Monkeys, Marriage and Morality

Amid the ongoing avalanche of political conversions, punditry and testimonials on behalf of redefining marriage was a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times by a professor of biology, David George Haskell.

The professor’s contribution to the effort to bring public pressure on the U.S. Supreme Court as it hears two cases concerning the meaning of marriage was to note that some plants, lichen, snails and bees do not mate in ways that we would characterized as male-female pairs. In fact, Dr. Haskell informs us, even apes in the rainforest may form same-sex bonds.

Of course, that hardly constitutes “nature’s case for same-sex marriage,” the title that ran above the professor’s piece. At least not if society wishes to continue to disapprove of things like thievery, murder and cannibalism, all easily spotted in the wild. (There’s a reason, after all, it’s called the wild.)

To be fair, Dr. Haskell’s true target (despite his piece’s misleading title) is only the argument that, as the 18th-century English jurist William Blackstone wrote, marriage should be “founded in nature.”

That’s a straw man, though, and one that might benefit from a lit match. What is or is not “natural,” at least from a classical Jewish perspective, is not the measure of right and wrong.

Discussion of right and wrong these days in this land, at least where there is no obvious human victim of the action at issue, is complicated by the formidable church-state wall that has been erected over the years by our country’s courts. The First Amendment’s rule that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” has, for better or worse, come to mean to many that nothing based in the human religious tradition may have any impact on any law in the land. That construct, however, does not change reality, at least not as understood by Judaism.

The Jewish religious tradition consists of the G-d-given Written and Oral Torahs’ teachings as transmitted by the Jewish sages over the generations. While Jewish laws can be applied (by expert authorities committed to the Torah’s truths and impervious to the Zeitgeist) to different cases in different ways, they are not affected by societal mores or contracts.

The vast majority of the Torah’s laws are incumbent only on Jews. But there are seven fundamental laws that the Torah mandates for all human beings. They were known to and accepted by all people in antiquity – hence their appellation “The Laws of Noah’s descendants” (or “Noahide Laws”). Among them are laws prohibiting certain sexual unions, male-male ones among them.

That ancient moral tradition underlies many religions’ disapproval of homosexual acts. Judaism is not the only belief system that harbors such disapproval; so do many Christian churches, as well as Islam, Mormonism, Sikhism and the Bahai church, among others. And it is that moral tradition which underlay the broad societal disapproval of homosexual acts that informed the American public before the Stonewall riots in 1969 and the entertainment industry’s subsequent embrace, and eventual celebration, of “nontraditional” personal relationships.

Truth be told, although the legal meaning of “marriage” has already been changed by several states and is currently being discussed by the Supreme Court, most Americans, including most American legislators and jurists, would still consider things like incestuous unions or multiple-partner arrangements to fall far short of deserving the name “marriage.” That, despite the fact that the only grounds for disenfranchising such arrangements – or, for that matter, for refraining from killing compromised newborns or the terminal elderly – are the tenets of humanity’s moral tradition, the Noahide Laws.

Which leads one to wonder, and worry, about the future. The republic’s Founding Fathers were certainly wise to seek to prevent laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” But a societal embrace of the opposite pole, the dismissal of the very concept of a universal moral code is, or should be, deeply disturbing.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

For why the redefinition of marriage needs to matter to us, see here .

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