Twenty years ago this autumn, I sat in the last Orthodox synagogue on Venice Beach here in LA, enrapt by Rabbi Daniel Lapin's sermon on the Torah portion for the week. It was Exodus 21, describing the obligatory freeing of slaves in Jubilee year:
"But if the servant declares, 'I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,' then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life."
And then, without missing a beat, the charismatic South African rabbi of noble Jewish lineage, looked up and said, "And if you think that's bad, you should see what we do to homosexuals."
As a homosexual trying with every fiber of my soul to be what I was "supposed to be," according to Jewish and, what I thought at the time, American tradition, these last words landed like a boxer's jab in my gut. I desperately wanted to marry, have kids and live a "normal" life. That's principally why I had joined this congregation that consisted largely of "ba'al teshuva" or "returned" Jews, people like me who were born Jewish, but had lost the tradition and in large, the religion. The attractions to this Orthodox lifestyle were many, chief among them belonging to a community that ate, worshipped, celebrated, mourned and most importantly learned together. Founded by Rabbi Lapin and Michael Medved, at the time a film critic, the congregation prided itself on intellectual rigor, on gaining knowledge, not just clinging to empty tradition.
The learning from and of old texts engrossed me, like drinking cool, sweet water on the most parched day. Orthodox Judaism at essence promotes perpetual self-improvement. We learned from teachers, from visiting rabbis, from each other. We took on new levels of observance as we progressed. In time, I observed many of the laws of the Sabbath and of the diet.
The rhythms of the week and the year impressed and truly inspired. And the ideal of living as a heterosexual married to a nice Jewish girl became more real each week. I nearly married in 1990. The rabbi himself broke off the pending engagement because, "I did not see any sparks between you and _____." As he said that, a proverbial ton of weight lifted from me. I felt free again, not obliged to marry, but I also then realized that I could not be what Orthodox Judaism most demands--a heterosexual, married man. I found myself in the midst of a loving, caring community led by a rabbi who taught from texts that said homosexuality and homosexuals were not welcome in Judaism. I could not stay, not as a whole person.
Now I live happily with my same-sex partner in a 1920s house on a quiet Hollywood street that reminds me more of a neighborhood in Cleveland or Knoxville than it does LA. Accepting who I am has made me a better, more engaged American than the furtive, self-hating creature from which I finally escaped. I accept fully that that some people's religions tell them that I am not welcome. It's okay. That's their choice.
I am more than troubled, however, by the tumult Proposition 8 -- the proposed anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment here in California -- has wrought. Those speaking in the name of their God and prophets, led principally by out-of-state Mormons and joined by evangelical Christians, have made the removal of my rights a holy war for the new century. (Orthodox Jews so far seem to be staying out of the fray, certainly not leading the effort with money or public protests.)
We take for granted that this nation was founded to allow for equality and acceptance of religious observation and belief, provided the government stays out of religion and religion stays out of government. Jews gained from that "tolerance" as much as anyone. And by the way, so did Mormons, who were chased across the country by Christians who found their latter-day teachings heretical, cultish and worthy of death.
Why are Mormons, some fundamentalist Christians and apparently the Roman Catholic Church arrayed to attack my rights? How do I in any way undermine any of the beliefs or institutions of those religions? I feel laid bare that people I do not know can vote secretly to remove my rights. This is, unfortunately, reminiscent of Nazi Germany's Nuremberg Laws that led to Kristallnacht, that horrible event 70 years ago next month that resulted in the burning of over 200 synagogues and countless other Jewish-owned establishments. The Nazis stripped rights from Jews piecemeal until finally Jews lost the right to eat and then to live.
The dichotomy of today's political landscape leaves me breathless. On the one hand, we are on the verge of electing the first African American president in history as a part of a movement that begins to wash away nearly three decades and more of politics of hate and division. Democrats are poised for overwhelming majorities in both houses of the Congress and perhaps a landslide into the White House. Here in California, we are on the verge of picking up as many assix seats in our Assembly, under the leadership of the first African American woman to lead a legislature in American history.
But if Prop. 8 passes, what message do we send? We say that it's okay to hate, to take some people's rights from them in the service of the nation. It's okay to amend away equality for some because somehow those rights offend certain religions.
I am not sure that I want to get married, but if I do, it'll be for business reasons. I don't want to marry in a Mormon or Roman Catholic or fundamentalist Christian church. I don't want Rabbi Lapin to officiate, either. I do want the right to choose how to handle my estate, my healthcare and all of the other hundreds of rights that married couples take for granted.
In Judaism, marriage is defined by a contract called a ketubah, which is a business agreement between bride and groom. The bedrock of marriage is in fact economic, not spiritual. Were it not the basis of ownership and property for couples who enter into it, the state would stay out of the business of marriage and leave it all up to religious institutions. And that would be just fine with me.
Were marriages simply religious unions, they would end through churches or spiritual advisors, without state involvement. But marriages end as they begin, in business transactions called divorce, governed by a huge body of law and handled in special courts. And divorce happens a lot. In Jewish tradition, a divorce cannot happen unless the husband says so. The only way around that is to go to Jewish court. I don't think an amendment to our constitution that removes the right of women to divorce unless permitted by their husbands would be a very good idea.
If Prop. 8 passes in California, the fraying religious right that has successfully destroyed the Republican Party and much of America will learn a simple lesson: we can't win elections with ideas about a whole America, but we can win by marginalizing people. Proposition 8 is anti-American. When in history has this country grown stronger through division, through the premise that stripping away equal rights somehow strengthens religion or society?
Perhaps the Elders of the Mormon Church can explain how, on the one hand, they are protected by the state from persecution by Christians who think them apostate, but on the other hand, they are free to persecute me for having civil rights?
I want to celebrate a new political era on 5 November, one that ushers in a leader of a unity movement for all Americans, not just for some. That may well happen. How despicable, though, if a president-elect Obama has to contend with a resurgent religious right that feeds on hatred, vituperation and fear. The culture wars of the 1980's and 90's need to end with a flamed out Bush, not embers of hate in California.