Jewish Journal


July 5, 2013

A real gay marriage debate



If you look at the brouhaha ignited at Sinai Temple in the wake of Rabbi David Wolpe’s announcement that he would officiate at same-sex marriages, you won’t get a good idea of what this “debate” is really about.

That’s because incendiary language has clouded the picture.

In an open letter that has spread throughout our community and was covered in the Jewish Journal and The New York Times, an opponent of gay marriage harshly condemned Wolpe’s decision, using heated language such as this:

“Homosexuality is explicitly condemned in Scripture and has been categorically and passionately rejected by all classical Jewish legal and ethical thinkers as a cardinal vice in the same category as incest, murder and idolatry.”

This wording is, to say the least, insensitive, especially since the writer surely knows that the very same Scripture calls for the killing of Jewish boys who desecrate the Sabbath (something that has never happened, of course), and that gay rights in modern nations like America and Israel have gone decidedly mainstream.

[Related: The Conservative gay marriage debate]

Furthermore, the letter’s coarse language glosses over the complexities of the issue and does a disservice to those whose support for traditional marriage has nothing to do with demeaning homosexuality.

Gay marriage is a highly sensitive subject, perhaps the most sensitive I’ve encountered in our community. It follows that it must be handled with kid gloves, not with a hammer.

Rabbi Wolpe, when he gave classes on this subject to explain his decision, tried to demonstrate that sensitivity. He wanted everyone to see that there is another side to the debate and he urged his community to respect that other side.

That alone was a major concession, because for most proponents of same-sex marriage, there is no other side to the debate. They see the right to marry someone of the same sex in the same way that they see the right of a black person to marry a white person. When one looks at it that way, what “other side” could there be?

That other side, the one that honors marriage as between a man and a woman, doesn’t need to be — and ought not be — about demeaning gays, biblically or otherwise. It’s a well-known fact today that homosexuality is not a choice, and to show insensitivity to that reality is shortsighted and heartless.

Where there is potential for an honest debate is on the implications for society and to religious freedom of blurring gender differences.

For many people who have serious reservations about same-sex marriage, the issue is not about gay rights versus other civil rights, such as racial equality. The issue is more about the freedom to respect and honor gender differences. 

As Jonah Goldberg wrote in National Review Online, “The whole point of the civil-rights movement is that skin color is superficial,” as opposed to gender difference, which is “deep and biological.”

Consequently, many believe that it’s important that we ask this question: What are the possible repercussions of reversing a 2,500-year-old tradition for a new one that would fundamentally blur gender differences? As  Rabbi Wolpe acknowledged during one of his classes, “No one really knows where this is going.”

[Related: We have no homosexuals here]

For example, can a gay person take legal action against his or her rabbi if that rabbi refuses, on religious grounds, to perform a same-sex marriage? After all, if one sees gay marriage as a civil right, then why wouldn’t the rabbi be legally vulnerable?

Will people have the right to respectfully express their religious preference for traditional heterosexual marriage without being labeled homophobes or being exposed to legal action? Can a photographer, for example, be sued if he or she refuses, on religious grounds, to work at a same-sex wedding?

If people express a religious preference for Jews marrying Jews — without offending non-Jews — is it OK, or even possible, to express a preference for a man marrying a woman — without offending gays?

Will public schools be legally mandated to teach kids that a same-sex marriage is perfectly equivalent to a traditional marriage — and will that infringe on the religious rights of parents who wish to teach a preference for heterosexual marriage?

These are sensitive questions — and I’m sure there are a few more. The point is to recognize that these questions do exist and represent honest concerns that ought to be discussed and sorted out as we go forward.

Sadly and ironically, in his vitriol condemning Rabbi Wolpe’s decision, the letter writer never brought up these concerns. In the process, he suffocated civil debate and undermined his own cause.

On a human level, there’s little question that this cause can melt any compassionate heart. It’s hard not to be moved by the joy that marriage brings to two souls in love. Love is love. A human union is precious and priceless. One doesn’t have to agree with a rabbi to have empathy for his or her decision to embrace the union of two loving souls, regardless of their gender.

Maybe that explains why this subject is so delicate. We’re dealing not only with complex societal and religious issues and potentially clashing rights, but also with real human beings in the throes of the most compelling emotion: love.

Whichever side of the debate you’re on, don’t fall into the trap of getting coarse and angry and blocking out other views. 

Putting ourselves in the shoes of others is a godly act that keeps us human and humble. There are deep emotions and ideas on both sides of this issue. It would be worth our time to open our eyes and hearts and try to understand both of them.

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