The American Jewish community’s response to Wednesday’s Supreme Court rulings bolstering marriage equality reflected a range of opinion from joyful approval to sharp criticism, making it clear that there is far from any kind of unanimity on the issue.
“There are differing opinions as to how Jews should respond to this issue, although there is consensus that Judaism teaches respect for others and that we abhor discrimination against individuals,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish Council for Public Affairs in a statement released after the decisions. The JCPA works with more than 100 local and national Jewish organizations across the political spectrum on community relations.
The high court threw out part of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional in its decision on a lawsuit brought by a Jewish woman, Edith Windsor, who was forced to pay federal taxes on the estate of her late wife, Thea Spyer, who also was Jewish — even though their Canadian marriage was recognized as legal by the state of New York, where they resided.
The court also dismissed a case asking it to overturn a lower-court decision striking down the California marriage law. The decision paves the way for gay marriages to resume in California.
For some, including the crowd in front of the Supreme Court building awaiting the decisions, this was what they had hoped for.
“I’m thrilled the court recognized what an affront DOMA has been to the civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans,” said Barbara Weinstein, associate director at the Religious Action Center.
The RAC, part of the Union for Reform Judaism, had submitted amicus briefs in both cases in support of marriage equality and advocates on issues of LGBT rights among other progressive issues.
“It’s a great decision and a great day,” Weinstein said.
The marriage-equality cases had Jewish groups filing friend-of-the-court briefs on both sides, with liberal groups defending the rights of gay couples and conservative groups seeking to push back. In Washington, D.C., the Jewish Community Relations Council did not take an active stance on DOMA, said its executive director, Ron Halber, but he said the Jewish community in Greater Washington “believes same-sex couples should be entitled to the same marital benefits as opposite-sex couples. Our JCRC takes a very hard line between civil and religious rights. … The community liked to see DOMA struck down.”
The question here, according to Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, was not one of what defines marriage but one of civil rights. For same-sex couples living in Maryland, which passed legislation last fall legalizing marriage between a man and man and a woman and a woman, the court’s decision has a basket of practical ramifications. She explained that with the overturning of DOMA the federal government will now honor the marriages of Maryland’s same-sex couples in such areas as immigration and social security. Gay couples will now have access to more than 1,000 federal rights and responsibilities that were already afforded traditional couples.
For some Jewish groups and leaders, however, the court’s decisions are a betrayal of standards and an unwelcome view on morality from the government.
“Societies’ morals may shift and crumble, but eternal verities exist. One is marriage, the union of a man and a woman. Its sanctity may have been grievously insulted by the High Court, but that sanctity remains untouched,” Agudath Israel said in a statement.
Rabbi Herzel Kranz of the Silver Spring Jewish Center shared similar concerns. “There will be some very tragic consequences of this,” he said. “Moral issues like this are not the domain of lawyers, what authority do they have to set moral standards?”
Kranz said he believes questions of homosexuality should be resolved by religious moral leaders, and is an issue he can find common ground with other religions on, relating a story of meeting with Pope John Paul II, whose views on the issue matched his own.
Similarly, Rabbi Yaakov Menken, who runs Torah.org, said he feels the Supreme Court’s decision sends an encouraging message to young students that they can choose anyone they want — and he is not comfortable with that. Rabbi Menken said Jews should know that relations with someone of the same sex is forbidden by Jewish law, the same way they know that pork is not kosher: It is stated in the Torah.
“We don’t find people who consume pork trying to rewrite the Torah’s verses about it,” he said. “I don’t think it is about intolerance or bigotry or anything else. I think it is about a commitment to the Torah telling us things that sometimes we don’t want to hear. The Torah does ask us that we make sacrifices, and those are different for every person.”
In the aftermath, some Jewish groups are struggling to hold the community together, sending messages of unity and acceptance despite differing opinions. Even the Orthodox Union, which lobbied against such a ruling, said in a statement that it’s “grateful that we live in a democratic society, in which all religions are free to express their opinions about social issues and to advocate vigorously for those opinions.”
The OU said it feels strongly that the Jewish Divine system of law “not only dictates our beliefs and behaviors, but also represents a system of universal morality, and therefore can stake a claim in the national discourse.” Nonetheless, the organization said it recognizes that not always will secular law align with Jewish viewpoints.
The JCPA statement called for dialogue.
“In the end, our democratic process determines matters such as this, and that process has spoken. Many in our community are celebrating this decision. Others do not join in that celebration. Together, we must continue in honest dialogue, learning from one another and striving for what is best for our community and our nation.”
Maayan Jaffe is managing editor of WJW’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.
WJW staff reporter Eric Hal Schwartz contributed to this article.