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Influential Rabbi Talks Gay Rights at DNC

Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah is ‘delighted.’

Yair Rosenberg
September 07, 2012
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum performing wedding ceremony.(Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum)
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum performing wedding ceremony.(Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum)

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum has never been one to shy away from politics, especially when it comes to gay rights. Last year, she made headlines for her unrelenting advocacy for gay marriage in New York, even when she was spit on during a heated altercation at the State Senate. But despite her deep political involvement, this Democratic National Convention is her first ever.

Back home in New York City, Kleinbaum serves as the senior rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, one of the largest LGBT synagogues in America. I spoke with her Wednesday about LGBT rights, the Democratic Party’s rapidly evolving stance on them, and how she proposes to balance religious freedom with equality for gay people. Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

As someone who has been deeply preoccupied with these issues for decades, what is your perspective on the role that LGBT rights have played at this year’s DNC?

I have been deeply moved by the experience of this convention’s complete embracing of LGBT rights…they’ve become part of the texture and tone and tenor of the mainstream Democratic Party. And that’s something that many of us who have cared about these issues for a long time have been waiting for. I’m really delighted to see that the Democratic Party has caught up to what we perceive as absolutely an issue of civil rights and human rights.

I would even say that LGBT issues have in some ways been animating this convention. In a way, I think it’s similar to the effect that President Obama had four years ago as an African-American nominee—there’s a kind of similar energy among LGBT delegates and those of us who are here as observers and friends, that’s just off the charts. This is the first time in American history that a political party representing someone who is President of the United States has said that they recognize gay people as full and equal human beings. It’s thrilling.

Can you contrast the feeling at this convention with other political contexts you’ve been in where you’ve felt very differently?

Certainly. Look, I was very disappointed to listen to then-candidate Obama defend marriage as between one man and one woman when he was running in 2008. I was very disappointed. But I believe in teshuva. I believe that human beings can change. And I believe that one day, candidate Romney will also come to understand the full humanity of people like me.

Some on the left criticize the Obama administration for speaking positively about LGBT rights but in practice not actually advancing significant legislation to further them. How do you respond to that critique?

It’s up to Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, not the President, and the Congress has been obstructionist in this regard. And yes, I expect President Obama to use his bully pulpit and to exert leadership on this, and to do whatever he can to draw attention to the issue. But ultimately we need to change Congress to change this law.

As a Jew who has watched the long arc of history, I know that nothing is quick. But I’m very pleased that during his first term, President Obama has signed several executive orders which have extended rights to LGBT employees of the federal government, and that with the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the country’s largest employer—the military—no longer discriminates against gay people.

On the other side of this issue, you have many religious people who are deeply worried that such laws will end up forcing them to accept and perform marriages against the dictates of their faith. What’s your position on that?

There is civil law and there is religious practice. As a religious person, I totally separate those issues and respect those who would not be comfortable as a minister, priest or imam in their own synagogue or mosque officiating in a religious ceremony of marriage for gay people. That’s perfectly legitimate. But this is about civil rights. It’s about extending the full equality of civil law to any couple who want it. And denying that equality because some religions are opposed to it is like denying civil marriage licenses to individuals who had been divorced, in order to adhere to Catholic teaching. It’s codifying a perfectly legitimate religious practice into civil law and imposing religion on others.

Religions should not dictate who should get a civil marriage license. But they should be able to choose who to marry within their own institutions, consistent with their own religious beliefs.

What about a hard case, like a wedding chapel owned by a conservative Christian couple? Could they choose not to serve gay couples, in keeping with the dictates of their conscience?

I think that’s fine, if it’s a religious chapel. Sure, they should be able to have whoever they wanted. But if I want to go to the Charlotte town clerk and get a civil marriage license, the people who run that religious chapel shouldn’t be able to dictate whether or not I can get it. But I think it’s totally fair that I can’t walk into a Catholic Church and say “I want you to marry me and if you don’t, you’re against the law.” No, they have the right to say no.

Look, it’s the same thing by interfaith marriages for Jews. Interfaith is very sensitive for us. Some rabbis do interfaith ceremonies, some don’t. But I doubt there would be many Jews who would say the state should not issue a civil marriage license to an interfaith couple. We can’t say that. We can say “in my synagogue, yes or no.” And if I’m in an interfaith couple, I can’t go to a synagogue and force them to marry me if the rabbis in the synagogue are against it. But I should be able to go to the city hall in Charlotte or Detroit or Mississippi and get a civil marriage license.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.