June 17, 2008
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
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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."