The Jewish View on Marriage Equality:

The Jewish Response to the Supreme Court Decision

Friday, June 26, 2015

Friends, it has been an incredible week for religion, in an odd sort of way: The repercussions in the aftermath of the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, the Supreme Court ruling on Monday upholding the Affordable Care Act, and today’s Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges upholding marriage equality throughout the land.

The shooting in South Carolina is resulting in the possible removal of the battle flag of the Confederacy being taken down from state capitals, license plates, and out of stores. As we speak, that flag is being removed from Dukes of Hazard cars around the country. 150 years ago, that flag came to symbolize the fight against Federal tyranny. That tyranny never arose in the South as many had feared. That flag served nobly at one time; but now is only a symbol supporting the tyranny of the Confederacy. That flag struck fear in all who would oppose it. And now there are voices arising, silent no more, like State Senator Paul Thurmond, son of US Senator Strom Thurmond:

I think the time is right and the ground is fertile for us to make progress as a state and to come together and remove the Confederate battle flag from prominent statue outside the Statehouse and put it in the museum. It is time to acknowledge our past, atone for our sins and work towards a better future. That future must be built on symbols of peace, love, and unity. That future cannot be built on symbols of war, hate, and divisiveness. But if we stop there, we have cheated ourselves out of an opportunity to start a different conversation about healing in our state. I am ready. Let us start the conversation.i

When those flags come down, then perhaps the war which resulted in so many deaths at the hands of brothers fighting brothers will be over, and the words of the prophet will ring true in the hearts of the land: “God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Then Monday’s Court ruling insured that millions of needy Americans who never had insurance would not be shut out of our healthcare system. Taking care of the poorest amongst us is one of our religion’s highest callings. In Proverbs 21:13, we are taught: “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.” And in the Torah, we are instructed to not harden our hearts to those in need: “If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).

And then this morning was the topper, reminding me of the 1964 ballad of Bob Dylan:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Today we celebrate the times that are changing. In 1966, the Supremes said, “You can’t hurry love.” In 2015, almost half a century later, the Supreme Court said the wait is over.

  This afternoon, one of my gay friends was asked by a client, “How does this change your life?”

It changes everything!” He asked her, “How does this change your life?”

Not at all!” – Exactly.

There will be no moral decline in our society because of this. Men have loved men and women have loved women for thousands of years. They have cared for each other and nurtured each other. The only difference is that up until today, at least in the United States, they had to hide.

By the way, it is not gays and lesbians who will have any bad affect on marriage. The government has already done that! The government, federal, state and local, has reduced the idea of marriage to a tax break, a tax exemption, financial benefits received by a spouse, inheritance rights, and who can and cannot make decisions for their relative. It is laughable that those who are defending the old definition of marriage are defending the least sacred part of what it means to create a loving union between two people. All of these governments are treading on my domain. Marriage is in my purview, not the government. It is up to me and my church, my synagogue, my mosque to determine whose union I will sanctify in the presence of community and in the presence of God.

Marriage is sanctified and defined in my House of God, and not in the House of Congress!

As I read Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion this morning, I was struck by the tone which sounded like it was coming from the mouth Rabbi Kennedy rather than Justice Kennedy. He said, “The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.” It is not about tax breaks or benefits; rather, it reflects the uplifting spiritual dimension of marriage that extends far beyond whatever material benefits may be derived from it. And so, that spiritual dimension should be extended to all people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Rabbi Kennedy went on to support the right of marriage as “fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals.” That intimate association should be recognized by our community because “same-sex couples have the same right as opposite-sex couples to enjoy” it.

Thirdly, as to the children: How many hundreds of thousands of children in our country are lovingly being raised by same-sex couples? We have them here in our own synagogue. How many of them fear the repercussions of telling teachers and friends that they have two mommies or two daddies? Rabbi Kennedy observed that these children are being raised in loving and nurturing homes. They need to know that there is nothing wrong with their families.

Finally, Justice Kennedy wrote, “Marriage is a keystone of our social order.” Enabling same-sex couples to marry strengthens, rather than weakens, marriage in general.

Kennedy argues as Reform Judaism always argued and the Rabbis of the Talmud have argued. Judgments about people and actions are based on values and not precedent. Arguing against old definitions of terms, he taught that if we defined “rights” by those who exercised them in the past that would only serve as justification to deny to any group any possibility of invoking those rights. Just think back to blacks denied in this country, women before suffrage, and Jews and blacks denied access to live in neighborhoods of their choosing.

So, don’t try and convince me by holding up a dictionary and tell me to read the definition. Ask any editor of a dictionary. They do not define terms; culture defines terms and provides definition. And, by the way, Google “marriage, definition.” Guess what you will find: “the legally or formally recognized union of a man and a woman (or, in some jurisdictions, two people of the same sex) as partners in a relationship.” I guess tomorrow that will change to all jurisdictions.

Also, don’t try holding up a Bible and try to tell me that God hates homosexuality. It does not say that. It has never said that.

There are some who read the bible and use it as a weapon to bolster their own opinion about who will and who will not be allowed in holy places. Rather, the Bible, when read properly, describes a world where all are allowed to join together in holy spaces. Rabbi Eleazar taught, “Greater is the one who carries out an act of charity more than one who offers all the sacrifices.” He continued, “An act of charity is rewarded only in accord with loving kindness which is connected with it.”ii

Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man” (Proverbs 3:2-4).

Our desire in Judaism is to promote steadfast love. No one should be denied it. God calls us to bring k’dushah, “holiness”, into the world and into everyday life through our acts of love, compassion, kindness, and charity. We have always done that in our congregation. We have joined together lovers of different and same genders to a sanctified place under the Chuppah.

Though this victory is won, it is not a time for celebration. As my friend who told his client that “this ruling changes everything” sensitively said to me, “This is not a time to rub other people’s noses in it. There are many in our country who feel like they just got hit in the gut.” We need to begin a conversation with them. Paul Thurmond said that of the supporters of the Confederate flag. For those who cannot understand the battle is over and for those who do not understand that love, and not an old definition, is the value of greatest import, we need to have a conversation with them. Amen.

ii M. Suk. 4:9-10 V. 7-10/49a.