Rabbis join gay marriage debate in US

By Paul Berger, December 10, 2009
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Rabbis and Jewish politicians have waded into America’s debate on gay marriage, wielding Judaism in their arguments for and against same-sex unions.

In Lakewood, New Jersey, home to a strictly Orthodox community of about 10,000 families, Jewish leaders committed the hitherto unthinkable act of discussing their opposition to gay marriage with a secular journalist.

“To say [it’s] immoral is not enough,” Lakewood rabbi Osher Lieberman told the Associated Press in New Jersey, where gay-rights activists are pushing for a same-sex marriage bill currently working its way through the state legislature.

Others told AP they were worried that information about homosexuality was seeping into the community, which is largely cut off from the outside world, via the Internet.

“I really don’t believe in getting involved in government,” said David Sofer. “But when an issue is so dangerous, you have to stop it.”

Meanwhile, in New York, Senator Liz Krueger, of Manhattan, delivered an emotional speech to the state senate after it rejected a same-sex marriage bill last week.

“My grandparents came here to escape pogroms and escape discrimination,” Senator Krueger told her colleagues, some of whom had spoken against the bill on religious grounds.

“It’s interesting that some people are talking about [how] their religion teaches them they can’t vote yes today, because my religion teaches, I believe, that I must vote yes today.”

The New York bill was rejected by 38 votes to 24.

The issue of same-sex marriage — currently legal in Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut — has divided the American Jewish community, roughly, along sectarian lines.

The Reform movement supports gay marriage. Conservatives are split. Orthodox groups, along with Catholics and evangelicals, oppose gay marriage.

“The view on the act itself is clear from the perspective of the Torah and it’s unchanging over thousands of years,” said Howie Beigelman, deputy director of public policy for the Orthodox Union.

Mr Beigelman also cited Orthodox fears that religious institutions could be sued for refusing to cater to gay couples if same sex marriage is enshrined in law.

He pointed to a number of cases, including a Methodist campground that was sued for refusing to hire out a building to a lesbian couple for a civil union and a Catholic charity that abandoned its adoption service because it would have been forced to allow gay couples to adopt.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, of the conservative Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, said same-sex marriages directly threatened religious freedom.

“Once marriage is redefined, one who speaks against same-sex marriage can be held accountable for discrimination against state-sanctioned institutions,” said Rabbi Shafran.

“It’s the beginning of a road that leads to people not being able to exercise either freedom of speech or freedom of religion.”

That is a view that is not shared by the Reform movement, which accepts gay rabbis and performs same-sex marriages.

Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, an advocacy group, lobbied on behalf of gay marriage in New York.

Rabbi Marc Gruber, a co-chair of the group, vowed that it would do so the next time a similar bill returns to the New York Senate.

He said it was natural for Jewish groups to agitate on the issue.

“We are religious people and we are citizens,” he said. “It would be odd to say that my values as a Jew don’t inform the way I view policy issues for our society.”

    Last updated: 9:57am, December 11 2009