Home » Religion and Jewish Thought, Simon Holloway

Who’s Afraid of Gay Marriage?

July 22, 2009 – 9:43 pm15 Comments

SamesexmarriageBy Simon Holloway
Gay marriage: two words that, for many Australians, constitute an oxymoron. What is it about the idea that threatens to undermine our society? Why are so many up in arms? So many of those who in every other respect are avowedly non-religious still seem to fall back on hazy notions of marital sanctity in their refusal to permit other types of relationships into the same institution. While many also refer to (equally hazy) concepts of evolution and the natural order, those objections are somewhat easier to counter. Can marriage truly be defined as a natural phenomenon anyway? And besides, homosexuality has now been documented in over a thousand species.

The argument made from religion, however, is not so easy to deal with. There is no denying that Judaism (halakhically-speaking) forbids sexual intercourse between two men, and any attempt to legitimise gay marriage (where the partners are both male) must be fraught with the complications produced by this prohibition. Being neither a Rabbi nor a rabbinic scholar, it is not my place to suggest ways of doing this, nor within my ability to find avenues of permissibility for lesbians in love. Something that I would like to comment on, if only to explode a rather prevalent myth, is the perspective of the Bible itself.

The most extreme references to male homosexuality are found in the book of Leviticus. In two places (18:22 and 20:13), the author makes it clear that intercourse between two men is disgusting and, in the second of those two places, even recommends the death penalty (for both parties). Many ‘queer theorists’ have attempted to soften this indictment by taking the passage over-literally and suggesting that the Bible is only speaking of particular types of transvestitism. On the contrary, “lying with a man in the manner of a woman” is considered by most scholars to simply be a reference to gay sex.

What can be done about this passage? Well, if you are disinclined to believe that the first five books of the Bible were all written by the same individual, what we have here is merely the opinion of the author of (this part of) the book of Leviticus. Even if you do believe that the first five books were written by one individual (let’s call him “Moses”), and even if you believe that he functioned as a glorified secretary for the divine, we still need to bear in mind all of those many other things that are likewise called “disgusting”, and all of those very many other things that merit the death penalty. Is there ever any inner-Biblical indication that male/male love is worse than eating pig? Insulting your parents? Gathering firewood on Shabbat? Afraid not.

After those two verses, it gets a lot simpler. Genesis 2:24 states that, “for this reason, a man will leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife, becoming one flesh”. As I have heard opponents of gay marriage quip in the past: the Torah speaks of Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Be that as it may, it should also be pointed out that the Torah speaks of Adam and Eve. In other words: not Adam and Eve, Susan, Deborah, Felicity, Monica, Tracy, Lisa and Pam. Nobody can possibly suggest that the permissibility of taking multiple wives derives from this passage in Genesis and yet, were it not for Rabbeinu Gershom in the 11th century, Ashkenazim might still be practising polygamy today. Genesis 2:24 does not allow for homosexual relationships, but the key point is that it does not forbid them. With no indication that the text is even supposed to be read prescriptively, one cannot make the assumption that a lifestyle not mentioned by the text must have been condemned.

Still in the book of Genesis, we encounter the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Many fundamentalist Christians enjoy this one because it clearly shows a community of homosexuals being destroyed for their homosexuality. But does it? A similar story can be found in Judges 19, and the only reason that Christians fail to take that one as a polemic against the frightening spectre of sodomy is that God didn’t destroy that particular city. That God did destroy the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah for being gay is a very Christian exegesis, with the classical Jewish interpretation focusing instead on their disrespect for other people’s property. Yes, of course they were planning to rape two men. But isn’t the problem the fact that they were planning to rape two men?

There is only one other passage in the Bible that speaks of homosexuality, and how it makes the religious squirm! In the book of Samuel, the author tells us that David, soon to be the king of Israel, and Saul’s son, Jonathan, were in love. Oh, but this is not romantic love (shout the apologists). They loved each other as friends. Really? In 1 Samuel 18:20, we are told that Saul’s daughter, Michal, loved David. While nobody has ever questioned the romantic nature of her love, it is only twenty verses earlier that we are likewise told that Jonathan loved David (18:1), and that the two formed a lovers’ pact (18:3). Ultimately, in chapter 20, when they realise that they can no longer be together, we are presented with a drawn-out and tearful goodbye; the two declare their love again, reaffirm their pact, and kiss. Were we not so automatically sure that the author of this book is assuming knowledge of Leviticus, we might not be so quick to whitewash the affair as ‘just another quaint Middle Eastern custom’.

The reality is that, despite the stance that the halakhic system came to take, homosexual relationships are not expressly forbidden outside the book of Leviticus and, aside from the fact that they may be portrayed sympathetically in Samuel, their prohibited nature in Leviticus also needs to be borne in perspective. Whether I am preaching to the converted or flogging a dead horse, my message is this: nobody can stop anybody from disliking homosexuals. But please, let’s stop blaming the Bible for our prejudices.

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  • frosh says:

    Hi Simon,

    While I found your article very interesting reading, I’m not exactly sure what you are arguing for.

    Liking/disliking gays, while correlated, is not the same as being in favour of gay marriage.

    Furthermore, being in favour of gay civil marriage, again while correlated, is not the same thing as being in favour of gay religious marriage in one’s particular marriage.

    I personally am in favour of gay civil marriage (or to be more accurate, I am no more against gay civil marriage than I am against straight civil marriage ;-)

    However, I see gay religious marriage as a different kettle of fish. These decisions need to be left for the particular religious communities to decide themselves, in a manner that is consistent with their own particular religious values.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on this.

  • TheSadducee says:

    I am with Frosh on this one.

    I too am unsure exactly what the author is calling for with this comment piece?

    Are we talking about gay civil marriage being a right, or gay religious marriage being a right – even in cases where the religion does not approve of such a thing?

    These are two very different issues with very different ramifications which I think need to be teased out further.

  • I also agree with Frosh! Although, of course, not in relation to being unsure about what I meant (for which I apologise). I think that religious and civil marriages are two different kettles of fish – which is to say, one is a kettle of fish and the other is something that might resemble a kettle but contains something altogether different.

    My point was merely that, as the Bible does not explicitly condemn homosexual relationships, people need to stop using it as an excuse for their own homophobia. Granted, a religious Jewish (I should say, an Orthodox Jewish) marriage can only include a man and a woman, until such time as somebody better versed in the halakha than I is able to alter (?) the nature of the prohibition. Sexual intercourse between two men is a Biblically-mandated prohibition, but laws relating to actual marriage ceremonies are all Rabbinic. I cannot be excluded from going to Chinatown just because, while there, I’ll almost certainly eat Sweet n’ Sour pork; why should homosexuals be excluded from marriage just because they’ll end up having sex? This is a slightly facetious example, and perhaps best left for a whole different topic.

    Religious Jewish attitudes towards homosexual relationships come from religious Judaism and not from the Bible. As with Christianity, they are more the product of a post-Biblical socio-theological development that sought to read itself into the literature of the Bible, but is not actually sourced in the literature of the Bible itself. If everybody merely opposed religious same-sex marriages, this world would be in a healthier place, but such is the perceived nature of the Bible that many people export the same ideas to the civil sphere as well.

  • confused says:

    Why has this article been removed from the main section?

    From Galus Australis: Hi Confused – we update the main feature article each day, so the new one (from David Werdiger, on the education debate) replaced Simon Holloway’s this morning. (Almoni’s perspective was published on July 20, but DW’s was added in recent hours.) You are still be able to access this article from the ‘recent articles’ turnstile on the right, and also the home page (if you scroll down).

  • The Hasid says:

    I’m very pro-marriage between any two consenting adults of any sex. The whole “problem” Simon has outlined here seems to arise when we try to reconcile liberal, post-modern, humanist values with religion. It simply doesn’t work; and though I appreciate the efforts of others to try, I’m over trying to “balance” the two. Rabbinic, “traditional” Judaism has thus far proven totally incapable of adapting (or re-writing) halacha to accommodate gay sex and marriage. Until there’s some sort of revolution, we’re just going to have to live the contradiction. Sorry if that’s pessimistic. I’d love to see change, but religion is, ultimately, a dogma.

  • Everyone seems to go back to the two verses in Leviticus as the primary source for the prohibition against gay marriage. With a strict myopic reading, the prohibition is against the act of gay sex between two men. Not lesbian sex, and not gay “relationships” or marriage. So on that basis, it does seem reasonable to wonder why this is any worse than eating pork or desecrating the Shabbat.

    If we look further, we can note the difference between this and most other prohibitions: gay sex is deemed an “abomination” – a qualification used for only a small number of the many “do not”s in the Torah, including such things as incest and beastiality.

    The context of the section of the Torah (Leviticus Ch. 18) is the presentation of a moral code that is timeless and independent of society at any time, and prohibits certain practices that it identifies as those of corrupt society. This is indicated in the prelude to the list of these prohibitions: “k’maaseh eretz mitzrayim” – “do not follow the actions of the land of Egypt”.

    The next place to look is the first mitzvah in the Torah – “be fruitful and multiply”, and another similar injunction in Job: “the world was not created to become desolate, rather to be settled”. These two verses reflect God’s desire to have an inhabited world where people procreate and continue life. Since the dawn of time, this has happened through the process of a man and woman cohabiting (usually once married or in a committed relationship) and producing offspring. People refer to this as the “natural order” (which you quickly dismiss) – perhaps a better term would be “God’s world order”.

    All of these together form the biblical basis for the implied prohibition against gay marriage. The primary objection is that it flys in the face of the world order/rules for society prescribed by the Torah. Being a gay couple is substantially incompatible with “be fruitful and multiply” (IVF notwithstanding). If the gay population were 50% instead of 10%, then there wouldn’t be much left in a few generations.

    I don’t know of any Torah prohibition against a man “loving” another man – love is an emotion. David and Jonathan shared an emotional bond described as love. Indeed, Ethics of the Fathers describes their love as one that is “not tethered to something else” (as opposed to physical lust between Amnon and Tamar). In spite of this love, they both separately married women and had families to fulfil their obligation to maintaining the world order.

  • David,

    You describe Leviticus 18 as “timeless and independent of society at any time”. For the most part, this pericope reflects the incest taboo, along with a small variety of other sexual transgressions, so arguing for its continued applicability might seem harmless. Would you suggest the same in relation to Leviticus 20, which also makes reference to the abominable practises of the Canaanites? I should hope not, for Leviticus 20 suggests that participants of sexual transgressions (including homosexual activity) should all be summarily executed. In fact, Leviticus 20 even says that a person who insults his parents should be put to death, so I am forced to reiterate: what makes you think that homosexuality was worse than other crimes that mandated similar penalties?

    I would suggest that it is only a particularly nasty sort of person who would want to live in the sort of world mandated by the book of Leviticus, and that it is for that reason that our Rabbis went to such glorious extremes to soften the blow. Just as some other contemporary sects perceived the Rabbis to be unjustifiably lenient (which was, according to Josephus, the reason for the Pharisees’ popularity with the people), so too are further steps in the same direction denigrated today.

    It is debatable whether “Go forth and multiply” constitutes a binding commandment, or a blessing (it is also, after all, given to the animal kingdom), so I’d not take that prescriptively myself. And I also wouldn’t get so frightened about the threat of human extinction. I don’t personally believe in this 3-pronged fork of sexuality, but those who have an exclusive attraction to the same sex (what we are here referring to as “gays”) don’t constitute 50%, so the argument that our world would be in sorry shape if they did is not much of an argument.

    At the end of the day, nobody chooses (nor has ever chosen) their sexuality. The question is really not whether it is right or wrong to feel for people the things that we feel, but whether or not living in a committed relationship under the auspices of Australian law is an inalienable right. Personally, I think that it is.

  • Simon,

    People take issue with what by today’s western society are overly draconian and talibanesque punishments for the offences in Leviticus 18 & 20. Is this justification for throwing out the prohibitions themselves? At the very least, the punishments are an indication of their relative severity.

    In both sections, the theme is clearly the family as a fundamental building block of society. The Torah puts homosexuality on par with all of the others for this reason.

    (As an aside, what’s so bad about incest? If two people love each other … Why is that still considered a “taboo” but homosexuality isn’t?)

    You may not consider “be fruitful and multiply” a positive commandment, but all those who count the 613 mitzvot do, and the threat of extinction was predicated on a big “IF”. However, it is exactly this possibly slippery slope that those against gay marriage want to guard against.

    Everybody has choices; that is what distinguishes humans from animals.

    This post is about the Judeo-Christian values system that underpin Australian society, and its position regarding gay marriage. My point was to establish a clear link between the messages in the Torah and that position.

  • I fear taking this thread too far from its actual topic, but I’d just like to say that there is less of a difference between humans and the (rest of the) animal kingdom than many religiously-inclined people seem to suggest. Furthermore, the assertion that people can choose their sexuality always seems to get made by people whose sexual inclinations conform to the acceptable norm. Speaking for myself, I honestly cannot remember the day when I decided to start being attracted to the people to whom I am attracted, and I am certain that I never made a conscious decision to not be attracted to the rest.

    Luckily for me, I am part of the fortunate majority. My sexual preferences will not impinge upon my right to live my life with whom I choose. But who am I to decide what everybody else should do? Even if the Torah is the unmediated and unaltered word of the divine: what gives me the right to enforce it upon others?

    I realise that you are only trying to justify the Biblical basis for the halakha, and I apologise if it seems that I am taking your comments out of context. I do still disagree with you as regards how strongly the Torah (indeed, the Bible in general) speaks out against this particular issue, but my main beef is with what that means for us today. While religious Jews would not antagonise those who, for personal reasons, choose not to procreate (indeed, there is a small community of Satmar Hassidim in Jerusalem who fall into this category, and devote their lives to Torah instead), they do often antagonise homosexuals. While they would have no problem with somebody who marries another person who is incapable of reproduction, they do have a problem with those who choose to live their lives with a partner of the same sex.

    Truthfully, I think this whole business has less to do with the ability to reproduce, and more to do with something that people find disgusting.

  • ariel says:

    I have heard an authorative Orthodox rabbinical opinion that all halachic works describe the punishment for male-male sex as being the same as that for a man and woman who have sex while the woman is in a state of niddah – that punishment being karett, or Divinely administered death at some point in the future.

    And, just as we don’t check male-female bedrooms to see whether they have been having sex during niddah, so too, nobody should check male-male bedrooms.

    Nonetheless, since Judaism’s stance is that the purpose of the marriage is to procreate in a holy fashion, I doubt that same-sex marriage will be allowed in the near future as a religious option.

  • The whole issue of “choice” is quite tangential, and perhaps should be dealt with elsewhere. You makes some assumptions (never assume) as to where my approach comes from; it’s very much inspired by the first of Covey’s Seven Habits, although I do link his approach to other views on the topic.

  • My apologies: I mean to assume nothing.

    If I might add an historical caveat to my argument (although it’s certainly not my intention to soften my own point), we also only know of certain dietary laws from Leviticus, and yet the archaeological evidence testifies to the fact that ancient Israelites did not raise pigs. In fact, one of the ways in which archaeologists have identified Israelite settlements is by the absence of pig bones. Maybe they also had a problem with homosexuality? The reality is, we have no way of knowing.

    My concern here has really been less to do with what the ancient Israelites may have thought, and more to do with the fact that Biblical conservatism should get out of politics and back into the churches and synagogues where it belongs. The fact that so little of it is grounded in a literal reading of the Hebrew Bible (sans Mishna, sans Talmud, sans Pauline Epistles, etc) is only further grist for the mill. I don’t mind Orthodox Judaism’s exclusion of homosexuality (which is source-based and consistent) anywhere near so much as I am bothered by their exclusion from Australian civil marriages, which should not have anything to do with religious conviction.

  • Michael says:

    I don’t mind Orthodox Judaism’s exclusion of homosexuality (which is source-based and consistent) anywhere near so much as I am bothered by their exclusion from Australian civil marriages, which should not have anything to do with religious conviction.

    I’m guessing that by the time we get to the Talmud the gestalt shifts from the attitude of the Bible to one that is likely to see homosexuality as “inherently” abhorrent for a society, to the point of invoking God’s wrath. For instance:

    [Chulin 92a] (Ula): These are the 30 Mitzvos that the Nochrim accepted on themselves; they only keep three (Maharav Ransborg gives references discussing the 30 Mitzvos): (92b) They do not write Kesuvos for homosexual couples; they do not sell human flesh in the market; they honor the Torah.


  • Ariel states:

    Nonetheless, since Judaism’s stance is that the purpose of the marriage is to procreate in a holy fashion, I doubt that same-sex marriage will be allowed in the near future as a religious option.

    Two female friends of mine, both Jewish, have been living together for over 15 years now. Each have given birth to a child in recent years. This would make their children Jewish. Both are legal parents of each child.

    Kindly justify your position on same-sex marriage based on what you have written above.


  • J4ME is announced in the Star Observer today.


    Jewish push for marriage

    Posted on 17 June 2011

    A new group is hoping to energise Jewish support for same-sex marriage following a statement supporting marriage equality by Progressive rabbis.

    “We, the members of the Moetzah, the Rabbinic Council of Progressive Rabbis of Australia, Asia and New Zealand, support marriage equality under Australian law,” the Council wrote in May, writing that Progressive Judaism believes all people are created in God’s image and are therefore entitled to full equality.

    In response, Roy Freeman, president of Sydney Jewish GLBT group Dayenu, has formed J4ME — short for Jewish community supporting Marriage Equality — for Jews who support marriage equality, regardless of denomination or sexual identity.

    Freeman said he wanted to build on the work of people like Australian Marriage Equality national convenor Alex Greenwich and PFLAG national spokeswoman Shelley Argent.

    “A lot of people in the Jewish community support marriage equality but don’t see it as their issue so they don’t get involved with the lobbying,” Freeman said.

    “I want to change that. I want to make sure it’s a conversation that is being had within the Jewish community and I want to raise the profile of the lobbying that is going on and encourage people to write to their MPs and senators.

    “We’re on Facebook and in the process of setting up a website, J4ME.org.au, and we hope to organise some events in the near future to discuss marriage equality and spread the word and get more people involved.”

    Freeman said he had been thinking about the idea for several months while working with the Progressive rabbis on the statement.

    “It was an amazing statement and I’m very proud of the work they’ve done,” he said.

    The Orthodox Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia responded to the Progressive statement by reaffirming its opposition to same-sex marriage, but Freeman said he personally knew Orthodox rabbis who supported marriage equality.

    “Unfortunately, because of their role they’re not willing to speak out publicly but on a one-to-one basis they say how supportive they are but they don’t feel they’re in a position to break the trend, if you like.”

    Melbourne-based Aleph convenor Michael Barnett said he would support the group.

    “I am supportive of this and want to be involved to help advocate for marriage equality within the Jewish community,” he told the Star Observer.

    Barnett said he believes a move to allow same-sex marriage in Australia would receive support from the wider Jewish community.

    “There will be zero support from the strictly Orthodox, or more extreme members, from the Jewish community,” he said.

    “I believe there would be a large amount of support from the bulk of the Jewish community who are not strictly Torah religious.”
    info: http://www.facebook.com/J4ME.AU

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