The WORD – 2/23/12. Last Friday, the New Jersey State Assembly joined the State Senate in passing the Marriage Equality Bill. Gov. Chris Christie subsequently vetoed the legislation. As a result, the issues of homosexuality and gay marriage are once again part of our public discourse. Throw in the fact that this is an election year and it’s not hard to see why this is such a hot issue.
To begin this conversation, we have to be honest. Sanctioning same-sex marriages is a change to the commonly understood definition of marriage. However, it would not be the first time that society has done this. If we go back to Biblical times (which detractors of same-sex marriage love to do), marriage was between a man and women (plural!). In Judaism, polygamy was not outlawed until approximately 1,000 years ago when Rabbeinu Gershom issued an edict in Ashkenaz (Eastern Europe). This ban did not apply to Western European, African or Middle-Eastern Jews.
In this country, if we go back only 50 years, marriage was defined as the union of a man and a woman of the same race. And yet according to a Pew Poll released last week, interracial marriages are becoming more and more commonplace. It was not so long ago that it would have been impossible to imagine the child of such a marriage as President of theUnited States and yet that is, in fact, the case today.
So, any student of the institution of marriage must accept the fact that the definition of marriage has changed over the years and should expect it to continue changing. Yet, as we look at the issue of same-sex marriage from a Jewish legal perspective, there is still a lot of precedent to overcome.
First of all, the Torah states the following: “If a man copulates with another male as one copulates with a woman, both of them have performed an abomination; they shall be put to death (Lev. 20:13).” That sounds pretty bad. But, let’s put it in perspective.
First of all, the Torah is silent on the issue of lesbianism, and the specific act which is prohibited by this verse is impossible for two women to perform. So, half of the challenge has already been accomplished. There is really no Biblical objection to two women getting married.
Secondly, the term for abomination (To’evah – תועבה) appears in a number of places in the Torah. Those who eat forbidden animals like shrimp (Deut. 14:3); those who worship idols (Deut. 7:25); those who behave unethically in business (Deut. 25:13); and those who cross-dress (Deut. 22:5) have all performed abominations. And yet, none of these other topics seem to come up for discussion on Sunday morning television shows.
Further, homosexuality is not the only crime for which a transgressor is supposed to be put to death. In Deut.21:18-21, we read: “If a man has a wayward and defiant son…. The men of his town shall stone him [i.e., the son] to death, thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.” Imagine if we still followed that one according to the letter of the law?!
We don’t because we realize that while it might have been appropriate at a particular point in time, it is no longer so. Approximately 1500 years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud wrote the following: “There never has been a wayward and defiant son and never will be. Why was the law written? That you may study it and receive reward (BT Sanhedrin 71a).” That’s a pretty amazing statement, completely setting aside a clearly enunciated law of the Torah.
Similarly, we should study the ancient laws regarding homosexuality because they teach us about our ancestors and about how far we have come as a society. But, that does not mean that we must enforce every law as they did. Intuitively, we already know this and we already do this. Otherwise, we’d be stoning to death disobedient children, shrimp-eaters and dishonest businessmen. It’s just a matter of who gets to choose which of these laws we continue to enforce. Toward that end, in 2006, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted to permit same-sex unions and the celebration of them (you can read the whole responsum here).
Back in 1992, my teacher Rabbi Elliot Dorff wrote a paper entitled “Jewish Norms for Sexual Behavior.” In it, he said the following: “I, for one, cannot believe that the God who created us all, created ten percent of us to have sexual drives which cannot be legally expressed under any circumstances. That is simply mind-boggling – and, frankly, un-Jewish. Jewish sources see human beings as having conflicting urges that can be controlled and directed by obedience to the wise laws of the Torah; it is Christian to see human beings as endowed with urges that should ideally be forever suppressed. It makes of God a cruel director in this drama we call life, and our tradition knew better. It called God not only merciful, but also good. God’s law, then, must surely be interpreted to take those root beliefs of our tradition into account.”
Those words resonated with me 20 years ago and they resonate with me still today. If we are to emulate the best of God’s characteristics – goodness and mercy – then we must find a way to welcome and celebrate all of God’s children regardless of sexual orientation.