Rabbis split on gay marriage bill
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Rabbis split on gay marriage bill

Last-minute effort by 'Values' group fails to move legislators

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Rabbi Joel Mosbacher (left) speaks on behalf of same-sex marriage. To his left is Rabbi Mary Zamore of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown; Rabbi David Fine speaks on behalf of the same sex marriage bill as Rabbi David Greenstein (right) waits his turn.

In advance of the votes this week in Trenton to recognize same-sex marriages, rabbis testified both for and against – but the numbers were on the side of what is being referred to as “marriage equality.”

A last-minute effort by Orthodox opponents of gay marriage to rally opposition had no apparent effect, as the New Jersey State Senate passed the measure on Monday by a wider than expected 24-16 margin. A vote in the State Assembly was scheduled for Thursday, after this newspaper went to press. Gov. Chris Christie has promised a veto; the Democrats who sponsored the bill have until the end of the legislative session in 2014 to override that veto.

In the Senate, that would require gaining three more votes.

On Sunday night, before the vote, an Orthodox group calling itself Torah Values Defence placed what it said were 25,000 “robocalls,” urging New Jersey residents to call their state senator in opposition to the bill. Rabbi Nosson Leiter, of Monsey, an organizer of Torah Values Defence and spokesman for the Lakewood-based Garden State Parents for Moral Values, called the bill “very anti-Torah, anti-moral, anti-American.”

Leiter was one of two Orthodox rabbis who testified in opposition to gay marriage in committee hearings last month, along with Rabbi Moshe Bresler of Lakewood. Ten rabbis – from Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist congregations – testified in favor.

The two statewide Orthodox organizations which regularly lobby in Trenton – the Institute of Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel – did not testify at last month’s hearings.

Instead, the Orthodox Union worked with the legislation’s lead sponsors, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Senator Ray Lesniak, to include protections for the religious liberties of institutions opposed to same-sex marriage in the bill, which was formally titled the “Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act.”

In a statement, the OU repeated its opposition “to the redefinition of marriage” and the legislation, while expressing gratitude for the protection of their religious liberty.

“Disturbingly, in too many states, those acting on their religious beliefs have seen government benefits withheld, government funds, contracts and services denied, and privileges such as tax exemptions revoked. We are hopeful that New Jersey’s bill will be enacted and enforced in a manner that ensures that this will not happen here and that employers, social service providers, and houses of worship will be free to uphold their faith,” said the statement.

Leiter criticized other Orthodox groups for not making the definition of marriage a top priority, rather than “getting funding for their programs and yeshivahs.”

“We will put morality and Torah values over material concerns. We will not be bought off,” he said. “The misperception that Orthodox people are over-focused on getting their material needs addressed has to be destroyed. That’s one reason we made that robocall. We know the grass roots does the right thing, but they’re not told what’s the right thing.”

Leiter said he was appointed to head the battle for “marriage integrity” at a meeting of rabbis in Monsey several years ago. He said he helped arrange the rabbinic p’sak halachah (rabbinic ruling on a matter of law) last fall that urged Orthodox Jews to vote against David Weprin in a hotly contested Queens congressional race. The Democratic assemblyman, who is Orthodox, had supported same-sex marriage.

Among those testifying for gay marriage was Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah. He was part of a delegation of rabbis organized by Garden State Equality.

Mosbacher said he spoke “on behalf of members of my congregation whose love and care for each other can be recognized within the walls of my synagogue, but when they walk the streets and enter the schools of their children, and they enter the hospitals and nursing homes, and all the public places of New Jersey, their relationships aren’t recognized.”

“Government should embrace an inclusive definition of marriage,” he said. “I’m angry that the holdings of any one religion can determine the bounds of government-determined civil marriage.”

Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, a Conservative congregation in Montclair, compared opponents of gay marriage to inhabitants of Sodom.

“What was the evil of the inhabitants of Sodom?” he said.

He cited the Talmud as delineating the sin of Sodom as “to be opposed to someone deriving a benefit where their derivation of benefit causes no harm.”

Talmudic explanations of the sin of Sodom often widely digress from the traditional understanding. For opposing giving same-sex couples the benefits of marriage, he said, “those who oppose this bill are in that way the true Sodomites.”

Rabbi David Fine, of Temple Israel of Ridgewood, a Conservative congregation, told the State Senate committee that “the celebration of marriages is a theological dispute, and I would ask the legislature not to establish one religious view over another, and permit me the right to such celebrations and solemnizations.”

Fine was a co-author of a 2006 responsum for the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), which argued that the traditional prohibition on homosexual activity no longer applied. The responsum was voted down as too radical even to be considered as an acceptable minority opinion. The CJLS instead approved two opposing responsa – one reaffirming its 1992 decision against all homosexual activity; the other permitting most (but not all) homosexual acts, the solemnization of same-sex relationships, and opening the doors of the Jewish Theological Seminary to outwardly gay rabbinical students.

Regardless of which side Conservative Jews come down on the 2006 decisions, Fine told The Jewish Standard, they should support same sex marriage rights.

“The position of the Conservative movement since 1990 is to oppose any civil discrimination against gays and lesbians,” he said. “It seems to me that what we’re talking about is a civil issue. We wouldn’t want anyone to have any less protection under the law, whether or not their marriage is acceptable under Jewish law or Christian canon. It should not be a contested issue.

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