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Jews are on both sides of gay marriage debate

As a bill to legalize gay marriage in New Jersey heads for a full Senate vote, Jews could be found among the bill’s supporters and detractors, arguing the merits of both positions according to Jewish law.

Leading up to Monday night’s vote when the bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), a chief supporter of the bill, found herself in heated discussions with Orthodox protesters in Trenton about the need for Torah to be reinterpreted as society evolves.

At the heart of the argument, Weinberg told The Jewish Standard on Tuesday, is separation of church and state.

“It is about what the state sanctions and not what religion sanctions,” she said. “It is a civil rights issue.”

No rabbi, priest, or religious institution would be forced to perform a gay marriage under the bill, she emphasized. “I just don’t want other people telling me what’s appropriate in my own synagogue or to my rabbi,” she said. “He has that right.”

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Cong. Avodat Shalom in River Edge praised the bill because of the choice it presents.

“One of the reason I can support this bill is it doesn’t require any clergymember to perform any ceremony they’re uncomfortable with,” said Borovitz, who is also Reform. “My freedom to officiate or not officiate at any ceremony remains intact.”

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State Sen. Loretta Weinberg is a sponsor of a bill legalizing gay marriage.

Jews have thrived in America because the First Amendment affords freedom of religion and freedom from religion, Borovitz continued. “It’s imperative that this state not become involved in those religious decisions,” he said.

Guarantees that they would not be bound to perform gay marriages were no consolation for rabbinical opponents of the bill. Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, which is Orthodox, told the Standard that the Bible is not talking just to Jews when it says that “Man shall cling to his wife.” The gay marriage bill is “threatening the very core of society,” he said.

“Wherever you go, marriage has been a sacred institution,” he said, “and to go now and tamper with it is something that is very threatening to the moral fiber of society.”

Sarah and Leah are an Orthodox lesbian couple living in Bergen County who support the idea of legal equality but not gay marriage itself. The couple did not want their real names used.

“It doesn’t mean anything in terms of halacha,” Sarah said. “You have to have a different halachic process to get married.”

She pointed out that Jews can legally marry non-Jews, which is also forbidden under halacha. Judaism, she added, has a definition of marriage separate from the state’s.

“We’ve never felt the need to change our halachic definition based on a legal definition,” she said. If New Jersey passes the gay marriage bill, “that’s not going to force the situation halachically whatsoever.”

A civil marriage would afford the couple equal rights and protect future children they may adopt, Sarah argued.
“Our decision to have a civil marriage wouldn’t cause me to think we’re married in the eyes of God or a Jewish marriage,” she said. “I see it as legal protection.”

Separation of church and state, is what concerns Leah the most. “When the boundary between church and state starts to get fuzzy it’s really dangerous for Jews,” she said. “I don’t hear a lot of convincing arguments about why same-sex marriage shouldn’t be allowed that aren’t really based in religious beliefs.”

A legal marriage, Leah continued, would be mostly about ensuring the couple’s right to keep their family together. In that respect, pursuing marriage equality is part of tikkun olam, the Jewish mission to repair the world, she said.

“This will have no bearing on Orthodox synagogues,” she said. “The people it affects most are children. Children of couples who don’t have equal rights grow up feeling their family isn’t equal under the law.”

Yudin dismissed arguments that the state definition of marriage is separate from the Jewish definition. He will not perform any marriage ceremony without a state-issued marriage license.

“The law of the land is law,” he said. “Jewish law does not speak about a marriage law in the state of New Jersey. But we comply and live in accordance with the laws of the land and therefore do require that Jewish marriages have a civil license, as well.”

Gov. Jon Corzine has promised to sign the bill if it reaches his desk before he leaves office. Gov.-elect Chris Christie is opposed to gay marriage, which has led lawmakers who support it to try to rush the bill through. Yudin pointed to Christie’s election as proof that New Jerseyans don’t want gay marriage.

The Assembly has not yet taken action on the bill, which could stall its passage even if the Senate approves it. If the Senate does not pass the bill, however, proponents are prepared to keep working, Weinberg said.

 
 

Teaneck religious leaders travel to Birmingham, address poverty

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Rabbi Steven Sirbu, right, and Pastor Keni Ashby in front of a tree in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park. The plaque near the tree includes words written by Anne Frank.

Rabbi Steven Sirbu returned from Birmingham last week with new insights into social injustice, a mandate for change, and a partner to help him carry out that change.

The religious leader of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth — together with Pastor Keni Ashby of the Covenant House of Faith International, also in Teaneck — joined five other “teams” convened by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs to strengthen relationships between the Jewish and African-American communities.

Seeking to develop what a JCPA spokesman called “concrete steps blacks and Jews could jointly implement to help alleviate poverty and promote justice in their local communities,” the teams spent four days in Alabama, hosted by the Birmingham Jewish federation. The initiative was part of the JCPA’s anti-poverty initiative, “There Shall Be No Needy Among You,” launched in 2007.

Participants needed to apply as teams, said Sirbu, noting that he already knew Ashby through involvement in dialogue programs between Jews and Evangelical Christians.

As part of the mission, participants visited sites important to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. These included the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where a bomb killed four little girls in 1963.

“We had the chance to tour the building, including the pulpit where Martin Luther King and every other civil rights leader spoke at one time or another,” said Sirbu.

The group also visited Kelly Ingram Park, a central staging ground for large-scale civil rights demonstrations. A tree was planted there in April in memory of Anne Frank and other victims of the Holocaust.

At the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma — made famous by the march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965— Sirbu and Ashby were called upon to offer reflections and lead prayers.

The focus was not simply historical, said Sirbu, pointing out that the teams also took part in a service project in Birmingham’s West End, where they confronted poverty and discussed its causes. While the immediate focus was Birmingham, “there was the assumption that the same general causes apply nationwide.”

“We were impacted in different ways,” he said, pointing out that the civil rights movement “affected both African Americans and the Jews involved” in that struggle.

Among other issues, the group discussed access to education as well as inequality in the justice system, “something that really resonated with Keni,” said Sirbu.

Sirbu explained to the Standard that in Alabama, young teenagers can be sentenced to life imprisonment, even if they haven’t killed anyone. “Most kids who get sentenced are victims of abuse and neglect,” he said. “It offers no chance for redemption or rehabilitation.”

While New Jersey is not as punitive, he said, “that’s not to say we’re doing everything we can to make sure kids are getting age-appropriate justice.”

Sirbu said he intends to explore this issue, looking for ways to partner with others to bring about needed changes.

He added that while his experience will take some time to fully digest, “I’m sure there will be a sermon in this.”

Calling the mission “absolutely of value,” Sirbu said “there are very few ways to get a good grasp of how poverty affects our communities and the resources available to reverse it.”

Not only did he learn a lot about the juvenile justice system and the Birmingham civil rights movement, but he did “extra research about Abraham Joshua Heschel and the friendship he had with Dr. Martin Luther King and how important that friendship was in maintaining King’s support of the Jewish community and Israel for his entire life.”

He also noted that he was “shocked to see how Alabama’s state constitution was an impediment to social change.”

“It’s an example of how laws written over 100 years ago can tie the hands of people working for change today,” he said. “It was written in 1901 by landholders to protect their interests and has a provision allowing for judicial override.”

That means, he explained, that a judge can override a jury decision sentencing a person to life imprisonment, changing the punishment to the death penalty.

Since judges are elected, he said, “overrides only seem to increase in an election year,” with candidates running on a “law-and-order platform. Tragically, it becomes a campaign tool,” he added, noting that only three states have this kind of override.

“New Jersey isn’t one of them, but there are other aspects of our judicial system that offer inequality,” he said, adding that if we don’t work together with other groups, “we’re missing a huge opportunity. There’s definitely a gap and plenty more to do.”

 
 
 
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