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.

Opinion: Same-sex marriage campaigns should heed local sentiments


The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Since the May 8 vote to approve North Carolina’s Amendment One referendum, which constitutionally bars the state from recognizing as legal any marriage other than that of a man to a woman, his words still ring true. Our march toward justice for all citizens of North Carolina, for all God’s children, is incomplete.

In Judaism, a “heshbon hanefesh” is an “accounting of the soul.” The concept helps us clarify how we go forward.

Our campaign against Amendment One made significant inroads in mobilizing the support and energy of the state’s African-American community, thanks in large part to the incredible leadership of the North Carolina NAACP’s president, the Rev. William Barber. He framed the issue as one of basic civil rights, upholding the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, rather than just as an issue of marriage, and that resonated with many African-American community leaders.

In doing so, he strengthened opposition to Amendment One while acknowledging that many will, and are entitled to, have major problems with same-sex marriages. I found the shift from support of the amendment to opposition heartening.

The fight joined many committed people who worked to create a “coalition for goodness and justice.” Our dynamic group, whose members barely knew each other when we started, will continue to fight for social justice issues for all North Carolinians.

Nonetheless, the defeat was far worse than expected. The amendment passed by a whopping 21 percentage points even though polls had predicted a 10-point victory.

So what exactly went wrong?

Professor Maxine Eichner of the University of North Carolina School of Law and other experts, including family-law professors from most of the state’s law schools, detailed the possible harmful and unintended consequences of the amendment. One poll indicated that people would vote against the amendment if it were shown to harm families and children. Reliance on this information became the campaign’s strategy.

But basing a campaign on such information was a major tactical error, and several in the anti-amendment coalition tried to point this out. For two weeks prior to the referendum, amendment supporters ran an effective campaign countering Eichner’s arguments. It included call-in phone briefings with lawyers dismissing the fears raised by the professor.

The “don’t harm families” approach also was reflected in the name of the major organization against the amendment—“Protect NC Families.” The name does not say what the organization stands for and is close in name to “Focus on the Family,” a national organization that opposes recognition of gay marriage. This similarity led to confusion.

I’m also not sure that those who came from out of state to help defeat Amendment One understood the people of North Carolina. They were well meaning, but now move on to another battleground. Their record on defeating these amendments is 33 losses and one victory. Is not a strategy change warranted?

Amendment One passed overwhelmingly because of the opposition’s inability to reframe the debate from marriage and on to civil rights. Months ago some of us warned that many North Carolinians who opposed same-sex marriages would vote against the amendment if they thought it was discriminatory and denied equal protection as guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.

The response was that the argument might gain traction in Greensboro, with its unique civil-rights history (the original sit-ins occurred at the downtown Woolworth department store), but would not resonate elsewhere in the state. Opponents also worried that it would shift focus from the “don’t harm families” strategy in a way that would be harmful at the polls.

The unexpectedly high margin of defeat tells us that basing the campaign on potential harms to families was a tactical error.

A related step that Amendment One opponents should have taken was to emphasize and publicize the pronouncements of prominent conservatives and libertarians who opposed the measure. They generally based their opposition on the same civil rights argument regarding violating the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of equal protection.

Finally, the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 52 percent of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Yet a significant number are afraid that legalizing same-sex marriage would force their clergy to officiate at such marriages. Consequently, they oppose same-sex marriage laws. Once people learned that no law could ever be passed that would require a faith community or clergy member to perform such a ceremony – that would be unconstitutional—support for the legalization of same-sex marriages increased to 58 percent.

Would this amendment have passed if the campaign been managed differently? No one can be sure. Many against the amendment feel that had local people been listened to, the vote could have at least been closer.

Our next step, aside from various legal challenges, should be to convene focus groups of those who opposed Amendment One. We have to ask the serious questions and plan a new strategy.

As King wrote, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Indeed, but the arc will bend only if those of us who care act wisely in our efforts to bend it.

Rabbi Fred Guttman is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C.

Motion to vacate Prop 8 ruling over Judge Walker’s sexuality is denied


A federal judge has denied Prop 8 proponents’ motion to vacate Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling against a ban on same-sex marriage over Walker’s sexuality, ” title=”CNN.com” target=”_blank”>CNN.com.

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