Jewish Journal


January 19, 2010

Focus on Divorce, Not Gays, to Fix the Family


The Jewish community has an opportunity to lead the country in a true values renewal by shifting the focus away from the obsession over gay marriage and onto marital decline and divorce.

Whatever your views on gay marriage — whether you are a supporter who believes that gays should have the same rights as heterosexuals or whether you are more religiously inclined and object to gay marriage on biblical grounds – one thing is for sure: this has absolutely nothing to do with rescuing the institution of marriage.

We straight people don’t need help from gays in destroying marriage, having done an admirable job of it ourselves, thank you very much. And the reason that marriages continue to decline in the United States is that rather than ever discussing how we can shore up this most vital of all social institutions, we have instead chosen to focus on a convenient scapegoat: gays.

The facts are straightforward. Not even 10 percent of the American population is gay, but more than 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. And this was happening years before gays came out in significant number, let alone demanded the right to marry. In fact, the only men who seem to still want to get married in America are gays. While they are petitioning the United States Supreme Court to tie the knot, the straight guys are breaking into a rash and running to the hills every time their live-in girlfriends of five years push for a ring on their finger.

The real cause of marital breakdown in our time is the redefinition of success to encompass only the professional and almost never the personal sphere. We Americans are an ambitious lot. We want to succeed in everything we do. What we fear most in this country is being a failure, a loser. But being a winner has come to mean having money, power and being famous. In Hollywood, you can be on your fourth marriage and have all your kids in rehab, but as long as people are still paying 10 bucks to see your movies, you’re a success. On Wall Street, you can be a 30-something trader who takes the American taxpayer to the cleaners and pursues a life of endless womanizing, all fueled by gargantuan, government-facilitated bonuses, but as long as you still drive a Ferrari and live in that $25 million Hampton estate, you’ll be invited to every cocktail party around. 

Who, then, has a real incentive to be a good man? We are all encouraged today to have a career rather than a calling, a focus on our own ambition rather than a cultivation of gifts for the benefit of others. And success is defined not by the quality of your relationships but by the quantity in your bank accounts.

Marital decay these days begins with the easy hook-up culture of teen-hood, where young people are trained to see the opposite sex as a commodity to be exploited; it reaches dizzying heights with the positively rancid culture of male womanizing and female drunkenness that has become so common on American university campuses. In essence, young men and women learn how to master business and how to write a legal brief, but the only thing they learn about selfless love is that it is subordinate to selfish sexual pleasure and is an old-fashioned idea strangely out of place in a culture where you are always No. 1.

And, living in a disposable society, as soon as marriage hits a snag or two, it is so much easier to discard the institution than work to save the relationship.

Donald Trump summed it up best when he said of his current marriage that it’s happy because, unlike his previous attempts, this one requires no work. The poor man works at the office, where the real success is found. Why would he want to work at home? And who says that any woman is worth the effort? 

Now, are we really going to blame all this rot on gays? And if we stopped gay men and women from even having civil unions, would the astronomical American divorce rate suddenly drop?

Here is where Jewish values and a Jewish voice can come to the rescue. As many of our Christian evangelical brothers and sisters have largely led the California effort on behalf of Proposition 8 and have, for 20 years, identified opposition to gay marriage as the foremost American family value, how many rabbis — even the most Orthodox — have followed suit? How many Jewish leaders have given sermons saying that gays rather than divorce are the real culprit behind the disintegration of the American family?

While the Torah’s teachings on homosexuality are clear, the Jewish community has wisely told gay men and women to come to synagogue, keep a kosher home, honor the Sabbath, affix a mezuzah and come to classes on Judaism as clear equals to everyone else. Even if we cannot agree with the lifestyle choices of every member of our community, we do not make this a laser-like focus to the exclusion of overall Jewish responsibility, inclusion and commitment.

My parents divorced when I was 8. I feel the pain of every divorced man and woman, which Judaism, unlike Catholicism, allows because, though we always try to save a marriage, the institution is not a prison. I know that the men and women who divorce are good people, loving parents, and would have wished the marriage to have continued. But they are immersed in a culture where the lie of professional achievement being more important than personal success is beamed at them from every broadcast medium 24 hours a day.

But more than the parents, my heart goes out to children of divorce, who are deeply affected by the turbulence of two parents who no longer love each other. And if we really cared about the American family, we would cease talking about gays and instead push a measure through Congress making marital counseling tax-deductible, so that families who are hard-pressed can get the help they need to try and keep the family intact. 

Together we can show our children that love is not fiction, but something tangible and real.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of more than 20 books on relationships, the most recent being the national best-seller, ‘The Kosher Sutra,’ which has just been released by HarperOne in paperback. www.shmuley.com

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