Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Meaning of Marriage

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments concerning same-sex marriage, I am re-posting this blog posting that I wrote in June, 2013:

On occasion, on long walks with our dog or on long drives, I imagine situations which might arise in my work as a rabbi and consider how I would respond. One of the situations which I envision goes like this. A man and a woman come into my office to talk about their upcoming marriage and to request that I officiate. They fulfill all of the Jewish legal requirements for a marriage and appear to be very much in love and ready to take this step in their lives. But, just before we set the date, they tell me something that they feel I should know. They tell me that they plan to have an “open marriage” in which they can engage in extra marital sexual relationships with each other’s permission and blessing.

My dilemma: Do I agree to officiate?

As I have played this scenario out in my mind, I keep coming back to the same answer: No. I would not agree to officiate at a wedding ceremony for a couple who had decided, in advance, that marriage did not mean exclusivity in sexual relationships. The entire concept of marriage within Judaism is based upon the idea of “kiddushin” sanctification, which means to set someone or something aside as unique and special. When the groom gives the bride a ring during the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, he says; Haray at mikudeshet le, behold you are consecrated unto me as my wife. Consecrated means sanctified, set aside as holy and is defined by the exclusivity of the sexual relationship.

Since the year 1000 Ashkenazi Jews (later to be joined by all Jewish communities) have rejected polygamy and therefore, the kiddushin now works in both directions. That is why I prefer that the bride make a similar statement during the ceremony to the husband: Haray atah mikudash li, behold you are consecrated unto me.

Exclusivity of sexual relationships, is, of course, not the only important aspect to a marriage but it is the explicit promise made by the bride and the groom and an overt, purposeful intention to not have exclusivity undermines the entire principle of marriage.

Of course, no marriage is perfect and, again, there are many more challenges to a relationship than this one. But, this is the essence of marriage: that intimacy, both physical and emotional, defines the relationship and when that promise is broken, the relationship is damaged. Going into such a relationship without this promise invalidates the kiddushin in my opinion.

So, when two Jewish men or two Jewish women walk in to my office to talk about their love, having promised each other that they will treat each other with kedusha, with holiness and sanctification, that they will love and provide for each other’s physical and emotional needs to the exclusion of all others and that they want to be married under the huppah, I will be honored to officiate at their marriage. When two people are in love and promise to love each other exclusively, physically and emotionally, they should expect no less from their Rabbi.

I believe that they should expect no less from this country.

And, the Supreme Court took a huge step in this direction on Wednesday by allowing federal benefits to same sex couples. There is much further to go but I believe it is a step in very much the right direction.

The first time I signed a marriage license for a couple, my hand was shaking as I realized what I was about to do. While my hand has stopped shaking over the years, I still realize the statement that that license is making and feel honored and priviliged that I can do this as part of my job.

I look forward to standing under the huppah with a same sex couple, and I sincerely hope that when I do, I will be able to sign a Michigan marriage license as well. I anticipate the first time that happens, my hand will shake again realizing how far we have come.

There is a tradition within Judaism that every time a couple gets married and pledges their commitment to each other, the world is improved, a piece of the “tikkun”, repair, necessary in the world is accomplished. I believe that that applies to all couples.

To me, it is as simple as that.

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Yom Hazikaron Memorial Day

Tonight begins the observance of Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day for Israeli soldiers and victims of terror. Beth Israel will host the community Yom HaZikaron observance at 7 p.m. and I urge everyone to attend or to seek out similar observances in other communities.
I am proud to participate in this evening’s ceremony as I do every year but I will admit to always feeling a bit uncomfortable doing so. While I have dedicated my professional life to serving the Jewish people, which I know is no small thing, and while once in my life I put myself in at least some danger, when I went to the former Soviet Union on a mission to visit refuseniks (Jews who had been refused exit visas), I have never had to put my life on the line for our people the way that soldiers in Israel do and I am humbled by the courage and commitment they show. During the ceremony, I remind myself constantly of this reality and feel honored to be included.
Since my first visit to Israel in 1979, I have thought many, many times about the role the military plays in the state. I am not a pacifist but I consider myself very much a “dove”. Still, one can not deny the absolute necessity and sacred responsibility of the military in Israel to defend the state and its citizens. Needless to say, the reality of life in the Middle East necessitates a strong military and of that there can be no question. God willing, there will come a day when that is no longer the case- when people really will beat their swords into plowshares and not learn war any more. We need to nurture that hope every day but until that day comes, we need to accept the reality of our world
But, there is one issue that has concerned me for many years and it came into focus for me in 2007 when a large group from Beth Israel was on the first day of our 2 week trip to Israel. We were in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv and one of the guides from the museum was speaking to our group when someone from our group mentioned something about being so proud of the Israel Defense Forces and spoke about it in glowing terms. The guide looked at our group and said to us that while she appreciated the sentiment, as a mother, she was uncomfortable with the tendency towards idolizing the military experience in Israel and prayed each day for an end to the need for an army. She did not go into any more personal detail but it was clear that something very personal was behind what she said and one could detect a tear in her eye.
Whenever we take a group to Israel, we include a visit to an army base so that all of us, especially our children, can interact with the soldiers and recognize the commitment and courage it takes to do what they do. But, I always take a moment both before and after our visit to remind people that there is a difference between respect and admiration on the one hand and idolizing the reality the way some do.
There is so much in Israel to celebrate, to honor and to embrace and none of it would be there if it were not for the dedication of the military. But, that does not mean that the soldier has to be the symbol of the country, it doesn’t mean that we in America in our security and safety should recklessly call for Israel’s soldiers to go into battle so that they can prove their strength and it doesn’t mean that we should substitute military symbols for the spiritual symbols of our people. If we care about Israel’s survival, there should be no question that we should recognize the importance of the military but we should also always keep that importance in perspective- hoping and praying that the military will always reflect the values of our people to do their work in the most humane and ethical way possible, insisting that the search for peace will always continue and remembering that our true strength as a people lies in our commitment to our values and our faith.
With respect to all of those who have served and in memory of all who have given their lives for our people, I hope to see you all this evening.

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