Rabbis debate rabbis over gay marriage bill

Rabbis debate rabbis over gay marriage bill

Jews from opposite sides of issue testify as measure advances

Hundreds of people supporting gay marriage march to the State House to attend Judiciary Committee hearings.
Hundreds of people supporting gay marriage march to the State House to attend Judiciary Committee hearings.

Jews debated Jews as a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in NJ moved one step closer to the governor’s desk.

Before, during, and after an eight-hour hearing of the State Senate Judiciary Committee Dec. 7 in Trenton — where the bill was passed by a seven-six vote — opponents and supporters gathered to engage in intense debate over the legislation’s moral and religious implications.

Jews from liberal denominations, including the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, declared their support for the bill, while a number of Orthodox Jews came to the capital to oppose it.

At a breakfast pep rally in a hotel ballroom three blocks from the State House, Steve Goldstein, a Reconstructionist rabbinical student who chairs Garden State Equality, a leading advocate of the measure, revved up hundreds of his troops.

Goldstein said he rejected the biblical text that calls homosexuality an “abomination” and that motivates much devout religious opposition to gay equality.

“As a person of faith, I agree with 90 percent of what my faith stands for,” he said. “All right, you blow up the 10 percent you don’t agree with and make a big deal out of it,” he joked. “That’s my Jewish way.”

Other Jewish clergy in the audience were in agreement.

“I can speak for Reform Judaism, and our understanding embraces a variety of levels of equality,” said Rabbi David Levy from Temple Shalom in Succasunna. “We as a Jewish people know clearly the experience of discrimination and what that can mean. It is very important that we stand with our gay and lesbian brethren and their right to marriage.”

Sitting together were Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, two Jewish women who won a legal battle against the Methodist Church for the right to hold their civil union ceremony at a church-run facility in Ocean Grove.

“We were blessed by a rabbi with traditional blessings,” said Paster. But Bernstein complained that “every time I fill out a form, if I have to list ‘civil union’ as my marital status, I have to declare my sexuality. That has caused me grief and anxiety.”

Later, standing near the front of a long line waiting admission to the Judiciary Committee hearing room, Rabbi Jacob Newman of the Yeshiva of Lakewood said his opposition to gay marriage was deeply rooted in his Orthodox beliefs.

“The Torah says God created the world and nature. If you are doing something against nature, that is breaking the creation,” he said.

Religious freedom

The debate made for some unusual alliances. Standing beside Newman was Jan Rosenberg, who has the title of “rabbi” at the Beth Zion Messianic Synagogue in Jackson.

“I am for traditional marriage,” said Rosenberg, whose followers believe Jesus is the messiah. “The foundation of Torah is the fabric of everything we see from the beginning.”

Later, in the hearing room, Rosenberg and Newman sat side-by-side at the witness table with Rabbi Joshua Pruzansky, director of the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel in New Jersey.

The three faced pointed questions from State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Dist. 37), one of the bill’s two sponsors.

“Elevating same-sex unions to the status of marriage would convey an unmistakable message that homosexuality occupies the same moral plane as heterosexual unions,” Pruzansky argued. “Not all expressions of sexuality are morally equivalent.”

In response, Weinberg said, “I as a woman am allowed on the bima and I am allowed to read from the Torah. If I were in one of your synagogues, perhaps I would not be allowed.”

“But I respect your right to do what you choose in your own synagogues,” she said. “That’s why I chose to join the synagogue to which I belong.”

Earlier, Weinberg had begun the lengthy afternoon and evening of hearings with a tearful reflection.

“I was married for 39 years to Irwin Weinberg. He was the love of my life. Losing him was the hardest adversity I’ve ever faced,” she said. “What we are voting on today is for every citizen to have what Irwin and I had — the right to live with the person you love with full peace and security.”

Later, Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist congregation in Montclair, and congregant Gina Pastino of Montclair took a turn at the witness table.

She told of her near-fatal bout with encephalitis, during which her civil union partner, Naomi Cohen, was denied consultation with Pastino’s doctors.

“While it pains me that New Jersey does not yet recognize my religious freedom to perform those weddings,” said Tepperman, “it especially pains me that as the rabbi of a couple…in the hospital with one person potentially facing death, I have to spend time counseling them about the fact they were discriminated against, instead of giving them comfort in a moment of pain.”

An hour later, Marcia Shapiro and Louise Walpin of South Brunswick spoke of the death in July 2008 of their son, Aaron Krakow, 20, of multiple handicaps and medical issues.

“We had to watch our beautiful boy Aaron get sicker and sicker until he finally went into a coma and died,” said a tearful Walpin. “With all this, our relationship continued to flourish and still thrives. If this isn’t a marriage, what is?”

The bill now heads for a vote by the full Senate and State Assembly. Supporters, led by Goldstein, are racing the clock: If the law is not passed before Gov. Jon Corzine leaves office on Jan. 19, it will most certainly face a veto by his successor, Chris Christie.

A day after the committee vote, the Orthodox Union issued a press release calling for the bill’s defeat.

“We fear that same-sex marriage poses a grave threat to the fundamental civil right of religious freedom” and will “create widespread and unnecessary legal conflict that will reverberate across the legal and religious landscape,” it said.

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