On Corn and Marriage: A Rabbi’s Reflections from the New York Senate Gallery
After the vote on Marriage Equality on Friday, I sat dumbfounded in the gallery of the New York State Senate in Albany. Earlier that week, when the Senate passed a resolution declaring sweet corn the official state vegetable instead of taking up legislation on marriage equality, I knew we had entered the realm of the absurd. I had been in Albany last Monday, and had come home disheartened by the vitriol of the debate on same-sex marriage. Somehow, though, the news about the corn was comforting. I hadn’t thought the situation could get any more ridiculous. The fact that corn had made it to the table, so to speak, made me feel like anything was possible. The Senate really was willing to entertain anything, from the designation of the state vegetable to making rules about Bingo, and this gave me hope.
Monday had been sobering. My partner, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, and I had travelled to Albany to be part of a liberal religious contingent, organized by Pride in the Pulpit under the auspices of The Empire State Pride Agenda. It was heartening to see friends and distinguished colleagues from around the city, and to know that so many more were involved with calling and writing campaigns.
When we walked into the Capitol, we immediately found ourselves in the midst of a protest, with scores of marriage equality opponents shouting: “One man, one woman.” My first thought was that they really couldn’t be very familiar with the Bible. After all, just one of the three patriarchs in Genesis, Isaac, had only one wife. And when the going got tough, he was willing to pretend she was his sister, for the sake of saving his own skin (Gen 26:6-10).
We soon realized that very few of the conversations that day were of biblical or theological substance. The opponents of the bill were convinced that they alone knew the true (and to them, obvious) meaning of the Bible, and that they alone had a direct line to God. When the “One man, one woman” chant ended, another one began: “God says no!” At first, our group started chanting, “God says yes!” in response, but soon we shifted to: “How do you know?” That, it seemed to me, was the root of the debate. Our opponents were sure they had all the answers, and that the rest of us were going to burn in hell (the nicer ones informed us of this apologetically). I wanted to tell them that I had converted from Christianity to Judaism precisely because I was drawn to a religion that valued questions over answers, a religion that was based on interpretation, and the implicit belief that the Bible begins our conversation, but is not the end of the story. Judaism as it exists today contains a myriad of different interpretation and opinions, and this leads to a profound humility with regard to knowing what God wants. In contrast, the perverted marriage of political hubris and theology that I saw last week oversimplifies religious conversation. The result is a divisive discourse that is at once dangerous, hurtful and politically enticing. There is no sound bite like a hateful sound bite.
That is why the success of the sweet corn bill gave me hope. It suggested that not everything needed to be taken quite so seriously. Also, it made me think about domesticity — specifically, the two ears of corn that Lisa and I had just made the kids as part of their dinner. For the rest of the week, we went back to our routine: a two-rabbi, two-mom family, busy with young children and work.
By Friday, things weren’t looking good. The Senate still had not decided to vote on the marriage equality bill, much less to pass it. I went back to Albany that afternoon without any sense of anticipation of success. Instead, it was a heady combination of frustration, stubbornness, and three Red Bulls which got me on the road. Anyone I spoke to who was in the loop said that it wasn’t worth coming, because it seemed unlikely that the bill would even make it to the floor. I went because I knew that the people who had been there all week could use some support; it felt like the right thing to do, as part of a long relay race with the finish line constantly around the next bend.
I went to Albany on Friday not expecting anything to change. But I got to witness what was a sacred moment: the moment when marriage equality became law in New York State. Even more, I got to see thoughtfulness and deliberation — the political process at its best — lead people to change their minds and their votes. I was so proud to hear Senator Stephen Saland talk honestly about his struggle to come to a decision, and how his parents’ values of treating everyone equally ultimately determined his game-changing support. His speech was the complete opposite of the rhetoric I had heard on Monday in the halls of the Capitol.
In last week’s Torah portion, Korach, we read about an internal rebellion among the Israelites. Korach and his supporters challenge Moses’ leadership. Moses, before responding, falls on his face. Chasidic commentaries suggest that he did so in a moment of self-examination. He needed to make sure his motivation was right, and that he himself was not at fault in some way. That moment of humility, which so easily could be seen as a moment of political weakness, was essential. Then as now, the lesson can be found: uncertainty is more valuable than certainty. The ability to change one’s mind can be more powerful than righteous indignation.
The same day the sweet corn bill was passed, legislation also passed to allow someone to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught: “The entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid.” New York senators crossed that narrow bridge with courage and dignity this week. In so doing, they opened marriage to countless loving couples. May this day be an inspiration for all loving couples to celebrate their love, and for each of us to be proud of who we are.
As I sat in the Senate Gallery, I saw a very happy and relieved governor; I saw senators cross the aisle to congratulate each other; and I saw the people of this state embrace one another in joy. This thoughtful legislation which had taken so painfully long to craft, brought people together in the end. I smiled to myself in the midst of the happy fray, because I knew that the best part of this change was yet to come. Marriage itself is not a declaration of having all the answers, but a daily commitment to being open to the questions together. Now, the door is open for so many more people to join in the conversation. To quote the concluding line of Tony Kushner’s sublime play, Angels in America, “The Great Work Begins.”