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Archive for June, 2015

It is official. The Supreme Court has upheld same sex marriage and ruled no state is able to outlaw same sex marriage. For many of us it is the culmination of decades of fighting another battle to assure equality under American law. For others this is a declaration of war against the will of God. This statement from the American Anglican Church is typical of that reaction:

Marriage is established by God for the procreation and raising of children and for the good of     society. For this reason, governments have an interest in marriage and have delegated authority from God to protect and regulate it. But no court, no legislature and no local magistrate has the authority to redefine marriage and to impose this definition on their citizens.

Political reactions to the ruling focus on parsing Justice Kennedy’s reasoning, usually condemning his summary as NOT based on the constitution. Dissenting justices such as Roberts and Scalia say this is denying states the right to a legislative process that expresses the will of the people. They hold that a committee of 9 lawyers is usurping the democratic rights of the citizenry. To me there is no question that those who oppose same sex marriage tie the two reasons, religious and political together.

I am not a lawyer. I cannot drill deep into the legal reasoning used by either side. I would simply make a couple of obvious observations. First, on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that any law preventing interracial marriage was unconstitutional. The ruling was in response to a case brought by an interracial couple that was forced to leave their native state of Virginia because state law deemed their marriage illegal. There was no movement in state legislatures to change the law. There was no “democratic” process in play. It was simply the court upholding a basic right of two citizens to choose to marry each other. I will point out that there were some Christians who based their opposition to interracial marriage on their interpretations of the Bible. The legal process exists to address threats to individual liberty that the legislature has not or will not consider. To wait for state legislatures to pass laws regarding equal rights (look at the history of civil rights) is to allow injustice to continue at human whim. The court’s intervention in these sorts of cases are necessary and honorable. Such is my uneducated opinion.

As to the Anglican Church’s and other religious leaders’ assertions that marriage is established by God in order to further procreation, I disagree on a number of levels. First is the obvious. Sex between man and woman is what ensures procreation, not marriage. Marriage is a human institution created to define a range of issues from establishing the boundaries of a family, to financial arrangements. Marriage in the Hebrew Bible was a transfer of the ownership of a woman from her father’s household to her husband’s household. This institution has undergone numerous changes over the centuries. The inclusion of same sex marriage as an accepted path is just another adaptation to the institution of marriage. Further, we now understand homosexuality not so much as choice, but genetically driven. Indeed, our understanding of sexuality in general is undergoing a revolution. We are only at the beginning of understanding the diversity of variations. If God created this world, then God intended these variations. Our job is not to condemn them, but to understand them. Of course, this approach means one has to recognize the Bible not as written by God and handed to humans, but the human attempt to understand our relationship with God and the world that God created, therefore subject to reinterpretation.

There is, however, an issue that raises at least a yellow flag in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling – to what extent will state or local governments try to control religious choices. I raised this in my previous blog and a couple of readers dismissed my concerns as unrealistic or a “red herring.” I beg to differ and here is why.

I wrote that the Catholic Church has legitimate concerns (even though I disagree with the Church on this issue) over being forced to provide coverage for contraception as part of the mandated health care packages. I am not talking about private businesses such as Hobby Lobby, whose owners profess a religious belief. Rather, I refer to Church run institutions, not only churches themselves, but hospitals and schools that operate under Church supervision. These are extensions of the institution of the Church. The question of whether or not the federal (or any government) can force an agency of the Church to provide something that is against the expressed doctrine of the Church IS a legitimate question. I cannot dismiss these concerns (even though politically I disagree with the Church) as they open the Pandora’s box as to what degree the government can interfere with acting out religious beliefs.

This becomes more complex when a religious doctrine or practice is seen as opposing a human right. In 2011 there was an initiative in the city of San Francisco to outlaw circumcision as an abridgment of the right of the baby boy, since the baby cannot make the decision on whether or not to have the circumcision. Jews and Muslims saw this as a direct interference with their religious beliefs and practices (rightfully so I add). Here is a case where a group of citizens are arguing that protecting an individual right supersedes the right of a religious group to hold a belief and perform the applicable ritual. While this initiative failed, it is neither the first or only attempt by a group of citizens to interfere with a religious rite (and right) while advocating for an individual right.

It is not unrealistic to see a group of citizens in a local community or a state, who will try to force clergy to perform marriages that are against their personal religious beliefs using the argument that they cannot deny a couple the right to marry in the religious institution of their choice. Lines are becoming more and more blurred. One can argue that it is one thing to force a photographer not to discriminate by refusing to shoot a same sex wedding versus forcing a member of the clergy to perform a wedding he or she does not condone. But people are raising these concerns. Religious beliefs are challenged all of the time in the name of the common good. We need to recognize these discussions are taking place and not dismiss them as being invalid or silly. At the minimum, religious organizations’ non profit status might be in jeopardy if they refuse to accommodate same sex marriages (see Bob Jones University loss of non profit status in 1983 due to policy banning interracial dating).

It was Bob Dylan who wrote “The times they are a changing.” Indeed they are. Regarding the legalization of same sex marriage I believe it is a change for good. It is just a disservice to ignore the probability of unintended consequences and the need for conversations to resolve them. The concerns of religious communities, even those with which we might disagree, should not just be casually dismissed. Our country will be so much better if we do not.

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On February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein entered a mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron during prayer and massacred 29 worshippers. This was a calculated act of terrorism. Goldstein entered a sacred spot for Muslims during Ramadan. That year it was also the holiday of Purim. His crime was sparked by his hatred of Palestinians – a senseless hatred

Last November 18, 2 Palestinians walked into Kehilat B’nei Torah in West Jerusalem bearing guns, axes and knives. They proceeded to murder 5 people in the middle of prayer, including the noted rabbi Moshe Twersky, who was an American as well as Israeli citizen. This was a calculated act of terror. The murderers knew the time of the shacharit service. They came in shouting “God is great!” They did not select a military site or any place with political significance. Their crime was sparked by their hatred of Jews – a senseless hatred.

Almost 7 months later to the day, last Wednesday night, June 17, a young white man entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. He entered during a Bible study session. After sitting quietly for about an hour, he opened fire with his hand gun, reloading a few times, killing 9 members of the church including the senior pastor, Clementa Pinckney, who was not only the pastor but a respected state senator as well. One of the 3 women who survived reported the young man stated, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over the country. You have to go.”

Why did he choose Emanuel AME? This is an historic church, founded in 1816. In 1822 one of its founders, Denmark Vesey, a freed slave; was arrested, tried and found guilty of planning a slave rebellion. The list of historic figures who were members include Harriett Tubman. The list of distinguished figures who have spoken there include Booker T. Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The killer chose this site because of his hatred of blacks – a senseless hatred.

I cannot imagine anyone who does not see the murders in Hebron and Jerusalem as acts of terror. Yes, these incidents are different from the shootings at Emanuel AME because they occurred in the context of the political situation between Israel and the Palestinians. But anyone who justifies either of these terrorist acts because of their political leaning is allowing their own senseless hatred of the other side to drive them. When blinded by hatred, you cannot see the humanity of the victims. The question is, are we ready to see the murders at Emanuel AME as a terrorist act as well? Are we ready to acknowledge this terrorism as a result of the senseless hatred of racism?

Too often we dismiss murderous crimes perpetrated by white males as being the acts of lone wolves, or the mentally disturbed. While I am sure some incidents are unpredictable and certainly anyone who takes another person’s life is mentally disturbed; we are fooling ourselves if we do not recognize a real sickness that infects our country – the sickness of senseless racial hatred. We are afraid, as a society, to have that discussion to speak openly and honestly about the persistence of racism in America.

Look at the discussions in the aftermath of the murders at Emanuel AME. Both the political left and right elevated gun control to the to of the agenda. This despite the fact that the gun used was legally purchased by the perpetrator’s parents and given to him as a birthday present. Turning the murders at Emanuel AME into a discussion on gun control avoids the conversation that really needs to happen. Some folks tried to characterize the shooting as an act against Christians, or against religion. Some make the discussion about mental illness. Some say we will never understand the killer’s motivation in expressing this hatred.

But we do understand it. From what we know about the accused killer, he holds an extreme racist ideology highlighted by his hatred of black Americans.

Too often, politicians and the media, look at each incident; be it a murder of an African American or a police shooting of an African American, as an isolated incident. But they are not. Maybe the Ferguson, MO shooting of Michael Brown was not racially motivated. Add to that, however, the long list of other shootings of blacks by police, such as the 12 year old boy shot for having a pellet gun, or the 34 year old mother of a 5 year old little girl. Look at the long list of police shootings from 2014. Look at the arrest records of young black males to young white males for similar crimes. Look at how many of each race ends up in prison. In reacting to the Emanuel AME murders, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley stated that it was inconceivable to her that such an act could occur.

But it is conceivable. Because the hate is real. Hate is the undercurrent for too much of our political dialogue now. Hate is the undercurrent when referring to the person who is unlike yourself, be they different color, religion or even political party. I am not someone who takes Donald Trump very seriously, but how much of his rambling speech upon entering the Presidential race was based on senseless hatred of Mexicans, of immigrants? We are a country that is good at spewing hate and terrible at confronting the reality of this senseless hate.

The Talmud, in tractate Yoma, states that senseless hatred is considered as grave a sin as idolatry, immorality and bloodshed – all together! Our Torah in Leviticus 19:17 states, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” Of course we do not even see the person who is different from us as a brother, we see them as an “other.” In the front of the list of hatreds is racial hatred. It is the scar our country bears. It is the dark hearted undercurrent that we are still not willing to confront. Until we do, the timer is now running counting down till our grieving for the next Emanuel AME.

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Several days ago I experienced a wonderful “first” as a rabbi. I officiated at my first legal same sex wedding in Florida. It was a marriage between two young women who joined my congregation about 4 years ago – when the idea of a legal wedding for them in Florida was unimaginable. One studied and converted to Judaism with me. A year and a half ago they had a beautiful baby girl. Among the photos displayed at their reception was one of me in the hospital holding their new baby. Of course I did the naming ceremony. This is a family I know well and care about deeply.

Our time under the chupah together was emotional and beautiful. They had circled each other before coming under the chupah. The usually more stoic one was in tears during the ceremony. The chupah itself was a symbol of family support and love as it was made from a tallit belonging to one of their fathers. I think my favorite moment was seeing their matching purple sneakers as each broke a glass at the end of the ceremony. As legalized same sex marriage is very new in Florida, you could feel the collective exhilaration of the wedding guests, almost like the entire room held its breath through the ceremony. In the aftermath, I am now wondering about what happens next.

Let me explain.

The first concern is whether this expression of equal rights is going to be short lived. The United States Supreme Court is about to issue a ruling that will either affirm or deny this right. I am not a student of the court, but from what I have read it will not be a shock if the court affirms and allows the continuation of marriage equality – which raises some new questions.

Let me explain.

A few days after the wedding I was at a meeting with 4 other clergy with whom I form a local “God Squad” that does monthly programs discussing civic issues from a faith perspective. This is under the umbrella of “The Village Square” an organization that promotes nonpartisan political dialogue. Besides me the group includes: a Catholic priest, a female Methodist minister, a Baptist minister, and an African American Christian minister (not sure of exact denomination name) . As we were wrapping up our planning session for the next season we shared news with each other. I mentioned that I had just performed the wedding. The Baptist pastor commented, “That is what I love about this group, we are all so different.”

The reactions of the other clergy were interesting. The priest smiled and said nothing. It is clear that he cannot support same sex marriage as it goes against the teachings and dictates of the Church. The Methodist smiled approvingly. The African American minister smiled in amusement (he does not support same sex marriage). Their reactions made me realize that same sex weddings do not conform to the beliefs and practices of a large swath of the American religious community. Now I must ask, what happens next? How, assuming the Supreme Court affirms the rights of same sex couples to marry, does the country proceed?

We have a glimpse of a possible future in the conflict between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church over health care provisions requiring Church institutions to provide coverage for birth control as part of their health care packages. Those supporting the government’s position see this as a right due the employees that overrides religious doctrine. Those opposed to the administration’s position see this is government overreach by intruding onto religious grounds. It is easy to wonder if there will be an attempt to require clergy to perform same sex weddings assuming the right is upheld by the court.

But I hope it does not come to that. I really do. As much as I support the right of couples to get married, I shudder when I think about government intrusion into religious areas. I know many rabbis who will not perform interfaith weddings.   If the right of a couple to get married trumps the right of the clergy to decide which weddings to perform, can these rabbis be forced to perform interfaith weddings?

What makes the question of intrusion into clergy decisions even more important is that we tend to reduce those with whom we disagree to caricatures. We mock them as “Neanderthals” or as “bigots.” Yet I will tell you that the other clergy who are part of my discussion group are all beautiful souls, deep thinkers, and very dedicated to the betterment of the greater Tallahassee community. They are deeply committed to their religious values. They are not condemning my officiating of a same sex wedding, but for each of their own reasons, they will not do it themselves. I, in turn, respect their positions.

Every religious group must find its own way through these issues. I cannot and will not endorse governmental interference in how any religious group decides what weddings to perform. We tread a fine line in finding the balance between personal rights and the right to religious convictions. In truth the affirming of the rights of same sex couples to marry is also an affirmation of my right as clergy to perform that wedding. It is an affirmation that it is up to each religious organization and their clergy to decide who they will or will not marry. I hope that is the status quo we can maintain.

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