By David Benkof
Just as many Jews tend to gravitate to liberal positions on a variety of issues, the segment of the Jewish community favoring same-sex marriage has grown larger and louder in the past few years. That's unfortunate, because if any issue has a "Jewish view," it's this one, and that view opposes redefining marriage. Some reasons:
• First and foremost, same-sex marriage is against Jewish law. "So what?" many have argued, "we don't try to ban pork or outlaw spending money on Shabbat." But unlike those two transgressions, the prohibition of same-sex marriages - both religious and civil - is a Noahide law, as explained in the Talmud (Masechet Hullin). That means the ban on same-sex marriage, like the bans on adultery and murder, also apply to non-Jews. We therefore have a strong interest in rejecting such nuptials, regardless of the religion of the participants.
Even the increasingly liberal Conservative movement is on the record favoring man-woman marriage. Every paper on homosexuality ever passed by that movement's Law Committee has either rejected same-sex marriage or taken no stance on it. Every paper embracing same-sex marriage has been voted down.Rather than accusing people who support the traditional definition of marriage of imposing Jewish law on people of other faiths, it's more useful to understand that support as an attempt to get the US government to reflect our values, which people on every side of every issue try to do all the time.
• What gays call "marriage" is not the same thing as what Jews call marriage, especially regarding fidelity. While some same-sex relationships, especially among lesbians, are sexually exclusive, many male couples, including those in "marriages," have arrangements with each other that allow for mutually agreed upon infidelity under certain circumstances. Some couples will allow a partner to cheat while he is out of town, or as long as both partners are present, or - and I am not making this up - as long as the infidelity is on the couch and not the bed.
While some biblical characters were polygamous, monogamy has been the rule for Ashkenazi Jews since Rabbenu Gershom's edict a thousand years ago banning polygamy. Even if a Jewish husband and wife decide that the wife can have sex with other men as long as it's on a couch or whatever, that's still adultery and unacceptable under Jewish law as well as our community's social norms.
Gay marriage would still harm the meaning of marriage in society if gay infidelity was private. However, many gay couples are quite open about their mutually approved "adultery." Last summer, after I wrote an opinion piece about this problem in the San Francisco Chronicle, I received more than a dozen letters from gays and lesbians defending their right to define marriage as a non-exclusive relationship. One of these letters was so brazen, it's worth quoting at length. Like the others, it was signed by name (Richard Dupler of Oakland, California):"I've been with my partner 10.5 years... We have not been sexually exclusive, ever. The relationship has been open, and honest, from the start.
"We are getting married August 17, and I doubt seriously that the sexual part of our relationship will change. Just because we're calling it marriage, doesn't mean we have to conform to widespread ideals and beliefs about marriage, we only have to follow the law. What works for some likely doesn't work for others.
"This freedom to marry, which we take very seriously, should also mean we are free to define that marriage the way we see fit."
I'm not suggesting we punish the entire gay community for the non-monogamy of some of its members. I'm saying we shouldn't redefine marriage to include adultery by mutual consent - a very rare arrangement among heterosexuals, but something that barely fazes gays. Even gays and lesbians in monogamous relationships tend to see nothing wrong with consensual adultery, even when a couple has children.
Don't believe me? Ask some gay people you know what they think of marriages in which each partner is openly and publicly allowed sexual indiscretions as long as certain rules are followed. Then ask some straight people. I am confident you will find the same gulf in attitudes I have found.
• Same-sex marriage hurts children. Gays can be wonderful parents, but children whenever possible should have both a mother and a father. Think of it this way: A lesbian can be a very good mother, but she cannot be a good father. Jewish tradition specifies different roles for mothers and fathers. For example, the Talmud states that a father should teach his child to swim. The Midrash says mothers should introduce their children to Torah. There are also intangible notions of what it means for a girl to become a woman, and how a man should treat a woman, for example, that one learns best from one's mother and father.
However, under same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and California, legislatures and courts have required adoption agencies and fertility doctors to ignore whether a family provides both a mother and a father in providing services. In Massachusetts, in fact, if an adoption agency gives mother-father families even a slight tiebreaker preference, it faces being shut down by the government.
The more same-sex marriage succeeds, the quicker the idea will take hold throughout the government and society that favoring man-woman marriage is a kind of bigotry akin to racism. Teachers will be punished if they teach that marriage is a union of a man and a woman. Students who express distaste for same-sex marriage and state that they only want an opposite-sex spouse may even be reprimanded for being closed-minded.
I know that liberal Jews in particular are unlikely to be persuaded by some of the arguments above. But I hope everyone can agree that they are legitimate arguments, and that those of us who agree with Judaism's prescription for man-woman marriage are not narrow-minded bigots trying to make gays into second-class citizens. Rather, we are individuals using our free-speech rights and our votes to help shape a society that is consistent with our values.