The Bias Behind Orthodox Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court of the United States legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Since then, a number of American Orthodox Jewish organizations have made pronouncements that publicly condemn this decision. Even assuming the best of intentions on their part, it is difficult to explain these protests as motivated by anything other than bias against homosexuality.

Some of the most prominent organizations of American Orthodox Jewry have issued public condemnations of the Supreme Court's ruling. The Rabbinical Council of America "protested" the Court's decision, declaring that "Marriage is an institution defined by the Bible and subsequent religious codes and it is upon the foundation of traditional family life that our society has been built for millennia."

Agudath Israel offered its own critique: "The issue here is not whether all human beings are created in the Divine Image, or whether they have inherent human dignity. Of course they are, of course they do. The issue is whether the Torah sanctions homosexual conduct or recognizes same gender unions."

The basic sentiment of these condemnations is the same: We support dignity and respect, but what can we do other than vocally oppose the Supreme Court's ruling when our tradition so clearly prohibits it?

The thing is that their tradition does not demand vocally opposing the Supreme Court's decision because it in no way impacts Orthodox religious marriage.

According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, religious same-sex weddings are prohibited. The Supreme Court, however, never said anything about Jewish religious marriages; its ruling was limited to civil marriages in the United States. In the eyes of the same "Bible and subsequent religious codes" referenced in these condemnations, civil marriages have absolutely no religious effect. It is therefore perplexing why these organizations are so concerned with how marriage is defined for an institution that their tradition considers religiously irrelevant.

One charitable explanation is that they believe that Orthodox Jewish tradition should influence civil marriage because civil law defines the ethos of the society in which they live and could potentially lead to restrictions of their religious liberty. If this were the case, however, then they should be equally upset by the fact that civil marriage is permissible between Jews and non-Jews. Such unions are just as forbidden under Orthodox Jewish tradition as ones between two persons of the same sex. So why haven't these organizations ever issued statements protesting the legality of interfaith civil marriages?

Assuming that this is not merely because they are afraid of the backlash to such a stance, the rhetoric employed by these organizations would suggest that Orthodox Jewish tradition views homosexual relationships as uniquely detrimental to society. This too is not the case.

The primary Biblical source for the prohibition on homosexual relations is Leviticus 18:22: "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." A number of opponents of same-sex marriage have emphasized that Leviticus refers to such relationships with the harsh description of "abomination." What they fail to mention, however, is that Leviticus 18:26-27 uses the same word to refer to the litany of prohibited sexual relationships in Leviticus 18. This expansive list even includes sexual contact between a man and a menstruating woman (Leviticus 18:19). Interestingly, none of these Orthodox organizations have issued public condemnations of the fact that all 50 states offer civil marriages to heterosexual couples who have sex during the female partner's menstrual cycle.

How then can we explain this selective focus on same-sex relationships? The same way we explain all other vocal opposition to same-sex marriage: bias against homosexuality. Cloaking such bias in religious garb does not make it any less problematic.