Gay Marriage: The Journey to a Promised Land of Inclusion

We are at the very end of the Book of Numbers. The Promised Land is just over there; we can even see it. Moses isn't going to take us in, but he wants to remind us of all the steps on the journey. In fact, he has kept a journal, writing down all the starting points of our journey. The Torah portion begins: Eleh Mas'ei, "These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt."

When the Supreme Court declared that part of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and allowed a lower court ruling to stand that struck down Proposition 8, we came a little closer to seeing a promised land. It is a good moment to look back on the journey, and the role that Reform Judaism played along the way.

1965 (I was 15 years old), the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (now Women of Reform Judaism) resolved: "We... deplore the tendency on the part of community authorities to harass homosexuals. We... urge revision in the criminal code as it relates to homosexuality..."

1972 (the year I entered rabbinical school), the world's first LGBT-outreach synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, here in Los Angeles, was founded in 1972 and affiliated with the Reform Movement.

1977 (the year after my ordination), the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR, the professional association of Reform Rabbis) called for decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults and an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians.

1987, The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), now the Union for Reform Judaism, urged congregations to "encourage lesbian and gay Jews to share and participate in the worship, leadership, and general congregational life of all synagogues."

1990, the CCAR endorsed the equality of all Jews and the acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews into Hebrew Union College and the rabbinate.

1997, the UAHC resolved to support "secular efforts to promote legislation which would provide through civil marriage equal opportunity for gay men and lesbians," and to "encourage... congregations to honor monogamous domestic relationships formed by gay men or lesbians."

1998, the CCAR reported that "kedushah (holiness) may be present in committed same-gender relationships between two Jews and that these relationships can serve as the foundation of stable Jewish families..."

2000, the CCAR passed a resolution allowing Reform rabbis to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies.

Eleh Mas'ei, this was the journey, and some of the steps along the way.

It is actually extraordinary to see so much change in our own lifetimes, a journey from the narrow place of homophobia to a promised land of inclusion. I feel it very personally. In 1995, when I first officiated at a Jewish wedding of two lesbian friends, a family complained to the Board of Directors and then left the synagogue. Now Temple Emanuel embraces the many gay and lesbian families who are a part of our congregation.

At that first ceremony in 1995, though legal marriage was not an option, the partners wanted their relationship to be blessed by our tradition. Both of them, thoughtful and serious students of Judaism, wanted to create a ritual that was both authentically Jewish and at the same time acknowledged the difference between a heterosexual and a lesbian ceremony. They carefully reflected on each part of the traditional wedding ceremony, determining what should be included, what needed to be changed, and what should be added. Years later they reaffirmed their vows in another ceremony when(for a short moment) gay marriage was legal in California. It was in their second ceremony that I first truly understood the significance of the words: "By the power vested in me by the State of California."

Just last month I officiated at the Jewish wedding of other lesbian friends, also serious and thoughtful students of Judaism. Though legal marriage was again not an option, planning their wedding with them was a very different experience from my first. They chose to have a ceremony that was exactly like every other Jewish wedding ceremony: same words, same blessings, same symbols. The only change was that the references to "bride and groom" were changed to "bride and bride." I asked them why they were not more concerned about adapting the ceremony and their answer was clear: "ours is a Jewish wedding pure and simple. We don't have to jump through any hoops or make any significant changes. This ceremony is our inheritance. We want to claim it as ours without apology."

Now I can invoke the power vested in me by the State of California and declare them married in accordance with the laws of the State of California and our Jewish faith. Now we are so much closer to the truth of their experience: a gay or lesbian Jewish wedding, like a Jewish heterosexual wedding, is a Jewish wedding pure and simple, the inheritance of every loving Jewish couple.

Eleh Mas'ei, these are the steps on the journey to the promised land.