"The World-Wide Scandal of American Marriage and Divorce Law"

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Yesterday, this blog discussed the attitude of one segment of the Jewish population toward the marriage issue du jour, same-sex marriage. 98 years ago, however, a different issue related to civil marriage captured Jewish communal attention.

This week, from the J-Vault: Remedy for the Divorce Evil: A Proposed Federal Marriage and Divorce Law (1913)

The laxity of our divorce laws has done much toward the undermining and disrupting of our homes. Agencies interested in adjusting martial differences have found themselves helpless in adjusting the case of a deserted wife and children, wherein the husband and father produced a decree of separation or divorce obtained by him in another State...

...Under the liberal divorce laws of the United States, divorce is almost optional with either of the parties and fraud has become legalized. But now that the power of amending the United States Constitution is being more actively exercised, it is a source of satisfaction that the following proposed joint resolution to amending the United States Constitution has been introduced into the House of Representatives: "Congress shall have the power to establish uniform laws on the subject of marriage and divorce for the United States, and to provide penalties for the violation thereof."...

...The difference of sentiment between South Carolina, where divorces are not granted, and South Dakota, where they are procured for trivial cause, or between New York and Massachusetts, can scarcely be compromised to enable the adoption of similar laws by the States. For a cooperative statute to be of real service, it would have to be of uniform application and force... The proposed amendment should be zealously advocated, because it offers the only practical method of doing away with the world-wide scandal of American marriage and divorce law.

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Orthodoxy and Same-Sex Marriage

As the JTA reports, the Orthodox Union opposed New York's recent measure legalizing same-sex marriage. But might one Orthodox rabbi have exerted a degree of influence in favor of the law's passage?

Possibly. Influence is difficult to measure, and the decision ultimately rested in the mind and heart of each state senator... but possibly. Zeek reprints an open letter from Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, to Sen. Steven Saland of Poughkeepsie, one of the two crucial Republican swing votes. In the letter, Rabbi Greenberg appeals to the memory of Saland's rabbinic ancestor, Rabbi Shmuel Salant -- a tactic shared by Agudath Israel in their own appeal to the senator, from the opposing side.

Whether Rabbi Greenberg and the Agudah had any impact or not, Saland voted for the measure in the end, putting the legislative question to rest in the state of New York. But within Orthodox Judaism, the question of how to relate to the modern world's ever-solidifying acceptance of homosexuality will continue for many years to come. Rabbi Greenberg, of course, is a significant voice in this internal debate, as are other gay Orthodox Jews, whose personal experiences make this issue impossible to ignore.

Yet, for all the consternation that this issue understandably causes in Orthodoxy when it comes to questions of halakhah, ritual, and other internal matters, it is somewhat baffling that Orthodox Jews should feel the need to maintain a correspondence between secular and religious definitions of marriage. As Rabbi Michael Broyde and Rabbi Shlomo Brody point out in the context of an article articulating a clear and strict opposition to homosexual sex,

Politics makes strange bedfellows, especially in multicultural democratic societies like America. The pragmatic decision to support equal rights for gays in the political realm is not inconsistent with our view that the underlining activity violates Jewish (and Noachide) law. We support religious freedom for all, even as we are aware that some might use this freedom to violate Jewish or Noachide law. Similarly, it is wise to support workplace policies of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation, just as we support such non-discrimination based on religion, even though these laws equally protect, for example, pagans. Discrimination based on lifestyle choices may threaten our own liberties, including freedom of religious expression... 

Rabbis Broyde and Brody go on to specify that both political opposition to and political support for same-sex legal marriage are within the realm of reasonable Orthodox choice:

If one believes a civil prohibition of same-sex marriage does not threaten our rights in the long term, then joining a political alliance opposing such, based on shared values or interests, seems reasonable. If, however, one views such a campaign as an infringement of civil liberties, or a potentially bad precedent that might endanger our interests in other areas of civil life, then one should not feel compelled to combat gay marriage.

If this is not a ringing endorsement of civil marriage equality, neither is it the stance of clear opposition taken by the Orthodox Union.

The Orthodox argument in favor of maximum liberty is not a recent invention; as the blog Failed Messiah notes, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was essentially anti-abortion (except to save the life of the mother), and yet also essentially pro-choice. "In Rabbi Feinstein's view, the decision to abort was a decision that should be made by the woman and her rabbi, not by Congress."

Ultimately, as homosexuality becomes increasingly normalized in the broader world, Orthodoxy's internal and external stances on this issue will be increasingly tested and challenged.

From the J-Vault: American Jewish Politics 100 Years Ago

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On a day when the Israeli Prime Minister will address the U.S. Congress, it is worth zooming out to look at Jewish involvement with American government from a more distant perspective -- to ask, for example: with what were American Jewish political advocates concerned a century ago?

Let's find out.

This week, from the J-Vault: The Government of the United States and Affairs of Interest to the Jews (1911)

This excerpt from the American Jewish Yearbook contains the following interesting items, among others:

Sen. Lee S. Overman (N. C.) introduces bill (S. 4514), providing for a $10 head tax, an educational test, the production of certificate of good character, the possession of $25, and other restrictive features [for immigration policy]...

Sen. Joseph F. Johnston (Ala.) submits a report (No. 81), on the bill (S. 404) introduced by him on March 22, 1909, for the proper observance of Sunday as a day of rest in the District of Columbia...

Rep. Adolph J. Sabath (111.), in a speech in the House, denounces the Immigration Commission for its "libel" on the Jewish people in its report on the White Slave Traffic...

After debate, in the course of which Senators Bailey (Tex.) and Money (Miss.) pay tribute to Jewish people, Senate passes bill (S. 404), introduced by Senator J. F. Johnston (Ala.), on March 22, 1909, for the proper observance of Sunday as a day of rest in the District of Columbia, amended so as to exempt from its penalties persons who observe as a day of rest any other day of the week than Sunday...

Rep. Everis A. Hayes (Cal.) introduces bill (H. R. 21,342), providing that the naturalization laws shall apply only to " white persons of the Caucasian race."...

Rep. Everis A. Hayes (Cal.) introduces bill (H. R. 24,993), providing that Section 2169 of the Revised Statutes, which accords the right of naturalization to "free white persons " and Africans, shall not be construed so as to prevent "Asiatics who are Armenians, Syrians, or Jews from becoming naturalized citizens."

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From the J-Vault: Produce the Long-Form Bar Mitzvah Certificate!

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Last week, to much fanfare, (and before the killing of Osama bin Laden blew this news item completely out of the water,) President Obama released his long-form birth certificate, proving that he was born in the state of Hawaii. But if only the President had been born Jewish in Marlyand in the second decade of the 20th century, maybe birthers would have been convinced sooner. Assuming, that is, that in this hypothetical scenario the President had diligently practiced his haftarah.

This week, from the J-Vault: Bar-Mitzvah Certificate As Evidence (1914)

"The Maryland Child-Labor Law," explained author Aimee Guggenheimer in the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities, "provides that no employment certificate or newsboy's badge shall be issued before the Bureau has proof that the child has attained the required age." Although this article was written during the decades of peak Jewish immigration to the United States (1880s- 1920s), even for Jewish children born in the United States, meeting documentation standards could be tricky. Home births were common, and the midwives who kept records were not always considered trustworthy by the state. (Perhaps Shifrah and Puah set the precedent for rocky relations between midwife and state.)

One potential solution? Convince the state to accept Bar Mitzvah certificates just as it accepted baptismal certificates for Christians.

Read more...

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From the J-Vault: National Security, Individual Rights

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Last week, Congressman Peter King convened hearings on domestic Islamic terrorism, leading many to criticize Congressman King for making a particular religious group a target. Numerous Jewish leaders were strongly critical of the singling out of American Muslims as a community. "It reminds me of the red-baiting in the ‘50s," said Rabbi Nancy Kreimer to the New York Jewish Week. Said Congressman King (quoted in the same article), "We live in the real world. I don't have the luxury of feel-good politics and everyone saying love one another when people out there are trying to kill us."

Since Rabbi Kreimer suggests that Cold War anti-communism is an illustrative backdrop for this issue, this week's historical publication is drawn from that era, and that issue.

This week, from the J-Vault: Internal Security and Individual Rights Today (1951)

Congressman Jacob K. Javits, speaking to the National Conference of Jewish Social Welfare, argued that the gravest threat facing America comes from efforts by the intolerant to suppress dissent by measures invoked ostensibly to protect the security of the State but actually to destroy individual rights. Read more...

You can also read Arthur J.S. Rosenbaum's introduction of Congressman Javits, and Sanford Solender's response, drawing implications for Jewish communal service.

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A Pair of Publications for President's Day

In 1980, Jonathan D. Sarna examined the “myth” that a Jew can become President of the United States. Sarna wrote that this notion has great value and usefulness for both Jewish and Gentile Americans, but he considered it quite unlikely actually to occur at any near date. (It would be interesting to hear what he would say now, these thirty years hence. Dr. Sarna, are you reading this? What say you?)

More recently, a mere decade ago, Leonard Dinnerstein explored the relationship between American Jews and every American President from FDR to Bill Clinton.

Happy President’s Day!

Jews in Congress, Then and Now

San Fransisco's J Weekly highlights Kurt F. Stone's recently released The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members, calling the book a "meticulously researched, well-organized and highly readable compendium of historical facts and biographical information about the Jewish experience in Congress, past and present."

The book is available via Amazon.com, but for those interested in dipping into some Jewish Congressional history right away, have a look at Biographical Sketches of Jews in the Fifty-Seventh Congress, from the American Jewish Year Book of 1903.

(Hat tip to Jewish Ideas Daily for the link to the J Weekly's piece.)

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