May 19, 2008

A Note from Rabbi Creditor: Celebrating Equal Marriage in California!

The first time I stood on the steps of the State House making good use of my right to free speech in support of Equal Marriage was in 2002 in Massachusetts. Though a rabbi I was there as a "civilian." As a fierce advocate for church-state separation I didn't feel it was appropriate to use my status as a religious leader to push a particular agenda in a 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 Junior during the civil rights campaigns of the 1950s pushed me forward, title and all.

While I always knew that when civil rights were at stake I could not stand idly by, what I learned in Massachusetts is that the involvement of religious communities in civil debate is just as important. And here we are again with the decision of the California Supreme Court on May 15 affirming that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, a momentous step forward for civil rights in our state, and in our country. I am proud to have served as part of this moment, addressing the GLBT Community Center press conference on that historic day as a Californian, as a Rabbi, as a Jew, as a human being. I stood in front of the loving, committed couples who were plaintiffs in this case, who put their lives on trial and into the public eye, and wept. The joy and pride shared by the thousands who attended that press conference and the countless others who labored successfully for Equal Marriage in California was simply overwhelming.

But, as always, joy is fragile. The Court's ruling has spurred a campaign by opponents that will likely place this question of civil rights on the November ballot, a hateful reaction our Jewish community must denounce with passion and great volume. Named the "California Marriage Protection Act", it is nothing of the sort. It is an attempt to write discrimination into our state constitution. And without the involvement of the Jewish community, it stands a chance at passing.
It is important to hear the arguments of opponents of inclusion, to learn from them, to address them. But before illustrating some of the classic arguments and suggesting some responses I offer two important reminders:

It is important to 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 homosexual behavior the Supreme Court did not rule on Jewish Law. It ruled on universal human dignity and equal rights among American citizens regardless of belief.

Individual Jews and Jewish leadership belongs in this debate - because it is the Jewish thing to do.
As Steve Krantz, founder of the California-based organization Jews for Marriage Equality with over 100 rabbinic sponsors, has written, "Remember that we were all once slaves in Egypt. And we were all commanded to treat both our neighbor, and the stranger among us, with fairness, understanding, and true justice." With these in mind, here are some of the classic arguments against Equal Marriage found on sites such as and, each followed by a response, inevitably flavored by one rabbi's sensibilities.

1) Claim: The California Marriage Protection Act will protect the historic, natural definition of marriage.

Response: As 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. Greenberg continues, "Families are always a subset of the society of which they are a part. Marriage, likewise, is conditioned by the values and sensibilities of the social context. As society has come to understand the essential unchosen nature of same-sex desire, the offering of new forms of matrimony that support such couples would seem consonant with a contemporary sense of justice and social responsibility." The commitments of many area rabbis and synagogues to Equal Marriage, along with the good work of Jewish Milestones in training ritual facilators and gathering resources for those looking to learn demonstrates our community's core values.

2) Claim: Same-sex family is a vast, untested social experiment with children.

: Marriage equality has given thousands of children of same-sex couples across Massachusetts the knowledge that their family is just as good as any other family in Massachusetts and that, in the eyes of the law and in this society, their parents are not "less than" any other parents simply because of their sexual orientation. According to COLAGE, a national movement of children, youth and adults with one or more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer parent, "While research shows that there are no significant developmental differences or negative affects on children of LGBT parents, these youth do report facing significantly more prejudice and discrimination because societal homophobia and transphobia." Boston Archbishop O'Malley, seeking support from religious leaders in the Boston Area in opposing Marriage Equality in Frebruary 2004, wrote that "The citizens of the Commonwealth [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." I pray that he is right. The real social experiment taking place is how well we treat each other.

3) Claim: Equal Marriage is a step down a slippery slope of relativism and moral weakness.

: Equal Marriage is not capitulation - it is the embodiment of conviction and moral outrage. As the Progressive Jewish Alliance has written in their 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... We agree and we stand with the United States Supreme Court, which, while not yet having addressed 'same-sex' marriage, has determined that 'liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct' and that gay men and lesbians should have the liberty protected by the Constitution to make the choice to enter into personal relationships in furtherance of 'their dignity as free persons.'" Marriage is an assumption of mutual responsibilities. It is surely in the interest of society to support such unions that glue us all together by the force of loving and legal commitments.

4) Claim: Marriage is for the purpose of procreation.

: We would never claim that couples who face infertility are not "really" 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. Most people involved in this debate will not have read the 172 pages of the Supreme Court decision, relying instead on the media. That is a true shame, for the words are thoughtful and instructive. With a quote from page 162 of the response, I conclude:

"The principle of judicial restraint is a covenant between judges and the people from whom their power derives. It protects the people against judicial overreaching. It is no answer to say that judges can break the covenant so long as they are enlightened or well-meaning. The process of reform and familiarization should go forward in the legislative sphere and in society at large. We are in the midst of a major social change. Societies seldom make such changes smoothly. For some the process is frustratingly slow. For others it is jarringly fast. In a democracy, the people should be given a fair chance to set the pace of change without judicial interference. That is the way democracies work. Ideas are proposed, debated, tested. Often new ideas are initially resisted, only to be ultimately embraced. But when ideas are imposed, opposition hardens and progress may be hampered. We should allow the significant achievements embodied in the domestic partnership statutes to continue to take root. If there is to be a new understanding of the meaning of marriage in California, it should develop among the people of our state and find its expression at the ballot box."

This is a call to action. May we find the strength to respond with a deep Jewish passion for justice.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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