Hillel Y. Levin, who is an Orthodox Jew, offers a fascinating take on the same-sex marriage debate within Judaism. His conclusion brings home the fact that we’re talking about minority rights in a pluralistic society and cautions his co-religionists about all that’s at stake when one minority group aligns with the majority to agitate against the rights of another minority group:
Unlike our Christian friends and neighbors, Jews grow up with our minority status deeply ingrained and without the instinctive expectation that our religious traditions and beliefs will naturally be reflected in the broader law and culture. As a minority within a minority, Orthodox Jews recognize that we reap the benefits of pluralism, tolerance, and accommodation. After all, if religious beliefs in this country were to orient secular law, we would find ourselves deeply disappointed and possibly threatened, just as we historically have in every other diaspora country.
To be sure, there may be some issues in the public sphere on which Orthodox Jews will find themselves compelled to take a political stand out of religious conviction. But these occasions should be the exception rather than the rule. And we should be especially hesitant to do so concerning the debate over same-sex marriage, in which the rights of another American minority are at stake. Instead, we ought to be grateful that we live in a society in which minority groups’ religious and civil rights are respected, and in which equality is imposed by law.
Though I think Levin is entirely right about this conclusion, it’s not ultimately why he believes the Orthodox should just remove themselves from the debate entirely.
The reason, he argues, is that it doesn’t really matter to the Orthodox whether or not states allow lgbtq individuals to marry. The Orthodox need not recognize marriages that are recognized by the state and need not perform same-sex marriages themselves. As he rightly points out,
Judaism already treats Jewish and civil marriages differently, and synagogues—like all religious organizations—are free to define marriage according to their own religious principles. For example, marriages between Jews and members of other faiths are not performed or recognized in Orthodox synagogues. Other denominations perform them as they see fit. The same approach can easily be applied to same-sex marriages. Orthodox synagogues will not be forced to redefine religious marriage on account of the legalization of same sex marriage.
In other words, Orthodox Judaism can continue to discriminate against lgbtq couples, regardless of whether or not the state continues to do so. As I said above, Levin is right about this. And it might even be an effective way to persuade (some) Orthodox Jews to just sit out of this debate. But we shouldn’t mistake the fact that it’s a cover for bigotry. It says, “There’s no harm in letting the state allow these marriages, since we can continue to disallow them.”
There’s no mistaking that this position produces no movement at all on the fundamental question of how Orthodox Jews ought to treat their fellow human beings. It’s the same hardline stance, dressed up in the rhetoric of toleration and pluralism.