Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fabulously Observant: The Jewish case against same-sex marriage

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.


Anonymous said...

Wow David,

We must have very different Jewish backgrounds. I attended Cleveland's Fairmount Temple as a youth. Our Rabbi, Rabbi Lelyveld was active in the civil rights movement. He rode with the freedom riders and was dragged from a bus and beaten. Our temple always stood for, not against struggles for social justice.

In 2005, the temple welcomed Chevrei Tikva Chavurah, a sister GLBT synagogue which marries same sex spouses. Fairmount temple, to my recollection, never taught Masechet Hullin, but it did teach the story of the special love between Jonathan and David.

Please follow the links referenced by the URL I posted and see what is really happening in the Jewish world. You may also want to refresh you memory on Jewish support for marriage equality. There was a recent ruling that Conservative synagogues may decide for themselves whether or not to bless same-sex marriages.

I don't follow your claims about monogamy. My husband and I founded Equality Loudoun and we know many, many same sex couples in our county and in neighboring counties. I am not aware of a single open marriage among them, and we are pretty close.

Anonymous said...

Good post.

The state has a vested interest in marriage and family because it is a cell of society. Same-sex pairs cannot benefit the whole of the nation by bearing the next generation.

Anonymous said...

I've added a link to your post from BlogWatch Prop 8 Challenge

Anonymous said...


Wow, I've never even met you, and some how you've just offended me with this story. But that's okay, because I understand that everyone has their own opinion. But just to make the assumptions you did, make you seem a lot like a bigot. I have a jewish teacher, and she's a lesbian. She's been with her partner for many years, and they have 3 happy children. You can't just assume that children growing up in a same-sex marriage household are going to be affected. I know a lot of children with 2 moms, or 2 dads, and they grew up perfectly fine, and they still learned everything they needed to learn in life. It's not a very smart thing to just assume things when you don't have all the accurate facts.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the truth can be offensive initially.

In her book Children as Trophies? European sociologist Patricia Morgan reviews 144 published studies on same-sex parenting and concludes that it fosters homosexual behaviour, confused gender roles, and increased likelihood of serious psychological problems later in life.Link

This is not to say that everyone raised in a same sex relationship household will develop these problems.

The research I have come across overwhelmingly suggests that male and female biological parents are the surest way. Anything different and the probability of encountering difficulties increases.

Anonymous said...

I recently found a book titled "Out From Under" . It describes one women's experiences growing up in a household where her father had a same sex attraction and practiced homosexual acts.