American Jewry Spars Over Gay Marriage

Are Jewish Democrats ignoring Judaism's sacred precepts to garner votes for Obama in the 2012 US presidential election?

Gabe Kahn ,

Barack Obama
Barack Obama

Orthodox Jewish groups were outraged Wednesday when National Jewish Democratic Council chair Marc R. Stanley tried to garner Jewish votes by implying that U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to back homosexual marriage was intertwined with the Jewish value of Tikkun Ha'Olam.

In Jewish thought Tikkun Ha'Olam – ontological rectification – is the principle of refining the human condition and human society in accordance with the profound principles of righteousness and holiness as expressed in the Jewish Scriptures, thereby ushering in the World to Come.

While frequently mistranslated as "social justice," Tikkun Ha'Olam is a more robust concept than has frequently been co-opted by liberal ideologues to justify behaviors and policies the Torah proscribes.

Agudath Israel of America immediately issued a statement denouncing Stanley's attempt to hijack Tikkun Ha'Olam for political gain.

"In the wake of President Obama’s sharing of his personal feeling that the millennia-old institution of marriage should be redefined in contemporary America, National Jewish Democratic Council chair Marc R. Stanley declared his admiration for the president’s demonstration of 'the values of tikkun olam.'

"A political group is entitled to its opinion, no less than a president is to his.  But to imply that a religious value like 'tikkun olam' – and by association, Judaism – is somehow implicated in a position like the one the president articulated, is outrageous, offensive and wrong.

"We hereby state, clearly and without qualification, that the Torah forbids homosexual acts, and sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony.

"The Orthodox Jewish constituency represented by Agudath Israel of America, as well as countless other Jews who respect the Jewish religious tradition, remain staunch in their opposition to redefining marriage," the statement concluded.

For his part, Obama made no allusions to Judaism or Tikkun HaOlam on Wednesday when he altered his long-held policy of leaving the divisive issue of gay marriage to individual states during an interview on the ABC network television news talk show "Good Morning America."

“At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,’’ Obama said.

Obama's support for same-sex marriage in this campaign season is a change of direction that comes as his lead over GOP challenger Mitt Romney inexorably deteriorates to a neck-and-neck race focused on America's struggling economy.

Political observers say the move inserts a galvanizing social issue into the race as Obama consistently fights to bring his job approval rating to above 50% in the polls. No president with an approval rating under 50% has been re-elected in the last forty years.

Obama said his position on same-sex marriage evolved over several years as he spoke with friends, family, and neighbors about it. He cited the influence of members of his staff  “who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together.’’

He also played the patriotism card, pointed to homosexual soldiers, pilots, Marines, and sailors “who are out there fighting on my behalf,’’ but not allowed to marry.

In explaining his previous stance, Obama said, “I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue.’’

“I’ve always been adamant that gays and lesbians should be treated fairly and equally,’’ he said, citing the reversal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy that barred openly gay servicemen and women from serving in the military, and his stance that the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages, is unconstitutional.

Obama said he has “stood on the side of broader equality’’ for the those in the gay, lesbian, and transgender communities, “and I’d hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought civil unions would be sufficient . . . and I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word ‘marriage’ is something that evokes powerful tradition and religious beliefs.’’

“It’s interesting, some of this is also generational,’’ the president said. “You know when I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy, on foreign policy, but are very clear that when it comes to same sex equality or, you know, sexual orientation, that they believe in equality. They are much more comfortable with it.’’

“In the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people,’’ Obama said. “We are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others.’’

Obama’s position on same-sex marriage has vacillated over the years, often to suit the specific demographic he is campaigning to win. He endorsed gay marriage during a 1996 run for the Illinois Senate, and then opposed it when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2004 and for president in 2008.

He once said on a questionnaire that he supported gay marriage, only to later say he supported civil unions, and then said that his position was “evolving.’’ As president he has, until now, mostly avoided discussing the subject.

However, despite his supportive rhetoric, Obama stressed in the extended interview that he continues to support the concept of states deciding the issue on their own. In other words, his policy remains unchanged.

The timing of Obama's sudden public support for gay marriage has left some gay rights activists skeptical and led to charges he should have announced his support before North Carolina's decisive vote to ban gay-marriage.

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a Republican group that advocates for gays, was even more direct saying Obama's course shift was “offensive and callous.’’

“Log Cabin Republicans appreciate that President Obama has finally come in line with leaders like Vice President Dick Cheney on this issue, but LGBT Americans are right to be angry that this calculated announcement comes too late to be of any use to the people of North Carolina, or any of the other states that have addressed this issue on his watch,’’ Cooper said in a statement.

Romney has consistently opposed homosexual marriage, fighting its legalization in Massachusetts and also saying he opposes civil unions.

During a brief press conference after a campaign appearance in Oklahoma City Wednesday, Romney reiterated his stance on what he called a “very tender and sensitive topic.’’

“While each state should have the right to make decisions with regard to domestic partnership benefits such as hospital visitation rights,” Romney said, “My view is that marriage itself is a relationship between a man and a woman . . . I have the same view that I’ve had since, well, since running for office.’’