As New Jersey hears gay marriage case, rabbis split along movement lines
Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Fanwood has only one issue when it comes to gay marriage: impatience.
Im looking forward to the day when gay marriage is sanctioned by the state and I can sign a legal document stating the couple was married without having to shlep all the way to Massachusetts, said the Reform rabbi.
The wait may soon be over. On Feb. 15, the NJ Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case brought by seven same-sex couples seeking the right to marry. The original lawsuit was filed in 2002. Abraham is one of about 250 clergy who signed onto an amicus brief filed by Garden State Equality, an organization that advocates on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals.
Should the couples win, however, Rabbi Elazar M. Teitz of the Jewish Educational Center community in Elizabeth, will see the result as an abomination. The Jewish position on gay marriage is clear, said the Orthodox rabbi, because it focuses on the behavior and not the individual.
Its a travesty of what marriage is. Judaism has nothing against a person with homosexual tendencies, but everything against the practice of homosexual acts, which are referred to in the Bible as an abomination. An individual may not be able to control what he feels, but he can and should control his actions, Teitz said.
On the evening before the case is heard, a rally in support of marriage equality, as a flyer advertises, will be held at Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist congregation in Montclair. The rally is sponsored by Garden State Equality, which is headed by Bnai Keshet member and Reconstructionist rabbinical student Steven Goldstein.
The issue is not as simple for rabbis across the spectrum of Jewish life as it is for Abraham and Teitz. The questions they raise can be generational, movement-directed, political, and personal. Most look to the Torah for guidance but interpretations vary widely. There is, in general, a break along denominational lines, with Orthodox rabbis clearly opposed to gay marriage and the liberal Reform and Reconstructionist movements largely in favor. The centrist Conservative movement is split, with its rabbis in the midst of a long debate over its ban on ordaining gay rabbis and gay marriage and partnership ceremonies.
In the local Orthodox community, a strict interpretation of the laws of Torah informs the politics. Torah is not simply a book; its a way of life. As Orthodox Jews, our actions and our perspective on everything in life is based on Torah ideals, said Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler of Ahawas Achim Bnai Jacob and David in West Orange. But that does not make the situation easy for him on an individual level. The Halacha is very clear. The Torah does not recognize gay marriage whatsoever. When a rabbi deals with an individual who is struggling with this issue, one cannot make any accommodation whatsoever, yet, at the same time, one has to be very sensitive when dealing with the individual.
Conservative rabbis appear to be torn, in the words of Rabbi Steven Bayar of Bnai Israel in Millburn; all Conservative clergy who agreed to be interviewed for this article said they support gay marriage in principle.
Some, like Rabbi Francine Roston of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, support gay marriage rights in New Jersey and in Judaism. She is one of 12 NJ Conservative rabbis who have signed onto Keshet Rabbis, a list of gay-friendly rabbis.
With regard to the law of New Jersey, she said, I believe that a gay couple who has chosen to make a life together and build a home and family together should be given the same rights under the law as other couples who act similarly. It seems to me that it is immoral for the state to decide which marriage is worthy. Gay people should be entitled to the same rights that a straight couple is, and matters of religion and morality are not matters for the state.
Roston said she has never been asked to perform a civil ceremony for a gay couple. If I were asked, I would be honored to share in that couples joy and help them to consecrate their union before God and the community. This is my personal view. As a spiritual leader of a congregation, I would not want to act without a communal process of study and discussion.
Others, like Bayar, support gay marriage rights in New Jersey but stop short of a full embrace of those same rights where religious issues are at play. I believe the NJ Supreme Court should recognize gay marriage as a legal entity, said Bayar, adding, however, that he would decline to officiate at a gay marriage. Im from a different generation of rabbis. The idea of performing a commitment ceremony is very foreign to me. And before I would break the laws of the United States and go against the standards of my movement, I would have to think very hard. To say I would perform a commitment ceremony when my movement does not allow it or is ambiguous Im not sure Im willing to take that step.
Still, he believes, like Zwickler, that there should not be a discrepancy between ones religious and secular perspectives. He criticized the Conservative movement for taking opposing positions in accepting a gay lifestyle but rejecting the ordination of gay clergy.
Either its valid, or its not valid. The Conservative movement is stuck, Bayar said. You cant recognize someone as having a valid lifestyle and withhold ordination. He concluded that the movement will therefore sooner rather than later recognize gays and lesbians. The faster they do it, the better. And, he added, with regard to officiating at such a ceremony, If the NJ court accepts gay marriage and the Conservative movement accepts it, I hope I would have the strength and the courage to learn this new experience as well. But right now, I dont know if I would.
Members of a third group are even less sanguine, hewing a line somewhat closer to their Orthodox peers. Rabbi George Nudell of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains supports gay marriage rights in New Jersey but declines to call the arrangement marriage for the same reason he declines to call it kiddushin, or betrothal. Theres a biblical prohibition against gay sex, he said. While he said it is therefore considered a sin, he didnt give such a sin more or less weight than any other. In particular, he compared gay sex to eating shrimp. When someone is called to the Torah, there is no litmus test. I dont ask if people eat shrimp, and I dont ask if people are gay . Nobodys perfect. There are lots of mitzvot Jews do not observe. Every Jew is a sinner. Thats why we have Yom Kippur.
While Nudell said he would entertain a reinterpretation of the halachic prohibition on gay sex, it is not an issue that he cares to pursue on his own. Im not changing Jewish law. Jewish law is what it is. He has been asked to officiate at gay civil ceremonies and has declined. At this point, our tradition does not accept it as a sanctifiable relationship. I cant put a stamp of holiness on it.
Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have issued statements supporting gay rights and gay marriage, and all the rabbis interviewed from those movements voiced support for the case before the NJ Supreme Court.
Nevertheless, there remains a lively debate among Reform rabbis, said Rabbi Kim Geringer of Temple Har Shalom in Warren, who also serves as program specialist at the Union for Reform Judaisms Department of Worship. I have colleagues who would not perform commitment ceremonies, she said. But people dont necessarily take public positions because it is politically difficult for them.
Geringer herself does not feel conflicted. I know what a traditional reading of Jewish law is, but my sense is that its an interpretation by human beings. My role as a rabbi compels me to support this legislation and others like it. To me, this is a human rights issue and the human rights issue of our generation. Its a social justice issue as Jewish as they come its about equality under the law.
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, where the rally will be held, holds similar views. I personally believe it is my religious responsibility to marry gay and lesbian Jews who have a loving relationship they would like to sanctify, he said. The Torah is clear in respect to asking us to seek the divine in every human being. From a human rights perspective, everyone should have the right to custody, to be present in the delivery room if their partner is giving birth, to share joint custody of their children, and to share health insurance. These are basic rights afforded to married individuals in our society.
Tepperman said he is expecting about 400 people at the rally, which begins at 7 p.m.
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