The President and Tikun Olam

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

The Chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Marc Stanley, responding to President Obama’s personal support for Gay marriage stated, “President Obama has admirably continued to demonstrate the values of tikkun olam in his work to make America a better place for all Americans. I am truly proud of President Obama and know that so many others in the Jewish community share my feelings.”

I can take no exception to his observation, for me, a tragic one, that “…so many others in the Jewish community share my feelings,” as it has already been reported that Hadassah, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, National Council of Jewish Women, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism have all praised our President’s personal stance on the Gay marriage debate. Indeed the May 10th Jewish Telegraphic Agency release covering the Jewish community’s response was entitled, “Jewish Groups, Orthodox Excepted, Laud Obama On Gay Marriage.” Yet, while the groups mentioned couch their support in the context of advancing their sense of civil rights, it is only Mr. Stanley who invokes the Jewish religious value of Tikkun Olam.

The JTA release goes on to quote the statement of Agudath Israel. “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.”

Every American has the right to express his/her view on issues confronting society and, if they so desire, advocate for legislation that encapsulates that view in law. I am proud to live in such a society. The Gay marriage issue is just such a debate. And while, as an Orthodox Jew, I feel a bit lonely in Jewish circles on the gay marriage issue, I note that the number of States that have passed legislation prohibiting such marriage is now numbered at thirty and growing. I am heartened by those in communities traditionally associated with the Democrats, African Americans and Latinos who find, as I do, that gay marriage is unacceptable in their moral code.

Sadly, as once again demonstrated by Mr. Stanley, some Jewish Americans feel it necessary to resort to Judaism as he did in invoking tikkun olam, as an underpinning to their views. As Agudath Israel stated, the Bible, the Talmud, historical rabbinic teachings, as well as the structure of Jewish society, its very function through the ages, does not give support to Mr. Stanley’s view.

May I ever so humbly suggest that the issue of civil, of human rights, has, in my opinion, been perverted and distorted by attempting to define such rights by dividing rather than uniting.

For many years I was involved in the important pro-active work of the Human Relations Commission of the City of Chicago. Nevertheless, I was perplexed by the very structure of the Commission.

On the one hand, the Commission has area Councils dividing the city into four sections. Each Council includes residents of that section who wish to be involved in the Commission’s reactive and all too little pro-active work. The only qualification for service is residence. The Commission also has specific Councils representing individual groupings of citizens. These Councils include, the Gay and Lesbian Council, the African-American Council, the Latino Council, the Eastern European Council, the Women’s Council. the Arab Council, etc. These particularized Councils, by their very makeup, have, as their primary objective, the particular group’s rights and interests. For me, the Area Councils and the particularized Councils represent an adversarial relationship.

Let me state for the record that civil rights is but another way to express the concept of human rights. At its very inception our society declared, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” – the operative word being ALL – the Founding Fathers did not find it necessary to elucidate the various ethnic, religious and racial communities then living in the colonies to define human rights. To do so would divide the community into competing elements, rather than to unify it in common commitment to each and every citizen’s rights as an equal human being.

For me and for many Americans, the word marriage denotes a relationship traditionally defined by the Judeo-Christian religions as one entered into between a man and a woman through a specific religious ceremonial act. Government’s only interest in such a relationship is the implications it has for taxing and benefits provided to the citizen. The argument that to achieve equal benefits, equal rights and protections for one’s relationship with a life partner, is dependent upon the government usurping a religious concept held as Sacred by so many Americans is divisive.

The obvious answer is to begin registration of life partner relationships. The law might require that a time period elapse prior to such registration, equally applied to every citizen, to determine that there is a commitment between the parties involved to share life’s vicissitudes and tangibly support one another. This would allow spinster sisters, a son and his mother, bachelor brothers, life long friends be they two males, two females or a male and a female, to register and, in consequence, receive the same status now provided by marriage. Their sexual proclivities would not be at issue. Does not marriage denote far more than a heterosexual relationship between a man and a woman?

Morality ensconced in legislation is fraught with problems, as morality traditionally emanates from one’s religious and or cultural perspective. As our society becomes ever more diverse, the attempt to legislate morality grows more complex.

At this point in my life I tend to believe that, while realizing society as a whole through law must set certain standards for interpersonal relationships to avoid its citizens eating each other alive, the more it can delegate moral issues to the “church” and to day-to-day community life, – i.e., I need not befriend nor associate with those whose behavior is offensive to me – the better it will be for all Americans.

May I close by imploring my fellow Jews to, when making moral judgements, honestly and intelligently consider the timeless moral and ethical code, our collective legacy, inherited from our predecessors as a sacred trust, revealed by a loving G‑d at Sinai.