October 10, 2008
Rabbis on anti-gay marriage Prop 8: Yes, no, maybe
"Prop. 8 is presently the most crucial battle of the culture war here." -- Penny Harrington, legislative director, Concerned Women for America in California
The arguments and epithets surrounding state Prop. 8 are rising in volume and intensity as the Nov. 4 election draws near, so it may be useful to quote its exact wording.
ELIMINATES RIGHT OF SAME-SEX COUPLES TO MARRY. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTJewish advocates on both sides have joined the controversy with customary vigor. Emulating the brevity of the initiative itself, the lineup for the rabbinical and congregational leaders of the main denominations, and most of their adherents, comes down to:
Orthodox: support Prop. 8, marriage only between a man and a woman.This equation may be somewhat simplistic, but in general on the left and right of the denominational spectrum the lines are sharply drawn, with little room for mavericks or closet dissenters.
Repeated inquiries by The Journal failed to yield any Orthodox rabbi willing to declare his opposition to Prop. 8 or any Reform rabbi supporting the ballot measure.
However, there was some "crossover," according to Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who polled the 290 members of his organization on their views.
Of the 120 responding, 112 (or 93 percent) voted against the proposition, six voted for, and two abstained. However, these results are not entirely conclusive, partly because only 41 percent of the membership responded, and because only six congregational Orthodox rabbis have chosen to affiliate with the organization.
However, leading spokesmen for all denominations, and supportive lay groups, discussed their views with The Journal.
Rabbi JJ Rabinowich, California director of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel, noted that "marriage between a man and a woman has been fundamental to the Jewish people for thousands of years. We also agree with the many studies showing that children flourish best when raised by a mother and father."
A more detailed argument for supporting Prop. 8 was put forward by Daniel Korobkin, one of the city's most visible Orthodox rabbis and one of three signatories of the official statement by the centrist Orthodox Union as its West Coast director for community and synagogue services.
The statement endorses Prop. 8 and notes that "One of G-d's first acts is to join Adam and Eve in marriage and to command them to build a family."
It adds, "We know the threat to people of faith and houses of worship is real and under way.... Religious institutions and people face charges of bigotry and could be denied government funding and more if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land."
Speaking in his capacity as "a community rabbi in Hancock Park," Korobkin cited both biblical and contemporary reasons for his views.
While the Torah's strictures against homosexual relations are well known, he said, talmudic literature goes beyond this injunction by warning that a society that endorses such a relationship endangers itself, which is a greater sin than the act itself.
"If we permit same-sex marriage today, why not incestual marriage tomorrow, or bestial marriage after that?" he asked.
Korobkin also expressed fears that defeat of Prop. 8 would endanger the right of religious adoption agencies to refuse adoptions to gay couples or compel schools to teach that all forms of marriage are equally viable.
He estimated that about 90 percent of Orthodox congregants agreed with his views, but that some might vote against Prop. 8 anyhow because they feared a breach in state-church separation or were uneasy about the overwhelming role of evangelical Christians in the pro-Prop. 8 campaign.
However, Korobkin emphasized, "We have tremendous empathy for gay people and what we stand for is not hate speech, nor are we prompted by malice. Some of our people are gay, though not overtly. When they come to us for guidance, we are extremely sympathetic."
Neither the rabbinical nor the congregational arms of the Conservative movement are taking a stand on Prop. 8, according to Rabbi Richard Flom, president of the regional Rabbinical Assembly, and Joel Baker, regional executive director of the United Synagogue.
One reason may be the general reluctance of Conservative congregations to take political stands, given the wide ideological spread among its members, Baker suggested.
Many of his congregants, said Flom of Burbank Temple Emanu El, are trying to strike a balance between support for the civil rights of gays and "personal halachic [Jewish law] concerns."
Flom himself recently gave a sermon opposing Prop. 8, partly based on his reservations about whether the state has any right to become involved in this issue.
"If I were a betting man, I would wager that the bulk of our members would oppose Prop. 8," Flom said.
Indeed some of the most respected names in the Conservative rabbinate have publicly come out for the marriage rights of same-sex couples.
Rabbis Harold Schulweis and Edward Feinstein, both of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, can be seen and heard on YouTube strongly advocating the defeat of Prop. 8 (www.cafaithforequality.org/Support1.html).
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at American Jewish University, is one of the most eloquent voices opposing Prop. 8.
Positioning same-sex marriage as a civil rights and equality issue, Dorff said, "We Jews have benefited greatly from the Enlightenment; it would be ironic, it would be mean, if we now came out against a minority within a minority.
"Marriage means that two people take responsibility for each other and their biological or adopted children, and society has a vested interest in that," Dorff added.
Despite the official neutrality of the main Conservative organizations, Dorff believes that "an overwhelming majority" of Conservative rabbis and congregants will oppose Prop. 8.
Reform rabbis and congregants constitute the most vigorous segment of the Jewish community in fighting Prop. 8, supported by the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and National Council of Jewish Women.
Rabbi Linda Bertenthal, a regional director for the Union for Reform Judaism, cited her organization's resolution, which describes marriage as "a basic human right and an individual personal choice."
The statement adds, "the state should not interfere with same-gender couples who choose to marry and share freely and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of civil marriage."
Taking an active part in the campaign is Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, whose members are reaching out to voters through phone banks and collaboration with interfaith groups.
Eger was the first member of the clergy to officiate at a same-gender marriage in California on June 16 of this year, immediately after the State Supreme Court legalized such marriages by overturning a voter-approved 2000 initiative and statute to ban them.
Also heavily involved are such groups as the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College and Jews for Marriage Equality.
Psychologist Joel Kushner, director of the institute, observed that opposition to Prop. 8 is in line with the "Jewish heritage of justice," while clearly not forcing any objecting rabbi to officiate at same-sex marriages.
Jews for Marriage Equality was founded by Steve Krantz, who retired after a notable career as a computer engineer to become a defender of the rights of one of his two sons, who is gay.
Krantz said he has compiled a list of 220 names, which include the majority of California rabbis, who went on record in opposing Prop. 8.
His goal now is to reach unaffiliated "gustatory" Jews through large ads in the primary Jewish weeklies in Los Angeles and San Francisco, working in partnership with the Progressive Jewish Alliance.
If Prop. 8 wins, he said, his organization will continue its work, but if the ballot measure loses, "we'll have a big party."
Striking an individual stance, separate from his collegial pro and con advocates, is Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He was one of the two abstainers when the Board of Rabbis voted overwhelmingly to oppose Prop. 8.
"I felt that it violated the board's ethical code to take a stance on a political matter," he said.
Personally, he asserted, he would never officiate at a same-sex or interfaith marriage.
"I think my congregation would have a feeling of discomfort if its rabbi participated in such a ceremony," Bouskila said. "In Sephardic tradition, we believe that religion is religion and politics is politics."
As the saying has it, as goes California, so goes the nation, and the outcome of the Prop. 8 battle is being monitored across the country.
It is expected that the two sides of the issue will together spend a total of $40 million on their campaigns, the most for a social issue proposition, with contributions flowing in from some 10,000 people in 50 states.
The "No on Prop. 8" campaign has announced $100,000 contributions each from filmmaker Steven Spielberg, Richard Haas of the Levi Strauss dynasty and actor Brad Pitt.
Same-sex marriage is likely to remain a hot-button issue in the presidential race, with Prop. 8 backers looking to Sen. John McCain for ideological support, and opponents to Sen. Barack Obama.
On Thursday, Oct. 16, The Jewish Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee will present a nonpartisan forum on critical ballot issues. It's at 7 p.m. in The Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center, Sanders Board Room, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For security reasons, R.S.V.P. by Oct. 13 to (323) 761-8145 or e-mail LAJCRC@JewishLA.org