Open Zion

06.27.13

Jewish Responses to the Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Rulings

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Louis Lanzano / AP Photo

The instant the Supreme Court struck down DOMA and Proposition 8 yesterday morning, my newsfeed suddenly went crazy. Everyone I knew, it seemed, was taking to Facebook and Twitter to express their joy over these historic rulings. Major Jewish organizations—the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and many more—were releasing verklempt online statements at an amazing rate. The Jewish blogosphere was filling up with touching personal stories by gay writers who could finally pen the words, “Today I am legally married. Truly. At last.” And many of my Jewish friends, together with much of Jewish and non-Jewish New York, were rushing to the famous Stonewall Inn to celebrate history where history was once made—and to document that celebration on Instagram, natch.

And then my newsfeed took a different turn. While millions of Jews were off partying, and while I was sitting and smiling at my computer screen (such is the life of an editor), the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America issued this “short and sweet” response:

Society’s mores may shift and crumble but eternal verities exist. One is marriage, the union of a man and a woman. Its sanctity may have been grievously insulted by the High Court today, but that sanctity remains untouched.

As far as I could tell, nobody on my newsfeed was much bothered by this funny little pronouncement. What else would you expect from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) leadership? My friends shrugged, laughed, and promptly ordered another round of drinks. But then another statement hit the fan—this one from the somewhat more moderate Orthodox Union—and it had a more sobering effect:

We reiterate the historical position of the Jewish faith, enunciated unequivocally in our Bible, Talmud and Codes, which forbids homosexual relationships and condemns the institutionalization of such relationships as marriages. Our religion is emphatic in defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Our beliefs in this regard are unalterable. At the same time, we note that Judaism teaches respect for others and we condemn discrimination against individuals.

We are grateful that we live in a democratic society, in which all religions are free to express their opinions about social issues and to advocate vigorously for those opinions. The reason we opt to express our viewpoint in a public forum is because we believe that our Divine system of law not only dictates our beliefs and behaviors, but also represents a system of universal morality, and therefore can stake a claim in the national discourse. That morality, expressed in what has broadly been labeled Judeo-Christian ethics, has long had a place in American law and jurisprudence.

This statement ruffled the feathers of educated Jews for a number of reasons. First, it presumes to speak for “the historical position of the Jewish faith” as if that faith were a monolith, as if it were possible to say that that faith has always “unequivocally” forbidden all homosexual relationships, when in fact the picture is a lot more complicated. (Note that the Torah never weighs in on lesbian relationships, for example; that doesn’t really become an issue until Maimonides gets around to it in the 12th century.)

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Justin Sullivan/Getty

Then there’s that careful acknowledgment that “Judaism teaches respect for others and we condemn discrimination against individuals.” That certainly sounds warm and fuzzy, but—as many people pointed out in numerous Facebook threads—the OU’s insistence on taking the Torah condemnation of homosexuality at face value, and its refusal to make any effort to rethink that condemnation within the framework of ever-developing Jewish law and theology, still drives Jewish queer kids to self-hatred and in some cases to suicide. The OU’s declaration that “our beliefs in this regard are unalterable” makes clear that, as far as it’s concerned, this is not a matter of pushing for change within the system slowly but surely. “Unalterable” is code for “we have no intention of changing the system, period.”

Note that this isn’t the only possible course of action for those who consider themselves authentically committed to Jewish law: other Modern Orthodox groups have taken pains over the past few years to articulate evolving positions on homosexuality while still remaining grounded in traditional Jewish texts. Those positions may not be evolving as quickly as I, a queer Jew, might like, but I still respect their authors for recognizing that our foundational texts are in urgent need of rereading and rethinking; otherwise, Orthodoxy will quickly prove to be on the wrong side of history.

The OU, on the other hand, has no problem with that. Echoing the Orthodox Agudath Israel of America’s fondness for “eternal verities,” the OU touts its position as the guardian of a “Divine system of law” and a “universal morality.” While it believes these features allow it to “stake a claim in the national discourse,” I’d hazard a guess that—as far as the majority of American Jews are concerned—such terms only make it seem painfully out of touch with reality.

To its credit, the OU goes on to acknowledge its proper place in this debate:

We also recognize that no religion has the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic and we do not expect that secular law will always align with our viewpoint. Ultimately, decisions on social policy remain with the democratic process, and today the process has spoken and we accord the process and its result the utmost respect.

That last sentence is really the only sensible one in the whole OU statement. Unfortunately for the OU, it’s also the sentence that makes the entire statement seem superfluous and irrelevant. As one Facebook commenter on my newsfeed aptly put it, “I’m just not sure I understand why they had to say anything at all.”