An Orthodox Jewish Case for Marriage Equality

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June 24, 2011

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Steven Greenberg wrote the following open letter to New York State Senator Steven Saland, widely regarded as the decision-maker regarding the marriage equality bill. Saland is a descendant of Rabbi Shmuel Salant, whom Greenberg notes in his letter. As we go to press, the fate of the bill remains uncertain.

Dear Senator Saland,

I am hoping that in the last hours of your deliberative process I have a chance to speak with you on the issue that fate (or heaven if you will) has put in your hands. I am an Orthodox rabbi, ordained at Yeshiva University. I am also the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the US and have written a book on the topic, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, which won the Koret Award for Philosophy and Thought. I share this with you so that my personal stake is made clear from the start. My partner and I cannot marry in New York state and the consequences are significant for us and our 7 month old daughter, Amalia. I would be very happy to speak with you this anytime.

The short of the matter is that the separation of church and state protects religions from state interference and protects the state and its many citizens from religious interference. Civil marriage is not Catholic or Jewish or Mormon. It is a wide frame, surely based on a historical norms, but much broader than any one tradition, that knits together individuals into couples, and couples into kinship groups. It is how we learn to care for each other, and the most reliable frame, despite the modern challenges, of life long commitment between one-time strangers.

Civil marriage is more broadly shaped than Jewish traditions that would not permit intermarriage, or the marriage of a cohen and a divorcee. And it is more broadly shaped than Catholic traditions that would not permit remarriage. Now that there are churches and synagogues that perform and hold sacred same-sex vows, the state cannot choose to reject these marriages any more than it can reject marriages that I, as an Orthodox rabbi, would not perform because one partner is a Jew and another a Christian.

The law that already protects priests and rabbis from having to perform civil or religious marriages they do not deem appropriate would work here as well. The state chooses a broad frame of love and commitment because its aims are pragmatic and not rooted in any single sacred canon. The right of every religious community is to live by its own canons are already protected by the constitution, and the law before you now has those exclusions already articulated.

It is time to New York State to do what is right on this matter. The unfair distribution of these legal goods is already a violation of principles that we hold dear.

Rabbi Shmuel Salant was known for his good sense and, for the times, his liberal sense of goodness and fairness. Unlike others, he honored all the Jews in Jerusalem, not only the powerful. I do hope that you make it possible for my family and families like it to share in the goods of liberty and justice for all.


Rabbi Steven Greenberg

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