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.

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.

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!

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


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.”