Monday, November 28, 2005

U.S. Jews and same-sex marriages

Last Monday evening, in Indianapolis, Indiana, 50 concerned people gathered for an interesting discussion - a polite discussion, according to several of the participants - on a major question: How will the Jewish community in the city deal with a proposed, controversial piece of legislation.

As in several other states, most of them "red" - i.e., Republican - a proposal is now being examined in Indiana by the public: whether to add to the constitution a clause that would prevent same-sex marriages. Supporters of the clause consider it an essential shield against the destruction of the institution of marriage, and of the family. Its opponents consider it a means of improper interference in the life of the individual, and a blow to minority rights.

And what do the members of the Jewish community in Indianapolis think? This question can be answered with relative ease. Most of them oppose the clause, and a minority, who belong to the Orthodox faction, support it. That is no surprise. This city has a very strong, firmly established community of almost 10,000 Jews. It has five synagogues: Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, traditional Sephardi and Orthodox. The number of Orthodox Jews is probably no more than 20 percent, but they are well organized.

Therefore, the question is not over the stand of the members of the community - but of that of the organized, representative communal body. And even in this regard, the important question is not what stand it will take, but whether it will take one at all. And on which topics must "the community" take a stand - and what will the implications be of doing so. What are the boundaries of "the Jewish community" sector? That is not a trivial question.

The Jewish community, as an organized, inclusive body (as opposed to the denominations within it) usually does not take a stand on political questions, unless they are directly related to its own predicament. It certainly does not support any political candidate or party. In Indiana, this was the case several times in the past. For example, regarding the question of whether the state should adopt the Daylight Savings Time customary in the other U.S. states. Then, too, the fracture line passed between the majority (that was in support) and the Orthodox, who were opposed. At the time, it was finally decided not to take a stand. The subject was important - but it did not have any fundamental connection to the community. On other questions - for example, abortion rights, or stem cell research, or same-sex marriages - the story is much more complex, of course.

The group that initiated the discussion that began a week ago, and will continue for a long time (the legislation process in Indiana will apparently continue until 2008), is the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). After one evening of presenting positions, the detailed discussion will begin in the various bodies that are included in the community, and they will come back with a consolidated stand to the executive council of the JCRC, which will have to decide. It isn't necessary for all of them to agree. If the majority decides to formulate a position against the proposed clause in the constitution, the Orthodox faction will have to accept it. That's what happened, for example, on the abortion issue. The executive council of the JCRC is somewhat more liberal in its views than the rest of the community, and that is likely to have an influence as well.

Pierre Atlas, a professor of political science and a JCRC activist, says that the decision will depend on the context in which the discussion is conducted. If the subject is defined as a question of civil rights, many will identify with taking a stand against the legislation, he says. Because this is legislation that is "religiously motivated," he adds, there is significance to the "Jewish position." In his opinion, the long-term significance of the legislation for the community justifies a decision. A prohibition of same-sex marriages undermines minority rights - and Jews are a minority - and any blow to minority rights lays the groundwork for another one in the future. Therefore, the community must make its voice heard.

Others see Atlas' position as "alarmist," and his approach to the activity of the JCRC as "going too far." An activist in the Orthodox community, who asked to remain anonymous, says that the community must save its voice for cases in which an immediate Jewish or Israeli interest is likely to suffer. And this is not that case. If we express an opinion on these topics, he notes, we will distance many supporters, whom we may need in the future on critical issues.

Here, the relationship between the Jewish community and the Christian right emerges again, from a somewhat different angle. Recently, it came up in the speeches of Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Rabbi Eric Joffe of the Reform movement, and apparently there will be no way to avoid the subject much longer. Many important interests justify maintaining friendly relations with the Christian right, but the Jewish public, which is mostly liberal, is losing its patience somewhat about this. The Jewish community sometimes gets tired of calculations of short-term utility, and tends to think that they are endangering its status as a religious minority in the United States.

That is an important, perhaps critical, question for the Jews of the United States, and for Israel as well. Its scope and its implications require a detailed, orderly discussion, whose boundaries extend far beyond Indiana.


Secular governments should leave marriage alone. Marriage is a religious issue. Where's my separation of church and state?


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