Today I was in the Georgia Capitol to speak against a bill entitled the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The battlelines have been drawn, for the most part in familiar places. Supporters tend to highlight that the bill protects the rights of the religious and does not impinge too much on the lives of anyone else. Opposition to the bill emphasizes that the measure would legalize discrimination, especially against those whose sexuality, gender identity or expression are deemed forbidden by another’s beliefs. The fear of government overreach into people’s personal lives, a powerful reason given by some of the bill’s supporters, is not something to be taken lightly. However, as a Conservative rabbi, and what is often called “a person of faith,” I find more harmful the way my state’s current denial of the legality of same-sex marriages affects my own religious life greatly.
Within the Conservative movement, I have seen great scholars of Jewish law struggle with how to understand the holiness of a loving relationship between two men or two women or a family that is built on these relationships. My inspiration to become a rabbi, however, came hand in hand with a strong sense that Jewish teachings of the holiness of sexuality and recognition of the image of the Divine in every human being had to point toward fully including and celebrating loving relationships across the spectrum of human sexuality and gender.
I became a Conservative rabbi despite that the movement’s official policies at the time did not reflect my own support of gays and lesbians becoming rabbis and being recognized in marriage. However, I believed that the Conservative movement would embrace this position as they now have. I have had the honor of performing same-sex weddings in Massachusetts and elsewhere. However now, despite my religious beliefs and the official permission of my religious institutions, I am told by the state of Georgia that weddings I would perform according to my faith would be considered invalid. And I am of course not alone. Many Christian, Jewish, and other religious leaders represent branches of our faiths that recognize and sanctify same-sex unions in matrimony. In this way, I believe that commitment to religious freedom, as well as freedom to act according to conscience, would call for supporting state recognition of same sex marriage rather than legislation that would allow only certain religious beliefs to hold sway over the way others live their lives.
Freedom is a powerful value without which our country’s greatest achievements would be meaningless. For me, what Jewish tradition teaches us about freedom is that it goes hand in hand with the respect for human dignity and the call to be holy that are core values of our Torah. The continuing recognition and support for all, regardless of how and whom they love and regardless of how they identify and express their gender, is for me a vital part of living in good faith.
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The brides were sequestered in a tiny room at the banquet hall less than an hour before their wedding, fixing their hair and makeup. They greeted me anxiously. “Just a minute,” one told me, “We’re not ready yet.” A moment later they opened the door to welcome me inside. Standing there in gorgeous cream-colored gowns, similar but not identical in design, they both looked stunning. The decades of their adult lives, successful careers and raising a wonderful son to adulthood melted away in their beauty at that moment. One of them expressed a wordless sigh, emotion written all over her face, her body momentarily tensing. With worry, I asked, “What is it?” As the tears welled up she said, “I’ve been to a lot of weddings, and dreamed of being a bride, but I never thought it would really happen. It’s so amazing!” We were ready to weep with joy.
When the happy couple walked down the aisle to the huppah, or wedding canopy, under which they would sanctify and legalize their long-term relationship, the guests jumped to their feet bursting with applause. Amid cheers, tears and immense joy and love, the brides and their son came to the huppah. The ceremony transported everyone to another dimension; when the breaking of the glass broke the spell, the guests once again rose up to cheer. It was a release of joy after years of being on the outside of society’s formula of acceptable marriages by laws that did not recognize the families created by same-sex couples.
I will carry these images to my seder next week along with many joyous celebrations with couples in the past year since same-sex marriage became legal here. I will think of this as I assemble my Seder plate, for the first time with an orange.
“An orange?” you may ask. Perhaps, like many in the progressive Jewish community, you heard the 1990’s myth that feminist leaders began to put oranges on seder plates to symbolize the need for women’s equality in Judaism. One version told that the orange symbolized the need to accept women rabbis. While both are nice stories, the actual events that led to the placement of an orange on a seder plate arose from a conversation about the exclusion of lesbians (and gays) from Jewish life and ritual. (See this great resource for the narratives.)
Years ago, after I heard the mythic meaning ascribed to the symbolic orange, I lost enthusiasm for the new ritual. Yet, every Passover I was sure to talk about it, along with the call for justice that defined it.
This year I am rethinking the orange; this year I am celebrating justice. And I am mindful to remember that LGBTQ justice is incomplete, in this country, and in the world. I invite you to join me.