Just as were many of you, I’m sure, I was caught off-guard by the president’s almost off-hand announcement the other day that he has come to believe that same-sex couples should have the right to get married. And that, for a few different reasons. First of all (and also, I’m sure, like many of you), I suppose I supposed that the president’s comments not two years ago to the effect that his views on same-sex marriage were “evolving,” was polito-speak for “Don’t ask me that question again, because I won’t answer it anyway”. So I was intrigued by the revelation that the president actually meant it, that his ideas apparently were evolving, that he apparently did continue to feel himself engaged by the concept as his personal thinking on the matter developed in new directions. Second, who could have foreseen that the president would announce the final evolution of that line of his thinking before, rather than after, the coming election? Aren’t politicians supposed to be vague and non-committal about contentious, potentially divisive issues when the alternative—speaking out clearly and unambiguously—could easily involve paying a serious political price? What’s happening to American politics? Thirdly, it feels amazing that the vice president, who addressed the Rabbinical Assembly convention in Atlanta earlier this week (I was present and in attendance) without mentioning his remarkable comment of one day earlier regarding his own support for the concept of same-sex marriage, got to go first. Isn’t that specifically not how it works? Don’t vice presidents always follow their leaders when it comes to the announcement of major policy shifts? (Or was the idea just to make sure that the earth didn’t actually open up and swallow Vice President Biden when he made public his support for the concept, or when US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, an even less likely candidate for the role of presidential trial balloon, did? I suppose that could have been the plan, but that too feels out of character for the president who seems generally more than able to speak for himself.)
It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as an election ploy. According to a Gallup poll released before the president’s announcement, more Americans favor same-sex marriage than oppose it. (The numbers were 50% for and 48% against. By comparison, the numbers when President Clinton was running for his second term in 1996 were 27% in favor and 68% opposed. So it is clearly not only the president whose thinking has been evolving, but the citizenry’s as well. And the numbers along party lines are also very interesting: 65% of registered Democrats and 57% of independents in favor, but, in some ways even more noteworthy, 22% of Republicans, almost one in four, also in favor.) So you could just wave the whole thing off as an election-year ploy to lure some uncommitted independent voters and the odd registered Republican into the president’s camp. Nor is it entirely beside the point that the federal government is not itself in the marriage business, which, practically speaking, means that the president’s announcement will not mean much practically to same-sex couples living in states in which same-sex marriage is not permitted. And there are a lot of them. Same-sex marriage only is permitted in six states, including New York, and in the District of Columbia. And thirty-two states have either passed laws or altered their constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage within their borders. (Six of those states, however, have only banned same-sex marriage per se, not the registration of same-sex unions under some other name.)
It doesn’t feel to me like an election ploy, however. For one thing, voters in North Carolina, a key swing state, voted just last Tuesday overwhelmingly to add to their state constitution an amendment banning both same-sex marriage and civil unions between gay citizens and I have to assume that the president’s announcement is not going to play well with the 61% of the voters in that state who voted that proposition into law. That there will be a serious political price that the president will now have to pay for his forthrightness, therefore, goes without saying. But there will also be political gains, so the real question is how to balance the potential losses and gains out to determine if the president has acted in his own favor or to his political detriment. Surely, though, it can never be a bad plan, including (especially) for politicians, to speak out openly and frankly about how they feel on contentious matters facing the people they wish to represent, to say where they stand, and openly to have the courage of their own convictions.
Like the president’s until recently, my own thinking on the matter of same-sex marriages has also been evolving over the years. I have written twice before in this space about the reasonableness of treating gay citizens fairly and equitably in the civil arena. Some readers took issue with some of what I said, but I believed then and continue to believe now that it is never in the best interests of society—and to speak from the more narrow perspective, it is never ever in the best interests of the Jewish community—to condone the discriminatory treatment of minority groups within society when that discrimination cannot be justified rationally and logically. To use the example I gave when I wrote on the topic last, no one thinks it is unjust that we discriminate against blind persons by denying them driver’s licenses! But to compare the right of gay citizens to marry, to form monogamous unions recognized under the law as indissoluble other than by legal decree, to live in dignified family units recognized as such by the various levels of government that control crucial aspects of all of our lives—to describe that kind of prejudicial treatment of gay citizens as no less justifiable than not allowing blind people to drive cars seems to me beyond irrational. I wrote that then and I think it now: it seems impossible to say that we, speaking as a nation, wish for all citizens to live in dignified, stable, faithful, loving relationships sanctioned by law and then to deny by law that exact right to a significant portion of the populace based on the deeply personal question of whether the gender of their chosen partners matches or does not match their own. So with respect to the issue from a civil point of view, my thinking has not really changed much since I first wrote about the matter to you.
From a religious point of view, however, my thinking has indeed evolved. As mentioned above, I was in Atlanta earlier this week attending the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. The convention itself was the usual mix of things—nice hotel, great davening, horrible food (and such small portions!), terrific sense of professional comradeship and warm fellowship—but the highpoint for me, other than attending the reception honoring me personally for my work in the rabbinate over these last three decades and particularly for my work on The Observant Life, was attending a session offered by Rabbi Daniel Nevins, the dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, my alma mater.
Rabbi Nevins, who cannot possibly have known his remarks would precede the president’s by one single day, spoke about a proposal he, Rabbi Avram Reisner, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff are bringing to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the highest legal body within the Conservative Movement, later this month regarding the possibility of Conservative clergy officiating at same-sex marriages. I have the proposal in front of me as I write and, although there are many questions I have about specific details in what they have written, the overall sense I came away with after reading it carefully now several times through—that the time truly has come to act in a principled, halakhically reasonable way to treat gay people not as pariahs, but as fully invested members of the Jewish community whose presence is not begrudgingly tolerated but actively encouraged—was as encouraging as it was palpable.
Working within the limits of tradition and attempting only to be just and kind, these three rabbis—all of them friends of mine for many, many years—have attempted to create a version of marriage that would suit same-sex couples. They have not tampered with the Torah’s arayot laws delimiting human sexual conduct. Nor have they redefined marriage itself in any fundamental way. Instead, they have gently sought to find a way to sanctify the relationship between same-sex couples who are prepared—in exactly the same way as are heterosexual couples who choose to marry—to commit formally and absolutely to live out their lives by each other’s sides and fully devoted to each other’s welfare.
I was impressed. I am impressed. Elliot Dorff is one of the great intellectual lights of American Judaism, a man I feel beyond honored to call my friend, my mentor, and my teacher. Avi Reisner is one of our brightest lights, a creative, innovative thinker whose work in medical ethics has informed our decision making process about some of life’s most important issues not for years now but for decades. Danny Nevins, as noted, works at the helm of the JTS Rabbinical School and thus personally bears the burden of training the men and women who will serve our Jewish community as its spiritual leaders for decades into the future. Together, they represent a troika of dedicated, intelligent leaders whose work cannot be waved away as frivolous or negligible merely because it would have been unimaginable when I began my career in the rabbinate thirty-four years ago. Whether the CJLS will adopt their proposal, I have no way of knowing. How my colleagues in the rabbinate will respond to its acceptance or rejection I also obviously cannot say. But, like I suspect the president also must have felt in the days leading up to his announcement, there are moments when invoking tradition to work at cross-purposes with what we ourselves say we wish for our country or for our people simply stops making sense. If we truly believe that the Torah calls all Jewish people forward to sanctify life through the establishment of monogamous unions, through the raising and educating of Jewish children, and through the principled intertwining of lovers’ souls, then it seems beyond peculiar to turn away from the possibility, finally before us, of broadening the circle to include those traditionally left on the outside merely because doing so involves innovative, creative thinking.
I felt more proud than ever to self-identify as a Conservative Jew and a Conservative rabbi after listening to Rabbi Nevins speak. I will write again about this topic after the CJLS issues its decision later this spring.