Words of Torah, for Marriage Equality: Rabbi Harold Kravitz

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 these initiatives. 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. You can see the first post in this series, here.

This week, we bring you the sermon Rabbi Harold Kravitz delivered on Rosh Hashanah at Adath Jeshurun Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Minnetonka, Minnesota. See below to learn more about Jewish Community Action (JCA), the organization mobilizing the Jewish community in Minnesota around marriage equality, and how you can get involved.

Marriage Equality. Creative Commons -- Wolfsoul
Creative Commons -- Wolfsoul

A privilege I have as a rabbi is getting called by people who want to tell me about their engagement and ask if I can officiate at the wedding. Sometimes the calls are from young people I have watched grow up in my twenty-five years as a rabbi here. Sometimes the calls are from one of the parents asking about dates, but the couple doesn’t know yet!

The calls are invariably touching. I may have officiated at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Actually, I am now at the point that I may have been at their baby naming. Our son Gabe, who married Yael a year ago August, may have the distinction of being my first such wedding. I look forward to many more of those in the years ahead.

Since my entire career as a rabbi has been in Minnesota, I have always done weddings here within parameters set by the MRA, the Minnesota Rabbinical Association. For the last 60 years, or so, the MRA policy has been to only do weddings in a synagogue, a home, or a park. It is an unusual policy. I know of no other community with anything quite like it. The rabbis who originally established it were concerned about what they saw happening in hotels and wanted to set a more appropriate tone for Jewish weddings. I really believe that this policy is one of the things that has contributed to the special strength and quality that has long distinguished the Minnesota Jewish community.

Over the years, rabbis who were new to town would sometimes question the policy. Several times, I have attended meetings where the MRA revisited and reaffirmed it. About a year ago, the MRA was again asked to reconsider the policy. This time it was clear that support for it had weakened. In an iPod-defined world, in which we routinely customize things to suit our individual wants, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a policy that asks people to subordinate their own needs to the needs of the community.

As we debated the MRA wedding policy, some of us concluded that this unique Minnesota norm was no longer viable. In talking to my colleague Rabbi Adam Spilker of Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul, we wondered whether perhaps we could craft an alternative to replace the policy we expected would soon end. While the longstanding approach had implicit values that it fostered, we thought it could be worth trying to now articulate an explicit set of values to guide people.

I drafted language that Rabbi Spilker worked on to present to the MRA at the meeting when a decision was finally to be made after a year of reflection and debate that we had set for ourselves. After thoughtful discussion, it was apparent that there was no longer a consensus for maintaining our 60-year-old practice. There was a degree of sadness for some about ending this policy that had long distinguished Minnesota Jewry and united us as rabbis. It was good to see the respect my colleagues showed each other in this process. People were especially sensitive and appreciative of Rabbi Kass Abelson, who was present, the only colleague here when the original policy was passed.

When it became clear that a change would happen, we moved directly to considering the alternate policy that Rabbi Spilker and I had drafted. It was kind of astounding how few emendations were made to that proposal and how quickly it was accepted. Instead of offering rules about where a wedding could be held, we wanted to offer guidance about what values a Jewish wedding should embody.

I decided to talk about this today because I think the new policy captures some important Jewish principles. For as diverse as we are as rabbis of the MRA, we were united in accepting them. We hope these values will be embraced by our people.

Our new MRA Marriage and Wedding Guidelines begin by affirming “the sanctity of marriage reflecting the value that Judaism places on committed, monogamous relationships.” Our Guidelines continue to promote the special sanctity that a synagogue provides as a setting for a wedding, which can also be felt in a home or in a natural setting. Recognizing that what happens after the wedding day is most important, we felt strongly about requiring couples, at whose weddings we would officiate, to commit to doing pre-marital counseling.

It is our hope that people will talk to us before they go too far in their wedding planning (though maybe not before the couple themselves know). We believe that rabbis have something valuable to offer people making such a significant commitment. In my rabbinate, I regularly offer support and guidance to couples, whether the marriage is between two people who are Jewish or not. I hope that people will avail themselves of this.

Asking people to talk to a rabbi before they plan a wedding also conveys that agreeing to officiate at a wedding is not just about conducting a relatively brief service. Preparing a couple for marriage is a responsibility that is far more profound than logging on to the internet to become a Universal Life Minister to officiate for a day. (Just wanted you to know what I thought about that phenomenon). As rabbis, we want to build relationships with people and we want to build a vibrant Jewish community. Working with couples committing to marriage can be an important step towards establishing that relationship.

Jewish tradition is wise and we urge people to celebrate their weddings in a way that embodies the following Jewish values:

Modesty – by which we mean modesty in dress and in all aspects of the celebration.
Moderation in the choice of decoration and flowers.
Minimization of waste and consciousness about the impact of the celebration on our environment.

The next point in the Guidelines is a reminder that the wedding meal is a
seudat mitzvah
. (We did not go intentionally for another “M”!) The seudat mitzvah celebrating a wedding should be appropriate for the occasion. As a Conservative rabbi, I would hope that a seudat mitzvah would be kosher, or at least dairy. (That is a sermon itself.)

Finally, the MRA rabbis felt it was important to remind people of the value of tzedakah. (No “M,” but very important nonetheless!) As the recently appointed Chair of the Board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, I thought it would be somewhat chutzpadik to suggest that the new policy ask people to donate 3% of what they spend on weddings to address the issue of hunger. I appreciated when my colleagues insisted that it was important to encourage support of MAZON, or some other worthy cause, as a reminder that even in our times of joy we should also remember that the world is in need of repair and that we have an obligation to provide for others.

It was truly encouraging to see how quickly this set of values was agreed upon by my MRA colleagues. We decided to put them into a format that all of us could give to people planning weddings. We hope that with this explicit set of values, stating what Judaism teaches about the celebration of weddings, we will still be able to maintain the strength and vitality that has long characterized this community.

There was one part of this statement that I glossed over and to which I want to return. As I said, our new statement about weddings started by affirming the sanctity of marriage and the value that Judaism places on committed, monogamous relationships. The truth is that people don’t talk very much these days about the value of marriage. Even in planning a wedding, a tremendous amount of energy gets focused on the wedding day, when it is the marriage that is most important.

The reality is that for many in our society marriage has become far less popular. Perhaps you saw the article in the Star Tribune in June, “Middle Class trading ‘I do’ for ‘maybe later.‘” It reported on a 2010 study by the National Marriage Project at the U of Virginia entitled “When Marriage Disappears.” According to the last U.S. census, marriage in this country is at an all-time low from 1950, when 78% of American households were married couples, to 2010, when that number had dropped to closer to 50%. The recession did nothing to slow this trend, with the retreat from marriage spreading from the least affluent Americans into the solidly middle class.

In making our statement, the rabbis of the MRA solidly affirmed the importance of marriage. I understand and I am respectful of the reality that relationships are complicated and marriage is not always possible for people for various reasons, but Judaism promotes marriage as the strongest, most stable and holy commitment that two people can make to each other.

This year has witnessed a great surge of discussion about marriage in Minnesota, with the unfortunate decision by the State Legislature to put to an election whether marriage will be defined only as a relationship between one man and one woman. I am pleased that the MRA has played a leading role in this debate, unanimously calling for people to vote NO on that amendment. I deeply respect the process by which our Adath Synagogue Board, after thoughtful reflection, endorsed the position of the MRA. Neither the MRA, nor our synagogue Board could be accused of being against marriage – quite the opposite. The decisions of both bodies reflect a growing recognition that the time has come in the civil realm, and some of us would say in the religious realm as well, to allow for the possibility of marriage for same-gender couples, or at the very least for a respectful consideration of that possibility.

Our society is in the midst of rethinking our understanding of homosexuality. Our synagogue and our movement in Judaism have been trying to find our way through this issue for more than 25 years. I asserted, in a Shabbat sermon in February, that Conservative Judaism has long understood that it is a distortion of Torah to claim that there is a single, clear and obvious meaning to any Biblical verse. Jewish tradition is rich with learned debate trying to discern from the text what God wants for us. I think that Conservative Judaism serves as a model for how to confront difficult issues and changing understandings in a respectful way. It is just wrong to try to concretize one group’s view of this issue into the MN State Constitution. This is the very time when our state should be struggling through these complex issues, rather than trying to shut down a necessary conversation.

In the weeks ahead there will be a barrage of ads trying to spook people into voting for the amendment. They will claim that children are best off when raised in a home with a mother and father. The truth is much more complicated and nuanced than that. There are studies supporting the claim that children fare better in homes where parents are married, but these ads will be filled with half-truths. Children are better off when they have stable families, and married families are statistically the most stable. If anything that could be an argument for welcoming same gender couples to marry, so as to increase the stability of children’s lives.

I hope that this so-called marriage amendment is defeated. Though it is too much to adequately address today, I also strongly oppose the proposed voter ID amendment. It sounds innocuous, but I believe it would be highly damaging to our democracy. There will be a chance to study that issue at a forum being sponsored by our Hesed Committee at Adath after Shabbat services on Oct 13th to which you are invited. Rosh Hashanah celebrates God’s creation of the world in which every person is created in the Divine image. I believe that the two amendments being proposed to MN are both threats to human dignity. I am committed to keeping the conversation open about marriage for committed same-sex couples and ensuring that we all have the freedom to participate in our democracy, so I will vote NO on both amendments on November 6th.

I don’t know what the outcome of this vote will be. What I do know is that whatever happens on Election Day, we at Adath Jeshurun will still need to determine how we as a congregation will deal with the marriage of same gender couples going forward.

Six years ago, more than half of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (the CJLS) decided that our movement should ordain people who are openly gay or lesbian and called for the creation of appropriate ceremonies to celebrate these relationships. It was only a few months ago that the CJLS finally produced rituals of marriage and divorce for same sex couples.

In reading the opinion, it is striking that this esteemed group of Conservative rabbis intentionally chose the word marriage to describe the ceremonies that they designed for same-sex couples. They understood that there is something very powerful and important about the commitment of marriage and that we should be promoting marriage, whether it is for people of the opposite or same-sex. The Brit – Covenant of Loving Partners they have created for these marriages draw from the words of the sages in Avot d’Rabbi Natan in teaching that, “A person should find a partner with whom to eat, drink, read, study, sleep, and share every secret, secrets of Torah and secrets of life.”

Our congregation has been wrestling with the issue of homosexuality going back to at least 1989 when Rabbi Cytron and I staffed a committee on this topic here at Adath. You may recall the powerful public forum at Mincha on Yom Kippur that year when this was explored. The issue went into abeyance while we were dealing with our move. In 2004, my colleague Rabbi Aaron Brusso and I decided it was time to revisit these issues. I had seen too many young people who grew up here who were gay or lesbian, who did not feel that they could be out in our congregation. I found that heartbreaking.

Rabbi Brusso gave a brilliant Rosh Hashanah sermon calling for our movement to extend marriage to same sex couples. We had invited Rabbi Elliot Dorff to Adath that October to teach material that would form the basis of the response that was approved by the CJLS two years later permitting ordination and ceremonies for same gender couples.

At Adath we established a Keruv Committee to thoughtfully shepherd our efforts at helping people who feel that they are on the margins of our congregation become more connected here. Presently chaired by Debbie Krawetz, it has been a thoughtful forum where we could address the issue of homosexuality as well as revisit how we pro-actively welcome people who are intermarried.

In response to a Keruv Committee presentation, several years ago, our synagogue Board indicated its readiness to consider the possibility that same gender ceremonies would be performed at Adath Jeshurun Congregation by our clergy. I have committed this year to studying with our Keruv Committee the alternative ceremonies created by the Rabbinical Assembly. I look forward to bringing our deliberation to the Adath Board and anticipate their supporting a decision to move forward with such ceremonies.

I have had to work through this issue for myself. I have become quite convinced by a numbers of writers and thinkers such as Andrew Sullivan, Dale Carpenter and Jonathan Rauch that the best way to protect the institution of marriage is by spreading the wedding canopy over people who are gay or lesbian. They make a strong argument that the proliferation of alternative categories of sanctioned relationships, such as civil unions and domestic partnerships, pose a far greater challenge to the institution of marriage than does defining marriage to include same gender couples.

After a process of deliberation by our synagogue Board, I am prepared to officiate at marriages of Jewish couples, whether they are straight or gay. At a time when fewer people are willing to make the strong commitment to each other that marriage represents, I am more concerned about being like the Maytag repairman, waiting for someone to call to ask for assistance in getting married at all, than I am about officiating at a wedding ceremony for a couple of the same gender.

As I said I plan to vote NO on the proposal to amend the MN Constitution and fervently hope that this misguided amendment is defeated. Regardless of what happens at the ballet box, I believe that it is time for a change here at Adath Jeshurun that is consistent with the direction that has been taken by the Conservative movement.

It is time for this to happen because marriage is a value that Judaism strongly affirms.

It is time for this to happen because marriage represents the strongest and most sacred kind of commitment that two people can make to each other and to stabilize society.

It is time for this to happen because Judaism has always been capable of adapting ultimate Jewish values to new understandings of the world.

And when we celebrate weddings and marriages in the future, I pray that all of the weddings at which I officiate will reflect the values that the MRA is now promoting. I pray that this community will remain a vital Jewish center committed to fostering an environment that is loving and supportive for all people.

Learn more and get involved:

Jewish Community Action (JCA) has brought together eight congregations and four community organizations to defeat the upcoming ballot initiative to ban gay marriage in Minnesota’s constitution. JCA has organized trainings and forums to educate their community about how to have thousands of conversations with their friends, families, fellow congregants, and neighbors to defeat the marriage amendment. For more information and to get involved contact: adele@jewishcommunityaction.org or gabe@jewishcommunityaction.org. And please consider making a donation to support JCA’s marriage equality work!

Jewish Community Action is a fellow member with Keshet of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. B

ased 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.

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