Massachusetts, 2002 — it was the first time I stood on the steps of a state capitol making good use of my right to free speech in support of equal marriage.
I was there as a civilian. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to use my status as a rabbi to influence civic debate. But as I encountered hateful ideas being shouted in God’s name, the example of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. pushed me forward.
I learned in Massachusetts that religious communities must be involved in civil debate.
California, May 15 — here we are again. With the decision of the state Supreme Court affirming that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, we have taken a momentous step forward for civil rights.
I am proud to have served as part of this moment, addressing the San Francisco LGBT center press conference on that historic day as a Californian, a rabbi, a Jew, a human being.
I stood in front of the couples who were plaintiffs in this case, who put their lives on trial, and I wept. The joy shared by the thousands who attended that press conference and the countless others who labored for equal marriage in California was simply overwhelming.
But, as always, joy is fragile. The court’s ruling has been dimmed somewhat by a campaign that threatens the decision with a hateful November ballot initiative that our Jewish community must denounce. The initiative is named the California Marriage Protection Act. Of course, all it protects is prejudice.
The initiative is an attempt to write discrimination into our state constitution. And without the involvement of the Jewish community, it stands a chance at passing.
We must see this issue for what it is: a question of civil rights. No matter how an individual Jew or a particular Jewish community interprets Jewish law with regard to homosexuality, the Supreme Court did not rule on Jewish law. It ruled on universal human dignity and equal rights among American citizens regardless of belief.
But it is also important to acknowledge the arguments against equal marriage, and to be able to refute them. So here are some of the classic arguments found on sites such as Focusonthefamily.com and Protectmarriage.com. They are followed by responses.
• Claim: The California Marriage Protection Act will protect the historic, natural definition of marriage.
Response: Rabbi Steve Greenberg, senior teaching fellow at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, has written, “Marriage is not a natural institution. Marriage is an institution structured by societies. All marriages are according to the laws of some communal body that honors them. They are a feature of civilization, not nature. Marking homosexual marriage as contrary to some natural laws is
reminiscent of the justifications put forward in the U.S. for laws prohibiting interracial marriage.”
The very concept of marriage has, in Jewish history alone, included multiple wives and concubines.
• Claim: A same-sex family is a vast, untested social experiment with children.
When opposing marriage equality in 2004, Boston Archbishop O’Malley wrote, “The citizens [of Massachusetts] know that such a law … would inevitably lead to far-reaching changes in the institutions of our society, more importantly those which educate our children and grandchildren.”
Response: I pray that he is right. The real social experiment is how well we treat each other.
• Claim: Equal marriage is a step down a slippery slope of relativism and moral weakness.
Response: Equal marriage is not capitulation — it is the embodiment of conviction and moral outrage.
The Progressive Jewish Alliance wrote in its Marriage Equality Packet, “Jewish tradition is grounded in the principle that the law should be applied equally to all, citizen and stranger alike. We recognize and grieve the injustice perpetrated against gay men and lesbians — our members, family and friends among them — who are relegated to second-class citizenship when denied access to marriage, a fundamental institution of our society.”
• Claim: Marriage is for the purpose of procreation.
Response: We would never claim that couples who face infertility are not married. While it is true that procreation is one of the intents of marriage, same-sex marriages would not prevent such endeavors any more than heterosexual marriages require them.
As a rabbi who favors the extension of full rights to gays and lesbians in both civil and religious realms, I affirm the holiness of a shared union and believe in a God infinite enough to include the marriage of man to man, and of woman to woman, each the union of two divine images.
The Torah, understood as sacred text, reminds us not to “oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in the Land of Egypt and you therefore know the heart of the stranger.” The Torah, understood as the ongoing narrative of the Jewish people, challenges us in Leviticus with the overarching imperative to “treat your neighbors as yourselves.”
This is a call to action. May we find the strength to respond with a deep Jewish passion for justice.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the spiritual adviser at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.