Breaking with tradition on the journey toward understanding, compassion
Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman
“I keep monkeying around with this,” Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman wrote, “and it’s probably just generalized anxiety that I’ve said the wrong thing without even knowing it. I do care very much about this issue. At the same time, sober/serious/dour suits me for this kind of thing.”
“This kind of thing” is a wedding he officiated last month at B’nai Emunah, Tulsa’s conservative Jewish synagogue. A same-sex wedding.
It was his and the synagogue’s first.
There are ground rules. He asks nicely, but there’s no story, otherwise. He will not mention the couple’s name, he will not get into specifics about their relationship or his counsel, he will not get into the politics.
He will not even tell me if the couple is male or female.
Shouldn’t matter. The two have dedicated their lives to one another.
Forget it, Jake, it’s Oklahoma.
State Question 7111
(a) Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman. Neither this Constitution nor any other provision of law shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.
(b) A marriage between persons of the same gender performed in another state shall not be recognized as valid and binding in this state as of the date of the marriage.
(c) Any person knowingly issuing a marriage license in violation of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.
In 2004, this amendment—this piece of homophobia and straight-sex entitlement—to the state constitution passed with 75 percent of the vote. It was eventually ruled unconstitutional, as no official in Oklahoma (or anyone anywhere, for that matter) could prove how he or she or a state would be harmed by allowing gays and lesbians to wed. Still, our twice-married governor who defends traditional marriage said at the time: “The will of the people has now been overridden by unelected federal justices, accountable to no one. That is both undemocratic and a violation of states’ rights. Rather than allowing states to make their own policies that reflect the values and views of their residents, federal judges have inserted themselves into a state issue to pursue their own agendas.”2
On this, the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, it’s good to remember that southern governors used the same argument against civil rights legislation.
Since the 2004 vote, other measures have been introduced in the Oklahoma legislature to protect the sanctity of marriage from gays—to protect society from them, really. Just recently, we’ve had bills to support conversion therapy3, to punish those state officials who facilitate same-sex unions4, to get the state out of the marriage license business entirely.5 We have even spent more than $50 million in taxpayer dollars promoting and protecting heterosexual marriage.6
It’s not working.7
But I digress. This is about something else today, more personal than polemic.
I’ve known Rabbi Fitzerman for 30 years. We go to lunch once a decade whether we need to or not. Yet for most of that time, he was not my rabbi, but a friend. You need a disclaimer, though, so here it is: he’s now both.
He usually gets back to me in less than an hour when I write and ask him to explain liturgy, smooth out an attack, fact-check something, correct my Yiddish or simply commiserate.
He took a week and a half on this one.
(The answers, as is usually the case with our correspondence, are better than the questions.)
Barry Friedman: You had an opportunity a few years back to perform a same-sex marriage, and you ultimately refrained. Would you explain the particulars of that experience?
Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman:
The first round of anything important is always complicated. I’ve been committed to the cause of marriage equality for a very long time, but it was important to me that our congregation have time to work through the issue at the pace it chose. Looking back, there was the inevitable conflict between the needs of the individual and the rhythm of groups and institutions, all complicated by questions, concerns, and a multitude of small details. We came through that process, but when the couple who opened the conversation needed a definitive answer, we were still in the middle of things. I regret to this day that it didn’t work out as planned.
BF: Have you, like the president, evolved on this issue?
MBF: Yes and no. My commitments are exactly the same as they were before, but the idea of conducting a same-sex marriage now seems like the most natural thing in the world. All of the concerns that felt so important the first time around seemed to disappear. A religious community generally accomplishes a great deal of good when it tries to default to “yes.” I know that there will be exceptions, but I try to live according to that principle.
BF: What, if anything, does the Jewish Bible say about same-sex marriage, and what does the Christian Bible say?
MBF: I can’t presume to speak for another religious tradition, but the Hebrew Bible can only be fulfilled inside a living community of believers. The Torah seems to rule against a certain kind of intimacy between men, but there is a powerful thread of understanding that men can have deeply loving relationships. The idea here is that responsible change occurs when people work to hear the voice of God in Torah and also bring to bear their own informed convictions. Our people have a long tradition of confident, sometimes innovative interpretation. I belong to a school of thought that looks at Leviticus with reverence, but sees its views on intimacy as colored by old, enduring fears. Seeing the Bible in this way is a balancing act, but it’s been going on for a very long time. The Torah says that we should stone stubborn and rebellious children, but the rabbis of the ancient world thought that was a very bad idea, and they forbade it. That kind of thinking opens a way to make the Bible live in a new way.
BF: Are you freelancing on this, or is there now a Jewish consensus on such unions?
MBF: Finding consensus in a religious community is a kind of dream. I wish that everyone felt the same way I do, but I live in a world of legitimate disagreement. At the traditionalist end of the spectrum, people remain uncomfortable with same-sex unions. In my part of the Jewish world, the prevailing view is that we are exactly as God made us, and everyone is entitled to live out the great journey of a loving relationship with another human being.
BF: Why now? Why this marriage? Will there be others for you?
MBF: I have deep respect for the couple just married and would be honored to sing their praises. Our new assistant rabbi, Dan Kaiman, feels exactly the same way. But we promised to safeguard their privacy and their desire for a traditional Jewish wedding without any sort of political overlay. That turned out to be one of the great pleasures of this occasion: a ceremony that felt sweetly and simply normal. Same ritual, same language, same everything. I hope to have many more pleasures like this one.
BF: What about those who would ask about the apparent inconsistencies with not officiating at an interfaith marriage, but officiating at a same-sex one?
MBF: The denomination I represent has been wrestling with this question for a generation. However I may feel, we belong to a national community that has described intermarriage as an issue. My heart tells me that this standard will change, especially in cases where a couple of mixed heritage makes a commitment to the idea of Jewish family, regardless of the tradition in which both partners were raised.
BF: Any pushback from the congregation on officiating this ceremony?
MBF: I’ve never been at a wedding that felt more joyful and less complicated by ambivalence of any kind. The wedding was a great roar of approval for the couple and the reality of their love.
My dear friends, Suzie and Laura, just celebrated their anniversary. I asked Laura about the difference in their relationship since their wedding.
“We got married three years ago on our 5-year anniversary. There is something that just feels different after you have gotten legal recognition of your relationship and also had it celebrated by friends and family after you made vows to one another. And people get what you mean when you say “my wife”—even if it takes them back for a second—people instantly understand that this is a lifelong partnership.”
That sound you hear? That’s the roar.
1) wikipedia.org: State Question 711
3) news.yahoo.com: Oklahoma Committee OKs Ban on Regulating Conversion Therapy
4) religionnews.com: Oklahoma bill would punish officials for marrying gay couples
5) newsok.com: Oklahoma bill would put an end to marriage licenses
6) oklahomawatch.org: Oklahoma Marriage Initiative Fails to Halt Rising Divorce Rates