Category: Politics

The Existential Religious Challenge of Same-Sex Marriage

I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested.
I’d like to think that if I was I would pass.
Look at the tested, and think there but for the grace go I.
Might be a coward, I’m afraid of what I might find out.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “The Impression That I Get”

With the recent US Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges declaring same-sex marriage to be a constitutionally protected right, religious organizations are understandably concerned as to how they will be affected by this new legal reality.  In addition to public statements issued by The Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union, several rabbinic colleagues have expressed similar concerns shared by other religious leaders regarding what this ruling might mean for their own practice, particularly if they will now be forced to officiate or facilitate a practice which violates their religious beliefs. 1

Aside from these concerns over government interference in religious affairs, the Supreme Court’s ruling may have more salient ramifications on a communal level. Specifically, with same-sex marriage legalized nationally, Orthodox homosexual couples may be more likely take advantage of the benefits such legal recognition provides. This new reality may create new tensions within communities where such couples may expect or demand religious recognition for their union.

While these concerns are currently dominating the discussion, my sense is that the attention is misplaced. I do not mean to be dismissive of the concerns of others, but I suggest the details are not nearly as significant as the underlying existential tensions.


  1. In 2011 when New York was about to legalize same-sex marriage, I argued that Orthodox Jews should not oppose such legislation but rather insist on religious protections.

The Sins of the Sandy Hook Generation

“Dozens of people are gunned down each day in Springfield,
but until now none of them was important.” – The Simpsons

In the immediate aftermath of the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton CT, the country was unified in mourning. A seemingly local incident was viewed as a national tragedy, one which prompted much soul searching though not surprisingly little by way of answers. A common refrain I saw online was “there are no words” or “there is no answer – for indeed, who would dare offer any rationale justifying the murder of 20 children and 6 teachers.

In processing my own thoughts, there was one Talmudic passage which I found hard to ignore. B. Shabbat 33b records the following opinion:

When there are righteous men in a generation, they are taken for the sins of the generation. When there are no righteous in a generation, school children are taken for the generation.

As if the idea of vicarious atonement – that someone is punished to absolve others of their sins – is not theologically difficult itself, to imply that the blood of presumably innocent school children serve as some form of sacrifice for the benefit of the rest of the world is, at the very least, distasteful. And following an actual massacre of children, such an assertion would seem to be especially cruel. But after witnessing America’s reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings, it occurred to me that there may be some other truth to the Talmudic statement.

Consider for a moment just how many murders, or violent acts are committed worldwide with minimal coverage, let alone outrage. According to FBI statistics for US crime, there were 13,913 murders in 2011 and 14,103 murders in 2010, yet only a small percentage warranted national news coverage. Worldwide murders are obviousl higher depending on region, including violence against children. According to a 2008 World Health Organization report, approximately 120,000 children worldwide are treated for violence – which would exclude the number of incidents for which children are not treated – and yet relatively few of these incidents warrant our attention. In China school stabbings have been a shockingly frequent occurrence but they barely make the news in the US.

The sad reality is that murders are not uncommon in the world, nor are murders against children, and yet we as a nation remain unfazed. We can easily ignore the deaths of those in other countries because they’re not one of us. We excuse horrific acts of terror because after all they are part of a justified ideological struggle and one side or the other must deserve it somehow. The same is true for local gang violence, where the poor life choices of individuals naturally lead to their own demise.

For so many murders and acts of violence, we find ways to excuse or understand the actions such that we do not have to endure the pain of loss or human suffering. Consider the Sandy Hook shootings themselves. The six teachers who were killed were rightly praised as heroes, though I suspect they would not have received the honor they deserved had children not been included as victims. Furthermore, there was little sympathy for Nancy Lanza, the shooter’s mother and a victim in her own right, with one paper vilifying her saying “she created a monster.”

But when children are targeted, or more specifically our children are targeted, we lose all excuses. We cannot say that tragedies only happen “over there” in lawless countries when a shooting occurs in our own backyard. We cannot console ourselves as we do with adult murders that young children lived full lives. And with so many children being killed we cannot impose familiar narratives of ideology or racism which would otherwise explain or justify their senseless deaths.

For a few days this country overcame its apathy and jadedness and was unified in its sharing the morning of the needless loss of human life. Perhaps the sin of our generation is that it took the murders of 20 children to do so.

Why I’m Voting For Gary Johnson in 2012

Those who follow me on Facebook or Twitter know I try to keep up with politics, though mostly for entertainment value. But while I make plenty of snarky comments at the expense at the absurdities of Conservatives, Liberals, Democrats, and Republicans, few people actually know what I actually believe. Shockingly, some people have even inquired to know as to whom I’m planning to vote in the upcoming election. To that end I would like to share why I intend to vote for the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in the 2012 presidential election.

Let me stipulate two points at the outset. First, I am not writing as a “Rabbi” – that is I do not purport to represent my religion, denomination, synagogue, or any other religious organization with which I am affiliated. Second, this is not an endorsement.[1. Not that mine would make any difference.] I am not interested in advocacy nor do I intend to influence how people will vote, be they already decided or undecided. I am writing as a private relatively informed registered independent citizen with the intent to share a perspective. Nothing more, nothing less.

I suppose the first reason why one would vote for a candidate is that one agrees with his positions, and for the most part I do agree with the Libertarian ideology of limited government,[2. It’s important to stress “limited” does not mean “zero”] fiscal conservatism, social liberalism, and general freedom for individuals to make their own decisions and live with the consequences.[3. I am not about to defend the Libertarian ideology in general or from the Jewish vision of an ideal society. I will just say that I do not believe than any grand vision of what one considers a “just” or “moral” society can be legislated effectively, at least not with unjust or immoral unintended consequences. Anyone interested in my vision of an ethical Jewish society should please listen to my class series on Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law.] I do disagree with Gary Johnson on matters of foreign policy which I find naive. I doubt anyone would agree 100% with any candidate, though I happen to be more aligned with Gary Johnson than any of the other candidates.

Still, my reasons for voting for Gary Johnson are not just ideological, but strategic. It is a near certainty that Barack Obama will carry New York State, in which case the votes of people like myself will have no impact on the results of the election.[4. Were I living in Ohio or Florida I would have a different evaluation of my vote.] The weight of a single vote on the electoral college varies state by state but each vote matters equally towards the popular tabulation.[5. Though due to the sheer number of votes cast, each individual vote is essentially negated in the margin of error] But while the popular vote does not determine the winner of the election, it can still have an impact on national politics.

Currently the US political discourse is defined exclusively by its two dominant political parties: Republican sand Democrats. Other parties are denied a seat at the debating table. As a practical matter this partisan exclusion is necessary to ensure non-fanatical parties or those controlled by crackpots. The sheer size of Republican and Democratic parties indicates that their positions, policies, and ideologies are considered legitimate by a significant subset of the American population. While both parties have their extremists, ideally their positions would be tempered by more moderate voices. From what I understand the threshold for this popular legitimacy is 5% of the popular vote.

Even if one does not agree completely with the Libertarian agenda, I believe it is important for them to to gain legitimacy in this country. A casual observer of US politics can easily see how adversarial our discourse has become. I believe that this is in part due to the binary nature of the two-party system; you’re either with one or against the other. To put it another way, many vote not in favor of one candidate but in opposition of another. In this system neither side needs to uphold its own views, but rather do so just a little be better than the other. Candidates do not need to convince voters, but only to scare them. A legitimate third party could very well force the political discourse back towards positions rather than personalities and perhaps compel a more productive rhetoric.

If course, this could be accomplished with the ascendancy of any of the so-called (and misnamed) “third-parties,” in which case why support Libertarianism? Aside from the practical matter that it already enjoys a great deal of popularity, in many ways it represents a moderation and synthesis of ideas currently popular in both the Democratic and Republican parties (though perhaps with more consistency). Ron Paul is perhaps the most prominent Libertarian, though he has demonstrated that he is not quite the one to lead this cultural revolution. In case you have not heard him directly, here is Gary Johnson’s appearance on The Daily Show.

In the words of our President, it’s time for a change.

A real change.

Ep. 60 Current Jewish Questions 7 – Contraception

In response to the recent controversy over the Affordable Healthcare Act and religious freedom, Rabbi Yuter explores the primary sources for the Jewish discussions on contraception.

Current Jewish Questions 7 – Contraception Sources (PDF)

Current Jewish Questions 7 – Contraception

New York Same Sex Marriage Law’s Religious Exemptions

Many thanks to the Loyal Reader(s) to sent over the link to the full text of New York’s same sex marriage law just signed permitting gay marriage in the state of New York. As I wrote extensively, my position on the subject was less about restricting gay marriage than about maintaining religious exemptions. For those interested, here are the relevant passages from New York’s new law.

Sarah Palin’s Tour de Force

I’ve been following the Sarah Palin bus tour “story” with the same cynicism and disdain as Jon Stewart. But the thought occurred to me that perhaps I had seen this sort of thing before somewhere. And after rummaging through the vault of irrelevant data that is my brain, I uncovered what can only be described as a revelation.

Loyal readers, I submit that Sarah Palin is the modern day Lex Luger.

The “Defensible Border” Fallacy

The past two weeks have renewed global interest in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. Between President Obama’s original reference to the 1967 borders, a modification of sorts to the AIPAC convention, and a response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jewish and political communities have been arguing over how to make sense of the policies.

One recurring theme has been the repeated call of defensible borders. Under the assumption that peace in Israel must consist of land swap with a forthcoming Palestinian state, parties on all sides have repeated that the border between the two states be “defensible,” without further clarification as to what that would mean in terms of specific borders.

However, a more significant question regarding the “defensible border” requirement is why would it be necessary. The “land for peace” mantra assumes that the Palestinian people are really interested in peace, but are oppressed by their Israeli occupiers. Logically then, if the Palestinians were to form their own nation, then it would be as Mahmoud Abbas stated, “a peace-loving nation, committed to human rights, democracy, the rule of law and the principles of the United Nations Charter.”

But if we were to take Abbas at his word, then why would Israel’s borders need to be defensible. From whom would Israel need defending if not the “peace-loving” nation? For comparison’s sake, the US / Canadian Border is 5,525miles, and yet despite this extremely long border, US is more concerned with illegal border crossings than military attacks. The reason is obvious; the United States is not concerned with having “defensible” borders with Canada because there is no risk of military attack and there is no risk of military attack because the United States is actually at peace with Canada.

The fact that “defensible borders” is still employed in Israeli / Palestinian rhetoric demonstrates that even proponents of a Palestinian state are not fully convinced by the “peace-loving” intentions. Any call for “land for peace” based on “defensible borders” is thus paradoxical to the point of dishonest for it assumes that Israel would still face a military threat despite acquiescing territory.

While I do not have a solution to the conflict, the process would probably be helped if people were more honest about their positions, intentions, and true motivations.

Why Orthodox Jews Should Not Oppose Legalizing Same Sex Marriage

On May 23 2011 several prominent Orthodox Jewish organizations issued a joint statement declaring their opposition to legalizing same sex-marriage. The brief statement is as follows:

On the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage, the Orthodox Jewish world speaks with one voice, loud and clear:

We oppose the redefinition of the bedrock relationship of the human family.

The Torah, which forbids homosexual activity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. While we do not seek to impose our religious principles on others, we believe the institution of marriage is central to the formation of a healthy society and the raising of children. It is our sincere conviction that discarding the historical definition of marriage would be detrimental to society.

Moreover, we are deeply concerned that, should any such redefinition occur, members of traditional communities like ours will incur moral opprobrium and may risk legal sanction if they refuse to transgress their beliefs. That prospect is chilling, and should be unacceptable to all people of good will on both sides of this debate.

The integrity of marriage in its traditional form must be preserved.

This statement was issued not only by Orthodox institutions considered “right-of center” such as Agudath Israel of America or National Council of Young Israel, but also by more moderate Orthodox organizations such as the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).1 Unlike most religious proclamations which are directed towards specific religious communities, this joint statement advocates a political position – though based on religious principles – to the secular world beyond the normal scope of religious influence. To be sure, this joint statement is hardly the first time rabbinic organizations have issued political statements. Across all major denominations, the Orthodox RCA, Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, and Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis have all passed resolutions advocating public polices exemplifying their respective religious beliefs, with few (if any) complaining about the separation of church and state.

But due to the inherent subjective moral arguments against same-sex marriage, I argue that Jews – especially the Orthodox – would be better served in not opposing its legalization.

Eretz Yisrael / The Land of Israel In Rabbinic Thought

In a special class in honor of Yom Haatzmaut, Rabbi Yuter explores Rabbinic perspectives regarding the land of Israel, including those from Babylonian sources.

Eretz Yisrael in Rabbinic Thought Sources (PDF)

Eretz Yisrael in Rabbinic Thought

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law Part 2: Halakhic Market Controls

In part 2 of the Economics and Social Justice series, Rabbi Yuter discusses some examples of market controls in Jewish Law.

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law – Halakhic Market Controls Sources (PDF)

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law – Halakhic Market Controls