Coercion in the Name of Liberty

In an essay for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Reform Rabbi David Ellenson issued a challenge to the Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament, who, in an earlier such essay of his own, criticized a Jewish philanthropist’s call for all Jewish organizations to adopt policies eschewing discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Mr. Diament made the straightforward point that asking Orthodox groups to take a position contradictory to the Torah’s teachings and codified halacha – and implying, as the philanthropist did, that their refusal to do so renders them unworthy of Jewish communal funds – encroaches on Orthodox Jews’ religious liberty.

Rabbi Ellenson doubts Mr. Diament’s sincerity in invoking that principle and challenges him to prove his commitment to religious liberty by supporting legislation that would permit those “whose religious beliefs mandate us to perform same-sex religious weddings sanctioned by the government… to exercise our own religious conscience.”

The challenge is eloquent and passionate. Unfortunately, though, it is based on an erroneous notion of religious liberty.

A Reform or Conservative rabbi can opt to convert a non-Jew in a non-halachic manner, or to join in matrimony two men or two women, without fear of interference from Orthodox Jews or others. Orthodox Jews have their own religious right, of course, to consider a conversion invalid or a couple unmarried (and to freely say so), but no one interferes with the choices of the other. That is religious liberty.

Rabbi Ellenson, however, takes things a good deal farther, asserting that the religious rights of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy are violated because they are “proscribed from performing [same-sex] religious unions with state sanction.”

Note well those last three words; they broadcast his error. The right to practice one’s religion is one thing; insisting that the government sanction one’s particular religious beliefs, quite another. No one is suggesting interference with any American clergyperson’s religious endorsement of whatever unions he or she sees fit to consecrate – two men, a threesome or whatever else may lie down society’s “progressive” road. If such become newly discovered religious mandates – as performing same-sex marriages has apparently become for Rabbi Ellenson – well, as they say, it’s a free country.

Americans’ definition of marriage for secular legal purposes, however, is expressed through the body politic’s collective will. The resultant definition may seem constraining or disconcerting to some, and, for their own religious purposes, they are welcome to a more expansive take. But marriage in the eyes of secular law – constitutionally removed from the dictates of any individual faith – need not honor any religious group’s particular choice of definition.

Take an example far removed from marriage: A religious Hindu who venerates cows has every right to protect the animals in his possession from all harm. But he cannot compel the government to include bovine-slaughter in the definition of murder. And were he to suggest that a fellow citizen’s commitment to religious freedom requires him to support a Redefinition of Murder Act, most of us (even most Reform rabbis, I suspect) would politely disagree.

Which is precisely what Orthodox groups like Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union do with regard to contemporary efforts to redefine marriage. Orthodox opposition to changing the legal meaning of matrimony in order to suit the Zeitgeist is not intended to, and does not, limit anyone’s religious rights. It is, moreover, a principled and deeply Jewish stance, based firmly on Judaism’s teachings since Sinai. And so, asking an Orthodox Jew to join an effort to redefine marriage in a way that offends his beliefs, and that places the state’s imprimatur on whatever union a nontraditional clergyman may decide his religious beliefs mandate, is unfair.

Seeking, similarly, to compel Jews who cherish Jewish teachings to do things like hire teachers – role models no less than information-imparters – who openly flout the Jewish religious tradition is, simply put, an attempt at religious coercion. And that is so whether the attempt takes the form of threatening to withhold funds from Orthodox institutions, or the guise of an erroneous conception of “religious liberty.”


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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