The Jewish case for marriage equality

Judaism teaches that everyone is a reflection of God and deserves equal treatment

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This past week, Jews around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year, which, according to Rabbinic Tradition, is the day on which human beings were created.

As Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, we remind ourselves that humanity in all its variety and homogeneity was fashioned from the same material. Our classic Rabbinic texts describe our species' shared origins as dust of the earth, as clay and ashes, as flesh and blood, maggots and worms and worse.

But that's not all.

Every human comes from the same primordial clay. But we are more than flesh and blood. We are also -- every religious text says so -- more than matter and stuff.

Beyond our physical bodies, we are animated with a soul, a spirit, a conscience, our essence. In Hebrew this internal reflection of divinity is what makes us "B'tzelem Elohim -- in the Image of God."

But what does it mean to say we are a reflection of God?

Rabbi Abrahma Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, taught that the commands of the Torah give life purpose by providing the opportunity to make ourselves worthy reflections of God. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, expounding on the most oft-repeated of the Torah's 613 commandments, teaches there is a reason we are told no less than 36 times to love the stranger: because the stranger is our mirror.

Significantly, Judaism's concern with our ability to see ourselves in the experience of others, to see ourselves in the reflection of those around us, is what leads us to care and be concerned for one another.

Enter the Jewish High Holy Days, wherein we take special note of any action that employs bias, bigotry or discrimination to lessen the essence, to say nothing of the legal rights, of another. Such acts of prejudice and injustice flow from a failure to see the divine in every single -- and every married -- person.

How incredibly gratifying it was when on June 26 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with this religious truth and invalidated the central provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. Just 10 short weeks ago, the court vitiated this law, which reserved to heterosexual married couples more than 1,000 federal benefits, ruling that it was simply unconstitutional.

The DOMA decision was in sync with virtually all significant Jewish organizations, including the Reform and Conservative movements as well as other non-Orthodox Jewish groups, which support full marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Even the Orthodox Union, the largest umbrella of Orthodox congregations, while reiterating its opposition to homosexual relationships, did so with what Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, described as "delicacy and restraint," condemning discrimination and offering respect for all our nation's citizens.

This accords with the views of most American Jews. A recent survey revealed that while 52 percent of Americans favor marriage equality, 81 percent of Jews support the right of gays and lesbians to marry, with all the legal privileges and protections that accrue to that union.

What accounts for this? Even as the Jewish community grows increasingly conservative on foreign policy, Israel and fiscal affairs, Jews remain overwhelmingly liberal on social issues. We don't like the government intruding into citizens' personal lives, and we have a deeply ingrained sympathy for victims of prejudice, having so often been victims ourselves. As Rabbi Yoffie states, "We know from long experience that where homophobia, as well as racism and misogyny, are to be found, anti-Semitism is sure to rear its ugly head."

But there's more to it than this.

At the end of the day (or at the beginning of a new year), I support the Supreme Court's DOMA decision and champion the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the commonwealth of Pennsylvania to secure for same-sex married couples and their families the same legal rights and benefits as are currently available to heterosexual married partners and parents for one simple reason: Judaism teaches that all human beings are equal, unique and of infinite worth.

Thus, it matters greatly how we, as a society, treat and care for one another. In fact, so great is Judaism's concern that our Rabbinic Sages taught that failing to treat other persons in a way that celebrates their inherent divinity or, conversely, treating them so as to diminish the image in which they were created, is considered a desecration of the Divine Name.

For this reason, above all others, I call on Gov. Tom Corbett, the leaders of our commonwealth and my fellow citizens of Pennsylvania to search their hearts for how we may be complicit in failing to honor every person's inherent divine likeness. And I invite each of us in the days ahead to do our part to redress this injustice by working to repair our nation's patchwork quilt of marriage laws.


Aaron B. Bisno is senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Squirrel Hill.


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