‘Continue In Honest Dialogue’

July 3, 2013
BY Maayan Jaffe
Jewish community reacts to Supreme Court decision to strike down DOMA
070513_continue_in_honest_dialogue

Gay rights supporter Vin Testa waves a rainbow flag outside the U.S. Supreme Court building on June 26. The high court ruled last week on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

>> “Societies’ morals may shift and crumble, but eternal verities exist. One is marriage, the union of a man and a woman. Its sanctity may have been grievously insulted by the High Court, but that sanctity remains untouched,” Agudath Israel said in a statement.

>> “Loving families across our nation have been made whole. … The Supreme Court has affirmed there is no place for discrimination in Maryland,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

Why the differences of opinion?

The Supreme Court’s rulings bolstered same-sex marriage by ruling part of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and allowing a lower court ruling to stand that struck down California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

The first case stemmed from a lawsuit brought by a Jewish woman, Edith Windsor, who was forced to pay federal taxes on the estate of her late wife, Thea Spyer, who also was Jewish, although their Canadian marriage was recognized as legal by the State of New York, where they resided.

And in a separate opinion, the Supreme Court dismissed a case that asked the court to overturn a lower-court decision striking down the California marriage law. The decision paves the way for marriages to resume in California.

The marriage-equality cases had Jewish groups filing friend-of-the-court briefs on both sides, with liberal groups defending the rights of gay couples and conservative groups seeking to push back. In Washington, D.C., the Jewish Community Relations Council did not take an active stance on DOMA, said its executive director, Ron Halber, but he said the Jewish community in Greater Washington “believes same-sex couples should be entitled to the same marital benefits as opposite-sex couples. Our JCRC takes a very hard line between civil and religious rights. … The community liked to see DOMA struck down.”

In Baltimore, the local Jewish Council did not take a stance. Executive Director Dr. Arthur Abramson said only that there was no consensus among local constituents, “and on that basis there is nothing to say. … We need consensus. If we don’t have it, we don’t take a position.”

The question here, according to Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, was not one of what defines marriage but one of civil rights. For same-sex couples living in Maryland, which passed legislation last fall legalizing marriage between a man and man and a woman and a woman, the court’s decision has a basket of practical ramifications. She explained that with the overturning of DOMA the federal government will now honor the marriages of Maryland’s same-sex couples in such areas as immigration and social security. Gay couples will now have access to more than 1,000 federal rights and responsibilities that were already afforded traditional couples.

The Prop 8 case (Perry) does not impact Maryland.

Evans said, however, for her it is “not just the logistics.” Striking down DOMA is a statement of affirmation to young gay and lesbian couples that their marriages are the same as those of their straight counterparts.

“We have counseled gay couples for years. They are no different than heterosexual couples,” said Lori Hollander, a therapist in private practice with her husband, Bob. Both of the Owings Mills couple’s children are gay.

The Hollanders were among the leaders in fighting for marriage equality in Maryland.

“We were an angry mama and papa bear,” said Lori Hollander. “We couldn’t understand why our children couldn’t marry like everyone else’s children.”

National groups such as Keshet, which works for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews in Jewish life, used words such as “elated” to describe their feelings after the Supreme Court’s decision.

“Our ancient Jewish values teach us that we are all created <I>b’tzelem Elokim<P> (in God’s image), wrote Keshet Executive Director Idit Klein on the organization’s website on Wednesday. “I celebrate … the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ Americans. …”

The Conservative Rabbinical Assembly expressed similar sentiments “celebrating” the court’s decision.

“Our movement recognizes and celebrates marriage, whether between partners of the same sex or the opposite sex,” the Rabbinical Assembly said in statement.

But many in the Orthodox community, while accepting the law of the land, did not see the ruling as a victory for the U.S. or the people of the U.S.

“I think that God meant that men should marry women and that is what marriage is. If people want to change it, that is not what we believe,” said Dr. Michael J. Elman.

The Baltimore ophthalmologist said civil rights is a complicated issue, and he does not think gay rights falls under that category.

“I am not telling them what they can do in their private lives. They can live together. People are given free will to do as they see fit. Whether I agree is irrelevant,” Dr. Elman said. “I don’t think [gays] should be discriminated in the work place or in anything else, but to turn the world upside down and say this is normal, there is a line that is crossed.”

Similarly, Rabbi Yaakov Menken, who runs Torah.org, said he feels the Supreme Court’s decision sends an encouraging message to young students that they can choose anyone they want – and he is not comfortable with that. Rabbi Menken said Jews should know that relations with someone of the same sex is forbidden by Jewish law, the same way they know that pork is not kosher: It is stated in the Torah.

“We don’t find people who consume pork trying to rewrite the Torah’s verses about it,” he said. “I don’t think it is about intolerance or bigotry or anything else. I think it is about a commitment to the Torah telling us thing, things that sometimes we don’t want to hear. The Torah does ask us that we make sacrifices, and those are different for every person.”

In the aftermath, some Jewish groups are struggling to hold the community together, sending messages of unity and acceptance despite differing opinions. Even the Orthodox Union, which lobbied against such a ruling, said in a statement that is “grateful that we live in a democratic society, in which all religions are free to express their opinions about social issues and to advocate vigorously for those opinions.”

The OU said it feels strongly that the Jewish Divine system of law “not only dictates our beliefs and behaviors, but also represents a system of universal morality, and therefore can stake a claim in the national discourse.” Nonetheless, the organization said it recognizes that not always will secular law align with Jewish viewpoint.

And the Jewish Council for Public Affairs called for dialogue.

“In the end, our democratic process determines matters such as this, and that process has spoken. Many in our community are celebrating this decision. Others do not join in that celebration,” JCPA said in a statement. “Together, we must continue in honest dialogue, learning from one another and striving for what is best for our community and our nation.”

 

Maayan Jaffe is JT managing editor — mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

 

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