Going to the Chapel

Lisa Miller, who writes about religion for Newsweek magazine, wrote the cover story for the Dec. 15, 2008 magazine. If you would like to read the article yourself, you can find it by clicking on this link: http://www.newsweek.com/id/172653

Let me put my biases on the table right up front. I used to write for student newspapers in high school and college. I seriously contemplated a career in journalism but got my “call” to be a rabbi and to the surprise of no one but myself, I was ordained as Rabbi and not hired as a reporter. I discovered in my writing days that religion is very hard for a journalist to cover. A reporter wants to know the “who, what, where, when, why and how” of a story. Religion just does not fit into those categories. I was very happy to see that Newsweek has a regular religion column, yet it is still pretty impossible to write a meaningful article on religion since it tends to sound like a sermon or a church bulletin rather than part of a real religious discussion between believers.
That being said, Ms. Miller tries to give a take on the gay marriage question by stating that, while religious conservatives use the Bible to claim that gay marriage is not permitted by the Bible, that actually the Bible can be used to make the claim that it supports gay marriage more than it opposes it. I think that she has a good concept, but her supporting arguments just don’t do the job she wants.

Most of her case is built on the fact that marriage in the Bible is a complicated institution, due to polygamy, surrogate mothering and the Christian Bible’s preference for staying unmarried and forbidding divorce. Gay marriage is just not mentioned. She also makes the claims that all the passages that support a ban on homosexual behavior, Genesis chapter one and Leviticus, chapters 19 and 20, are not problems because the Bible was not handed down by God; the command to have children does not take into account modern reproductive techniques; and, she asks, who follows the details listed in Leviticus anymore when it comes to haircuts and blood sacrifices? Therefore, why follow the prohibitions calling homosexuality an “abomination”?
She is of course absolutely right, but her arguments just miss the point. She is talking to those who don’t really believe in the message of the Bible anymore and for them, it really doesn’t matter what the Bible says. They just try and do what they think is “right” without depending on the Bible to help them in their search.

But for believers, who feel that no matter who wrote the Bible, it is still a divine document that has a profound message to people today, they will not have anything to do with the arguments she puts forward.

So let me help her a little.

As far as the Jewish Bible is concerned, there are plenty of married people in the Bible, but no mention at all as to what the rules of marriage are or should be. The only wedding we really have is Jacob’s and we learn that it lasted seven days and the bride wore a veil. It is not much to go on. Lots of people “take a wife” but the Bible never tells us how they did it. Ms. Miller is also correct that in the United States, marriage is a two part process. “Marriage in America refers to two separate things, a religious institution and a civil one, though it is most often enacted as a messy conflation of the two.” The civil part is easier to discuss. In this country, civil marriage is not really about love and devotion, even though we try and put this into the ceremony. A civil marriage license is about a financial union (what I call the “seamy underbelly” of marriage); it is about who will be responsible for the family debts and from what moment they will be eligible for the advantages of marriage. Ms. Miller writes, “As a civil institution, marriage offers practical benefits to both partners: contractual rights having to do with taxes; insurance; the care and custody of children; visitation rights and inheritance.” These are not small benefits. Can we really blame gay couples for wanting to have these “civil rights” for their relationships as do the heterosexual couples in this country? To deny gay couples these rights seems to be just another form of bigotry, not really different than racial, sexual or religious bigotry that tries to exclude from society those we just don’t like. [It reminds me of a poem, THE HANGMAN by Maurice Ogden]. We can quibble about the name of the relationship, “marriage”, “partnerships” , “companionship”, “relationship”, but we fool ourselves if we deny health insurance, tax relief, child visitation and inheritance rights to those who are in a committed relationship but just not one that is heterosexual and we think that we are not prejudiced.

As for religious arguments, there are none that could not be refuted by some other believer. That is the nature of religion, that there are multiple paths to God and we find our way through a mixture of personal seeking and tradition received from our ancestors. No two people have exactly the same mix and those who are more conservative /traditional in their faith, will never find the way to allow homosexuality and gay relationships in their faith community. That is our reality. It is also what makes gay marriage/partnerships possible in this country.

We live in a nation that allows all faiths to practice without government intrusion. As long as civilly, gay men and women have the same rights as heterosexual couples, then any faith can impose on their faithful the rules of the community as they interpret them. We already know that some faiths are more open to gay relationships and are willing to bless these unions with appropriate rites. Those that don’t are free to practice alongside those who do. The GLBTQ communities will vote with their feet where they will choose to practice their faith. Communities that don’t welcome them will have to go on without them. Those that don’t provide for the spiritual needs of the gay community will find themselves poorer for excluding them. I can’t fault any denomination that holds a genuine theological problem with homosexuality, but I also can’t blame homosexuals who will prefer to have their spiritual needs met elsewhere. Gay couples should also be free to find a faith community that will welcome them and who will serve their spiritual needs. If there is no faith community that meets those needs or if they don’t have unfulfilled spiritual needs, there should be a civil ceremony to mark the creation of a partnership (or whatever one would like to call it); civil authorities should issue such a license and a proper procedure as to how to end it if the committed relationship fails.

What I can never condone is any faith community, or any civil community, that tries to make its own personal or theological preferences the only choice in our society. Leviticus is a big issue to the traditionalists in our society. Marriage is a sacred institution in some faith communities. There are some who feel that homosexuality is not a way to live a life of the spirit. These people have to have the respect and the understanding of those who disagree with them. But we need to adjust our laws and civil society so that we don’t leave anyone unprotected by law and disadvantaged because of prejudice. Let there be gay marriage/partnerships/committed relationships. And let these couples have the rights and responsibilities that go with it. This is a big country and we need to make room for everyone.

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