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.

Jews vocal on both sides of France’s gay marriage debate


Wide-eyed and smiley, Elay-Gabriel seems utterly unaffected by the French media’s sudden interest in him.

A dozen French journalists have visited the 18-month-old in recent months because he is trapped in a sort of legal limbo: He cannot obtain citizenship because the state does not recognize children born to surrogates abroad as French, even if one of their biological parents is a French national.

Complicating matters is the fact that Elay-Gabriel is being raised by two gay Parisians — Israeli-born Eran and his partner, Jean-Louis. (The family asked that their last name not be published.) Gay couples cannot adopt in France, meaning that surrogacy — and the citizenship uncertainties which follow — are inevitable for gays wishing to raise children.

“We learned singles practically can’t adopt, and gays are all singles in France because we can’t marry,” Eran said.

Much of that could change if President Francois Hollande succeeds in his effort to push legislation through parliament that would allow same-sex marriage in France, a move that has set off a fiery public debate in which Jews have played an outsized role.

In October, Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, breaking with the French rabbinate’s traditional neutrality on issues of civil legislation, penned an essay on the negative effects of gay marriage. Bernheim argued that legalization efforts are made for “the exclusive profit of a tiny minority” and are part of a wider move to “undermine the heterosexual fundamentals of our society.”

France’s association of Jewish homosexuals, Beit Haverim, condemned Bernheim’s language as “bellicose.” But the document has been quoted at length in influential French dailies and was cited approvingly by Pope Benedict, who called it “profoundly moving” during his Christmas address to Vatican officials.

Bernheim’s essay was a notable contrast to the inflammatory reaction of France’s Catholic clergy. Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, said in an interview that the law would bring about “social collapse,” adding, “Next they’ll want to have foursomes. Then they’ll legalize incest.”

“When the Catholics spoke against this law, nobody listened because of the vehemence and because they’re Pavlovian opponents of change,” Yeshaya Dalsace, a well-known Conservative rabbi from Paris, told JTA. “People listened to Bernheim because the Jews are known as progressive forces of change in law, medicine, labor — you name it.”

For many, the debate is largely a nominal question of principle, as legal workarounds afford French gays de facto equality in most areas. Parenting, however, is an exception.

In November, Eran met with several French Socialist lawmakers leading the gay marriage effort. On Jan. 29, French media reported that Justice Minister Christiane Taubira ordered authorities to naturalize the dozens of surrogate children like Elay-Gabriel who are living as foreigners in France.

“This is positive, but a directive could be canceled and cannot replace legislation,” Eran said.

Preliminary deliberations on the “marriage for all” bill began in parliament on Jan. 28. With Hollande’s Socialist Party holding a majority in both houses, the law is likely to pass.

Still, the debate has ignited passions. Only a bare majority — 52 percent — supports the law, according to a poll of 1,002 adults published Jan. 13 by the newsweekly Le Point. The first discussion in parliament was preceded by a demonstration in Paris by some 340,000 opponents of the legislation. Another 120,000 demonstrated in favor.

The divide is similarly evident within France’s Jewish community.

Joel Mergui, president of the French Consistoire, a state-recognized body responsible for synagogues and religious Jewish services, spoke out against gay marriage in September, telling Le Monde, “It would change the natural model of the family.”

Dalsace has emerged as something of a spokesman for the other side, penning a 37-page essay and several Op-Eds disputing Bernheim’s reasoning and asserting that the law does not infringe on religious liberties. But while he is routinely quoted by supporters of gay marriage, Dalsace maintains that rabbis should not get involved in debating civil law. His objective in speaking out, Dalsace told JTA, is “to fight the false impression that Bernheim speaks for all Jews.”

While no data exist on where French Jews stand on the gay marriage question, experts say the Jewish community of 550,000 — the world’s third-largest — is gradually becoming more traditional and inclined to oppose Hollande’s law.

“The affiliated Jewish community of France is becoming more and more religious and traditional, and that is part of the influence of the large North African contingent which arrived here in the 1950s and '60s,” said Gideon Kouts, head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Culture at Paris 8 University.

Whether or not religious opposition to the law is sufficient to prevent its passage is an open question, but it's certainly not going to deter the French president. In an article in Le Figaro last month about an “informal talk” he had with a group of clergymen that included Bernheim, Hollande made clear that he planned to stand his ground.

“We don’t make laws based on demonstrations,” Hollande said. “[Because] if we did, we'd be letting the street decide.”

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.

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

Conservative rabbinic group issues guidelines for same-sex wedding rituals


A landmark vote last week by the Conservative movement’s rabbinic committee has established rituals for same-sex wedding ceremonies, affirming that same-sex marriages have “the same sense of holiness and joy as that expressed in heterosexual marriages.”

The decision by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly was several years in coming, following a 2006 vote by the committee “favor[ing] the establishment of committed and loving relationships for gay and lesbian Jews.”

But the 2006 responsum declined to specify rituals for establishing gay and lesbian relationships, calling them “complicated and controversial questions that deserve a separate study.”

Last week’s position paper, which was adopted by a vote of 13-0, with one abstention, fills that void by outlining two possible marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. The paper’s authors, Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner, were also the authors of a 2006 responsum titled “Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah,” which declared gays eligible for rabbinic ordination.

“This is the next step in the process of bringing about the full inclusion of LGBT Jews,” said Rabbi Aaron Weininger, the first openly gay student admitted to the rabbinical school at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “Visibility of LGBT people as individuals and couples makes us stronger as a Jewish community.”

Weininger, who received his rabbinic ordination this month, was consulted during the composition of last week’s paper.

The paper acknowledges that “same-sex intimate relationships are comprehensively banned by classical rabbinic law,” or halachah.

The biblical prohibition against homosexual intimacy appears in twice in Leviticus. “A man who lies with a male as with a woman, the two have committed an abomination,” says Leviticus 20:13. “They shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

The Conservative movement’s decision said that, “for observant gay and lesbian Jews who would otherwise be condemned to a life of celibacy or secrecy, their human dignity requires suspension of the rabbinic level prohibitions.”

Dorff, Nevins and Reisner proposed two possible ceremonies that incorporate what they deem to be the four key elements of a Jewish wedding—welcoming the couple, symbols of celebration, a document of covenant and blessings thanking God.

One ceremony hews closely to the traditional Jewish wedding, making changes in the language and the blessings based on the couple’s gender and sexuality. The other departs from that ceremony, with three blessings, for example, instead of the traditional seven.

The Conservative decision did not call same-sex marriages kiddushin, the traditional Jewish legal term for marriage, because that act of consecration is non-egalitarian and gender-specific. In the traditional kiddushin ceremony, a pair of blessings is recited and the bridegroom gives his bride a ring, proclaiming that he is marrying his bride “according to the laws of Moses and Israel.”

Such a ceremony would be inappropriate for same-sex ceremonies, the Conservative rabbis suggested in their position paper. They also noted that the use of kiddushin opens the door to divorce disputes in which husbands may deny their wife religious writs of divorce, or gets—something that “has been the source of great suffering in many Jewish communities.”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor, who has been performing same-sex marriages since 2002—four years before the movement permitted them—said that Jewish law is flexible, and should respond to changes within the Jewish community.

“Modern halachah has always seen the Torah as its center, but not any one meaning as the final interpretation,” said Creditor, the rabbi of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom. “There is a growing understanding from within Conservative Jews that our responsibility is to steward our community with clarity. Conservative Judaism believes halachah changes when it must.”

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who heads the LGBT Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, said that these new guidelines represent a major step forward in Conservative Judaism’s sensitivity toward the LGBT community.

“We can’t be held hostage to the radical right wing of the Jewish world,” said Kleinbaum, who was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. “The Conservative movement is rejecting religion based on bigotry.”

While the 2006 decision to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis and accept gay couples was controversial, even Rabbi Joel Roth, who resigned from the law committee in the wake of that decision, called this latest responsum “a very fine thing.”

“The fact that they created the ceremony is five or six years overdue,” he told JTA. “In the Conservative movement as it exists, the classical position [of forbidding gay relations] is considered non-normative.”

The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis endorsed Jewish gay marriage in the late 1990s while acknowledging the right of rabbis to choose whether or not to officiate at same-sex ceremonies. The Orthodox movement does not allow gay marriage.

Kleinbaum said she hopes that the Conservative movement’s next step in addressing LGBT issues will be in accommodating bisexual and transgender people.

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, the president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said that the movement’s constituency will determine its priorities.

“Ultimately,” he said, “the Jewish people have a tendency of deciding what the next item on the agenda will be.”

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.

Jewish couple the first same-sex pair to tie knot in NYC


Two elderly Jewish women were the first same-sex couple to marry in New York City.

Phyllis Siegel, 77, and Connie Kopelov, 85, were married in Lower Manhattan at 9:02 a.m. Sunday in a ceremony witnessed by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and officiated by City Clerk Michael McSweeny. Quinn is the first openly gay speaker of the New York City Council.

Siegel and Kopelov, who have been together for 23 years, reportedly were among 659 couples—gay and straight—who received marriage licenses on Sunday and 484 who held marriage ceremonies.

“It was just so amazing,” Siegel told the New York Post. “It’s the only way I can describe it. I lost my breath and a few tears.”

The couples married exactly one month after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a measure enacted by the State Legislature allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Also Sunday in New York City, Gregory Levin, 32, and Shane Serkiz, 33, of the Astoria section of Queens, who have been engaged since 1999, were the first same-sex couple married in that borough.

And at Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s home in New York, Mayor Mike Bloomberg officiated at a wedding for city Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jonathan Mintz and mayoral policy adviser John Feinblatt. After the vows, actor Joel Grey sang “Married” from the musical “Cabaret.” Bloomberg then introduced the traditional breaking of the glass, which the couple crushed underfoot.

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

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.”