May 21, 2024
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May 21, 2024
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The Modern Orthodox Jew and Gay Marriage

Modern Orthodox Jews are rightly confounded in finding the correct response to the recent Supreme Court decision affirming gay marriage as a constitutional right. The political fight is now over and all that is left is our reaction. How do we, as individuals, see this historic moment? I believe that, ultimately, this boils down to a fundamental issue of attitudes that threatens lives, families and the future of the Jewish community.

There are, however, reasons to rejoice at the decision. From one perspective, this is a victory for a previously marginalized minority. As a minority in every country in the world, Orthodox Jews sympathize with this newfound constitutional protection. From another perspective, we applaud this limit imposed on government’s involvement in family matters. We do not want government bureaucrats telling us how to live our lives. From yet another perspective, that of friends and family of gay people who struggle to find happiness, we lovingly share in their moment of joy. But there is one more perspective we proudly carry, that of the Torah.

We cannot, and do not wish to, forget that the Torah unequivocally forbids homosexual relations and marriages in Genesis 2, Leviticus 18 and Chullin 92. We recognize that clever attempts by liberal scholars to reinterpret these passages contradict all authoritative religious texts. Instead, we are forced to juggle these clashing perspectives and emotions, no easy task. Perhaps we can take comfort that this is an age-old problem, dating back to the time of the giving of the Torah.

The Torah (Num. 11:10) tells us that “Moshe heard the people weeping, family by family.” The Gemara (Yoma 75a) interprets this as meaning that the people were crying “about family matters,” the newly forbidden relationships. Rashi (ad loc., sv. hanach) explains that the crying was about the new prohibitions above and beyond the seven Noahide commandments. This is implied in that Gemara and explicitly stated in the Yerushalmi (Ta’anis 5:4).

However, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 22:18) seems to say that the people were crying over all the forbidden relationships, even those of the Noahide commandments. I believe he deduced this from a different passage. The Gemara (Shabbos 130a) states that the prohibitions on forbidden marriages were accepted with a fight, as evidenced in this crying, and therefore fights often emerge over weddings. That Gemara does not distinguish between different forbidden relationships, implying that the people cried over all the prohibitions. Rambam apparently accepted this Gemara over the other. As usual, Rambam’s view carries great theological and psychological significance.

The Rambam here is consistent in his general view that we observe the commandments because God gave them to us at Sinai. Even those He had previously commanded were subsequently binding because of the powerful and overriding Sinai revelation, which obligates all future generations (see, for example, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 8:11). After Sinai, all the forbidden relationships were newly prohibited.

Additionally, we have always struggled with the concept of forbidden relationships. Emily Dickinson famously wrote that “the heart wants what it wants.” We cannot control our passions, at least not without enormous effort. According to the Rambam we have always cried over the ageless problem of love that cannot be realized, whether forbidden by religion or society. Yet this crying cannot stand in the way of our embrace of God’s guidance in this confusing world.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik spoke of the importance of surrender to the Torah, acceptance of a higher authority than our own opinions. Even when we do not understand or when contemporary intellectual currents disagree, we must submit to divine authority: “Any attempt to inject contemporary meaning, which should be in agreement with the morality and the value system of the pagan New York Times, is sinful… We have to accept [the laws] regardless of whether they fit into the frame of reference of modern civilization” (The Rav Thinking Aloud, Bamidbar, pp. 156–157). We are not always capable of judging accurately so we let God teach us, through the Torah, right from wrong.

While Rav Soloveitchik said this with regard to chukim, laws we struggle to understand, he also applied this to all Torah laws: “Our commitment must be unshakable, universally applicable, and upheld even when our logos is confused” (Reflections of the Rav, p. 105). Intellectual trends come and go. We may find the latest popular theory compelling but we must recognize our limitations in understanding ultimate truth. The Torah tells us that gay marriage is wrong; how can we disagree? Our unconditional love for our gay friends and family cannot translate into automatic agreement with their religious and political beliefs.

Without discussing whether we should support gay marriage politically, an issue that is now moot, we can wonder how we can celebrate when so many people we care about are doing things the Torah considers wrong. The Supreme Court has just validated a Torah violation as a constitutional right. That this is not the first time is hardly a consolation. Freedom is good but good as defined by the Torah is even better.

The overriding contemporary philosophy is that everyone should be happy as long as they do not harm anyone. There are so many positive ramifications of this simple philosophy that it dominates our multicultural world. Yet, when we think harder, we know this attitude is insufficient. We want more for the people we care about. We want them to be good, to be productive members of society, to do what is right.

If the greatest measure of life is happiness, what about circumstances that are tragically unhappy? People will end marriages that are unhappy but not abusive, bringing happiness to one spouse but perhaps misery to the other and their children. While sometimes this is the best option, is our concern for individual happiness breaking up too many families? What about someone injured and barely functioning? Happiness eludes him in his daily struggles. And what about someone terminally ill, suffering with every breath? Why prolong the unhappiness when euthanasia beckons?

Happiness is important, but, to the Modern Orthodox Jew, cannot be all-important. Other principles override the pursuit of happiness. In the case of any forbidden relationship, our desire for other people’s happiness causes us to cry. While we want our loved ones to find happiness in life, we also want them to find happiness in God. When those two goals collide, we surrender to the Torah because we want more for them than just happiness.

Some situations are tragic but we do not believe in pulling the plug on life or on Torah. Gay marriage in itself does not threaten the Jewish community. However, abandonment of a Torah measure of life for this doctrine of overriding happiness threatens to destroy lives, families and our community.

By Rabbi Gil Student

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