New York Times
July 5, 2013
Rabbi David Wolpe's announcement that he will conduct gay weddings has caused controversy in his congregation.
LOS ANGELES — Sinai Temple is a Conservative Jewish congregation perched on a hill in Westwood, famous for its wealth, its sizable population of Persians, many of whom fled Iran after the fall of the shah, and a well-known and outspoken rabbi who has at times pushed his congregation on ideologically adventurous paths.
So it was that three weeks before the Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California, the rabbi, David Wolpe, announced in a letter to the synagogue that gay marriages would be performed in this 107-year-old congregation, as soon as the court ruling he anticipated was handed down.
Celebrating same-sex marriages is hardly a new stand for Conservative Jewish congregations. But the decision in this distinctive synagogue has set off a storm of protests in recent days, particularly from Persian Jews, reflecting not only the unusual makeup of the congregation but also the generational and cultural divisions among some Jews over how to respond to changing civil views of homosexuality.
“To officiate a union that is expressly not for the same godly purpose of procreation and to call such a relationship ‘sanctified’ is unacceptable to a sound mind,” M. Michael Naim, an architect, said in an open letter to other Iranian members of the congregation. “Homosexuality is explicitly condemned in Scripture and has been categorically and passionately rejected by all classical Jewish legal and ethical thinkers as a cardinal vice in the same category as incest, murder and idolatry.”
This is not the first time that Rabbi Wolpe, 54, has attracted national attention for the views he has pressed on his congregation. In one noted sermon, he expressed doubt about one of the great stories of Jewish life, the exodus of Jews from Egypt into the wilderness.
The synagogue is an anchor of the Los Angeles Jewish community, and Rabbi Wolpe himself is such an entrenched figure there that there seems little chance that its existence, or his tenure, is endangered. Still, the argument within the congregation offered a striking contrast to the images of gay couples across this state rushing to be married, reflected in smiling faces in newspapers and on evening television.
Mr. Naim said he was leaving the congregation. Rabbi Wolpe said that 10 families had told him so far that they intended to either leave the synagogue or withdraw their children from its school, to protest a policy they denounced as a violation of Jewish teachings and the traditions they had brought here when they fled the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Rabbi Wolpe said that based on letters he had received, and comments voiced to him as he walked the aisles of the sprawling, sunny sanctuary on Wilshire Boulevard during Saturday morning service, close to half of the congregation of 2,000 families, which is about half Persian, was unhappy with the new policy.
“The Persian community is pretty heavily weighted against the idea of same-sex marriage,” Rabbi Wolpe said. “And there are some non-Persians who also oppose it, and have made their convictions clear to me.”
“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” Rabbi Wolpe said. “I was doing it on my internal timetable in the synagogue, which was to try to bring people along slowly because I knew this would be very difficult for many people. I think it’s the most controversial thing I’ve ever done or will do.”
The decision by Rabbi Wolpe, who has been at this synagogue for 15 years and is one of the country’s best known rabbis, was very much in accordance with other Conservative congregations. Conservative Judaism is perched between the more liberal Reform and Reconstructionist movements, which have long accepted gay clergy members, and the Orthodox, which rejects it.
Some Conservative congregations have gay rabbis and cantors. But the announcement and its aftermath served as a reminder of one of the things that distinguish Sinai Temple and nearby Beverly Hills: a heavy and at times insular presence of Persians, as many call themselves, and many of them are fiercely protective of their past and religious beliefs.
At Saturday services last week, the roll call of deceased members read off during the memorial conclusion of the service, in preparation for the chanting of the mourners’ Kaddish, was rich with Persian names, a notable addition to the usual roster of names like Abramowitz and Schwartz. And the girl who read from the Torah to observe her bat mitzvah was the daughter of Persian immigrants.
The resistance Rabbi Wolpe is finding among Persian Jews is, like much of the country, generational. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, which also has a significant Persian population, said that he has long performed same-sex ceremonies, without any pushback.
“In my experience, it’s all about generations,” Rabbi Feinstein said in an e-mail. “First-generation Persian Jews, immigrants who were raised in the Moslem culture of Iran, have very strong prejudices against gays and lesbians, along with other strong feelings about matters such as women’s roles in families and society, families’ control over the lives of kids, roles of husbands and wives, etc. Second-generation American Persian Jews, raised in the U.S. and generally college educated, have very different opinions.”
And the decision has backing among some Persian members of Sinai. “There are some people who are not yet ready to accept nontraditional views,” said Dora Kadisha, a member of the congregation. “But we cannot look the other way knowing that within our community we do have gays and lesbians. We have to embrace them not only in the families but in our congregations.”
Her father, Parviz Nazarian, one of the best-known members of the Persian community in Los Angeles, also said he supported the new policy. “Many people are following Rabbi Wolpe,” he said. “They are with him.”
Rabbi Wolpe said that while he looked forward to conducting same-sex marriages, he would continue to refuse to perform interfaith weddings, again reflecting the policy of the Conservative movement.
In laying the groundwork for the new policy over the past months, Rabbi Wolpe led a series of classes and workshops. “This is an important and fraught topic — people have very passionate feelings about it,” he said, opening the final one of the meetings. Moments later, the rabbi was challenged by a young Persian man asking why the synagogue should not simply refer to gay marriage as “a sodomy contract.”
The rabbi’s letter to the congregation argued that Jewish law not only permitted such unions, but also should embrace them.
“Our clergy believe that this decision is in the best tradition of the Conservative movement which views the Torah as a living document that allows room for new understandings and approaches,” it said. “As we have modernized the role of women and many other practices, the demand on the part of our brothers and sisters who are gay to be able to live in a sanctified relationship is a call to our conscience and our responsibility as Jews.”
Laurie L. Levenson, a law professor and a member of the congregation, said that she believed most of the congregation supported Rabbi Wolpe.
“It is a big congregation with people from many backgrounds,” she said. “Marriage equality is a new concept for some of the Persian families. There is an educational process that needs to take place. Thankfully, Rabbi Wolpe has so much credibility that he can pull this off.”