When the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is now legally binding in all 50 states, American Jews celebrated publicly. Surveys show that some 77 per cent of them favour the legitimacy of same-sex marriage – among the highest of all religious groups. Numerous American Jewish organisations, including representatives of the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative streams – which together constitute the majority of religiously identified US Jews – supported the ADL’s amicus brief filed in the case where the court took its decision.
The difference between South African and US Jewry regarding acceptance of homosexuality stands out sharply. Gay individuals or married couples in America who want to remain in the Jewish fold, have a myriad options in the diverse, large – over 5 million-strong – community. Whereas in South Africa’s small, overwhelmingly Orthodox community of 70 000 people, there are few options: Gay Jews are left virtually ‘homeless’ in a Jewish sense, and generally end up looking outside the Jewish fold for a community.
The Reconstructionist and Conservative streams are all but non-existent in South Africa, while the once-vibrant Reform/Progressive stream has shrunk dramatically and has little influence today. In many places in the United States, there are small, active egalitarian ‘minyans’ – liberal equivalents of the Orthodox shtiebls which have proliferated in Johannesburg – offering complete openness to gay Jews. They are almost unknown in South Africa.
Worldwide, social attitudes on same-sex marriage are changing fast. It has been legal in South Africa since 2006, based on the constitutional right not to be discriminated against because of one’s sexual orientation. Twenty-one countries allow it, including Belgium, Canada, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Argentina, Denmark, Brazil, England and Wales, France, New Zealand, Luxembourg, Scotland and Ireland. Now the US has joined this group. A decade ago, some two-thirds of Americans were against it. Today, well over half support it.
Israeli social attitudes are moving in the same direction, and Tel Aviv is already famous as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. But the legalising of same-sex marriage is still a long way off in Israel because there is no procedure for civil marriage, and all Jewish marriages must go through the Orthodox-controlled rabbinate. However, calls are growing rapidly for change in this realm.
The issue poses a major theological problem for Orthodox Jewry, because of the clear halachic injunction against homosexuality. The reaction by Agudath Israel of America to the US court ruling expressed this, warning in a statement about attempts to force any particular religious community to accept same-sex marriages. This has already happened with Christian groups – a Christian baker in Colorado, for example, has been the subject of an enforcement action for declining to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
The Agudah said its members faced “moral opprobrium” and were in danger of “tangible negative consequences” if they refuse to transgress their beliefs. The issue, it said, is not whether all human beings are created in the Divine Image, or whether they have inherent human dignity: “Of course they are, of course they do. [But] the truths of Torah are eternal, and stand as our beacon even in the face of shifting social mores.”
South Africa’s Jewish community has experienced tough times in the past few decades because of emigration and anxieties about the country’s future. It has shrunk by almost half since its heyday in the 1970s and lacks the diverse range of Jewish options that the US or UK communities provide. The increasingly religious Orthodox mainstream has become so dominant in the last two decades, that liberal or secular Jews have almost nowhere to go where they feel a sense of belonging.
While the solid growth of the Orthodox ba’al teshuva movement is to be lauded, the unfortunate flip-side of its dominance of SA Jewry is the alienation felt among other Jews whose talents and energies would otherwise have enriched the Jewish community.
It is an important challenge to religious leaders: will they find a way to make all Jews feel at home amongst them? The gay and same-sex marriage issue is not going to go away, but will only increase in importance.
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in SAJR on July 3, 2015)