I’ve come to believe that even though I’m a heterosexual rabbi, the right of gays and lesbians to marry is my issue too. But I choose to speak out now not because of the headline news in New York about the downfall of the marriage bill, but because of a little story out of New Jersey this week that must be confronted by those of us who believe we can bring honor to God by extending equal rights to more of God’s creation.
In this little story, several of my rabbinic colleagues offered arguments against marriage for gays and lesbians. I’d like to publicly offer them a yasher-koach (hearty congratulations) for stepping out into the public debate, and a tochecha (rebuke) for their conclusions and reasoning.
First, the congratulations. I say: yes! We religious leaders have a responsibility to our own communities and to the larger world to participate in public debates. The Talmud teaches, “any person who is able to rebuke the citizens of his city [and refrains from doing so] is accountable for the misdeeds of the members of his city.” A famous rabbinic commentator, the Meiri, said of this passage, “One who does not protest is considered as if he himself did the act.” According to these teachings, all Jews have a responsibility to speak out against immorality and injustice.
Now the rebuke.
The article states that what is especially troubling to the religious leadership in Lakewood is “not just that New Jersey might recognize same-sex marriages, but that Orthodox Jews would be more likely than in the past to know about it – and think that it’s OK to be gay.” A Rabbi from the community is quoted as saying, “These type of laws bring an exposure to our community.”
This line of reasoning simply does not hold up to scrutiny. The rationale goes like this: homosexuality is forbidden in their community, and a state law that allows gay marriage will make Orthodox Jews think that being gay is actually OK.
But in the Orthodox Jewish communities of Lakewood, eating pork is forbidden, violating the Sabbath is forbidden, and wearing garments that mix wool and linen is forbidden. Would these same religious leaders suggest that state laws in New Jersey that allow pork to be sold and eaten, allow stores to be open on the Sabbath, and allow garments that mix wool and linen to be made and sold should be stricken because Orthodox Jews might think that those things are OK for them?
I have a much higher opinion of the Jewish community in Lakewood: whether or not there is a state law that permits gay marriage, they will know what their religious leaders teach about homosexuality. When it comes to religious laws, observant Jews from New Jersey do not follow the rulings from Trenton.
Further, in public debates about gay marriage, it is critical to distinguish between public laws for all citizens, and the policies of private or religious groups.
Here’s a personal example: As a teenage boy I was extremely active in the Boy Scouts, working even at the national level of the program. I tried, and failed, to use my position to influence the Scouting program’s policy that banned openly gay youth and adults from participating in the program. Yet, to this day, I support the Boy Scouts’ right to make their own policies, as a private organization, regarding membership criteria – even if they choose to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation – even though I disagree vehemently with the policy.
Similarly, the Orthodox Jews of Lakewood must have the right to make their own policies (or in this case, religious laws) towards homosexuality, and all religious leaders must be permitted to determine what weddings we will or will not perform.
But when gay rights leave the realm of a private organization or religious community, everything changes. The government of the United States has a right to protect the rights of all its citizens. And we Americans – of all faiths and no faith – have the responsibility to debate in public how civil marriage is defined.
Let us welcome the voices of the rabbis of Lakewood, NJ in this debate. But our voices as religious leaders cannot be limited to what is best for our own communities. The wisdom we bring from our traditions must be good for all Americans, even those who do not share our faith perspective.
We must cry out that the cohesiveness of families across America is under attack. But it doesn’t make sense when we religious leaders, in the name of protecting the family and institution of marriage, argue that we must prevent loving people from getting married and creating families. Let us not thwart those who stand ready to commit their lives to each other and to raise children in a loving home. More loving marriages and more kids raised by married parents means better communities and a stronger country. We can bring honor to God by extending equal rights to more of God’s creation.