Same-Sex Marriage: The Evolving Bible
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Newsweek magazine recently (December 2008) published a cover article endorsing same-sex marriage. The article caused a storm. I think the article could have taken the same bottom-line position, and yet imaginably have stirred a lot more thought and maybe even a little less explosion.
Here is why: Preparing for the article, a Newsweek reporter interviewed me at considerable length about my theology of same-sex marriage, Then she called back to say her boss had said to ask me whether I thought Judaism should be inclusive toward gays. I answered yes, and then that pretty simple-minded question and response were how I got quoted in the cover article. Nothing about how I view the biblical proscription of male homosexuality, and why I think the oft-quoted lines in tbe Hebrew Bible are no longer God's will - and how the Torah seeks to transcend itself on several dimensions of sexual ethics.
If my experience was replicated by others, no wonder opponents of same-sex marriage thought the article ignored the serious religious issues. It did. What I did answer was that at the initial human level, the more anyone gets to know gay and lesbian couples, the clearer it is that they live as holy or sometimes unholy lives as different-sex couples, and their relationships are just as worthy of spiritual affirmation and celebration. So of course it is important, not only for the sake of Jewish peoplehood or the Christian church or the Muslim umma to be "inclusive" toward them, but also important for God's sake -- literally.
Then those who are religiously committed and who honor the Torah (whether Jews, Christians, or Muslims) find a sticking point in its text. And that is when a serious theological analysis becomes necessary. So this is the analysis I laid out, which the original reporter thought very exciting - but not a hint of which appeared in the article: (Of course there's a meta-lesson there about the difficulty of communicating intelligently through the corporate media -- which doesn't mean Don't try.)
The Biblical prohibition of same-sex sexual relationships is rooted in three basic rules the Hebrew Bible prescribes for proper sexual ethics: (1) Have as many children as possible. (Gen. 1:28: "Be fruitful, multiply, fill up the earth, and subdue it."); (2) Men should 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 (3) Sex is delightful and sacred (Song of Songs, throughout). Celibacy was strongly discouraged.
But these rules were not set in stone forever. Indeed, the Hebrew Bible itself encourages and implores us to transcend and transform the first two of these "rules" -- and thereby sets the stage for an evolving religious tradition that celebrates same-sex marriage for those whose sexual orientation makes that the joyful and sacred alternative.
Twice in the Torah, we are told, "You shall not lie with a man as in lying with a woman." (Lev. 18: 22 and 20: 13). Some have argued these verses prohibit 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 -- 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 Biblical 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.
Let us look at the Bible's three basic rules of sexual ethics. "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 and biologically.
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"? Two "dominant" men trying to have an intimate relationship would overload the computer circuits and shatter the relationship. Two "subordinate" women, however, would not even turn on the computer -- and indeed, the Hebrew Bible is uninterested in what we would call lesbian relationships.
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.
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, confronting the narrow-minded rules of the Pharaoh of "Mitzrayyim" (the Hebrew word for Egypt actually means "the strait and narrow"), God took on the name "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh." "Ehyeh" is the future tense, "I Will Be," so it would seem reasonable to understand this Name as "I Will Be Who I Will Be" -- God is Becoming. Yet it was translated by the King James Version of the Bible in the present tense, ""I Will Be Who I Will Be."
Given the nature of time and grammatical tense in biblical Hebrew, is the present tense a possible translation? In grammatical theory, yes. But look at the context of what is happening at the Burning Bush. Moses wants to confront Pharaoh and his own people with a NAME OF GOD -- that is, an understanding of reality -- that will make change possible. A Pharaoh who is committed to the status quo and people who have been in slavery for hundreds of years will not be shaken or transformed by invoking a God Who is unchanging, let alone the "God of their fathers." They need an understanding of the universe that says that at its very root, it beckons transformation.
Try thinking about the Torah as not only a living wisdom for the future but an echo of real life from the past -- try to understand it as a breathing crystallization of the lives of the people. THAT is why at the Burning Bush moment the future tense is crucial, just as earlier -- when the issue was fruitfulness and procreation for the troubled clan of Abraham, down to Joseph, it was crucial for God to be El Shaddai -- the God of Breasts, the Nurturing God.
The future tense -- Becoming - is what we need today. 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. Shalom, salaam, peace -- Arthur ^^^^^^^^^^^
One of my books -- Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life -- addresses the issues of sexual ethics in depth. It is available from The Shalom Center by sending $13.95 to The Shalom Center, 6711 Lincoln Drive, Philadelphia PA 19119.) .