Jewish Journal

Passage of Prop. 8 reveals rift between denominations

by Rachel Heller

Posted on Nov. 12, 2008 at 11:52 pm

Three days after California narrowly passed Proposition 8, the statewide ban on same-sex marriage, congregants of Beth Chayim Chadashim gathered in their Pico Boulevard sanctuary for a Friday night Shabbat service marked by solidarity and grief.

"This week of all weeks we need Shabbat," Rabbi Lisa Edwards told members of the predominantly gay and lesbian synagogue, as many clutched prayer books and one another's hands.

In the tumultuous first week after voters approved the controversial ballot measure that would cast the legality of 18,000 marriages into doubt and halt further unions, supporters rejoiced and opponents took to the streets in emotional protests across the state.

Jewish voices had joined both sides of the bitter and costly Proposition 8 debate leading up to Election Day. Reform and Conservative leaders largely condemned the stripping of civil rights from a fellow minority population, while Orthodox officials praised constitutional protection for the biblical definition of marriage.

The ideological rift has sharpened tensions between traditional and progressive sects in Los Angeles and raised the question of how Jews, as a people, should respond.

"We Jews have been the brunt of a lot of discrimination throughout our history," said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector at American Jewish University (AJU). "To vote now that another group should be discriminated against is not at all respectful of what freedom has meant for us as Jews."

Minority rights carry special resonance for the Jewish nation, said many Proposition 8 critics -- especially in light of the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht last week.

"Jews understand what it means to eliminate rights -- that's what happened to us in Germany," said Rabbi Denise Eger, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood.

An overwhelming 78 percent of Jewish voters in Los Angeles opposed the same-sex marriage ban, while just 8 percent supported it, according to an exit poll by the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. In the weeks before the election, more than 250 rabbis -- a majority in the state -- joined a coalition of progressive Jewish organizations opposing Proposition 8.

Eger, who has performed 50 wedding ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples since a California Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage on June 16, said the separation of church and state has been a critical tenet of mainstream Judaism in the United States.

"This issue is not about religion -- it is about civil rights," she said. "This is about the separation of synagogue and state. As long as marriage is a civil issue, the Torah has nothing to say about it."

But that's not how many in the Orthodox community see it. Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City, said the ban on same-sex marriage does not amount to a removal of rights, because the traditional definition of marriage never extended to homosexual couples.

"We're not talking about rights; we're talking about the sanctity of marriage," Muskin said. "It's a traditional moral, Jewish perspective that marriage is between a husband and a wife. It's basic to the Bible -- it's as ancient as man."

Muskin said he supports domestic partnerships for same-sex couples but believes allowing them to wed would send a sacred institution down a slippery slope toward other behaviors the Bible deems immoral.

"[Gays and lesbians] should have the same government benefits that anyone has," he said. "The issue is the definition of marriage and how we're going to impart that to the next generation. What about incestuous marriage -- are we then going to permit that?"

Advertisements sponsored by the Rabbinical Council of California and the Orthodox Union have called heterosexual marriage "a central pillar of our faith" that is "crucial for the sake of our families, for our children and our society."

But social justice is also a central pillar of Jewish faith, said Joel Kushner, director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"This goes against everything we believe in. We were strangers in Egypt -- we should treat others fairly because we know what it's like being a stranger," said Kushner, who married his partner in a civil ceremony last month. "There is a perception that it's only the religious right who has something to say about this. Progressive people of faith also know what the Bible says, and we support marriage equality."

In 1992, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism passed a national resolution calling for full civil equality for gays and lesbians, the AJU's Dorff said. He called the Orthodox movement's support of the same-sex marriage ban "a mistake."

Clergy members who don't believe in marriage for gay and lesbian couples would not have been forced to officiate at their wedding ceremonies if Proposition 8 was defeated, he said. The Supreme Court's ruling this spring handed that decision from the state to religious leaders.

"Now what we've done is enshrine hatred and discrimination and bigotry into the California state Constitution," said Eger of Kol Ami. "This was an issue of the judiciary, and it was wrong [for it] to be placed on the ballot in the first place."

The question of what's next was on everyone's minds the night of Nov. 7 at Beth Chayim Chadashim, where at least 44 couples have tied the knot since June.

After a Shabbat service suffused with sadness and reflection, Edwards invited an attorney from Lambda Legal to discuss the legal action gay rights supporters are taking against Proposition 8. Lambda Legal, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, filed one of three lawsuits challenging the ballot measure the morning after its passage.

The lawsuits argue that the gay marriage ban was too drastic an alteration of the state Constitution to be called an amendment and would actually constitute an illegal revision. Constitutional revisions must first pass the Legislature before going to the voters.

The California attorney general has said the marriages performed since June would be upheld, but some expect a legal battle on that front, too.

Robin Tyler, whose highly publicized Jewish wedding ceremony with Diane Olson was the first same-sex marriage performed in L.A. County, also filed suit against Proposition 8 through attorney Gloria Allred.

"I don't want to be on the freedom train alone," said Tyler, 66, of North Hills. "It's about everyone else and future generations not being treated like second-class citizens. I'm hopeful that the Supreme Court will understand that this was an improper proposition."

If not, she said, marriage equality advocates will bring a proposition to the ballot again in another four years.

However, critics fear their actions undermine the majority of California voters.

"The people filing these lawsuits seem to feel that the popular vote is of little importance in the face of what they see as a civil rights issue," said Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, who is based in Hancock Park. "Society has spoken, and most people want marriage to be defined the way the Bible defines it."

That leaves people like Karen Wilson with lowered expectations for her wedding day.

Wilson had been planning to wed Caroline Bernard, her partner of 22 years, next August. The Westside couple still plans to go ahead with a religious ceremony but is setting aside their hopes of obtaining a marriage license.

"We're feeling very betrayed and shocked," said Wilson, 56, a doctoral candidate at UCLA. "Our ideal -- our dream -- was to have a religious ceremony that is also legal. But we're not calling anything off."

The families and friends of gay and lesbian couples aren't backing down either, according to Steve Krantz, founder of the nonprofit Jews for Marriage Equality and regional director of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Krantz wants to continue to educate rabbis across the state about marriage equality. He has two sons -- one gay, one straight.

"I love them both," said Krantz of Sherman Oaks. "I want them both to have equal rights, and I want to dance at both of their weddings."

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