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Marital Problems
Rabbi Avi Shafran

Marital Problems

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Jim and Jeff's relationship is unrecognized by the law, something that deeply hurts them. Upstanding and responsible citizens, they do not seek to impose their lifestyle on anyone else, and they love and care for the children they are raising. They are, moreover, entirely heterosexual. There is a third partner in their endeavor: Jill, the common spouse they share.

Jennifer and Jack's living arrangement has also yet to receive societal sanction. They have been living together as man and wife for several years, but have, in fact, been in a different sort of loving relationship for much longer; they are mother and son.

Then there's Jerome, whose love interest is Jo-Jo. Their relationship is not only unrecognized by the state but reviled by most of their neighbors. Still, Jerome has hope for a more enlightened future, and for now suffices to profess his convictions through membership in PETA and a bumper sticker that reads "Dogs are People Too."

Had enough? It's understandable. But, unfortunately, thoughts of Jim, Jeff, Jill, Jennifer, Jack, Jerome and Jo-Jo are important to think these days, particularly in light of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's recent decision that same-sex couples in that state are, under Massachusetts' constitution, entitled to wed.

"Same-sex marriage" has become a burning continental issue. Opposition to the radical redefinition of marriage has dropped significantly among Americans in recent years, according to a Pew Research Center poll released in July. In June, the United States Supreme Court struck down a Texas sodomy law. And, that same month, the top Ontario appeals court ruled that same-gender couples have the right to "marry" in that Canadian province, and ordered the federal Canadian government to change its own definition of marriage. A British Columbia appeals court soon followed with a similar ruling, and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien has submitted a proposal to legislatively redefine the meaning of marriage.

Last year, The New York Times proudly changed its "Weddings" page to a "Weddings/Celebrations" page - so that it could include same-sex couples. Though the word "marriage" was not used by the paper at first, same-sex couples who went to Canada for ceremonies are now, of course, reported by The Times as "married."

Jewish tradition's attitude toward homosexual activity is entirely clear. In the case of males, it is explicitly forbidden as "an abomination" by the Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud, moreover, taught that the formal sanctioning of homosexual unions between men was one of the causes of the biblical flood. A statement in the Talmud asserts that one of human society's redeeming qualities that has protected it from destruction has been its refusal to "write marriage documents for males [living together in homosexual relationships]."

That moral sensibility, the Talmud seems to be saying, underlies civilization itself. And while there have been exceptions - from the Canaanites of the Bible, who were banished from the Holy Land for their proclivities, to ancient Greece - most developed societies, at least until these increasingly amoral times, have considered the embrace of homosexuality to be offensive to an innate sense of what is proper and decent.

Alas, in our day, much that was once viewed with repugnance no longer is; it is in fact oddly characterized, despite all the ancient precedent, as progressive, and duly embraced and celebrated by the news media and the worlds of entertainment and fashion.

But what should give pause to even the most libertarian among us is the all-too-pertinent image of the slippery slope here. It is in fact more akin to a cliff.

The amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief Agudath Israel of America submitted in the Texas case expressed deep concern "about the potential far-reaching consequences" of legitimizing homosexual relations. "This genie," the brief warned, "once let out of the bottle, will not easily be restrained."

Truer words were never written. While the Texas decision did not concern the redefinition of marriage, its insistence on "respect for [the] private lives" of people engaged in activities that most Americans consider immoral clearly, in the words of The New York Times' legal expert Linda Greenhouse, "anchored the gay-rights claim at issue in the case firmly in the tradition of human rights at the broadest level." It was that "background music," in Ms. Greenhouse's judgment, "that suffused the decision" of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

And therein lies the inescapable problem. Whatever one may think about same-sex relationships, if those who choose them can demand that the law respect their "private lives," and that they receive full societal sanction, there is no logical way to avoid similar demands from others who choose to express their sexuality and formalize their relationships in even more non-traditional ways.

And, while we may not wish to think too long or hard about it, that group includes Jim, Jeff, Jill, Jennifer, Jack, Jerome and Jo-Jo.


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

posted to 11-21-03

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