When Orthodoxy Goes Too Far

Those Who Fight Gay Marriage Are on Wrong Side of History

Split on Slavery: Sometimes Orthodoxy can go too far in supporting the staus quo. Some Jewish traditionalists backed slavery in the 19th century.
getty images
Split on Slavery: Sometimes Orthodoxy can go too far in supporting the staus quo. Some Jewish traditionalists backed slavery in the 19th century.

By Michah Gottlieb

Published June 04, 2012, issue of June 08, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.