Who's Afraid of Jewish Marriage?

A reply to my respondents.

A Jewish wedding in Morocco by Eugène Delacroix. Courtesy Wikipaintings.
A Jewish wedding in Morocco by Eugène Delacroix. Courtesy Wikipaintings.

I’m grateful for my respondents’ careful attention to my argument, which all three of them oppose—in individual ways that also have more in common with each other than I would have expected.

David Wolpe, the rabbi of a Conservative synagogue, stands to my “left” as a wholehearted supporter of Jewish same-sex marriage. Sherif Gergis, a Catholic, is to my “right” in opposing same-sex marriage more comprehensively than I do, on grounds that are not religious but sociological: he fears its effect on traditional marriage. Shlomo Brody’s position might be described as above me: as an Orthodox rabbi, he need not even debate same-sex marriage since homosexual acts are clearly prohibited in Jewish law, and so he concentrates mostly on the very grave crisis in heterosexual marriage.

Yet each of the three, despite his differences from the other two, advances the identical criticism of a central tenet of my argument. So let me make that the gravamen of my reply. Before doing so, though, I want to acknowledge a perhaps surprising fact: neither in the three responses, nor in this reply, nor indeed in my original piece does any of us have as much to say about homosexuality or the nature of same-sex marriage as we do about the nature of marriage itself and Jewish marriage in particular. 

Or perhaps it’s not so surprising. Loose accusations to the contrary notwithstanding, opposition to same-sex marriage is not always driven either by bigotry or by blind obedience to the founding texts of a religion, but instead by a much more anciently rooted conception of the nature of marriage. For tens of thousands of years before historical lawgivers defined it for Jews and Christians, marriage in its relationship to childbearing was as necessary to human existence as was disposing of the dead.


To return now to my respondents: where all three concur is in insisting that, like any version of marriage, Jewish marriage is about more than merely producing children. It has, they instruct me, two dimensions. One is concerned with sex and, yes, the generation of children—and that’s the dimension I focused on. But there is another, affective dimension, expressed in the “psychological fulfillment” (Girgis’s phrase) of the married couple: love, actually, and all that goes with it in the form of partnership and companionship, of mutual trust in a heartless world. That is the dimension I shortchanged, in the process not only distorting the overall meaning of marriage itself but misrepresenting why gays, including Jewish gays, seek to become married.

Obviously I have failed here; but the failure is not one of understanding. After all, I explicitly stipulated that Jewish gay couples who want to be married under Jewish auspices exhibit the same desire for the kind of “lifelong, sexual, deeply connected, communally recognized and honored relationship” that is characteristic of every lasting marriage. If I nevertheless join my critics in throwing stones at a straw man of myself, it is one that I must have created through a failure, at most, of rhetoric.

But there is more to be said on this point. For least two of my three respondents, the aforesaid two dimensions—sex-within-marriage and love-within-marriage—can’t really be separated at all. Shlomo Brody argues that the rabbinical conception of marriage has “inextricably dual aims,” and reports that stressing these “intertwined aspects of Jewish marriage” is crucial to his own work in educating and shaping the allegiances of Jewish youth in Israel and America. Sherif Girgis offers a vision of marriage in which sex and love are almost fused, the first generating the second in an act he describes in lyrical tones equal to the task itself: “coitus, the life-giving act, is also the marital love-making act—a seal of the spouses’ committed union of heart and mind.”

That leaves David Wolpe, who, after deeming my analysis woefully “utilitarian” and “too simplistic” in its failure to grasp the two aspects of marriage as one, then proceeds to separate them himself. If I under-described the romantic side of marriage, perhaps out of a sense that I couldn’t pull it off without sounding “dangerously close to some 20th-century Hollywood banality” (to cite a masterful essay by the late scholar Judah Goldin on love, marriage, and divorce in the thought of Rabbi Akiva), Wolpe defiantly sets the romantic side above the generative side. For him, Jewish marriage is to be honored because it “serves the great aim of enabling human beings not to be alone, to enjoy the satisfactions of intimacy.” “We are here,” he adds, “to be joined to one another, solitudes in search of love.”


I’ll come back to that statement later. For now, let me remark on a curiosity. Of my three respondents, Sherif Girgis, as a Catholic, may be said to have fully earned his view of marriage as a “school of love” (Augustine). What is curious is that the two rabbis, in scolding me for my allegedly one-sided and “utilitarian” concept of marriage, begin to sound like no one so much as the founder of Christianity rebuking the Pharisees in the passages from Mark 10 that I cited in my article.

For Jesus, too, marriage is essentially a heart-softener, an institution that can actually change the character of man and wife and alter their holiness. In so doing, his new version of marriage is intended to retire the earlier Jewish version and to replace the earlier Jewish law of marriage. “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder”—the stunning climax of Jesus’ re-reading of Genesis –forbids divorce, which Jewish law permitted. And not only forbids it but, as Jesus soon informs his disciples, relegates it to the same order of sin as adultery: in Hebrew Scripture, a twice-forbidden, capital violation.  

For Jesus, the desire, or even the freedom, to end a marriage is a sign that the heart is bad, the man or woman sinful. By contrast, adultery is twice as bad for Jews as divorce is for Christians because it injures the power of Jewish marriage to make new generations of Jews. And it is only this power that Jewish marriage adds to the marriage of two people who happen to be Jews. When the officiant at a Jewish wedding confirms that a couple is married “according to the law of Moses and Israel,” he is confirming that any and all children that might be born to this couple are Jews. Priests of every faith have the power to marry, but only in Judaism is a wedding simultaneously a naturalization ceremony for the yet-to-be-born in the people Israel.


For David Wolpe, my saying things like this is tantamount to saying that marriage is “an endeavor devoted solely to shoring up society”—or that “marriage in Judaism is not [to be] viewed as a romantic alliance between two partners.” That is nonsense. I never said and do not believe that the generative concern that defines Jewish marriage excludes “romantic alliance between two partners.” I do say that what is Jewish about Jewish marriage is that it certifies a procreative effort that will produce—should it happen to—children who are Jews under the law of Moses and Israel and will someday be able to contract Jewish marriage themselves.

That’s it. Jewish marriage is what investment bankers would call a “bolt-on” to marriage simple. It has no power to produce husband, wife, or children who are more compassionate, better, or worse than other people, any more than it creates husbands and wives and children with the “hardness of heart” that Jesus in Mark 10 ascribes to the Hebrews to whom Moses gave the law at Horeb and whom perhaps he thought he spotted in the Pharisees he was addressing. 

Contrary to David Wolpe, I do not declare that Jewish marriage is the whole of “marriage in Judaism” (his term, consciously changing the subject). Marriage in Judaism—as opposed to Jewish marriage—has the same good effects that marriage has for anyone: on the one hand, the procreation and upbringing of a new life, on the other hand, the personal perfection of the married couple. (The elegant terms happen to be those of Pius XII in his 1951 “Address to Midwives on the Nature of their Profession,” but they nicely encompass the two sides of marriage in Judaism.) Again like all marriage, marriage in Judaism also tends to make the couple happier, healthier, more prosperous, and better. What is Marriage?, the fine book co-authored by Sherif Girgis, has the statistics. By contrast, Jewish marriage only makes the offspring of the Jewish married couple Jewish. 

To Shlomo Brody, anxious to persuade the young people in his care to be less selfish and individualistic and more willing, in his eloquent formula, to become a “we” rather than an “I,” and especially to David Wolpe, this may seem cold and instrumentalizing , a diminishment of marriage. But it has been enough to sustain the existence and destiny of Judaism itself, and is the only institution capable of doing so, particularly in Diaspora Jewries like our own. My concern about a Jewish gay marriage stems only from my concern that it will injure this power of Jewish marriage, and my concern is not lessened by my respondents’ dissatisfaction with the Jewish marriage I describe or in particular by Wolpe’s redundant insistence that marriage ought to be defined by the life-transforming power with which Jesus imbued it.

Indeed, one wonders whether it is because of his belief in the complete compatibility of same-sex marriage with Jewish tradition that Wolpe has special need to substitute his image of two undifferentiated “solitudes in search of love” for the biblical image of two differentiated sexes, male and female. (In his Genesis, evidently, “Lonely and lonely created He them.”) Along the same lines, Wolpe cannot help calling into question his own sense of balance when he coyly inquires whether my objection to but “one ‘violation’ of Jewish law”—the mocking scare quotes are definitely his—testifies to “the severity of the transgression or [to] the psyche of the objector” (thereby accusing me of bigotry mitigated by mental derangement). As I made clear, my objection rests on the same basis as did Conservative Judaism’s own quondam ban on same-sex marriage, namely, the injury it would do to the capacity of Jewish marriage to create Jews, an objection rooted in Jewish law and millennia of successful Jewish experience that Wolpe airily sweeps aside in the name of “compassion.”


In sum, if I separated the two aspects of marriage, it is because they are indeed separate and separable—and, for Judaism, fatefully so. Ironically, it is Girgis who in his own response best describes the potential danger to Judaism in undervaluing (as I believe both Brody and Wolpe do) the procreative aspect of Jewish marriage.  

I wish I had said this:

If Jewish marriage is recognized between any two committed adults in love, the Jewish people can be expected over time to think of it as defined by that emotional quality, and by the psychological fulfillment of the partners, rather than by its orientation to family life and the transmission of Jewish identity. Over time, then, Jewish couples whose emotional attachment waned or wandered might be likelier to break up. Those seeking children might not think it all-important to marry beforehand. Perhaps parenting as well as Jewish identity might increasingly be seen less as a matter of duty or presumption, and more as a sheer choice, always at some level subject to a change of mind.

My warning, at least as far as American Jewry is concerned, was couched in demographic terms. For his part, Girgis points to a denigration of Jewish identity itself, rendering that identity into a matter of “sheer choice, always at some level subject to a change of mind.” As rabbis, Brody and Wolpe know better than anyone how deadly and false such a destiny would be.


Sam Schulman is a journalist, editor, and media consultant. His many writings on politics and culture have appeared in Commentary, the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, Jewish World Review, the (London) Spectator, and elsewhere.

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