Liberal shuls welcome law legalizing gay marriage
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
On Tuesday, Oct. 22, one day after same-sex marriage became legal in New Jersey, Jack Greenberg and Ron Weiss were married at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, where they are longtime members. The following Shabbat, they were honored with an aliya and received a special blessing from the Conservative synagogue’s clergy.
Although theirs appeared to be the first gay wedding held in a local synagogue, it wasn’t the only wedding presided over by local rabbis that week.
For non-Orthodox synagogues who accept same-sex unions, the state Supreme Court decision allowing “marriage equality” only confirmed their views on the issue.
Those rabbis who were already performing civil unions now perform weddings — and most local Conservative rabbis, who were already officiating at civil unions, were including kiddushin, which remains controversial.
(The Conservative movement recognized and approved same-sex relationships in 2006 but did not include sample ceremonies at that time. In 2012, the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly provided two sample ceremonies, but neither includes kiddushin, the first in the two-part ritual, likened to betrothal.)
For those who believe that Halacha, or Jewish law, prohibits homosexual conduct, the law may come as a disappointment, but will otherwise not change their approach to the issue.
In response to a query sent to nearly every rabbi in the area regarding whether and how they will implement same-sex marriage in their synagogues, NJJN received many responses — but only from rabbis in non-Orthodox denominations; all the respondents supported the ruling, with nuances only in the forcefulness of their responses.
Most of the replies echo this one from Rabbi Clifford Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham, a nonaffiliated synagogue in Livingston: “Like, I suspect, others, I have officiated at a number of same-sex ceremonies, both in the synagogue and elsewhere. Obviously, this change in the law brings a legal and moral legitimacy to the process that is wonderful, and I suspect that in a surprisingly short time such ceremonies will no longer be news — which would be the most welcome change of all.”
Rabbi Daniel M. Cohen at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a Reform synagogue in South Orange, pointed out that while little has changed from his perspective as an officiant, everything has changed for his gay congregants.
“They finally (at long last) have equal status in the eyes of the law,” he said. He recalled how one couple, over whose civil union he had presided, did what he called “legal backflips” to each gain legal status as parents of their child. “It was heartbreaking watching what they had to do because they were treated like second-class citizens in the eyes of the law. I am so gratified that that is now in the past,” said Cohen, adding that he will be superseding that couple’s document with a marriage license.
The Reform movement has approved of its rabbis performing same-sex unions since 2000. The Conservative movement followed suit in 2006, although its ruling also approved two other options upholding the traditional ban on homosexual practices.
By 2012, when the RA issued its two sample ceremonies, same-sex unions had become normative in the movement, according to Rabbi Joel Roth, who resigned from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards over the 2006 approval.
Rabbi Mark Mallach of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield calls the ceremonies he presided over before Oct. 21 “same-sex civil union weddings,” adding that they included both huppa and kiddushin. “I’ve been in touch with those couples from before Oct. 21st to advise them if they wish to now proceed to the NJ marriage certificate, I am here to do so,” Mallach wrote in an e-mail.
Rabbi Francine Roston of Congregation Beth El in South Orange performed the Conservative synagogue’s first-ever commitment ceremony for a same-sex couple in 2006, six months after the movement’s law committee accepted an opinion allowing rabbis to perform same-sex ceremonies.
She has always included kiddushin. “Kiddushin sanctifies the relationship. Now, it happens to have the legal status of marriage,” she said.
Roston celebrated with couples from Beth El who were married on Oct. 22 in a shared ceremony presided over by Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca. And on Nov. 2, her synagogue celebrated the ruling with a “Rainbow Shabbat” attended by Garden State Equality’s executive director, Troy Stevenson, who also addressed the congregation briefly. All the couples who had been married in the previous two weeks received aliyot. At the end of the service, they gathered under a huppa to receive a special blessing, after which rainbow confetti rained down on them. The kiddush included a rainbow-frosted wedding cake donated by Cait and Abby’s bakery.
“I feel the time has come to stop identifying marriages as ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ or ‘same-sex,’” wrote another Conservative rabbi, George Nudell of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains. “People are people and marriage is marriage, and when we all get to the point where we welcome and embrace same-sex couples as part of our community, seeing them as ‘us’ and not ‘them,’ then we will be a true community seeking holiness.
“It’s time to drop all of the labels we use to divide our community,” said Nudell. “I only perform wedding ceremonies between Jews, and if a Jewish same-sex couple asked me to officiate, I would interview them as I would any couple, and if we could agree on a date, then I would be happy to stand beneath the huppa with them.” Although he has not yet performed such a ceremony, he said he expects to do so within the year.
Rabbi Joel N. Abraham, of the Reform Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains/Fanwood, pointed out that the status of couples married in other states was nebulous in New Jersey. Now, he said, “We hope that they can be recognized as married for employment, benefits, tax purposes, renting an apartment, health insurance, and so on.”
At Bnai Keshet in Montclair, there is nothing ambiguous about the synagogue’s take on events. Rabbi Elliott Tepperman said he was proud to change the banner in front of the building to one celebrating the new law, and the synagogue organized an impromptu party on Oct. 23.
Rabbi David Levy of Temple Shalom in Succasunna was one of five clergy presiding over the first gay marriages performed by Mayor Cory Booker at Newark City Hall just after midnight on Oct. 21. In his November synagogue bulletin article, he wrote that he has been a strong supporter of gay marriage since the Reform movement recognized it 18 years ago. “I voiced my dream that one day I would not only be able to officiate at such marriages, but that the state would recognize them as well.
“Eighteen years is a long time to wait, but one day is now today,” he wrote. And of the Newark ceremony, he added, “Words cannot describe what we all felt at that moment: elation, relief, joy, tears, smiles….”
Rabbi Ari Rosenberg, who took the pulpit at the Reform Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield in 2012, believes he has a “moral imperative to officiate,” and is not shy about discussing his perspective, having written a 30-page paper and delivered many an hour-long lecture on the subject.
“I can’t believe in a God who would object to two consenting adults embracing one another with care and compassion,” he said. “Therefore, I feel compelled to officiate in same-sex weddings, and I take great pride in doing so.”
‘A milestone moment’
Orthodox rabbis who oppose same-sex marriage point to Jewish texts noting, as Agudath Israel of America did in 2012, that “Torah forbids homosexual acts, and sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony.”
Supporters of gay rights have countered, however, that the frequently cited verses in Leviticus prohibiting homosexual behavior refer to coercive sexual acts and not, as Rosenberg put it, “loving, supportive, consensual relations and lifetime commitments.”
Rosenberg acknowledged that when he used parts of this talk in his first Yom Kippur sermon at Sha’arey Shalom, “it received mixed reviews. Not everyone was ready to hear it, but there were a number of people who were most appreciative.”
In a Huffington Post article, the clergy team at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, led by Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz, celebrated the Supreme Court decision (see excerpt).
“We are so fortunate to now be able to bless those who stand under the wedding canopy without question of their sexual orientation,” they wrote. “This is a milestone moment for our state and a milestone moment for us as God’s servants, who feel renewed in our privilege to serve all of God’s people.”