Welcoming Gay Marriage, as Americans and Jews

American Jews went through a stunning change in attitudes to become the strongest supporters of same-sex marriage and legal equality for gays and lesbians of any U.S. religious or ethnic group - in just two decades.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

In reading the statements issued this week by Jewish groups in response to the Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage, we were reminded that Jews are more supportive of same-sex marriage and legal equality for gays and lesbians than any other religious or ethnic group in America.

According to a March survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, while 52% of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, 81% of Jewish Americans support this position.

As the survey responses showed, all non-Orthodox Jewish religious groups back marriage quality for gays. All the significant defense and communal organizations do as well, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. The simple fact is that there is no major American Jewish group involved in vigorously opposing gay rights or gay marriage. Even the Orthodox Union, the largest umbrella group of Orthodox congregations, reiterated its opposition to homosexual relationships but did so with delicacy and restraint, condemning discrimination against individuals and noting its respect for all our nation’s citizens.

This broad Jewish consensus on behalf of gay marriage and gay rights is interesting because it did not emerge until recently. Homosexual rights became a political issue in the 1960s when gays began organizing to resist the discrimination that they faced in all areas of American life. Nonetheless, as recently as a quarter of a century ago, Jewish organizations were largely on the sidelines on these matters, which had yet to generate broad support among all Americans. Even the Reform movement, which would subsequently become the leading voice in gay rights advocacy, did not seriously address major public policy questions related to gay equality until the 1990s.

Still, when attitudes among Americans began to change regarding the recognition of gay identity and relationships, they changed quickly, and Jews changed with them. The dramatic transformation of American attitudes resulted from a variety of factors: Awareness of the devastation caused by AIDS, a revolution in how popular culture depicted gays and lesbians (the Will and Grace phenomenon), and an impatient younger generation that was dismissive of their parents’ prejudices. And the impact of all this on American Jewish beliefs was immediate; in little more than two decades, a mostly passive community became committed to the cause of equality for gay Americans. Not only has the Jewish organizational world entered the political fray, but the non-Orthodox seminaries now ordain gay rabbis, most non-Orthodox congregations welcome and embrace gay Jews, and a significant number of non-Orthodox rabbis perform gay marriages.

In fact, these changes are so stunning that it is impossible to understand them outside of their Jewish context. Americans Jews were responding not only as Americans but also—and primarily, I suggest—as Jews.

What are the good Jewish reasons why they have been so dramatically transformed in such a short time?

Jews remain overwhelmingly liberal on social issues, even when they are more conservative on matters of foreign policy and fiscal responsibility. They do not like the government intruding in the personal lives of American citizens. They have a deeply ingrained sympathy for those who are victims of prejudice, having so often been victims themselves; and they know from long experience that where homophobia is to be found—not to mention racism and misogyny—anti-Semitism is sure to rear its ugly head.

Interestingly, Jewish commitment to Israel also plays a role—although probably a minor one. The Anglo-Jewish press frequently makes reference to Israel’s active and vibrant gay community, noting that the Israel Defense Forces accepted gays long before America’s military did so. Israel’s marriage policies are hardly an example of enlightenment, of course. Israel does not permit civil marriage of any kind, gay or straight, or religious marriages of the non-Orthodox variety; nonetheless, its relative openness and tolerance on gay issues is a factor for some Americans in arriving at their own positions on legal questions.

And American Jewry’s liberal religious character has been important, too. Israelis often forget that 80-90% of American Jews identify with the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism. In the postwar period, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism focused their attention far more on issues of social justice and women’s equality than they did on the place of gays in Jewish life. But once their interest was aroused, they turned to these questions in a serious way, promoting years of study and discussion in synagogues and at rabbinic meetings throughout America. Each movement arrived at its own conclusion, but what emerged in every case was recognition of the indisputable reality of loving gay and lesbian relationships, as well as the understanding that in these relationships, God and holiness can surely be present.

And even for the Orthodox, who find holiness only in relationships between a man and woman, there was disappointment but no panic. After all, the whole point of church-state separation, which is constitutionally guaranteed in America, is that what is holy is not defined by the state but by individuals and voluntary religious associations that operate according to their own principles and teachings. As the Orthodox Union stated, “the process has spoken and we accord the process and its result the utmost respect.”

In America, in other words, the Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage will not cause a revolution among the Jews. The revolution has already taken place.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

James Cohen, center, is among thousands celebrating the gay marriage ruling in CaliforniaCredit: AP

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