By Rabbi Shawn Zell, Congregation Tiferet Israel
While the Four Questions are over and done with until next year, there is another set of questions that some feel ought to be at the very least pondered. With the recent Religious Freedom Law garnering headlines, let us not be too hasty breathing a sigh of relief that we are neither bakery owners being asked to decorate a cake for the marriage of Geraldine and Joccelyn, nor pizza parlor proprietors approached by Pierpoint and Patrick to cater their wedding reception.
While many of us may hope and pray otherwise, it is not beyond the realm of possibility for a Jewish LGBT couple, after having engaged a rabbi to officiate at their nuptials, to approach Tiferet, wishing to book our facilities for the wedding reception. Neither kashrut nor a conflict with any day, time, or time period on the Jewish calendar is an issue. What do we do? What explanation, if any, do we give that we are unable to accommodate — provided, of course, that that would be the stance we would take?
To the best of my knowledge, there exists no correlation between one’s sexual preference and one’s prayer preference. If it is true, even though not necessarily acknowledged, that lesbians and gays are found within the most Orthodox of Jewish communities, then they are also found within all other Jewish communities as well. It goes without saying that here at Tiferet, our attitude is: A Jew is a Jew, and all are welcome. Wouldn’t we, however, at least initially be at a loss for words if Agnes and Alberta Abromowitz-Altholtz applied for family membership? What would our response be to Durward and Darius Dunklestein-Dishkin who, together with their 11-year-old son Dale, are synagogue searching, in that the bar mitzvah is just around the corner?
In a similar vein, our practice at Tiferet has been to acknowledge all wedding anniversaries. Does “all” truly mean “all?” Does “all” include marriages that some of us either refuse to acknowledge, or find it most difficult to acknowledge?
Synagogues have fundraisers. Some of them, such as the dedication of a Torah scroll, are very much religious in nature. Supposing Sid and Sadie Sadowitz, longtime members of the congregation, are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Sid is a longtime gabbai and has been extremely involved in the minyan for decades. Sid and Sadie’s son Lee, and Lee’s husband Marvin, want to underwrite a Torah scroll as a fundraiser in honor of the parents’ forthcoming simcha. Other than appropriate recognition for donating the Torah and spearheading the fundraiser, Lee and Marvin are not asking to be honored themselves in any way, shape or form. How do we respond?
Please understand that none of the above hypothetical cases would require or involve the participation, whether active or passive, of any of us — especially of me, the rabbi. We would, however, do well to ask: Is accepting a Torah scroll as a fundraiser from a same-sex couple in any way against the spirit of our religion? Does our granting membership to a same-sex couple intimate that we are also granting approval to that family dynamic, however tacit that approval may be? Does renting out our social hall indicate that the leadership at Tiferet — both lay and religious — endorses only the food as being kosher?
We live in an age where many groups are clamoring for and demanding rights. At the same time, it must not be overlooked that other segments of the population — however traditional they are or wish to be — have rights as well. Religious institutions and religious leadership aside, do individuals or groups of individuals have the right to tell any person who may or may not be his or her partner in marriage? By the same token: Do individuals or groups of individuals, provided they are not connected to government, have the right to refuse to participate in any way in a wedding, or in any other celebration, that they find to be objectionable?
We are presented now with these new questions, so different from the ones found in our Haggadah. Perhaps the most difficult question of all is: How do we answer them?
Rabbi Shawn Zell is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tiferet Israel.