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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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