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

(page 2 of 2)

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.


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!
  • “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?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • 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.