Marriage Matters

Along with the new Jewish year we welcomed a new cycle of Torah-readings. For Californians, the first post-Sukkot Sabbath reading was particularly timely, coming as it did a mere ten days before the 2008 elections. It should have given pause to Jewish opponents of Proposition 8, the measure aimed at amending California’s constitution to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage in state law.

An assortment of arguments can be made in support of Proposition 8 – from the deep and abiding connection of marriage with procreation, to the healthful effects for children of having both a mother and a father, to the endangerment of religious freedom lurking in societal sanction of same-sex unions (which will all too easily be used to tar conscientious objectors as unlawful discriminators).

Such arguments aside, though, Jews with respect for their religious tradition will perceive in the first chapters of Genesis the clear template for marriage: the first man and the first woman. As the text declares: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cling to his wife [literally ‘his woman’] …” (Genesis 2:24).

And, in fact, the Torah, both in its written dimension (what we call the Jewish Bible) and its oral one (the “rabbinic” material that determines Jewish law), goes on to forbid the sexual union of two men. (The issue of female same-sex unions, while in a different category, is prohibited as well.)

What is more, and here more to the point, societal “officializing” of such unions – i.e. calling them “marriages” – is particularly condemned by unimpeachable and authoritative Jewish sources. They consider a society that “writes marriage documents for men” to be endangering its very existence.

A Jewish case can certainly be made for a libertarian approach to matters of personal behavior, for a “live and let live” attitude that, for all its morally objectionable yield, can help ensure the protection of religious and other fundamental freedoms. In any event, the behavioral issue is legally moot; the highest court in the land has declared unconstitutional laws that criminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults. But Proposition 8 is not about legislating personal behavior – be it same-sex, multi-partner or incestuous, all of which have their proponents. It is, rather, about preventing a twisting of the time-honored and timeless definition of marriage, a definition whose upholding the rabbis of the Talmud considered to be one of humanity’s saving graces.

We Jews as a people have a tendency toward “progressive” movements and tend to welcome all societal change as inherently healthy and good. Some such change, of course, is indeed so, and Jews can be rightly proud of having been at the forefront of social causes like racial equality and employees’ rights. But headlong rushes to a “more enlightened future” have landed some Jews in some unsavory places, like the forefront of communism in the early decades of the previous century. Or, centuries earlier, among the Hellenists of ancient Greece. Or even earlier, dancing in celebration of a golden calf.

Our pining for progress comes from a holy place, the deep and inherent Jewish desire for a perfected world. But the secret and essence of Judaism is its conviction that we are not the judges of good and bad, but rather look to the Torah for its guidance. “We will do and [then perhaps] hear [i.e. understand],” declared our ancestors when they were given the Torah. Our mission is not to pronounce what we mortals think is good but rather to accept the decisions of the Divine.

Much of the world considers reformulating the meaning of marriage to represent progress. And many Jews, as in past “progressive” movements, are giddily jumping on the burnished bandwagon.

Jews, though, who understand what it means to have been chosen by G-d to stand for holiness – which the Talmud teaches has a primary meaning of “separation from immorality” – know that all that glistens to a liberal eye is not gold, or even good. And those Judaism-aware Jews who live in California will, against the societal tide, vote on November 4 to have their state retain the true meaning of marriage.


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

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11 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    There are two aspects of civil marriage: the bundle of legal rights and responsibilities that come along with it (inheritance, medical decisions, certain property rights, etc.) and the holiness and sanctity of the marriage. The legal rights and duties are mostly available by extensive (and expensive) contracting, and marriage is simply a shorthand way of providing these rights and duties in a single unified bundle. And California has no business sanctifying marriages; that is exclusively the domain of private organizations, including religious organizations.

    Your argument is based on the premise that the “definition of marriage” as adopted by the State of California carries some message of social approval. I think that is incorrect. Nothing similar in California carries such a message. California charters corporations without any implication that it (or the people of California more broadly) approves of their products. It grants driver’s licenses without any implication that it approves of where people are driving. In fact, California won’t even annual or dissolve a marriage where the spouses are clearly acting outside the scope of any reasonable understanding of marriage (such as repeated serious spousal abuse). Given all that, it is hard to say that the mere fact that California permits two people to be married carries any implication of social approval.

    The fundamental problem is that some Californians think same-sex sexual relations (and same-sex marriage) are acceptable, and others do not. As Jews, we should be especially careful about going down a path where the majority can impose its view of morality on a minority who disagrees. Instead, I think the better course is for states to broadly recognize marriage simply as a legal entity.

  2. veshteit nicht says:

    Let’s understand.

    No one in any U.S. state is interfering with Yiddishe Kidushin.

    So a society that permits (but does not require) the fressing of chazer and work on Shabbos is permitting (but not requiring) a certain behavior. How does that affect ehrliger Yiddin?

  3. Andy Sinton says:

    I am one of those “Judaism-aware Jews who live in California” (actually I live overseas, but vote in CA) but will be voting ‘nay’ on Proposition 8, though not for any of the reasons debated by the author.

    I think marriage is a religious institution, and the state (in America) thus has no place in deciding its definition. The self-proclaimed defenders of marriage speak constantly, and correctly, about the sanctity of marriage. ‘Sanctity’, of course, means ‘holiness’. It should be left to the religions to be arbiters of holiness.

    Rather, the state should decide on some other term for a civil union over which they could then rightly proclaim ownership, deciding who is and is not eligible. The state could then define certain rights which are endowed to a ‘unified’ couple, e.g. tax deductions, and a given couple could even be eligible only for certain subsets of these rights.

    The one example that to my mind makes such an approach necessary is the following case:
    Imagine two sisters with children that or divorced or the husbands have died. For financial and emotional reasons, they decide that it is in their best interest to move in together, share all expenses, and otherwise live as a household.

    I am open to suggestions, but I can find no reason why tax law should not treat these sisters as ‘married’ with all subsequent benefits (or penalties). One can argue over whether they should be granted every right a ‘married’ couple enjoys, but for tax purposes I am convinced.

    There are of course other problems with the state regulating matters which are naturally the domain of religion, and I think it is a dangerous, if not illegal, path to tread. As a small but perhaps relevant example, it doesn’t seem to me that performing a proper yibum (complete with marriage) would actually be legal anywhere in America.

    Maybe somebody can correct me on this…

  4. Benjamin E. says:

    Did you actually compare the legal codification of a loving relationship between two people to a political movement that killed tens of thousands of people in its name? It’s one thing to disapprove of homosexual marriage on personal or religious grounds; it’s quite another to compare it to Communism. I know analogies are not always perfect, but this is blatantly misleading and wrong.

  5. Garnel Ironheart says:

    From a secular amoral perspective, homosexual marriage cannot be viewed as a forbidden union. In the absence of God-dicated values, what is the difference between two men, two women or one of each?

    The issue here is not whether an amoral society can redefine marriage. Certainly it can. The issue here is the hypocrisy of the homosexual lobby when it comes to other alternative marriages. The same people who shout loudly about the right for two men to get married also shout loudly if one man and two women wish to form a partnership, only this time they’re opposed! But why? If any two people can unite to form a marriage, why can’t any three, four or twenty people (could you imagine Seder night!)?

  6. Sam says:

    As a public school teacher, I have personally viewed gay teachers pushing their views on their students. Many times they seemed to think that when a teenager is having problems, it is due to them having sex role identification issues. But often, it was just the regular teenage issues that all kids have in their youth.
    By making gay marriage equal to the traditional male, female marriage, we would be giving all the gay adults unlimited rights to influence our kids into the gay lifestyle. You may think this is extreme, but if you are a public school teacher, then you may have already witnessed this in a toned down manner. Please allow our kids to be exposed to the traditional marriage in schools, camps, houses of worship etc and then if they seek other lifestyles, they will no doubt, figure out how to find it.

  7. Debra Shaw says:

    As Rabbi Shafran points out, many of us Jews tend to be progressive. Our religion teaches us to think for ourselves, weigh all sides, and consider people as well as the laws. Because of this leaning, Jews played such key roles in things like the desegregation battle in this county just a few decades ago — and I am very proud of that.

    While I have read the Torah portions and do consider them, I’m honestly not too sure whether the Torah, alone, would dictate my vote. Instead, I have, as a good Jew and good American, I have weighed all sides. I will be voting in favor of the measure, not as any reflection of my feelings about gay unions, but because the unforeseeable repercussions concern me.

    For example, once the state has to recognize two men as married the same way as a man and a woman, what happens in cases of adoption? I’d rather see a parent-less child be adopted by a gay man or gay woman than to remain parent-less. But children growing up with male-female parents will learn better balance, perspectives, and skills. With this law in place, an agency, or even the child’s other relatives won’t be able to consider that. In the eyes of the law, a gay couple will have the same “right” as the male-female couple. It is this kind of thing, implications further down the line that I must care about more than a piece of paper between some couples.

    I would much rather a man be real to himself and be in a loving relationship with another man than have him in the closet married to a woman. (And vice versa.) Forcing people to pretend or to put on public faces isn’t fair — to the gay person or to the heterosexual person who would be involved in those relationship fronts. I want fairness. I want gay couples to have the right to co-own, to inherit, etc. But I just cannot vote to change the (or rather keep the law change) and open up such a bag of worms.

  8. Barry L. says:

    No, he didn’t compare communism and homosexual marriage. He compared groups of Jews who got involved with various progressive movements thinking (at the time) that they were all so great. Unfortunately, there were Jews without enough forethought who rushed into supporting communism. This is a WAKE UP CALL! It’s too easy to decide to march headlong into a cause for which you have too little forethought and clarity. Instead of making superfluous arguments that only distract from the real issue, you need enough clear forethought in order to see the full negative ramifications of twisting the definition of marriage.

  9. Benjamin E. says:

    That’s precisely my question, though, Barry – what are the “ramifications of twisting the definition of marriage,” in a material sense, and can you legitimately compare them to the material ramifications of Communism (i.e., the economic and physical destruction of many, many, many lives)?

    Why do you think these two situations are analogous, in other words? Jews have also gotten involved in progressive movements that *have* turned out to be great. Therefore, to make such a comparison, one must justify the appropriateness of it and the actual comparability.

  10. Eliana S. says:

    Ramifications of Twisting the Definition of Marriage

    1.Young children (who are black-and-white thinkers) will be deluged with the notion that marriage is based on sexual preference. This is particularly dangerous because according to Alfred Kinsey, people are at different points of the heterosexual/homosexual scale at different stages of life.

    From an early age, children will play house with their best friends as: “I’ll be the Mommy, and you’ll be the Mommy.” or “I’ll be the Daddy, and you can also be the Daddy.” These notions will continue through adulthood.

    2. Gay people who decide to become or return to heterosexuality will find it harder to do so legally, as well as socially.

    3. Teenagers, who are at a stage of questioning their sexual identity will find bisexual and homosexual behaviors more socially accepted.

    4. Parents with traditional values will be forced to contradict the law. How can you teach children to genuinely respect American laws if you simultaneously contradict them?

    5. Religion will seem even more archaic to young people who are attracted to progressive ideas.

    6. The distinction between CHOICES and IDENTITY will be blurred.

    7. If the definition of marriage does not remain narrow, the future may see it broadening to include pedophilia, men and animals, polygamy, etc.

    8. Television family sitcoms will no longer feature heterosexual marriages. The “norm” will be redefined by Hollywood.

    9. Children, eggs, and sperm will be “sold” to homosexual couples who want to start a family. Children will become a commodity as opposed to the natural fruit of a loving union.

    Let us not forget that man is a social animal, and social norms often dictate behavior. We have to put clear boundaries on what defines marriage.

  11. veshteit nicht says:

    Does one choose identity?
    Why would anyone choose gay identity?

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