Jewish Journal

Same-sex marriage and the fabric of society: What does it all mean?

Web extra video: Rabbi Denise Eger officiates at a gay wedding ceremony

by Julie G Fax

Posted on Jun. 17, 2008 at 9:04 pm

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."

The End of Morality

While the advent of legal marriage for same-sex couples in California seems heaven-sent for some, for others it is yet another signal that earth is moving further away from heaven.

Without a religious basis for defining marriage, they argue, the term marriage loses its relevance.

"Whether we like to admit or not, the United States is founded on Judeo-Christian religious values. If we don't acknowledge that the institution of marriage was founded on these values, then we are opening up a Pandora's box," said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, an Orthodox rabbi in Hancock Park. "Not only should gay marriage be allowed, but polygamy should be allowed, incest should be allowed."

He argues that broadening the definition of this societal institution actually weakens it, just as broadening the definition of homicide to include animals would weaken the crime of murder.

At the same time, some Orthodox rabbis, including Korobkin, have opened up tentative conversations about how to include the gays and lesbians who are invariably a part of any community, even while not upholding their lifestyle as an ideal.

Conservative radio host and social commentator Dennis Prager warns that redefining marriage will change society.

"Outside of the privacy of their homes, young girls will be discouraged from imagining one day marrying their prince charming — to do so would be declared 'heterosexist,' morally equivalent to racist. Rather, they will be told to imagine a prince or a princess. Schoolbooks will not be allowed to describe marriage in male-female ways alone. Little girls will be asked by other girls and by teachers if they want one day to marry a man or a woman," Prager wrote in an article on his Web site soon after the decision was handed down.

He predicts heterosexism will go from being merely socially reprehensible to criminal, and that eventually even the terms male and female will be undercut.

But gay activists say they aren't trying to force this on anyone.

Attorney Pizer said that in Massachusetts, where gay marriage has been legal since 2004, not much has changed for people who aren't gay.

"What people will see in the coming months is that life continues just the same for just about everyone in California." she said. "The sky will not fall and the earth will not crumble. Nothing will change for most people, except for some couples who will be happier, and some wedding-related businesses who will be doing well. Life will continue as people know it."

Getting Off the Fence

While the Orthodox remain largely unmoved in their legal perspective regarding gays, the Conservative movement — which values Jewish legal tradition, but also respects societal change — has altered its course considerably over the last few years. After years of debating the issue, in 2006 the movement's legal body ruled that gays and lesbians should be admitted into the rabbinic seminaries, and that Conservative rabbis should be allowed to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies. But, those ceremonies will not be called kiddushin, the talmudic legal term for a marriage ceremony.

"The classical Jewish marriage talks about a bride and a groom, and that is not what is happening when we are joining gay men or lesbians," said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector at American Jewish University, who authored one of three legal opinions in 2006 supporting a gay commitment ceremony. "Hopefully what it will share with marriage is the deep commitment the couple is making to each other."

Previous rulings had affirmed that gays should be welcomed into congregations with equal dignity, and that gays should be afforded equal civil rights.

A committee is nearly ready to post a choice of liturgies that will be available to rabbis for use in commitment ceremonies, according to Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella organization for Conservative rabbis.

But it seems that only a handful of Conservative rabbis have performed commitment ceremonies since 2006, though more, such as Joel Rembaum, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am, say they would be willing to officiate if they were asked.

Rembaum said his thinking on homosexuality has evolved since he went from being an academic to a pulpit rabbi in 1985, when the issue became more immediate for him. In the 1990s he served on the movement's Law Committee as it debated how to reconcile traditional injunctions against homosexuality with the modern imperative to fully include gays.

In those debates, Rembaum concluded that the biblical prohibition was not against homosexuality, but against gay sex in a pagan context. The current understanding that sexuality is biologically determined, along with the reality of gays in committed, loving relationships, put modern homosexuality into an entirely different category than what the Bible referred to, Rembaum concluded, agreeing with the position put forth by Dorff.

Yet the fact that the 2006 ruling refrained from fully embracing marriage with the word "kiddushin" irks some rabbis.

"I don't like mumbling. I think either this is going to be a bona fide marriage in my eyes and the eyes of the community, or we will continue to double speak, which I think is bad for the integrity of the community and of Conservative Judaism," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Schulweis was one of the first pulpit rabbis to advocate for gay inclusion in synagogue life. While he has never been asked to officiate at a gay wedding, he envisions doing so with all the accouterments of a wedding — ketubah, the full blessing marking kiddushin, the seven blessings, the presence of a minyan.

Other rabbis are still parsing what this all means. Rabbi Stewart Vogel at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills long ago offered married membership to gay couples, and he would officiate at a commitment ceremony if he were asked. But he still hasn't quite unpacked the implications of officiating at a commitment ceremony that is not kiddushin, but is a legal marriage.

"I think part of the struggle for me is trying to figure out what the issues are," Vogel said. "I can only tell you that my religious background and training, my assumptions of life and family have always been predicated on things being one way, so I need to challenge myself and reflect on that very question: Why not kiddushin?"

Rabbi Denise Eger officiates at a previous gay wedding

In the Spirit of Our People

The Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements have been calling it marriage for a while. In 2000, the Reform movement officially instituted commitment ceremonies, but many rabbis had been performing same-gender rituals for years.

"As long as mankind has existed, people have been getting together to create rituals to recognize their commitment to each other, and often denominational bodies have to catch up," said Joel Kushner, director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles.

The institute's Web site, a resource and information clearinghouse, contains examples of some of the liturgy that has grown around same-gender couples. While much of it is based on a traditional wedding ceremony, small changes — and not just in gender language — are significant.

Rather than accepting one another's rings "according to the law of Moses and Israel," as in a traditional ceremony, the rings are exchanged "beruach ameinu," in the spirit of our people. Biblical readings evoke the loyalty of Ruth and Naomi, the unconditional love of Jonathan and David, Miriam's ability to inspire others to sing freely.

The different versions of the ceremonies reflect that often the brides or grooms have been living as a couple for years, even decades.

"They're not just newlyweds. They've been together for a long time. So how do you acknowledge that they have had a committed relationship and have come now to have a sacred context for their relationship?" asked Eger, one of the authors of the liturgy.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards, leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) synagogue on Pico Boulevard, points to an additional consideration. Many of the weddings she will be officiating at — and she has 27 scheduled so far — will be for people who already had religious ceremonies, but now want the legal piece of paper. How do couples find the balance of marking the significance of the civil status, while not diminishing the religious rite that already unifies them?

Beyond what is technically in the service, Eger believes the context of a same-gender wedding makes it a powerful religious experience.

"When you're at a wedding for two men or two women, you can feel the chains of injustice breaking around the chuppah," Eger said. "That is something that is really palpable, no matter if there is a legal piece of paper or not."

A Doctor, But Is He Jewish?

Rabbis have set policies on intermarriage, and they apply equally to same-gender or mixed-gender couples. While Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are prohibited from officiating at interfaith weddings, the other liberal movements leave that up to the rabbis, just as they leave up to individual rabbis whether to officiate at same-sex ceremonies.

Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue, a Reform congregation in Brentwood, would be happy if he were asked to officiate at a gay or lesbian wedding, but only if the couples are both Jewish.

"I am a rabbi who is involved in bringing Jewish couples to the chuppah, be they of the same gender or different gender. The key issue to me is their future commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people," he said.

That same motivation brings Eger to the opposite conclusion — she believes bringing the non-Jewish partner into the community, as long as he or she is committed to having a Jewish household, benefits everyone.

"My personal journey on the issue of interfaith relationships has been that I have committed myself to being a rabbi who brings people to the Jewish community," Eger said.

Edwards will only marry an interfaith couple if she believes they are motivated by the right reasons.

"Usually the first question I ask is 'Why do you want a rabbi to officiate?'" she said. "If it's just about satisfying parental concerns, and doesn't come from them as a couple, then that takes us in one direction. If it's that the Jewish partner feels a strong commitment to Judaism and plans to have children and raise them as Jews, that takes us in another direction."

She has had several congregants convert to Judaism after they married.

Indeed, membership of GLBT-oriented synagogues, like those of Edwards and Eger, tend to be more diverse in their backgrounds, beliefs and lifestyles than most other synagogues, since the one factor most congregants (though not all) have in common is the fact that they are looking for a comfortable spiritual atmosphere as gays.

Edwards said she finds that many spiritual seekers turn to her synagogue.

"I think there are GLBT people who are finding the Jewish community to be a more welcoming home for them, whether their background is Jewish or not, and that is a good thing," Edwards said. "They are getting a more accepting embrace in the liberal Jewish community than they are finding in their home churches."

Same Marriages,Same Problems

Some urge caution to couples who might be getting swept up in the nuptial excitement.

"Just because you can doesn't mean you should," HUC-JIR's Kushner said. "Relationship issues are the same as they are with straight couples, but often GLBTs have more baggage, because of social and familial difficulties."

Eger does premarital counseling with many of her couples and says the separation rate among gays in long-term relationships is probably about the same as it is for straights — around 50 percent.

When a relationship falls apart, Eger urges the couple to mark it ritually, especially if they have had a commitment ceremony.

"What began with sacred religious ceremony needs to end with sacred religious ceremony," Eger tells her couples. She has adapted the Reform movement's ceremony of separation for her same-gender couples. The Conservative movement is also looking into what rituals would legally dissolve a same-gender union.

Edwards believes ritual around family issues plays an especially important role for the gay community.

"I think we see it a lot of places, how this congregation is important to people," she said. "There is an attachment here, like family. And I think part of it is if there has been estrangement in their own families, then your central place of support and central relationships become that much more significant."

June Weddings,November Elections

A note of caution has tempered the wedding flurry this week. California's November ballot contains an initiative that aims to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. If that passes, all of the marriages performed between now and then will be nullified.

"We get to celebrate now, but let's not forget that we have the November ballot, and we have to address that initiative, too," Kushner said.

Just how the stream of gay and lesbian marriages will affect the vote isn't yet clear. On the one hand, the spectacle of hundreds of gay weddings could mobilize opposition. But it also might make some voters view gay couples as more like themselves — wanting family, stability, legal protection.

Pizer, the attorney on the Supreme Court case, thinks it will help.

"Over the coming months, a great many people in California will have people they know and care about be able to exercise this right and celebrate love and commitment in the same way other couples do," Pizer said. "And the experience of knowing people, and seeing how much it matters to them to be able to have simple basic rights that others take for granted — that is what will make a difference to people."

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