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May 22 2012

When Religious Minorities Oppose Freedom

Among the many different reactions garnered by Obama’s historic announcement of support for same-sex marriage, one that flew under the radar of most people–at least, most non-Jewish people–was that of two prominent Orthodox Jewish organizations, the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) and the Orthodox Union (OU).

In a statement, the NCYI wrote:

As members of a community that abides by the precepts of the Torah, we are deeply disappointed that a growing number of prominent American leaders, including President Obama, have expressed support for same gender marriage. As a national organization dedicated to Torah values and guided by Jewish law, the National Council of Young Israel is diametrically opposed to same gender marriage, which is a concept that is antithetical to the religious principles that we live by. As firm believers that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman, we simply cannot accept a newfound social position that alters the value, definition, and sanctity of marriage as set forth in the Torah, which has guided us for thousands of years.

The interesting thing about this is that legalizing marriage between same-sex couples would have absolutely no effect on marriage and life in general within Orthodox Jewish communities. Orthodox congregations are free to define marriage as they choose (gotta love separation of church and state). For instance, Orthodox rabbis will generally not perform weddings between a Jew and a non-Jew, but that’s completely legal in the civil marriage system. Legalizing same-sex marriage doesn’t mean that Orthodox rabbis will be forced to officiate same-sex weddings, and I’m pretty sure they know that.

However, the OU statement included this line: “Such legalization is also problematic with regard to religious liberty, as dissenting institutions are pressured to support or recognize relationships they cannot.” This is false. Who, exactly, is pressuring “dissenting institutions” to officiate same-sex marriages? Their constituents, perhaps? Because that’s an entirely separate issue that has nothing to do with any presidential proclamations.

If there are any legal scholars reading this blog, they can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that the government does not have the authority to force religious leaders to officiate weddings that they oppose on religious grounds. (I’m pretty sure that no same-sex couple would want their wedding conducted by a rabbi who is hostile to their relationship, anyway.) If what the OU is really worried about is that the cultural tide is turning with regard to gay marriage, then they might as well issue a statement condemning the majority of Americans.

But back to the point. An Orthodox Jewish law professor named Hillel Y. Levin wrote a great piece about this issue in which he explains the distinction between civil marriage and kiddushin, or a Jewish marriage. This distinction is the reason why civil marriage laws in the United States should be of absolutely no concern to observant Jewish communities. He also writes:

Unlike our Christian friends and neighbors, Jews grow up with our minority status deeply ingrained and without the instinctive expectation that our religious traditions and beliefs will naturally be reflected in the broader law and culture. As a minority within a minority, Orthodox Jews recognize that we reap the benefits of pluralism, tolerance, and accommodation. After all, if religious beliefs in this country were to orient secular law, we would find ourselves deeply disappointed and possibly threatened, just as we historically have in every other diaspora country.

What this is, then, is an unfortunate lack of perspective. While Jews have faced discrimination in the United States, as they have everywhere else in the world except Israel, the US has historically protected the rights of religious minorities, including Jews. It is by virtue of our separation of church and state that Orthodox Jews have been so free to practice their religion as they see fit. So sure, when it comes to gay marriage, they are in a rare moment of agreement with conservative Christians. But to willingly participate in the attempts of another religious group to impose its values on the rest of society seems painfully ironic.

For the record, I don’t expect Orthodox Jews to enthusiastically endorse same-sex marriage–although many do. If it’s against your religion, it’s against your religion. I didn’t expect these organizations to applaud Obama’s announcement. But I didn’t expect them to denounce it, either, because it has absolutely nothing to do with them, and it will have absolutely no effect on the lives of Orthodox Jews.

I get it, though. Sometimes people just really want to make statements on issues that should be of no concern to them (especially if said people are Jews, and I’m allowed to say that because I’m Jewish). However, a great deal of Orthodox Jews–some of whom support gay marriage and some of whom do not–believe that the NCYI and the OU shouldn’t have spoken out about Obama’s statement. Reading the comments on the petition is enlightening.

It’s disappointing to see such influential voices within my faith, which has suffered so much from discrimination and prejudice over the past two thousand years, make statements like these. American democracy has provided us with freedom of religion, but we should make sure it safeguards freedom from religion, too.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    BlackHumor

    Disappointing but not surprising; I’ve spent a long time around Orthodox Jews and they can be CRAZY bigoted.

    I went to a Jewish elementary school, and near the point when I left I learned that one of the teachers (rabbis) was a Kahanist. (Don’t know what a Kahanist is? Think Israeli fascists. Not even exaggerating, they’re a super-nationalist ideology that are so racist against Arabs they’re actually illegal.) Surprisingly enough he was actually fairly nice as a person.

    But in general, from what I’ve seen how bigoted a person is has to do with how religious they are with almost no consideration to what the actual religion is. Jews and Christians are just as bigoted as each other even though one has been oppressed by the other for millennia.

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Well, the point of my article wasn’t that bigots exist within Orthodox Judaism; that I already know. It was that I find it ironic that Orthodox Jews are advocating for someone else’s religion to be imposed on Americans, just because they happen to agree with one tenet of that religion.

      1. 1.1.1
        BlackHumor

        Eh, there’s an extent to which religion in general just functions as a single group, without any of the historical Christian vs. Jew vs. Muslim shenanigans.

        1. 1.1.1.1
          Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

          And my argument is that they shouldn’t. It’s not too long ago that Jews faced institutionalized discrimination in America. They should know better than to impose that now on another marginalized group.

  2. 2
    Izgad

    As someone who supports legal gay marriage and birth control, I would still point out that the fact that the current administration is forcing the Catholic Church to fund birth control in its health plan gives one pause from trusting the government. We are dealing with a left that believes in positive rights. Therefore legal birth control has led to the government forcing private institutions to supply it. I have every reason to assume that legal gay marriage will lead to religious organizations having to recognize it due to government force.

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      But these are two entirely different things. Someone who wants to marry someone of the same sex, gets a priest/rabbi/minister, and gets told “no” can just go find another one of the tons of priests/rabbis/ministers that there are. Someone whose health insurance is provided BY THEIR EMPLOYER shouldn’t be expected to just go get a new job or pay out of pocket for a basic health need.

      You cannot “force” a religious organization to recognize a marriage. This should’ve already been proven by the fact, which I mentioned in my post, that most Orthodox Jewish congregations will not perform weddings between a Jew and a non-Jew. Yet that’s legal in the United States. I don’t see any Orthodox rabbis being forced to officiate such weddings.

      1. 2.1.1
        Izgad

        My concern is that one day synagogues will be forced to do so. Why should people who grew up going to a synagogue not be able to get married in it? It is no more reasonable for them to go some place else as it is for them to find a new job to get health care. For a true liberal the issue of expectation is irrelevant. Property rights is all that can matter. The Catholic Church owns its jobs and can make any agreement it chooses, assuming that they do not cause physical harm to others, with those who want to work them. Anything else violates their rights.

        1. 2.1.1.1
          BlackHumor

          Nope. What the Catholic Church wants to do is equivalent to your boss saying to you, “I’m Muslim, so you can’t use your paycheck on booze”. Obviously, once they give the money to their employees they don’t have rights over it anymore.

          Similarly, if you buy insurance for your employees (and you almost certainly do), what exactly that insurance covers should not be in your hands, because it’s not YOUR insurance. The only relevant right in this situation is the rights of those employees to medical care.

          1. Izgad

            My Muslim boss has every right to negotiate any deal he wants with me and I am free to reject it. If he wants me not to buy alcohol I am free to seek employment someplace else. Obviously he cannot change the contract once he has signed it. He cannot decide after he hired me that I cannot drink alcohol. Remember liberty is for the people whom you hate. There is no reason to give liberty to anyone else.

    2. 2.2
      Michael

      Hardly. There are regulations and requirements for running hospitals and other such institutions. If the Catholic Church wants to run a hospital, or any other institution, then they must adhere to such regulations and requirements, just like any secular hospital must. The Catholic Church isn’t asking for religious freedom. They have religious freedom, for they can peddle their popery in their churches all day long. What they are asking for is to be exempt from the rules.

      1. 2.2.1
        Izgad

        I support the right of consenting adults to enter any relationship they wish. This applies to gay marriage and hospitals. What right does the government have to create any hospital regulations? Why is a hospital not a private agreement between the consenting adults who walk in the door and their physicians?

        1. 2.2.1.1
          Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

          Sometimes, a religiously-affiliated hospital is the closest or only accessible hospital in an emergency.

          I would strongly urge you to read this: http://www.msmagazine.com/spring2011/treatmentdenied.asp

          1. Izgad

            That does not matter. If a person wants “their kind of hospital” they can build one. Otherwise you cannot complain with the options given to you. Why can’t I make you build me a hospital?

          2. BlackHumor

            Do you realize how silly you sound? A poor woman who needs contraception cannot damn well build a hospital. So, either we as a society figure out a way to get her contraception, or we decide she’s not going to GET contraception with all the health problems that could potentially cause.

            For all its faults, the Obama administration has been quite clear that it will not compromise on the health of its citizens, and I applaud them for it.

          3. Izgad

            Notice how you are still within the conservative trap of thinking about society; you ask how is society going to get a woman birth control instead of how the woman will get herself birth control. Even if your society gets her some birth control she will still be a slave to that society for the rest of her life for it is they who will give to her and take away. Replace society with individuals in a free market and at worst she does not get birth control, but she is still free. You are also thinking in terms of postive freedom. You assume women have an active right to have birth control instead of simply the negative right of being protected from anyone who would do them physical harm if they tried to acquire birth control. As with society, the moment you bring in positive freedom into play all freedom, including birth control and gay marriage, ceases to exist. The reason for this is that if you are to be consistent you would have to grant conservatives the “positive right” to live in communities with no birth control and no gays. Why should our conservatives have to trouble themselves to move to a new town when they could just kick out the liberal minority?

          4. Izgad

            Just as we are both willing to grant our conservatives the moral right to oppose gay marriage as a practice, I am willing to support the existence of hospitals for all on moral grounds. Just as we believe that conservatives should step back from opposing political gay marriage, I would tell you to leave politics out of the hospital. If this in practice leads to no birth control I will live with that the same way I expect conservatives to live with gay marriage in practice.

        2. 2.2.1.2
          Michael

          Regulations are required to determine who can be trusted to treat people, and to ensure that conditions are conducive to such treatment. It is pleasant to imagine a world in which everyone makes informed and well thought out decisions, but such is not the case. We live in a world populated by desperate people who are all too eager to accept the words of quacks who will lead them merrily to their death. We live in a world in which cars crash, in which people are shot, in which heart attacks occur, and in which all manner of emergencies arise. In such cases, we must have reliable care readily available, which means that both the staff and the facility must be in good working order. I, for one, would rather have regulations for hospitals and other industries than spend my day stepping over corpses.

          1. Izgad

            You are free to only enter hospitals that comply with your regulations and you are also free not to step over bodies on the way to the hospital if you so wish. But that does not give you the right to force your views on other people. You are just like a conservative. You assume that unless you force your rules on other people society will simply collapse and their will be chaos. Don’t you see that one can make the same argument against gay marriage. Either rights go for both or for none.

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