It was on a Sunday morning when Joe Biden, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press”, declared that he was absolutely comfortable with gay couples having the same rights as straight couples. This announcement, from the Vice-President, was sure to have political ramifications as it appeared to place him on a different policy footing compared with the rest of the Obama administration. And while it was clear that the political world would need to respond to Biden’s statement, in America the Jewish world was also pulled rapidly into the debate.
A few days after the Vice President’s comments, the President himself appeared on television and explained to the public that his opinions about same sex marriage had changed. He even used Christianity to explain his decision with a reference to Leviticus 19:18: “The things at root that we think about it, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule – you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.” This marked a policy change for the Obama administration, and the first time that a sitting President had come out in support of marriage equality.
This subject has been a hot button issue in American politics over the last few years. When I lived in Los Angeles, during the last US Presidential election, one of the additional items on the California ballot was Proposition 8, seeking to ban same-sex marriage, which had recently been legalized in the state. During that campaign a number of Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues lobbied in support of, and stood at the forefront of, the unsuccessful campaign to protect marriage equality.
What struck me this time round was the way in which the formal Jewish community jumped into the debate so quickly, and with a clear divide along denominational lines. On Wednesday 9th May, the same day on which President Obama gave his interview and changed administration policy, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) and the Orthodox Union Institute for Public Affairs (OUIPA) both issued opposing statements.
The RAC, led by the charismatic Rabbi David Saperstein, a regular figure in the Newsweek poll of top Rabbis, was enthusiastic in its support of the President’s endorsement of marriage equality. Their statement talked about the advancement of civil rights in America and the importance of equality for all people, regardless of sexuality. The Jewish text, which they used to support their position, was Genesis 1:27, which teaches us that all people are created in the image of God. They also referenced the lessons from a Jewish history of persecution and discrimination.
In contrast the OUIPA statement expressed disappointment with President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage. They focused on marriage and family as a prime value for the Jewish people and that Jewish law is unequivocal in opposing same-sex relationships. They did acknowledge Jewish opposition to discrimination and the importance of respect for others; but there appeared a concern about the repercussions of marriage equality and how religious liberties could be affected. “The Orthodox Union will continue in its efforts to advance the values and interests of our community in the public square through civility and the democratic process.”
What struck me most was the speed in which the Jewish community was able to issue press releases both in support and opposition to the statement. The RAC and the OUIPA represent the ‘political’ wings of both denominations, both with a presence in Washington DC to lobby political leaders about issues and subjects which are of concern to the Jewish community. According to their website the RAC is mandated by the Union for Reform Judaism, representing 1.5 million Jews, and the OUIPA represents almost 1,000 Orthodox congregations across America. Having this kind of presence ensures that Jewish voices are mobilized quickly when a political issue, with an impact on the Jewish community, comes to the fore.
As Jews we have a responsibility to be active members of the society in which we live; raising our voices both in support and opposition to issues which are of concern to us. When looking at the RAC website it is striking to see the number of issues on which they have campaigned, these include such major topics as health care, immigration rights, poverty and many others. Although many of these issues do not necessarily have a direct impact on everyone within the Jewish community, Judaism still has a lot to say about these subjects.
Numerically of course the Jewish community is far smaller in the UK, compared to the USA, and even proportionately it is a much smaller percentage, but does this mean that British Jewry should not have a voice on a wide range of issues affecting British society? How active are we in the British Jewish community in offering a Jewish voice on social issues which affect the society as a whole rather than Jews specifically?
The American model of political activism offers us a way of keeping the prophetic voice alive, and it is something which could be emulated in Britain.