Same Sex Marriage and the Jewish Dilemma
On both sides of the Jewish debate on the marriage protection amendment there’s danger of hypocrisy: putting the separation of church and state aside for short term gains is risky - but so is using it to demagogue an issue which does not really endanger this separation.
Since the U.S. Senate is voting today on what is called the Marriage Protection Amendment - an amendment President George Bush is promoting - it is a perfect time to deal with the question of same-sex marriage and the Jewish community. And it’s not one question, but rather two, or even three.
1. Does the Jewish community support same sex marriage? 2. Can it present the world with a unified voice on the matter? 3. Does it need to try to come with a unified voice?
The short answer to all 3 questions is no, no and no. But that’s not the end of it. As the discussion of this issue keeps coming back, it also keeps alive one of the most delicate dilemmas of Jewish life in America: what subjects merit an intervention by the "Jewish community?" A tricky question - but a defining one nevertheless.
In last week’s dialog, with Steven Gutow of JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs - read it here), I asked him point blank about the issue. His reponse: "On behalf of what issues should the community, as a community, take stands? When Jewish values and Jewish interests are strongly embraced by the major organizational players, the community through its umbrella organizations should stand up and be counted. Issues relating to Israel, confronting poverty, immigration, pluralism, Sudan, the separation of church and state, the environment and many others?"
Ooops! Did he just say "separation of church and state?" Doesn’t the issue of same-sex marriage fit into that category?
Gutow thought that lacking consensus, his organization isn’t ready to take a stand on this issue. However, for some communities and organizations, the case is different. Last November, I wrote about the Jewish community of Indianapolis, and its struggle with with a similar situation (Should U.S. Jews take a stand on same-sex marriages?): "A proposal is now being examined in Indiana by the public: whether to add to the constitution a clause that would prevent same-sex marriages? And what do the members of the Jewish community in Indianapolis think? This question can be answered with relative ease. Most of them oppose the clause, and a minority, who belong to the Orthodox faction, support it... Therefore, the question is not over the stand of the members of the community - but of that of the organized, representative communal body. And even in this regard, the important question is not what stand it will take, but whether it will take one at all."
Now, this question is much closer to have an answer today than it was half a year ago. The JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council) Board took a vote on the Amendment a couple of weeks ago and there was nearly a consensus advocating against the Amendment and for Jewish involvement. There were some smaller organizations (Orthodox) which prefered the Jewish community not to take a formal position. Anyway, it was decided that the Government Affairs Committee will start drafting a position statement to go back to the Board for final approval.
So what’s the difference between the Indianapolis Jewish community and the U.S. Jewish community as a whole?
Some would point to the difference between the federal amendment and the language of the local suggested legislation in Indiana - which is much more blatant. Maybe that’s why the local Jewish community there decided to take a stand. I don’t believe this is strong enough of an explanation.
Some would say it’s just a matter of power: In the larger Jewish community the Orthodox are more influential, hence, they are able to prevent it from taking a unified approach against the suggested amendment (clearly, most Jews in America are against such an amendment).
Today, Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), participated in a small group of religious and community leaders meeting with President Bush prior to the delivery of remarks in support of the Marriage Protection Amendment. Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, head of the organization, articulated the position of the OU on this matter in a forceful way: "Judaism recognizes marriage as a fundamental human institution, and affirms marriage only between a man and woman? the inclusion of same-sex relationships in the definition of marriage is something that any Jew of conscience should oppose." Hence: "The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America supports a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to the union of a man and a woman. We believe that this proposal is an appropriate response to recent decisions by America’s courts and unauthorized actions by elected officials..."
Now, compare this to the statement by the "Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism" on the matter and you?ll see why a unified voice is impossible. According to the statement, the Marriage Protection Amendment "would enshrine discrimination and homophobia in our nation’s most sacred document, undermining the principle of equal protection for all citizens? It could also infringe on the freedom of individual religious organizations that recognize the legitimacy of same-sex marriage - such as the Reform Movement - to sanctify such unions."
So what do we have here really? A debate consisting of two parts. First, is same-sex marriage compatible with Judaism? Second, does the suggested amendment violate religious rights? It is not at all surprising that those who see homosexuality as a disaster are much more receptive to a constitutional amendment - and those who think homosexuality is not a terrible sin (or not a sin at all) reject the amendment, not only for its content but rather on "legal" grounds as well.
And this is exactly what bothers me. It’s not the difference of opinion, but the feeling that at least one of the two (opinions, not organizations) is somewhat hypocritical, and in a risky way.
Consider this: The matter of separation of church and state, and all involved in that, is the single most critical issue now facing the Jewish community of America. When there’s a real danger of erosion on this matter, it is indeed something on which the community should have one unified voice opposing it. However, on the issue of the marriage amendment you don’t see this unified voice. What you do see is two camps walking a very fine line on the church and state issue. Either they push it aside for a short term political gain (you can also call it ideological or religious), or they use it to demagogue an issue on the legal basis of church and state, when what they really mean is that they oppose the amendment for other reasons.
And the problem is that each side believes it is the other one behaving somewhat irresponsibly. And my problem is that I can?t tell you which one is right. I guess it is for you to judge (and let me take a guess: if you?re against gay marriage, you think it’s the Reform behaving badly - if you’re pro, you think it’s the Orthodox).