Words of Torah for Marriage Equality: Jamie Heller

Marriage equality is on the ballot in four states this November – Maryland, Washington, Minnesota, and Maine – and this High Holiday season a number of rabbis are choosing to use their pulpits, or have congregants use them, to encourage support of equal marriage. Over the next few weeks leading up to the election, we’ll share sermons from each state voting on marriage equality. We hope their words of Torah inspire you.

This Rosh Hashanah Jamie Heller delivered this powerful and personal (and yes, humorous!) sermon at Kol Shalom in Rockville, MD. The Hellers are long-time Keshet leaders and supporters – Jamie’s son Daniel is on the Keshet board and Jamie’s wife Debbie is a founding member of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection. See below to learn more about Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), the organization mobilizing the Jewish community in Maryland around marriage equality, and how you can get involved in this effort.

Breaking the glass at a gay Jewish wedding

Kimberly White/Corbis Courtesy the New York Post

Shana Tovah. Thank you, Rabbi Maltzman, for the honor of allowing me to address all of you this morning.

I want to start, by pointing out that not all problems are that difficult to solve.

One such example occurred just yesterday when my wife plugged a power strip into itself instead of the wall and then could not figure out why her computer wasn’t working.

An example of poor planning was the vacation I purchased on CheapCarribbean.com only to find upon arrival that the hotel and our room were still under construction.

Or the ill effects of hasty planning when I tried teaching our youngest son to parallel park by using our three cars. I accidentally parked two of the cars too close together so when he attempted the impossible task of wedging the third car in between, he damaged not only his self-confidence, but all three of our cars at once.

Unfortunately, not all problems are this simple to solve. Some pertaining to relationships, health, family and, career are truly hard. The one which I want to talk to you about this morning looks hard, but will be easy and obvious in hindsight. I want to talk to you about a civil rights issue.

Civil rights are the rights that belong to each of us as individuals because we are citizens of the United States. They promise us equal protection under our laws and freedom from discrimination. Sounds pretty simple, right?

Well, it is if I’m talking about ending slavery, that happened in the 1860s; or about a woman’s right to vote, that was settled in 1920; or about school desegregation that law was passed in 1954. Instead of those historic decisions which granted civil rights to specific minorities, I am going to talk to you about gay marriage which I firmly believe is the civil rights issue of our time. I want to talk to you about this now for two reasons. First, because on Rosh Hashana, we consider what changes we can make in our lives and institutions to usher in greater justice and equality for the coming year. And second, because in 51 days Marylanders will have a chance to cast votes on a historic referendum to do just that.

Marriage Equality poster for Maryland's Question 6Does the topic of gay marriage make you uncomfortable? If it does, I’m not surprised. I think that’s the nature of changes in civil rights. They are gut wrenching. In America, it seems we only undertake these efforts every 40-50 years. In hindsight, they look like no-brainers, at least for most of us; Rush Limbaugh still thinks that granting women the right to vote started things going downhill.

At the time that these historic changes occur, it’s never so obvious, and never unanimous. Before the 19th amendment was enacted, giving women the right to vote, it had been rejected multiple times by the House, Senate, and Supreme Court. Do you know that women won the right to vote thanks to one wavering Tennessee state congressman with a letter in his pocket from his mother telling him how to vote? And no, she was not even a Jewish mother.

But in making these difficult decisions, Judaism has something really important to offer. Why have we as Jews consistently been on the cutting edge of every one of these civil rights movements? I think there are two reasons. First, it’s because the Talmud teaches us respect for the fundamental rights of others as each person’s duty to God. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Remember that justice and mercy are the overarching themes of these high holidays. Second, it’s because as Jews, we have been the quintessential victims of discrimination in western civilization.

As a result of these two driving forces, the Jewish community has and continues to be a leader in the fight for civil rights laws addressing discrimination in voting, housing and employment.

In Israel, the laws were changed long ago to prohibit discrimination against gays in employment and military service. Ironically, gay Palestinians flee to Israel, knowing that they will get better treatment from “the enemy” than in their own societies.

Why am I choosing to talk with you about this topic? Let me tell you.

11 years ago on a beautiful spring evening, I came home and walked upstairs to see my wife Debbie. She looked a bit shaken, and sent me down the hall to talk with our middle son, Daniel. My 17-year-old high school junior was sitting on the floor of his room doing homework. I asked him what was up. He looked up, smiled sweetly, and told me that he was gay. It’s one of those moments that you remember forever; time freezes and after it thaws, life changes forever.

How did I react? Well, it was not my finest moment. I mumbled something like “How do you know?” asked some other banal questions that I thankfully can’t remember; and then, like the many other parents who have had this experience, went into shock for about 12 hours. I had not seen this coming. I eventually emerged with only one real question – is this a choice?

The answer I got from a professional was unequivocal – “No, it’s not a choice, and by the way, you are lucky. You’re lucky that Daniel figured this out while he is young and still at home, so that you all have a chance to adjust and give him support.”

And was he right. The important questions were no longer if, or why, or when, but simply what do we do now. Our dreams had to change. At the superficial level, there wasn’t going to be a Ken and Barbie wedding. But the questions were who do we tell and when; how would our families and friends react; and how would we react to them? But most importantly and troubling was the question of how do we help protect Daniel from the prejudice that he is going to encounter? My talk to you today is actually part of the answer to that question from 11 years ago.

The problem, we learned, is not so much among the young. To summarize, the reactions of Daniel’s two brothers: Adam said, “Yeah I always sort of suspected, so what?” and Jacob’s response was “What’s for dinner?” Two of every three people below the age of 30 believe that same sex marriage should be legal. Only one in three of those over the age of 65 believe that. As a proud 64-year-old, I obviously do not fit into that latter category. The point is that the problem is not with the young.

So let me tell you where this is going. Demographics are destiny, and gay marriage will become legal in the United States. The only question is when. But when will make a big difference. If we delay, then the suicide rate among gay children will continue at five times the national average. If we delay, many of the more than 2 million children of gay parents who live as loving couples in 96% of the counties in the US will risk being denied health insurance coverage, quality child care, Social Security, inheritance and the numerous other benefits available to children in a legally recognized marriage.

The military has ended “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the President has declared that “gay couples should be able to get married,” the Democratic Party platform “supports marriage equality,” and the governor of Maryland and the legislature also support this measure.

This takes me to Maryland Ballot Question 6, The Civil Marriage Protection Act, which “Establishes that Maryland’s civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license.”

As Jews, we want to be on the right side of history. As we have in the past, we and our government recognize and have proclaimed to the world that gay rights are human rights, and that we need to stand for human rights. As Simon Wiesenthal said, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”

Do nothing and you get stunning statements from people like the esteemed President of Iran who declared at Columbia University in New York in 2007, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.”

So if you live in Maryland, I ask you to join me and my family in voting Yes on Question 6. It’s how we protect our children against prejudice. This act takes courage, but it’s the type of courage that we Jews are really quite good at.

In a world of really difficult problems, think of this one like the power strip: it’s really not that hard.

Shana Tovah. Have a happy and healthy New Year.

Learn more and get involved:

Jews United for Justice is working with 20 different congregations in Montgomery County and beyond to organize the Jewish community to vote FOR question 6, which will protect the Civil Marriage Protection Act, striving to make sure their neighbors in Maryland are granted the same rights so many take for granted. Contact Katie at katie@jufj.org for more information how you can join the Dream for Equality Campaign. And please consider making a donation to support JUFJ’s marriage equality work!

Jews United for Justice is a fellow member with Keshet of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. Based on a shared vision, the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, animated by Jewish tradition and values, will elevate social justice to the center of Jewish life, while advancing social justice issues in the broader society.

For the latest on Jewish organizing in the state around these issues, check out this article in the Baltimore Jewish Times.

Posted on September 27, 2012

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