Emerging Torah of Same-Sex Marriage

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Twice in the Torah portion of "Acharei mot" we are told, "You shall not lie with a man as in lying with a woman." (Lev. 18: 22 and 20: 13). Today this has become perhaps the world's most contentious Torah teaching, far beyond the Jewish people.

Some have argued it prohibits all male-male sexuality. Others have argued that the verse must mean something else, for this "lying with" seems anatomically impossible. Is it only about casual or ritual homosexuality, not committed relationships? How did some of the greatest rabbis of the "Golden Age" in Spain write glowing erotic poems about male-male sex?

But let us go beyond these historical or midrashic questions, to look more deeply into Torah. Does Torah anticipate ˆ even intend -- its own transformation? If so, under what circumstances?

Let us learn from a passage of Talmud (Baba Kama 79b) that cautions against raising goats and sheep in the Land of Israel. Since our forebears did precisely that, how could the Talmud have the chutzpah to oppose it? The Rabbis knew that since great and growing numbers of humans were raising goats and sheep there, these flocks would denude and ruin the Land. The world had changed, and so did Jewish holy practice.

Biblical Judaism professed three basic rules for proper sexual ethics: Have as many children as possible. (Gen. 1:28: "Be fruitful, multiply, fill up the earth, and subdue it."); men were to rule over women (Genesis 3:16, where God says to Eve, "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you"; and sex was delightful and sacred (Song of Songs, throughout). Celibacy was strongly discouraged.

"Be fruitful and multiply" worked against homosexuality, but what shall we do today, when the Earth is so "filled" with human beings that the whole web of life is at risk, and so "subdued" by human technology that the world-wide climate is in crisis? Like the rabbis who wisely warned against raising goats, today should we be encouraging, not forbidding, sexuality that avoids biological multiplication? We might read the precept to be fruitful and expansive emotionally, intellectually and spiritually rather than arithmetically.

The rule that a man must rule over a woman left no room for a relationship of two men. Which should rule over the other "as with a woman"?

Is the rule of male dominance intended by Torah to persist forever? No more than the twin statement (Gen. 3: 17-19) that men shall "toil in the sweat of their brow," wringing a livelihood from a hostile earth. We do not act as if Torah commands us to eschew the tools that ease our labor. Instead, we seek to shape a world in which work is far less toilsome.

These statements about toil, fruitfulness, and male dominance are not edicts to be obeyed but a map of post-Edenic history, to be transcended and transformed.

Through the deeds of human history, God has shaped the modernity that eases our work, makes women and men more nearly equal, and brings the human race to fill up and subdue the earth. So now we must ask ourselves, as the Talmud asked, what must we change in our new world?

In a world already filled and subdued by the human race, Rule 1, that we must multiply our numbers, may actually contravene God's intention.

In a world where Rule 2, that men must dominate women, has been transcended so that men and women can be equal, one man can lie with another "as with a woman" without disaster.

The third basic rule -- that sex is delightful and sacred -- still stands. The Song of Songs embodies it. The Song points both beyond the childish Eden of the past and beyond the sad history that followed Eden; it points to "Eden for grown-ups." In the Song, bodies are no longer shameful, as they became after the mistake of Eden; the earth is playful, not our enemy; and women and men are equal in desire and in power. God is no longer Father/Mother as in Eden, giving orders, but -- unnamed -- is inherent in the very process of life, as our parents become when we are fully adult.

The entire Song is the name of God.

Though the Song is on its face heterosexual in the love it speaks of, it describes the kind of sensual pleasure beyond the rules of marriage and family that has characterized some aspects of gay and lesbian desire. Today we can dissolve the walls that have separated sensually pleasurable homosexual relationships from rule-bound heterosexual marriage. We can instead encourage playful marriages suffused with joy and pleasure -- for a man and woman, for two men, for two women.

At the Burning Bush, God took on the name "I Will Be Who I Will Be." Instead of rigidly defending marriage as it used to be, we can honor the God Who Becomes by expanding the circles in which marriage -- a new kind of marriage -- becomes possible.

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