Jewish reaction to President Obama’s declaration of support for same-sex marriage was swift. Liberal Jewish groups, including Hadassah and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, praised the president’s statement, and the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center declared, “History will regard the president’s affirmation of this core right for the LGBT community as a key moment in the advance of civil rights in America.”
Orthodox Jews stood apart. The centrist Orthodox Union proclaimed itself “disappointed” with the declaration, while the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America took the opportunity to attack not Obama, but liberal Jews. Responding to National Jewish Democratic Council Chair Marc Stanley, who declared admiration for the president’s upholding the Jewish value of tikkun olam, Agudah spokesman Avi Shafran wrote that “to imply that a religious value like tikkun olam — and by association, Judaism — is somehow implicated in a position like the one the president articulated is outrageous, offensive, and wrong.”
Many Orthodox Jews regard rejecting state recognition of same-sex marriage as a matter of religious principle. After all, Leviticus states unequivocally that “a man may not lie with another man as one lies with a woman. It is an abomination.” As these Orthodox Jews see it, two sides confront each other: knee-jerk Jewish liberalism where Judaism is equated with liberal values and Torah-based, authentic, Orthodox Judaism.
A similar confrontation occurred a century and a half ago. America was embroiled in a civil war over slavery, and the battle was intra-Christian. As both sides were Protestants who saw Scripture as the ultimate source of religious truth, they were both interested in what the People of the Book thought about this question.
Responding to President Buchanan’s call for a national day of fasting in the wake of the Secession Crisis, on January 4, 1861, eminent Orthodox Rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall gave a thunderous sermon supporting slavery. Raphall, a New York rabbi, was a vociferous opponent of Reform Judaism. He prided himself on his profound knowledge of, and fidelity to, the Bible. The New York Times reported that in his sermon, “The learned sage [Raphall] delved deep into the Hebrew Bible — citing the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Job and even Exodus — before concluding that ‘slaveholding is not only recognized and sanctioned as an integral part of the social structure… [but] the property in slaves is placed under the same protection as any other species of lawful property.’” While Raphall acknowledged that he personally found slavery distasteful, since the Bible sanctioned it, the institution was perfectly legitimate. As Raphall put it, “I grieve to find myself saying a good word for slavery, but God and the truth must prevail!”
Against Raphall rose the German-American Reform Rabbi David Einhorn, who at that time was a rabbi of a congregation in Baltimore, a pro-slavery city. On April 19, 1861, Einhorn delivered a fiery sermon attacking Raphall’s defense of slavery.