When Vince, aide to President MacKenzie Allen on ABC’s “Commander in Chief,” chooses to secretly tie the knot with his partner to protect the President during an election year (Episode 15, “Ties that Bind”), the writers are suggesting that our country is more likely to accept a woman president than the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. That may be true. But I think God is a lot more accepting than the American electorate.
The question of same-sex marriage is controversial, of course. It would be easy to argue, as many do, that same-sex marriage, and by extension all homosexuality, is biblically prohibited. Leviticus 18:22 clearly states, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman, it is an abhorrence.”
If we were to read the Bible as a fundamentalist would, those words might be enough for us. But as Jews, we don’t act simply on the literal words of the Bible. We seek to understand God’s will for us through the lenses of (rabbinic) interpretation, predicated on and understood within its socio-historic context. That the biblical prohibition on homosexual relations is found among a list of illicit, largely incestuous, relationships leads us to ask whether this prohibition includes the monogamous relationships that many homosexuals seek today.
Psychologists have found that there are individuals for whom sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. Regarding such a person, our Talmudic sages taught that where there is really no choice, one is freed from obligation. Nevertheless, other commandments can still be fulfilled: the obligation to have (or raise) children (“be fertile and multiply,” Genesis 1:28), which is now available outside of heterosexual marriage thanks to in-vitro fertilization and adoption, and the obligation to share companionship rather than be alone (Genesis 2:18), which could be fulfilled through some formal, ritualized, legally recognized family commitment.
One of our names for God is HaRahaman, the All-Merciful. It is hard for me to imagine that an all-Merciful God, having created an individual who can only find sexual satisfaction with a member of the same sex, would not also accept his or her need to find companionship and satisfaction within a same-sex relationship.
That doesn’t mean that any or everything is OK. I can understand and empathize with those in the gay/bisexual/transgendered community who want full acceptance. However, the purpose of religious devotion is to outline appropriate personal discipline even in our most intimate of relationships.
Judaism tells us what and how we can eat and with whom and when we can have sexual (traditionally heterosexual) relations. It is one thing to find a religious accommodation for someone who has no choice, and another to accommodate those who want to deny the place of Jewish law and tradition in limiting their choices.
The Conservative movement is currently debating the place of homosexuality in Judaism. That debate seeks to balance tradition and change: the tradition of our commitment to mitzvot, commandments, in general, as binding upon personal decisions and, in particular, regarding the legislative history of specific laws balanced by our changing understanding of human nature, sociological conditions, and sense of justice and compassion.
There are many young same-sex couples who yearn to build Jewish homes and families as accepted and active members of the Jewish community. Whether the specific answer rests in commitment ceremonies or some other equivalent of same-sex marriage is probably not as important as the effort the organized Jewish community makes to respect God’s image in every individual, by trying to find ways to take into account each person’s need to fulfill God’s command to find companionship and family within the embrace of our religious community.