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.