You are not on Facebook, so you didn’t witness this phenomenon: this morning my feed was divided between those with a “rainbow-fied” profile picture, and those without. As you probably heard, the Supreme Court of the USA made a historic decision last week, making gay marriage legal throughout the United States.
I did not change my profile picture, because I can’t really say I “support gay marriage,” but I do support marriage equality, and in my heart, I am happy for them.
Homosexuality is a very tough issue in Judaism. The Torah explicitly forbids sexual intercourse between men. So as a rule, Orthodox Judaism is “against” homosexuality in that we believe it–or at least the consummation of a male homosexual relationship–is forbidden by God. But if you break this down, it becomes a lot more complex. The Torah’s statement doesn’t apply to women, and the prohibition against female homosexuality is totally rabbinical. Is it really a statement on homosexuality in general, or just on that one act of consummation, or even just on that one act in the context of idol worship? It seems clear to me that the original intention of the text, especially in calling it an “abomination”, was referring to pagan rituals, not to a loving relationship between consenting adults.
This is one of the issues that really tests my faith. Why would God create people with an attraction to the same sex, and then forbid them from ever acting on it? That just seems cruel to me. I don’t know why God would do this. This is not the only issue on which the Torah seems to demand an incredibly difficult sacrifice–not impossible, but one I am very grateful I have never had to face. So while I do believe in the Torah, and believe that for reasons I don’t understand, God created this very difficult situation, I cannot but empathize with those who struggle with it, and completely understand if they fail to live up to the Torah’s standards on the matter.
The truth is that I think the discomfort in the Orthodox community is less about the Torah prohibition and more about stigma. Yes, the Torah forbids homosexuality in severe terms. It also forbids eating shellfish or pork, working on the Sabbath, and eating on Yom Kippur in very severe terms. And yet we do not treat people who don’t keep kosher or Shabbat with suspicion or disgust; we don’t reject them from our communities; we don’t get upset if a democratic country makes a law that makes it legal to work on Shabbat or sell shellfish. So what business is it of mine whether it is legal for a man to marry another man, or a woman to marry another woman? Some might argue that it “lends legitimacy” to something that we think is wrong. I think this is trying to bar the door after the horse is gone. The Western world already sees marriage equality as a progressive value. Game over.
Maybe instead of concerning ourselves with whether a pair of people is allowed to sign a paper in a courthouse and call their union a marriage, we should be thinking about how to accommodate the needs of the members of our own communities who struggle with this issue, and figure out how we can offer them better choices. Some of them choose to raise traditional families despite their sexual orientation. We should help them achieve this if that is what they wish. Some of them choose to stay in the religious community despite the fact that they cannot fulfill this particular commandment. That should be their right, and it is no one else’s business what goes on in their bedrooms, any more than it is anyone else’s business whether a couple keeps the laws of family purity. In any case, we should not force them, as a society, to live with secrets or shame because of their sexual orientation.
Can we, the Orthodox Jewish community, enshrine homosexuality and call it a marriage according to our beliefs and values? No, we can’t. Can we say it’s not a sin according to our beliefs? No, we can’t. We can’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, compromise our beliefs. But we can have compassion and empathy for homosexuals. We can let people know that if they struggle with this it is not their fault, and that we all fall short of the standards the Torah demands of us sometimes, and that while we think the “right” thing to do according to the Torah would be to act against their orientation, we know how difficult and painful and harmful that might be, and we understand if they can’t do it. We can try to help them live fulfilling, happy lives and feel a part of the Jewish community despite this struggle.
I think from the perspective of the state, marriage is not about religion or love–it is about legal rights. Therefore, I don’t think it makes any sense for gay marriage to be illegal. We can argue from now until next Tuesday about what marriage is and what it means and whether gay marriage fits into that category. But that’s not what this whole thing is about. This is about legal rights. And everyone should be equal under the law. And just as the race or religion of each member of a couple shouldn’t make any difference from the perspective of the law, their gender shouldn’t make any difference either. I don’t think it has anything to do with religion. It says absolutely nothing about what marriage is according to this church or that synagogue or the other mosque. That is a different matter entirely.
The Orthodox Union released a statement on the topic expressing a concern about balancing the new law with protecting the religious freedom of institutions for whom gay marriage is not possible or compatible with their beliefs. That is the part of their statement that I very much agree with and think should be addressed in all states. (I have, shall we say, reservations about other parts of it.)
At the end of the day, I see the Supreme Court’s decision as a victory for a country that strives to grant equal rights to all its citizens. And I am happy for the couples who will now be able to enjoy the legal rights they deserve. And I wish them all the joy in the world. And I will keep loving and believing in the Torah and the Orthodox interpretation of it–and asking God tough questions about it, knowing that there are no easy answers.