Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell. Reflecting on her own marriage to a woman, Rabbi Elwell calls on the Reform Movement to recognize gay and lesbian marriage as a sacred union. Winter 1998.
Honor the Holiness of Lesbian and Gay Marriages
When my beloved and I stood together under the chupah last June, we listened as our marriage document was read to the assembled community. Like so many other Jewish couples before us, we signed a document that recalls the brit, the covenant that connects God and the Jewish people. Like so many couples, we used ancient words to seal our brit to one another and to our tradition. And as we stood before our friends and family, they blessed us with the words of Torah: "May God bless you and keep you...."
But unlike so many other couples, our marriage was not recognized by the Reform movement as kiddushin, as a sacred union. Why? Because my beloved and I are women.
Granted, our movement has a proud record of affirming civil rights for sexual minorities. Delegates to the 1997 UAHC Biennial in Dallas passed a resolution supporting the legalization of civil marriage for gays and lesbians. The right to a civil marriage would end legal discrimination against gay and lesbian families by recognizing our participation in family health insurance programs, our next-of-kin hospital and nursing home visitation rights, and our status as legal heirs.
But our movement's call for the legalization of civil marriage for gay and lesbian Jews is not enough. All Jews who care about the past and the future of Judaism should be able to choose a Jewish wedding: to stand under a chupah; to hear the words of tradition spoken and sung by a spiritual leader who represents the community of Israel; to exchange rings and repeat vows before witnesses to the holiness of this brit.
We Reform Jews welcome lesbians and gay men into our synagogues. Our seminary ordains and our congregations hire gay and lesbian rabbis. Our movement has called for the state to recognize gay and lesbian unions and their families. Yet we shy away from the core concept that makes any union holy: the idea of a sanctified covenant. We must now ask: Can any Jewish wedding be called holy by a community that denies the holiness of the unions of some of its members?
Some claim that gay and lesbian weddings cannot be sanctified because of biblical readings concerning homosexual relations. However, as the sage Beruriah points out, there is a significant difference between focusing on an individual and on that person's behavior. Clearly, the sexual behavior described in our texts is not imagined in the context of a long-term loving relationship based on equality and mutual respect. And what is the essence of Reform Judaism if not a fierce commitment to understanding and reforming Jewish tradition in light of contemporary Jewish life?
Some claim that the purpose of marriage is to have children, assuming that gay and lesbian marriages are by definition childless. This is not the case. Many committed gay and lesbian Jewish couples, like their heterosexual counterparts, begin families through alternative fertilization and adoption.
Some claim that the Jewish rituals that celebrate heterosexual unions are inappropriate for homosexuals. Yet, Reform Jews have been adapting and revising the prayers and rites of Jewish weddings for over a century to reflect our changing understanding of God, Torah, and Israel.
When Nurit and I decided to marry, we did not wait for permission. Like many couples before us, we set a date, met with our rabbis, and invited guests. Nurit's dad flew in from Israel, and other relatives and friends arrived from across the U.S. and Canada. In the backyard of the home that we have shared for four years, Nurit and I stood together under a chupah made of our two tallitot. We exchanged rings that had been worn for four decades by my great-grandparents, who were married in the same city, in a similar ceremony, one hundred and eighteen years ago. We drank wine from a kiddush cup that had been a wedding gift from their, now our, congregation. Our ceremony reflected our love for one another and our commitment to Judaism.
As Nurit and I stood under the chupah, we spoke for many other couples who are not yet able to publicly proclaim their love. When our parents recited the sheva berachot (wedding blessings), they spoke for countless parents who have remained silent about their children's lives. When my daughters stood in the June sunlight holding our chupah high, they stood for thousands of children who wait in the shadows for acknowledgment, for recognition, for welcome. When my siblings embraced my partner and called her "sister," they spoke for all who long to affirm this relationship. When our friends sang out in joy and danced in celebration, they challenged all who have not yet learned the songs and dance steps that liberate us from crippling prejudice.
It is time for Reform Jews to insist on equal rites for all Jews. It is time to open the doors of our synagogue to lesbian brides and to gay grooms. It is time for our rabbis to consider the essential covenantal connection between two people who love one another and our tradition, and to honor their commitments with blessing. And it is time for Reform Jews to celebrate the kedushah, the holiness of gay and lesbian marriages, and to welcome us and our families as a new source of strength into the house of Israel.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is assistant director of the UAHC Pennsylvania Council.