Rabbis debate rabbis over gay marriage bill
Jews from opposite sides of issue testify as measure
NJJN Staff Writer
December 9, 2009
Jews debated Jews as a bill to legalize same-sex
marriage in NJ moved one step closer to the governor’s desk.
Before, during, and after an eight-hour hearing of
the State Senate Judiciary Committee Dec. 7 in Trenton — where the bill
was passed by a seven-six vote — opponents and supporters gathered to
engage in intense debate over the legislation’s moral and religious
Jews from liberal denominations, including the Reform
and Reconstructionist movements, declared their support for the bill,
while a number of Orthodox Jews came to the capital to oppose it.
At a breakfast pep rally in a hotel ballroom three
blocks from the State House, Steve Goldstein, a Reconstructionist
rabbinical student who chairs Garden State Equality, a leading advocate
of the measure, revved up hundreds of his troops.
Goldstein said he rejected the biblical text that
calls homosexuality an “abomination” and that motivates much devout
religious opposition to gay equality.
“As a person of faith, I agree with 90 percent of
what my faith stands for,” he said. “All right, you blow up the 10
percent you don’t agree with and make a big deal out of it,” he joked.
“That’s my Jewish way.”
Other Jewish clergy in the audience were in
“I can speak for Reform Judaism, and our
understanding embraces a variety of levels of equality,” said Rabbi
David Levy from Temple Shalom in Succasunna. “We as a Jewish people know
clearly the experience of discrimination and what that can mean. It is
very important that we stand with our gay and lesbian brethren and their
right to marriage.”
Sitting together were Harriet Bernstein and Luisa
Paster, two Jewish women who won a legal battle against the Methodist
Church for the right to hold their civil union ceremony at a church-run
facility in Ocean Grove.
“We were blessed by a rabbi with traditional
blessings,” said Paster. But Bernstein complained that “every time I
fill out a form, if I have to list ‘civil union’ as my marital status, I
have to declare my sexuality. That has caused me grief and anxiety.”
Later, standing near the front of a long line waiting
admission to the Judiciary Committee hearing room, Rabbi Jacob Newman of
the Yeshiva of Lakewood said his opposition to gay marriage was deeply
rooted in his Orthodox beliefs.
“The Torah says God created the world and nature. If
you are doing something against nature, that is breaking the creation,”
The debate made for some unusual
alliances. Standing beside Newman was Jan Rosenberg, who has the title
of “rabbi” at the Beth Zion Messianic Synagogue in Jackson.
“I am for traditional marriage,”
said Rosenberg, whose followers believe Jesus is the messiah. “The
foundation of Torah is the fabric of everything we see from the
Later, in the hearing room,
Rosenberg and Newman sat side-by-side at the witness table with Rabbi
Joshua Pruzansky, director of the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel in
The three faced pointed
questions from State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Dist. 37), one of the
bill’s two sponsors.
“Elevating same-sex unions to the status of marriage
would convey an unmistakable message that homosexuality occupies the
same moral plane as heterosexual unions,” Pruzansky argued. “Not all
expressions of sexuality are morally equivalent.”
In response, Weinberg said, “I as a woman am allowed
on the bima and I am allowed to read from the Torah. If I were in one of
your synagogues, perhaps I would not be allowed.”
“But I respect your right to do what you choose in
your own synagogues,” she said. “That’s why I chose to join the
synagogue to which I belong.”
Earlier, Weinberg had begun the lengthy afternoon and
evening of hearings with a tearful reflection.
“I was married for 39 years to Irwin Weinberg. He was
the love of my life. Losing him was the hardest adversity I’ve ever
faced,” she said. “What we are voting on today is for every citizen to
have what Irwin and I had — the right to live with the person you love
with full peace and security.”
Later, Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, a
Reconstructionist congregation in Montclair, and congregant Gina Pastino
of Montclair took a turn at the witness table.
She told of her near-fatal bout with encephalitis,
during which her civil union partner, Naomi Cohen, was denied
consultation with Pastino’s doctors.
“While it pains me that New Jersey does not yet
recognize my religious freedom to perform those weddings,” said
Tepperman, “it especially pains me that as the rabbi of a couple…in the
hospital with one person potentially facing death, I have to spend time
counseling them about the fact they were discriminated against, instead
of giving them comfort in a moment of pain.”
An hour later, Marcia Shapiro and Louise Walpin of
South Brunswick spoke of the death in July 2008 of their son, Aaron
Krakow, 20, of multiple handicaps and medical issues.
“We had to watch our beautiful boy Aaron get sicker
and sicker until he finally went into a coma and died,” said a tearful
Walpin. “With all this, our relationship continued to flourish and still
thrives. If this isn’t a marriage, what is?”
The bill now heads for a vote by the full Senate and
State Assembly. Supporters, led by Goldstein, are racing the clock: If
the law is not passed before Gov. Jon Corzine leaves office on Jan. 19,
it will most certainly face a veto by his successor, Chris Christie.
A day after the committee vote, the Orthodox Union
issued a press release calling for the bill’s defeat.
“We fear that same-sex marriage poses a grave threat
to the fundamental civil right of religious freedom” and will “create
widespread and unnecessary legal conflict that will reverberate across
the legal and religious landscape,” it said.