise, since marriage is defined by a society that bases itself on moral, and very often religious-based, values and uses those values to decide who will reap the benefits of society.

“Our society is based upon Judeo-Christian values, and as much as people would like to think we are completely divorced from religion, that is simply not the case,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, rabbi of the Orthodox Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park. “Our society does make moral judgments, and ultimately, moral judgments are based on a moral compass. And where does that come from? For most people in the United States, that moral compass comes from the Bible.”

Advocates say society would benefit from loving couples and their children being afforded the same legal protections and benefits as anyone else. They argue that choosing one religious definition of marriage over another to determine who receives governmental benefits is unconstitutional.

“We are dangerously overlapping church and state in the whole legal marriage discussion,” said Rabbi Lisa Edwards, leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) on Pico Boulevard, which was the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue. “I do think that God needs to be part of the conversation within the Jewish community and other religious communities, but I don’t think God ought to be part of the larger legal, public discussion.”

Bringing religion in obscures the basic civil rights issue that is at the heart of this, advocates say.

“This movement for gay marriages is plain and simple about helping families protect themselves, using the mechanisms our society has created to protect families and to protect partners in loving relationships, and to have them live up to the rights and responsibilities that go along with that,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, rabbi of Kol Ami, West Hollywood’s Reform Synagogue, and a member of the steering committee of the California Freedom to Marry Coalition.

But many fear the consequences of taking God out of foundational societal mores.

“A godless society is not a healthy society,” Korobkin said. “It may be functional, but if there is no larger cause that unifies the people and calls them to a higher moral standard, then that society is doomed to a short-lived and amoral tenure.”

One idea being floated is taking the state out of the marriage business altogether. The state would offer civil unions to everyone — gay and straight couples — and leave the sanctification to religious bodies.

“It makes sense to me to get city hall out of the marriage business and put that squarely in the hands of the religious leaders,” said Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi who came out of the closet a few years ago. “The advantage of this approach is that nobody uses civil marriage as a bully pulpit to force one religious view of marriage or another on the larger body politic.”

But gay couples acknowledge — and opponents are quick to agree — that it is both an emotion and legal challenge to make that separation. The bestowal of the hundreds of legal rights and protections that go along with the word “marriage” signifies a societal acceptance that is an equally, if not more, important goal of the movement to legalize same-gender marriage.

“My parents have this piece of paper, and we wanted to have the same piece of paper and have the same experience,” says Bracha Yael, holding up the framed marriage license she and her partner of 24 years, Davi Cheng, signed in San Francisco in February. “For me it confirms that our relationship is equal; that my parents’ relationship is not somehow greater than ours.”

It is only in the last seven or eight years that Cheng and Yael have lived openly and proudly as lesbians. In 1998, they had a Jewish wedding at BCC, with many friends and almost no family members.

“There has been this tremendous arc in our relationship, from being fully closeted, where no one had to tell us we were less than, because we already thought we were less than, through these trials and tribulations to the other side, where we’re equal within society, but mainly within ourselves,” said Yael, a contractor.

When they announced they had gotten married, even Cheng’s “Rush Limbaugh Republican” colleague cried and hugged her.

It is just that kind of validation and acceptance of facts on the ground that opponents don’t want to see, that they say can lead to the slippery slope of a society with no moral foothold.

“I don’t want children to start thinking at the age of 7, when somebody says, ‘Who are you going to marry?’ ‘Well, maybe it will be Johnny or maybe it will be Jennifer,'” said Dennis Prager, the conservative KRLA radio talk show host who debated same-sex marriage at the University of Judaism on May 12 with Greenberg and others.

He argues that the question of same-sex marriage has nothing to do with civil rights, since, just like anyone else, gays are permitted to marry members of the opposite sex.

Prager said that society does and should define the terms of who can marry — such as prohibitions on brothers and sisters marrying each other or polygamy.

“Utah was banned from admission to the union until it prohibited polygamy. Why was that not anti-Mormon or violating the rights of Mormons?” Prager asks.

Prager said his issue is not with gays who want to be in relationships, it is with those who want to make those relationships equal to heterosexual marriage.

“Everybody has a line they draw, and the burden of argument is on those who wish to redefine an institution that has had only one meaning in the history of civilization,” Prager said.

While opponents of same-sex marriage draw parallels to polygamy and incest, advocates compare it to the ban on interracial marriage, which California became the first state to lift in 1948.

Experts estimate that anywhere between 3 percent and 10 percent of all people are homosexual, and a growing number of gays are weaving themselves into society as proud couples and families.

“I understand it’s this huge cultural shift for some people, but the fact of the matter is it has been going on for years in some form or fashion, whether it was called marriage or not,” said Samuel Bernstein-Shore, who married Ronald, his partner of 10 years, in Vancouver last summer and at Temple Kol Ami in 1996. “By having this discussion, people are forced to acknowledge that we exist, and that we exist in a loving and committed way.”

When the Bernstein-Shores married in Canada, they didn’t realize that their marriage would not be portable — that in most places in the United States, that marriage license would be meaningless.

It is one of the many legal confusions arising out of the incremental gains and setbacks to legalizing same-sex marriage.

Marriages performed in San Francisco in February remain valid while the California Supreme Court weighs the issue, taking into account both the 4,000 couples who are already married and the 2000 Defense of Marriage initiative, which defined marriage as between a man and woman. But like marriages and civil unions performed in Vermont, Canada or starting this week in Massachusetts, California gay marriages may not be recognized in other states. Before February there were four cases before courts nationwide. Today, there are at least two dozen.

Gay couples in California have been able to register as domestic partners since 1979, and the rights associated with domestic partnership — rights to hospital visits, power of attorney, limited inheritance rights, benefits for partners of state employees, sick leave to care for partners — have been increasing over the years.

In January 2005, a new law will take effect in California that gives domestic partners — which is limited to same-sex couples or senior citizens — nearly all the same state and county rights as married couples, though none of the federal rights. It will also remove other existing inequities, such as gay partners having to pay taxes on insurance benefits for a partner.

The constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman, if enacted, would pull the plug on states that have already allowed marriages and not leave many options open to gay rights advocates.

Jewish law, meanwhile, divides along denominational lines. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was the first to ordain gay rabbis, starting in 1984, and endorsed officiating at gay marriages in 1993.

The Reform movement has been ordaining gay rabbis since 1990. Reform rabbis have been performing same sex-ceremonies since the 1970s, and in 2000, the movement passed a resolution endorsing rabbis who choose to officiate and supporting the personal autonomy of those who don’t.

Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements endorse civil gay marriages.

Simcha DuBowski’s movie, “Trembling Before G-d,” chronicling the struggle of gays within the Orthodox movement, along with Greenberg’s coming out, opened up in some Orthodox circles conversations about how to act more sensitively, even when open homosexuality is not sanctioned by halacha.

It is in the Conservative movement that the conversation is most active and possibly divisive.

“I think many people who want to retain the traditional stance feel intimidated by an increasing number of people who demand politically correct statements and politically correct positions and are eager to demonize those who would uphold traditional standards, as opposed to going with the more liberal reforms, and that is hurtful to people,” said Rabbi Perry Rank, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

The questions of same-sex commitment ceremonies and ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis are currently before the movement’s influential Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. By next March, the committee will consider teshuvot (halachic treatises) prepared by its members and most likely will ultimately validate several positions. Conservative rabbis will be free to choose which to follow.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism, is vice chair of the law committee and had been slated to become its chairman last year. But because his views are clearly on the left on this issue — he advocates full equality — the committee deferred his chairmanship until the question has been decided.

Dorff believes it is clear that gays do not choose to be gay and cannot become straight and that society has an interest in seeing loving, stable, monogamous relationships.

With those factors motivating his study, Dorff believes it is imperative to narrow down the interpretation of the verses in Leviticus prohibiting male-male sex.

“I am not in any way shape or form trying to ignore the verses or change them by takanah [rabbinic decree]. All I am doing is saying that we should understand those verses differently from our ancestors, who understood them to prohibit all homosexual sex. We should understand them to prohibit only promiscuous, oppressive or cultic sex, but loving monogamous homosexual sex would be outside of those verses and would be something we want to sanctify,” Dorff said.

Whether or not Dorff’s opinion will prevail, it is clear that within both American society and the Jewish community, the terms of the conversation have changed.

Gays who once would have been thrilled with civil unions are now pushing for full marriage.

And some who might never have considered civil unions are now open to it. Korobkin, the Orthodox rabbi from Hancock Park who is firmly against gay marriage, not only believes the Orthodox community should be more tolerant and sensitive to gays, but he is open to the idea of giving loving partners legal status other than marriage to afford them rights and protections.

“If two people have committed themselves to each other as partners, they should have a right to designate another person of whatever gender as the primary caregiver or life partner, and I think that person should have special privileges,” he said. “I think it would be a callous society that would deny a homosexual the comfort and consolation of his life partner.”

Michael and Bob


It was not your typical wedding invitation — a Monday morning phone call inquiring if my husband and I would be available that afternoon when our friends Michael and Bob were hoping to marry at San Francisco’s City Hall. They decided to marry years ago, but instead of throwing an expensive party they bought a house together and put off the ceremony for some other time. Then suddenly, rebelliously, there were weddings being performed in San Francisco. A judge was considered likely to halt the ceremonies in a matter of days, and our friends decided they were ready.

We hurried home to shower and dress for a wedding. We scrambled for a babysitter, but then decided we wanted to bring our daughter along. Michael and Bob had celebrated so many milestones in her very young life, and since something sacred was going to happen to them, too, we wanted her to be a part of it.

As we raced into the city, worried we would miss the ceremony, I remembered how graciously Michael and Bob had waited with my husband and me in the hours before our wedding. They made friends with our friends. They remembered our siblings’ names, chatted with our parents. They kept us smiling and held our hands during countless rounds of photographs. And once it was over they hoisted us high in our chairs during the celebratory hora. The only openly gay couple in attendance, they bravely shared a slow dance together among the other members of the wedding party.

The scene outside City Hall was jubilant. A mariachi band was playing. There were dancers in top hats. Strangers handed each other wedding cake and offered to snap pictures for each new set of newlyweds as they emerged from the ornate building. A woman was throwing rice at newly married couples, and when she ran out of rice she bent down and picked individual grains off the sidewalk and threw them again. It was raining. All of the couples drew cheers of congratulations as they walked out of the building, but the prettiest lesbians got the loudest cheers. Some things are changing, but some things never change.

Inside City Hall, the mood was more serious. Michael and Bob had been standing in line for hours already by the time we reached them. Our friends were dressed beautifully in their best suits, and they were appropriately nervous. When we joined up with them — waiting in yet another line to receive their marriage license — Michael was talking on a cell phone with his mother in New York. His sister, who lives in San Francisco, was the only relative able to make it in time.

As I watched our friends pin pale purple orchids to each other’s lapels, sadness and outrage mingled with the happy excitement I had been feeling all afternoon. This was a bold, historic time in San Francisco and hundreds of city employees and volunteers were working themselves weary to make it happen. I was overjoyed that our friends — and the 819 other couples who wed that day — would finally have the opportunity to make official their private commitments to each other. There was reason for celebration, but we all knew they and their families deserved better.

Michael and Bob are lawyers, scholars and good, law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes, love their families and mow their lawn. After Sept. 11, when San Francisco was swirling with apologists for terror, they hung an American flag in the window of their home. Michael is Jewish and Bob is not. Neither has a particular appetite for subterfuge.

It is a scary, generous act to bind your future to another’s — not the sort of thing one should have to engage in acts of civil disobedience to achieve.

On their wedding day, Michael and Bob deserved to be surrounded by their families and friends. They deserved time to plan the details exactly how they wanted them, to shop for rings and select meaningful cultural or religious rituals to include in their ceremony. They deserved the chance to pose for pictures over and over and over again until everyone was satisfied, and to be hoisted high up on their chairs in celebration when it was over.

Suddenly it was their turn to be married. We were hurried to the bustling, elegant rotunda of City Hall and a tired but enthusiastic woman who wore a green shirt and clutched a clipboard pronounced Michael and Bob “spouses for life.”

They had chosen the spot on the grand marble staircase where they uttered their vows. They had chosen each other. And in the dizzying, echoing chaos of San Francisco that Presidents’ Day, they had chosen to look beyond the shortcomings of their society and embrace one of its most sacred institutions. Our video camera was rolling.

Maybe it wasn’t all that they deserved, but at the same time it seemed like a lot.


Karen Alexander is a journalist in Northern California.

Your Letters


Who Should Pay?

While Sharon Schatz Rosenthal’s cover story notes that dayschools are costly, it fails to address cost efficiency (“Who Should Pay?” Jan.31). I believe the Jewish community’s limited funding can be more effectivelytargeted at bolstering supplementary secondary schools. A good example is theLos Angeles Hebrew High School (LAHHS), which Dr. Samuel Dinin established(“Legacy in Motion,” Jan. 31).

LAHHS serves more than 500 teenagers who concurrently attendsecular high schools. With more than three dozen distinguished faculty members,its educational program is on par with the best full-time Jewish high schools.Yet, tuition is around one-tenth the cost.

Leonard M. Solomon, LAHHS Board of Trustees Los Angeles

There’s another reason some of us are unable to send ourchildren to Jewish day schools — the lack of after-school care at most of theschools. Catch 22: We work to be able to afford Jewish day school tuition, butstill can’t send our children there because the schools are not willing toaccommodate working, two-parent families.

Name Withheld Upon Request, Woodland Hills

The truth of the Jewish community is that the vast majorityof non-Orthodox students attend supplementary schools and will continue to doso.

I take particular issue with the article’s innuendo that theLos Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education could be more financially supportive ofday schools. That may be, but they are more supportive of supplementary schoolsthan most, striving to raise the quality of teachers and the esteem of thework.

It is my hope that when we talk about Jewish education, wecan engage in discussion about communal goals and the myriad options that areand could be available.

Cheri Ellowitz Silver, Education Director   Congregation NerTamid of South Bay

Editorial

I am unable to comprehend Rob Eshman’s logic regardingPresident Bush’s State of the Union address (“Ich Bin ein Missourian,” Jan.31). Saddam will never comply with the U.N. resolutions that demand hiscooperation to reveal what he has done with the weapons of mass destruction. Noamount of inspection is going to find what he has hidden.

Michael Brooks, West Hills

Interfaith Families

As a Catholic Latino married to a Jewish woman, I havelearned that many Jews consider interfaith marriage a terrible threat to thesurvival of the Jewish people (“Jews Must Draw in Interfaith Families,” Jan.24). I understand this concern, but I would argue that the threat is notnecessarily mixed marriage, but rather the Jewish community’s treatment ofmixed families. My wife and I are committed to raising our children as Jews.Sadly, while we’ve belonged to a Reform congregation for many years and havetried to become part of the temple community, we’ve had very limited success.Typically, we have been treated with reactions ranging from indifference tosuspicion. We are politely tolerated, but feel relegated to a marginal status.

In contrast, the church I attend supports a group ofCatholics married to Jews. The parish seems to welcome these families, fullyintegrating them in the church community. Although we as a family are notchurch members, we have developed closer relationships with this group than wehave with families at our temple.

Over the years, the few mixed families we’ve encountered atthe temple have gradually drifted away. We have also started looking foranother congregation. We’ll continue trying to find a Jewish community where wefit in. However, I often wonder how my children will feel about Judaism if theyare always kept at the margins.

R. Hernandez, Los Angeles

Gay Rabbis

Although I am a traditional Jewish man with traditionalideas, I support the idea of allowing gays and lesbians to become Conservativepulpit rabbis (“A Conservative Challenge,” Jan. 17). The Conservative movementshould reconsider its position and at least discuss the issue. Why should anyJewish person be excluded from fulfilling his or her dreams because of personalpreferences? The Conservative movement allowing women to become pulpit rabbisin 1985 was a great decision and helped fortify the views of ConservativeJudaism.

Israel Weiss, Agoura Hills

Correction

In Rabbi Michael Beals’ letter to the editor (Jan. 31), TheJournal incorrectly added the translation “repentance” next to the word teshuvot,which here meant “a rabbinic response to a query, based on halacha (Jewishlaw).” We regret the error.

A Graceless Will?


Is Jewish the new gay? That’s how it’s looking this season on NBC’s "Will and Grace." Grace’s (Debra Messing) romance with hunky Jewish doctor Leo Markus (Harry Connick Jr.) has been a source of conflict between her and gay best friend, Will (Eric McCormack), ever since Leo rode in on a white horse in last year’s season finale. On the Nov. 21 episode, Grace and Leo got married, suggesting a threat to the very survival of Will and Grace’s friendship.

Mixed in with the usual bawdy jokes and witticisms has been an unusual amount of seriousness this season, as the two friends have struggled with the changing nature of their relationship. They ended last season thinking they were going to have a baby together, but Grace’s new romance changed everything, causing a bitter fight between them in one episode. The recent wedding episode (filmed in part at Temple Israel of Hollywood) was especially bittersweet. Amid jokes that included Will using kippot as shoulder pads, came heartfelt exchanges between the two, as Will worked through his resentment and tried to be happy for Grace.

Show co-creator and executive producer David Kohan conceded the marriage is a problem for the dynamic between the best friends. "I’d love her to find a Jewish love interest, but that relationship might actually work, and then there’d be no more ‘Will & Grace’" he told The Journal last year. Kohan has since changed his mind.

"They had to move forward in their lives in some way," he said, noting that the writers have had to deal with making the two "vital to one another."

While remaining unspecific, Kohan implies it’s unlikely the Jewish husband will displace the gay best friend. "Let me put it this way, at some point down the road, something is going to have to intervene," he said.

"Will & Grace" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.