The Supreme Courts of the United States and Massachusetts have drawn on secular concepts of liberty, privacy, and human rights to strike down laws against same-sex sexual relationships and marriages.
In response, the President and many members of Congress have invoked their own religious beliefs to propose a constitutional amendment that would outlaw not only same-sex marriage but civil union laws and civil-partnership laws as well.
How do we examine these questions from the standpoint of Torah?
Some have argued that Torah prohibits male homosexuality for sure, and perhaps lesbian sexuality as well. The Rabbis suggested that Torah also calls for privacy: that what Balaam found "Mah tovu," "So good!" in the tents of the House of Jacob was precisely that they were pitched at angles to each other so that each household preserved its privacy — especially its sexual privacy.
Others have argued that "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman" is ambiguous, leaving open to question what the text really means. (Is this physically possible? Was it only about casual or ritual homosexuality, not committed relationships?)
But I think we need to go beyond these historical or midrashic quibbles, to look more deeply into Torah.
Biblical Judaism, out of which sprang the Leviticus prohibition on homosexuality, professed three basic rules for proper sexual ethics:
1. People should have as many children as possible. (Gen. I: 28: "Be fruitful, multiply, fill up the earth, and subdue it.")
2. Men were to be in charge. (Genesis 3: 16, where God says to Eve, "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.")
3. Sex was delightful and sacred. (Song of Songs, throughout.) Celibacy was almost unheard of, and strongly discouraged.
How did these affect attitudes toward homosexuality?
"Be fruitful and multiply, fill up the earth and subdue it"" worked against homosexuality, since for two men or two women, having children from their own bodies was impossible. But what shall we do today, in a generation when the injunction to "Fill up and subdue the earth" has been accomplished?
Today the sheer number of humans is putting impossible burdens on our global ecosystem and plunging into extinction thousands of the species that God commands in the story of the Flood that we must not allow to die.
Today we need to encourage, not forbid, forms of sexuality that avoid biological multiplication. We might now read the command as teaching us to be fruitful and expansive emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually rather than biologically.
What were the effects of "He shall rule over you"? In a relationship of two men, neither one could be subordinate - "as with a woman." Such a relationship would blow out all the circuits. Conversely, a relationship between two "subordinate" women would not even turn the power on and so was ignored in biblical tradition.
Is this statement in Eden intended by Torah to persist forever? No more than the twin statement (Gen. 3: 17-19) that human beings (or at least men) shall "work in the sweat of their brow," wringing a livelihood from a hostile earth. Do we think Torah commands us to eschew the machines that make our labor easier?
Like this statement about work, and like "Be fruitful and multiply," the overlordship of men described a period of history that should be transcended. It was not an edict to be obeyed.
Modernity has transformed the world we live in. The Modernity that eases our work and makes women and men equal and brings the human race to fill up and subdue the earth may even be what God intended.
When God changes the world, what should deeply religious people do?
The Talmud cautions against raising goats and sheep in the Land of Israel. Since our forebears Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rivkah, did precisely that, how could the Talmud have the chutzpah to oppose it?
The Rabbis know the world had changed. They knew that the numbers of goats and sheep, and of the human population, would denude and ruin the Land if these animals were bred there.
The world had changed, and so did Jewish holy practice.
In a world filled and subdued by the human race, multiplying our numbers may actually contravene God's intention. In a world where men are not required to be dominant nor women to be subordinate, a relationship of two men or two women need not be either destructive or irrelevant.
So we are evolving past these two rules that underlay the opposition to gay and lesbian relationships and marriages.
The third basic rule that sex is delightful and sacred still stands. The biblical Song of Songs embodies it, and the Song, far from being outdated, may point beyond the Eden of the past, of a childish human race, past our history of toil and hierarchy, toward an Eden of the Future. "Eden for grown-ups," for a grown-up human race and for newly mature individual human beings.
In the Song, bodies are no longer shameful as they were after the mistake of Eden; the earth is playful, not our enemy; and women and men are equal in desire and in power. And God is never named - no longer Papa/Mama as in Eden, giving orders, but inherent in the very process of life.
Though the drama of the Song is on its face heterosexual, it describes the kind of sensual pleasure beyond the rules that has characterized some aspects of gay and lesbian desire, especially since marriage was forbidden.
So we now have the opportunity to open heterosexual relationships and marriages to the kind of joy the Song embodies, while opening gay and lesbian life to the more planful structure that marriage makes possible.
For millennia, Jews have prided ourselves on the worth of marriage as a carrier of holiness and community. Now we can expand the circles in which marriage is possible.
The Supreme Courts of the United States and Massachusetts have opened the way to enhancing, not destroying, marriage. They drew on secular law to open the gates; but only spiritual communities can enter. Let the tents of Jacob and the shrines of Israel rejoice, "Mah tovu! How wonderful!"
And like Balaam, let us proclaim this truth to the world, through letters and conversations with editors and officials and our neighbors, to make sure that our leaders do not rain curses on the people by shutting the gates of Spirit, as King Balak demanded that Balaam do. Balaam refused. So should we.
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center <www.theshalomcenter.org>, author of Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, & the Rest of Life, and co-author of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven: The Jewish Life-Spiral as a Spiritual Path