The remarkably rapid change in societal attitudes toward gays and lesbians, culminating in the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage this past week, is a powerful statement about the values Americans place on democracy, social inclusion and individual freedoms.
While we remain a country with deep economic and racial divides, our attitudes toward sexual expression and lifestyle have become increasingly tolerant and open. That applies not only to views on homosexuality but to premarital sex, couples living together and having children outside of marriage, divorce and transgender individuals.
American Jews are at the forefront of this liberal trend, with 77 percent supportive of same-sex marriage, according to a study last year by the Public Religion Research Institute. (Jews were second only to Buddhists among religious groups.) And 13 of the 25 organizations that joined the amicus brief filed by the ADL in the historic Obergefell v. Hodges case were Jewish, including the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist denominations.
Orthodox groups, citing Torah passages that forbid homosexual unions, opposed the court decision. But societal changes have softened attitudes toward gay people in the Orthodox community in recent years as sons and daughters have “come out” to their parents and families. A measured statement by the Orthodox Union in response to the Supreme Court ruling said, in part: “Our religion is emphatic in defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Our beliefs in this regard are unalterable. At the same time, we note that Judaism teaches respect for others and we condemn discrimination against individuals.”
The statement went on to express gratitude for America’s freedom of expression as well as concern that U.S. law, in light of the Court ruling, now have legal “accommodations and exemptions for institutions and individuals who abide by religious teachings that limit their ability to support same-sex relationships.”
David Brooks, the thoughtful New York Times columnist, wrote this week about the decline of Christianity in America, and the cultural shift away from traditional religious views. Though he did not mention Jews or Judaism, the parallels are obvious. “Members of the millennial generation are detaching themselves from religious institutions in droves,” he noted.
Some religious Americans, both Christians and Jews, are feeling increasingly removed from the mainstream. Brooks’ advice is for Christians to abandon the battle against the sexual revolution, viewing it as a lost cause for now. Instead, he urged social conservatives to do “purposefully in public” what they “already do in private,” such as helping the poor, creating strong family bonds and working “to repair a society rendered atomized, unforgiving and inhospitable.”
That message should resonate especially with Jews; our faith has always valued community over the individual. That norm may be out of step with American society today, where “Me” comes first, but its values are eternal and apply to liberals and conservatives alike. In light of last week’s landmark Court ruling, we can all take satisfaction in a civil society that champions human dignity, a concept rooted in Judaism’s belief that all men and women are created in the image of God.