JCRC hosts a civil discussion on civil unions

After witnessing a pair of rabbis eloquently debate the same-sex marriage question, lawyer Therese Stewart noted, “I wish I was Jewish.”

Dozens of voices loudly and simultaneously shot back: “That can be arranged.”

That was the comedic highlight of a largely civil discussion on civil unions hosted last week by San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

Prior to codifying its position on same-sex unions by February of next year, the JCRC hosted a panel discussion/debate on the subject prior to its Dec. 13 business meeting in San Francisco.

The speakers were Rabbi Gedalia Potash of Chabad of Noe Valley and Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom on the religious side and, from the legal community, Stewart, San Francisco’s lead attorney in the city’s legal battle to recognize same-sex unions, and Terry Thompson of the socially conservative Alliance Defense Fund.

To put it mildly, differing points of view were heard.

Potash led off the evening by noting that if you believe the Torah is “100 percent a Divine document” as he does, then the unacceptability of homosexuality is 100 percent clear. But that doesn’t make things easy.

“In my experience as a rabbi in Noe Valley, which is close to the Castro, I have been confronted many times with various questions on this topic. Some say, ‘Rabbi, I believe in Torah the way Orthodox tradition teaches it. But on the other hand I feel gravity pulling me to the reality of my homosexual feelings. And these two realities are tearing me apart,'” he noted.

“On the one hand, I can’t lie and undermine what the Torah says. On the other, I don’t doubt your struggle. … I think it’s reasonable to be open to the possibility of change” to heterosexuality.

Kelman performed a same-sex ceremony in 1997, which created a furor “even in Berkeley.” But he doesn’t regret his decision in the least, and doesn’t approach Torah from the same angle as Potash.

“There are things in the Torah that we no longer observe. There are things in the Torah that are no longer relevant in today’s society, [like] slavery. … When I came to understand what this meant for us in the 20th century, it became a matter not only of interpreting sources but an issue of justice. Everyone is created in the image of God,” said the Conservative rabbi. “Everyone.”

“Rabbis don’t sanctify. Rabbis teach. Rabbis act as witnesses. Rabbis make it possible for two people to be together.”

Kelman created a ceremony mirroring a wedding but utilizing different language, just as rituals for male children carry different language than those for females.

Stewart, San Francisco’s chief deputy city attorney and a lesbian raising a child in a 14-year monogamous relationship, respectfully argued that Kelman’s position didn’t go far enough.

“People have viewed us differently for so long that when you view us as separate, even when you accompany separation with all the tangible benefits, it still says we are less,” she said.

Fascinated by the rabbis’ discourse, she compared their positions on Torah to judicial takes on the Constitution. Along similar lines, she compared a separate category of “civil unions” for same-sex couples to the famed Plessy v. Ferguson case, which allowed segregation in rail cars.

“You still get to the same destination, but will you get there with the same dignity?” she asked, adding that a lesser designation of civil unions as opposed to marriages will lead to other states and the federal government not recognizing the sanctity of the unions.

Thompson, whose Alliance Defense Fund went to court challenging San Francisco’s recognition of same-sex marriage, cited many of the same biblical passages as Potash regarding homosexuality. A recognition of same-sex unions would be compassionate, he said, but “compassion can lead us in the wrong direction.

“Marriage since the 1400s and even Genesis has been defined as one man and one woman. Should [the JCRC] change the definition of marriage? You’re tinkering with one of the fundamental building blocks of Western civilization,” said Thompson, who is a deacon at a Castro Valley Presbyterian church.

Thompson said that like Kelman, he believed people are created in God’s image and therefore bound to follow God’s rules.

“If we all just climbed out of a slimy ball four-and-a-half billion years ago, then I should just eat this food and buzz out of here and do whatever I want to do. But if we were all created by God, then all people, all persuasions, all races have value in God’s eyes and I must follow that as well.”

Thompson said recent studies showed many gay people can change their behavior if they choose, and argued that the state-sanctioned unions of non-procreating couples would be a financial disaster for the government. He also argued that marriage rates have fallen precipitously in the European nations allowing same-sex marriage.

Stewart disagreed, and scored perhaps the most resonant point of the night: “When you’re heterosexual and someone tells you that the law or religion requires you to be a homosexual, is that a transition you could make?”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.