Rabbis, gay couples wait
for legislature’s marriage decision
But for now, Goldstein, the chair of Garden State Equality, a New Jersey-based gay and lesbian advocacy group, will continue to press elected officials to go beyond last week’s state Supreme Court decision that New Jersey extend all the rights of marriage to gay couples but left it to lawmakers to decide if those rights will come in the form of marriage, civil unions, or something entirely different.
Steve Goldstein, left, and Daniel Gross stand under the chuppah at a ’00’ wedding in Montreal.
"I’m terribly disappointed but more determined than ever to win full marriage equality for same-sex couples in New Jersey," Goldstein told The Jewish Standard on Monday. The Supreme Court decision, he said, was a step in the right direction, but not a victory.
While lawmakers debate, the Reconstructionist and Reform movements wait in the wings. The Reform movement has officially left the decision to individual rabbis about whether to perform gay marriage ceremonies, while the Reconstructionist movement supports the practice. Goldstein, a second-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., said that the government is actually infringing on freedom of religion by telling rabbis whom they can and cannot marry.
"It’s an intrusion into a religious practice, certainly in regard to progressive branches of Reform and Reconstructionism," he said. "It disappoints me greatly that not only can I not get legally married, but as a potential rabbi I would not have the legal authority under secular law that the Reconstructionist movement gives me to marry [gay couples]. That’s not right."
The Reconstructionist movement has supported gay marriage since the 1980s. Goldstein and Gross were married in a Jewish ceremony in Montreal in ’00’. They also had a civil union in Vermont and registered as domestic partners in New Jersey in ‘003. (The state’s Domestic Partnership Act of that year gave same-sex couples registering as domestic partners certain rights and extended certain benefits to the domestic partners of state employees and retirees.)
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of B’nai Keshet, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair, said his congregation welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision. He agreed with Goldstein that the state was overstepping its boundaries by not sanctioning gay marriage in the first place.
"The state is limiting my rights as a Jew and as a rabbi [as to] whom I marry," he said. "I’m happy to do same-sex weddings and support it and encourage it for my members who are gay and lesbian. What the legislature would do is affirm our religious right to have those weddings by allowing it."
While his movement has accepted gay marriage, the Conservative and Orthodox movements have not, and Tepperman said he is fine with that as long as the option is there for other rabbis.
"It is perfectly fine if there are priests in the world or rabbis who feel that performing a same-sex wedding would not be an expression of their belief system," Tepperman said. "I think the problem is that the state legislature says you can’t. Right now some of the weddings I do the state recognizes and some they don’t recognize. I don’t think the state should be in that position."
In the United States, civil and religious marriages are one, and that is part of the problem, said Rabbi Randi Musnitsky, regional director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s New Jersey/West Hudson Valley Council.
"Our marriages are civilly binding," she said. "Because we have that duality we must follow the law of the land. We cannot separate civil from religious marriage."
If gay marriage is legalized, Musnitsky said, Reform rabbis who support it would perform the ceremonies "with full heart and intention."
"We always come to civil law in the positive," she said. "If we don’t agree with it we will advocate and lobby to change it, but we live by the law of the land."
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Cong. Beth Simchat Torah, New York City’s Synagogue for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews, which is unaffiliated, applauded the ruling. Although not sanctioned by the state, she performs about six gay marriage ceremonies per year in the tristate area. She can legally perform heterosexual marriages, but she refuses to sign a marriage certificate until the state authorizes homosexual marriage as well. She officiated at a heterosexual wedding in Philadelphia last year where she did not sign the certificate and said that anybody who wants her to officiate has to understand her position.
The religious ceremony has deep significance, she said, even if it carries no legal weight. The New York Times reported on two weddings she performed in September and called both "commitment ceremonies."
Even if New Jersey does legalize gay marriage, couples would still not receive the full benefits of marriage because the ceremonies would not be sanctioned by the federal government, Kleinbaum said. Federal taxes would be one area unaffected by New Jersey’s decision. Still, as a native of Rutherford and a graduate of The Frisch School in Paramus, Kleinbaum said New Jersey has made a great step forward.
"We have to not be afraid to call it what it is: discrimination. New Jersey is taking a bold step by moving for equality and justice," she said.
Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Sholom in River Edge and president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, said the board is not following the issue. As a Reform rabbi for 3′ years, his personal position has been to officiate at ceremonies between two Jews who have the sanction of the state.
Unlike Goldstein, however, Borovitz said the state needs to be involved in the rites of marriage. "If those unions break up and there isn’t some kind of state oversight, some legal relationship there, then what happens to the responsibility of those parents to those [hypothetical] children?" he asked. "As a community we have a responsibility to care for and protect the rights of others."
To do away with the governing laws of marriage would open up couples to abuse and persecution, he said. The state has an interest in the marriage ceremony, he continued, and the same rights and responsibilities in marriage should be extended to everybody.
The battle is far from over, Goldstein said. "We’re fighting for marriage. We want the exact same thing straight couples have."