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.
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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.
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In his sermon, Einhorn lamented Raphall’s ignorance, saying that Raphall’s biblical interpretations were forced and that they ignored the fact that God created all human beings in his image, which guaranteed every individual the right to dignity and respect. Raphall’s ignorance manifested itself in his slavishness to the biblical letter: He failed to appreciate the living spirit of Judaism. Einhorn noted that while the Pentateuch spoke of slave holding, this institution gradually declined among Jews during the biblical era, and by the rabbinic period Jews rarely owned slaves. Einhorn concluded his sermon by decrying the “chillul hashem” (desecration of God’s name) committed by Jews who defend slavery. Imputing pecuniary motives to the defenders of slavery, Einhorn wrote, “Only such Jews, who prize the dollar more highly than their God and their religion, can demand or even approve of this!”

Reaction to Einhorn’s sermon was swift and brutal. A pro-slavery mob destroyed the printing press in which Einhorn regularly published anti-slavery articles, and he was driven out of Baltimore.

There is a remarkable similarity between today’s Jewish opponents of same-sex marriage and the Jewish opponents of emancipation a century and a half ago. Both rely heavily on Scripture, ignoring the fact that Judaism is a living, developing tradition. Judaism’s meaning is not contained in Scripture alone. If it were, Jews would lobby to legalize polygamy and would advocate the death penalty as punishment for adulterers.

Moreover, marriage equality is a civil matter, not a religious one. No governmental body is telling religious groups to perform same-sex marriages. It is simply a matter of same-sex couples having the same benefits and state recognition for their marriages as do heterosexual couples. American law pays no attention to Jewish law. It permits all sorts of activities contrary to Jewish law, such as allowing women to divorce their husbands, and it prohibits actions recommended by Jewish law, such as an uncle marrying his niece. Yet Orthodox leaders never contemplate withdrawing political support from candidates who support these laws. Why is same-sex marriage different?

History has judged Raphall’s defense of slavery poorly. No Orthodox rabbi today would defend his view. Decades from now, people will similarly judge Orthodox opposition to same-sex marriage poorly. Just as Einhorn sanctified God’s name by rejecting slavery on the basis of the Torah’s commitment to justice and individual dignity, so today’s religious Jews sanctify God’s name by defending state recognition of same-sex marriage on the basis of those same Torah principles.

Michah Gottlieb is assistant professor in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.


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