From “We” to “I”

The greater threat to Jewish mores stems not from same-sex marriage but from heterosexual promiscuity.

Painting of a marriage procession in a Russian shtetl by Isaak Asknaziy. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Painting of a marriage procession in a Russian shtetl by Isaak Asknaziy. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Response
Shlomo Brody
Feb. 12 2014

Sam Schulman’s very thoughtful essay, “Same-Sex Marriage and the Jews,” reminds us of the centrality of procreation in the Jewish conception of marriage. Yet his thesis overlooks the other central component in the Jewish understanding of marriage: existential communion or, in plain English, love. This has broad implications, not all of them obvious, for his analysis of the approach taken by non-Orthodox Jewry to Jewish same-sex marriage, and for any thinking about how Jews and others might be re-attracted to the traditional marital framework.

Schulman does not offer a judgment on whether Jews are wrong to endorse same-sex marriage for Americans in general—as, in overwhelming numbers, they do. But he is emphatic in insisting that the move by non-Orthodox denominations to extend Jewish marriage to gay Jews not only violates the law of Jewish marriage as enunciated in the Bible and elaborated by the talmudic rabbis but “nullifies the meaning of the institution.”

This is true enough, but might one not say the same about other biblical laws and beliefs that non-Orthodox Jewry has abandoned? Why, in the case of marriage, is it especially important to continue to grant special status to the traditional conception? What core Jewish values and interests are represented by traditional marriage, and how will redefining Jewish marriage to include same-sex marriage undermine those values and the collectivity that embraces them?

To some extent, the procreative view espoused by Schulman corresponds to what some Christian defenders of the institution have called “conjugal marriage,” that is, a union between a man and a woman that is naturally fulfilled by the bearing and raising of children. The Talmud itself puts the point starkly: “If a person does not engage in procreation, it is as if he has committed murder and diminished the divine image” (Yevamot 63b).

Yet, quite independently of progenitive goals, biblical and rabbinic thought also emphasizes the marital qualities of mutual care, devotion, companionship. “Enjoy life with a woman you love,” Ecclesiastes counsels (9:9)—a point endorsed even more strongly in a famous talmudic saying: “he who has no wife dwells without joy, without blessing, without goodness” (Yevamot 62b). About God’s statement in Genesis, “It is not good for man to be alone, I will make him a helper” (2:18), the talmudic sage Shmuel declared that this applies even if one has already fulfilled the commandment to procreate (Yevamot 61b). Indeed, as Adiel Schremer has shown, the rabbis’ conception of the inextricably dual aims of marriage contrasts sharply with rival understandings in antiquity, whether pagan or Christian, including but not limited to those, cited by Schulman, in disparagement of Jewish pro-natalism.  

At times, of course, the two goals can conflict. Thus, according to talmudic law, if a couple has been unable to conceive for ten years, they must separate so that they may attempt with others to fulfill the commandment to procreate. Yet Jewish authorities have deemed this decision to be optional, and have allowed loving companions to remain together. Ultimately, marriage’s two goals become fused in what Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik describes as “covenantal marriage“: a multi-generational communion that flourishes through lifelong habits of mutual sacrifice, a conjoining of destinies, and a commitment to the development and transmission of shared values.

 

I stress the importance of recognizing the intertwined aspects of Jewish marriage precisely because of the situation we face today. From the perspective of contemporary sexual norms, the greater threat to Jewish mores stems not from same-sex marriage but from heterosexual promiscuity. High on today’s eroticized scale of values is not the self-sacrifice that marks the covenantal relationship but the unconstrained demand for individual self-fulfillment. The societal effects of this sexual ethic are registered in rampant pornography, high rates of infidelity, unwillingness to shoulder the burdens of raising children, and the replacement of “going steady” by “friends with benefits.” 

Herein lies what the sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman has called “The Larger Battle,” a battle that American Jewry, no less than other Americans of all classes, races, and age cohorts, is losing. Like their peers, Fishman writes, young American Jews tend to pursue sex and cohabitation over “mindful emotional commitments,” not to mention lasting covenantal relationships. If and when they marry, they delay child-bearing until they feel more secure with their financial and career aspirations, resulting in fewer if any children. The focus, conscious or otherwise, is on the “I,” less on the “we,” and least of all on the next generation. 

This interestingly complicates Sam Schulman’s analysis. He begins his essay by connecting American Jews’ support for same-sex marriage with their support of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, noting that many Jews explicitly see the two causes as sharing the same goal: advancing such basic human rights as dignity and self-expression. In light of the picture I have just sketched, however, a somewhat different etiology suggests itself. Many American Jews now partake of a sexual ethic that sees little or no value in long-term commitment and procreation. For these Jews, the institution of marriage has already been redefined—or, as some might contend, hollowed out.

That being the case, what possible grounds could exist for these Jews to exclude from Jewish marriage those types of relationships, however enduring they may or may not prove to be, that cannot naturally or inherently produce children? If homosexual Jewish couples, even as their heterosexual peers flee the marriage canopy in droves, seek to “sanctify” their relationship through the institution of Jewish marriage, and reproductive technologies allow them to raise children, why turn them away? The currency of marriage, after all, has already lost its value.

 

In short, within the context of the larger battle, today’s skirmish over same-sex marriage is a latecomer, if not an afterthought. In his essay, Schulman himself acknowledges as much by including a section on the critical state of modern marriage in general and on the so-far unsuccessful efforts to remedy it. In this connection he cites the plethora of social-science data that resoundingly confirm the emotional and societal benefits afforded by traditional marriage. He calls this literature “irrefutable,” but sees little hope either of successfully urging its message on young people or of otherwise stemming the flight from what has become a discredited and discarded institution.

I’m not so sure. At least as a first step, I see no alternative to promoting the value of covenantal marriage. In their book What is Marriage?, Robert George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan T. Anderson provide, to my mind, a good model for those wishing to make reasonable claims in defense of conjugal marriage without resorting to arguments from divine revelation. It is important to state and to restate these claims, not only to persuade as many minds and hearts as possible but, no less crucially, to buttress the convictions of the already convinced.  

As for Jews in particular, it is similarly important to make the case that, within the multigenerational experience that comprises Jewish covenantal marriage, Judaism itself provides a reinforcing wellspring of moral, religious, and emotional values. I suspect that Schulman may underestimate the interest of some non-Orthodox rabbis in promoting those values.  

But education and persuasion, though indispensable, are hardly sufficient. What is required is a political and social structure that supplies incentives for young people to wed, to remain married, and to bear children. The task of building (or rebuilding) such a structure is daunting. In hindsight, it was probably mistaken to think that conjugal marriage could be protected while promiscuous heterosexual activity remained unchallenged. For religious conservatives, this makes today’s struggle all the harder.

Can it nevertheless be won? In the United States, alas, I am not sanguine about a future in which the state-recognized model will have ceased to privilege the traditional form of marriage. What, then, about Israel, a country as affected as any by global and especially by American trends?

Today, many social, political, and legal forces in Israel are challenging the hold over Jewish marriage exercised by the Chief Rabbinate, which already denies the right of marriage to many heterosexual citizens (as when one partner is not Jewish). While the country’s religious parties resist any change in the current arrangement, many center-left parties are pushing not only for civil marriage but for the right to same-sex marriage.

For pragmatic purposes, anyone joining the fight over these highly complicated issues needs to take into account Israel’s volatile political coalitions and especially its activist supreme court. Dangers lurk in every direction. On the one hand, the purely civil system of marriage that is sought by some could result in legitimizing both same-sex marriage and intermarriage. On the other hand, preservation of the current system can only harden the already widespread belief among many secular Israelis that Jewish marriage, far from an ennobling aspiration, is a coercive straitjacket.  

The good news is that, of the many practical proposals now on the table, a fair number aim explicitly at reducing the simmering tensions in Israel and reinforcing its identity as a Jewish and democratic state. In my own view, the focus must be on ensuring the primacy of the traditional model of marriage, encouraging lasting marriages, and providing incentives for bearing children within that framework. Through wise education and pragmatic legislation, Israeli Jews have an opportunity to demonstrate that Judaism offers a strong, meaningful, and positive counterforce to the pervasive sexual ethic of our times.

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Shlomo M. Brody, an Orthodox rabbi, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for post-high-school students. A columnist for the Jerusalem Post, he is also a presidential graduate fellow at Bar-Ilan University Law School and a junior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. 

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More about: Bible, Gay marriage, Homosexuality, Jewish identity, Jewish marriage, Sam Schulman