Equal Marriage: The Case for Jewish Equality

What did the ‘big bang’ sound like? God alone knows … That expression seems particularly fitting in this context. But let’s think about it; let’s try to imagine … According to B’reishit, Genesis, the very beginning was tohu va-vohu, ‘formlessness and void’ with only ru’ach Elohim – ‘the spirit’ or ‘wind of God’ – m’rachefet – ‘hovering’ – over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). Martin Buber teaches: m’rachefet – ‘hovering’ – like a mother bird, because, both, the words ru’ach and m’rachefet are in the feminine singular.[1] It’s a beautiful, tender, intimate image. It makes me think of the kittiwakes fluttering in the hollows of the cliffs at Seaford Head, hovering over their young and then swooping and diving skywards and seawards as they search for food to bring back to them.

So, according to Genesis, the sound of the hovering wind … and then a voice: “God said, Y’hi or! ‘Let there be light!’ …” (1:3). The Torah tells us that God spoke – in Hebrew words: Y’hi or! God speaking: an emphatic declamation. Just as English is a translation of the Hebrew, the Hebrew is a translation of … of what? The biblical authors struggled – poetically – to describe the indescribable. So, let us have a go at imagining the sound of the ‘big bang’. But can we? The very words, ‘big bang’, so understated, so pedestrian – describing, not so much a sound as a happening: the beginning of everything. In my imagination, the voice of the shofar, the ram’s horn – in particular, the great blast, the t’ki’ah g’dolah – is an echo of that beginning because today, Rosh Ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year, is also, according to Jewish tradition, harat olam, ‘the birthday of the world’.

The sounds of the shofar: a unique ‘happy birthday world’ melody, as with each blast the shofar-blower creates a channel between then and now. Today recalls the beginning of everything – and because it does, it calls us to consider, to reconsider, what it means for us to be who we are. Today, the world over, Jews are gathering in their synagogues to celebrate harat olam – the birthday of the world. But, today is not just about who we are as Jews; more essentially, it is about who we are as human beings.

You may be thinking that the Book of Genesis is hardly the first place to go to investigate the beginning of everything. What we should be doing is reading the works of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.[2] The notion that we could turn to the Book of Genesis to find out what it means to be a human being seems no less absurd. But we don’t look to the Torah for equations and facts and figures and hard data. As human beings, who are also Jews, we explore the Torah in search of values and meaning. So, what do the first chapters of Genesis teach us? There are two creation stories in Genesis. A case of sloppy editing? No. The two accounts teach very different things.[3] The first narrative, in Genesis chapter 1, presents humanity, male and female, as the pinnacle of creation. We read at verse 28:

Be fruitful and multiply; fill the Earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over all the living creatures that creep on the earth.

According to Genesis chapter 1, life is a hierarchy and humanity rules over all. And yet the differentiation of humanity into male and female genders does not entail a relationship of domination and submission. Indeed verse 27 states very clearly that God created ha-adam, ‘the human being’, zachar u’n’keivah, ‘male and female’, b’tzelem Elohim, ‘in the image of God.’ Humanity is one. And this comment in the first code of rabbinic law, the Mishnah, edited around the year 200 CE, draws out the implications: We read: ‘It was for the sake of peace among us that creation began with a single human being: so that none might say to another: My ancestor was greater than your ancestor.’[4]

As the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights put it: ‘All human beings are born free and equal…’[5] The essential equality of all human beings has important implications. All human beings – that is, irrespective of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, culture, religion. All human beings – that is, irrespective of the particular attributes of any particular human being: their intelligence, physical stature, mental or physical ability or disability. All human beings – that is, irrespective of whether they belong to a majority or a minority group; irrespective of differences in power and material worth between nations and peoples.

The 1776 American Declaration of Independence was the first statement about equality in the modern era[6] – although it took Mary Wollstonecraft’s treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, first published in 1792, following the French Revolution, to make the case for gender equality.[7] In the course of the past 200 years, humanity has been learning through social upheaval and political struggle hard lessons about the essential equality of all human beings. In response to the insistent demands of the oppressed and the call of human conscience, civil rights have been extended to minorities, the slave trade abolished, the system of colonial domination dismantled, and relationships between men and women transformed in many parts of the globe.

More recently – to be more precise, since 1967, when ‘homosexual’ relations between two ‘consenting adults in private’ became legal in Britain – first gay men, and then, lesbians, have been coming out of the closet and onto the streets, laying claim to public acknowledgement and equal rights. It is over forty years since the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, the first stirrings of rebellion on the part of the gay community,[8] and on July 7th this year, people gathered from all over the world to celebrate World Pride in London on the 40th anniversary of the first gay pride march in the capital. It is also forty years since the London-based Jewish Lesbian and Gay Group was formed – the oldest of its kind in the world.[9] Forty years – forty wilderness years. At long last, the ‘promised land’ of equality and inclusion approaches.

It has been a very long journey, involving painful struggle. Of course, there are similarities with the struggles of other groups – but also crucial differences. Sadly, homophobia is a universal phenomenon. It is not confined to white people or to black people, to men or to women, to one or another religious institution, to religious people or to atheists, to majorities or to minorities. But there is another difference that makes the experience of being lesbian or gay unique. Whether part of a majority or minority group, most individuals grow up sharing their identity with the rest of their family. But that is not true for the great majority of lesbian and gay people. With rare exceptions the individual lesbian or gay child is on their own. Of course, some black children are adopted by white families. But in the case of lesbian and gay children, their difference is hidden. The isolation they experience, combined with widespread homophobia, is what leads to lives led in confined closet-like narrow spaces and causes the deepest anguish and pain imaginable – a pain made more excruciating by the fear of rejection by loved ones.

I know at first hand the existential difference to me of being a Jew and a lesbian. Growing up as a Jew, my awareness of anti-Semitism, and the legacy of persecution carried within my own family, was tempered by the lessons in Jewish pride I learnt on Friday evenings and at Pesach seders, on Chanukkah candle lighting winter nights and at gatherings of my wider family. Growing up as a lesbian, once the freedom years of being a tomboy were over, all I knew was that I couldn’t be who I was and had to become what society told me was a ‘proper’ woman – that is, a heterosexual woman – which is why decided to get married at the age of 19.

So, 1967 was a milestone on the road to liberation – but still, conditional: two ‘consenting adults’ – that is, over the age of 21 – in ‘private’.[10] It took many more years of campaigning to achieve an equal age of consent in 2001.[11] So hard to overcome the prevailing assumption that while a heterosexual 16-year-old may be deemed mature enough to have sex, 16 was too young for a lesbian or gay young adult to make the same choice.

And then, that ‘in private’ condition: Ostensibly, about sexual activity – but with wider connotations. It’s not illegal to be lesbian or gay but don’t mention it at work, just in case others catch it, or it catches on; keep it hidden, like a guilty secret. How many – even liberal – heterosexuals have thought or said, ‘I don’t care what your sexuality is, but why do you have to bang on about it so much? Imagine, if you can, that it was alright to be heterosexual, just as long as you didn’t mention your partner, when talking to your colleagues about what you did over the weekend. Of course, it’s not really possible to imagine because heterosexuality is the norm … How many people, who have never as much as opened the Bible, let alone read it, will pronounce that ‘God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’? But the Torah does not, as it happens, say in either creation story – and I’ll move on to the second account in a moment – anything about God creating Adam and Eve. What it says – and I repeat – is that God created ha-adam, ‘the human being’, b’tzelem Elohim, ‘in the image of God’. Every human being.

So, what about the reproductive imperative?  Yes, the Torah speaks of male and female forms of the human for the purpose of reproduction. But is that biological reality all that there is to human relationships? The second account of creation suggests otherwise.

If we turn then to Genesis chapter 2, we discover that in place of the grand hierarchy, with humanity at the apex, the text speaks of the first human being – ha-adam – being formed by God out of the dust of the ground ha-adamah (2:7) – and placed in a garden l’ovdah u’l’shomrah – ‘to tend it and to keep it’ (2:15). So much for world domination… And there aren’t even any animals around to dominate yet, just the vegetation to look after – and two trees to avoid at all costs (2:9; 17). Throughout the first account of creation, as life emerges, a pronouncement that God saw that it was ‘good’ – tov (1: 12) – and then, after the creation of humanity, that it was ‘very good’ – tov m’od (1:31). Now, in the midst of the second account an astonishing statement. We read at chapter 2, of verse 18:

The Eternal God said, Lo-tov heyot ha-adam l’vado – ‘It is not good for the human being to be alone.’

The human being is alone amidst the plants and trees and needs a companion. And so, God forms all the animals and birds out of the ground – and then presents them to the human being, who proceeds to name them. But naming is power, and in the act of naming, the exertion of human authority over each creature, renders each one, in turn, unsuitable companion material (2:19-20).

There is only one thing left to do. The Torah relates that Eternal God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the human being, and during that sleep took one side of the human being – tzeila – a side – not a ‘rib’ – and formed it into a woman – ishah (2: 21-22). Hebrew is a completely gendered language. The Hebrew text suggests that the human being has a male gender. But the logic of the text suggests otherwise: the single human being – ha-adam – formed out of the dust off the ground – ha-adamah – incidentally, a feminine noun, has now been split in two forms: ishah, ‘woman’ and ish, ‘man’. While the words, zachar and n’keivah, ‘male’ and ‘female’ signify sexual difference, the words ishah and ish, ‘woman’ and ‘man’, based on the same Hebrew root, Aleph Nun Shin, to be human, denote shared humanity. In the second account of creation, singular humanity has become two, not for the sake of reproduction, but rather for the sake of companionship.

The case for equal marriage rests, from a Jewish point of view, on these two key Torah values: that each human being is made in the image of God and that to relate with and connect with others is an existential human need. As the metaphysical poet, John Donne, put it, ‘No man [sic] is an island, entire of itself.’ But the need to relate to others is not the same thing as the need to relate to an other. Just as some people, regardless of their sexuality, may be childless or childfree, depending on how they make sense of not having children, some people who are single, whatever their sexuality, may choose not to be in partnership. Perhaps the Torah suggests that each person should have a companion, but the essential teaching is that for all human beings, single or partnered, relating to others is what makes us who we are –which is why the enforced privatisation of lesbian and gay sexuality is so pernicious. Equal marriage for lesbian and gay couples who choose to marry, is essential because, above all, it enables lesbian and gay people to inhabit the public space on exactly the same terms as everybody else and receive public acknowledgement.[12]

Hopefully, equal marriage will become law in England and Wales, as it has already been ratified recently in Scotland – and, thankfully, Liberal Judaism supports equal marriage, both in civil law and in Jewish practice. Indeed, just last week, Liberal Judaism Chief Executive, Rabbi Danny Rich, attended an equal marriage reception hosted by the Deputy Prime Minister, where, according to Rabbi Rich’s report, Nick Clegg ‘confirmed that he was very familiar with Liberal Judaism’s views on the subject, and aware of what the our requirements were: equal marriage for all – both civil and religious.’[13]

So, here in Britain, we are almost there…. But today is the birthday of the world and we’re focusing on what it is to be human and on human rights in a global context. There are still over 70 countries in the world where it is illegal to be lesbian or gay – and in five countries, lesbian and gay people risk, not only punishment and imprisonment, but the death penalty.[14] Just a month ago, on August 17th, Moscow’s top court upheld a ban on gay pride marches in the Russian capital for the next 100 years.[15]

We cannot be happy little islanders, enjoying our rights in relation to this issue or any other human rights concern. And anyway, we still have quite a way to go in Britain before equality is extended fully to transgender people. We live in a world where women are still killed by their families for making independent choices about their own lives – indeed, even in Britain.[16] We live on a planet where children are still enslaved and sexually exploited in every place. Today, on Rosh Ha-Shanah, as we embark on a new beginning, we are summoned to take responsibility for our individual lives and for our relationships, and also for our actions – and, just as important, our inaction – in relation to others in the wider society and in the world around us. May the call of the shofar inspire us all to rise to the challenge.

And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

Rosh Ha-Shanah Shacharit 5773 – 17th September 2012

[1] See ‘People Today and the Jewish Bible: From A Lecture Series’ by Martin Buber (November 1926) pp. 4-21 in Scripture and Translation by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, translated by Lawrence Rosenwald with Everett Fox (Indiana University Press; Indianapolis,1994).

[2] See, especially, Stephen Hawking’s, A Brief History of Time: From Big Bang to Black Holes. First published in 1988

[3] See ’Making Trouble from Day One: Re-Reading the Creation Stories in Genesis’ in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul, 2012), for an in-depth treatment of Genesis chapters 1 to 3.

[4] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5. The Mishnah was edited around the year 200 CE.

[5] 1948, article 1.

[6] July 4th 1776. See http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/

[7] See the Pelican Classics edition, edited by Miriam Kramnick (Penguin Books, 1978).

[8] 28 June 1969. See www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-stonewall-riot

[9] See www.jglg.org.uk/

[10] The 1967 Sexual Offences Act was an outcome of the 1957 Wolfenden Report, which recommended that ‘homosexual acts’ between consenting adults in private should be legalised. At the same time, heavier offences were instituted for sexual activity conducted in public places. See www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/overview/sexuality20thcentury/

[11] See www.stonewall.org.uk/at_home/hate_crime_domestic_violence_and_criminal_law/2643.asp

[12] See ‘Marriage by any other name’ in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul, 2012), for another approach to the case for Equal Marriage.

[13] See Liberal Judaism e-bulletin, 13.09.12. See also: http://www.liberaljudaism.org/news/588-a-summary-of-liberal-judaisms-response-to-the-governments-equal-marriage-consultation.html

[14] The death penalty is still in force in five countries, including, Sudan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and lesbian and gay people continue to be punished with imprisonment in 72 countries, according to the report published by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association – see: http://ilga.org/historic/Statehomophobia/ILGA_map_2009_A4.pdf

[15] The Moscow city government argues that the gay parade would risk causing public disorder and that most Muscovites do not support such an event. Russia’s best-known gay rights campaigner, Nikolay Alexeyev, had gone to court hoping to overturn the city council’s ban on gay parades. He had asked for the right to stage such parades for the next 100 years. On Friday, 14th August he had said he would go back to the European Court in Strasbourg to push for a recognition that Moscow’s ban on gay pride marches – past, present and future – was unjust. Alexeyev also opposes St Petersburg’s ban on spreading “homosexual propaganda”. The European Court of Human Rights has told Russia to pay him damages. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19293465

[16] On August 3rd 2012, Shafilea Ahmed’s parents, Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed, were sentenced to life in prison with a minimum term of 25 years for killing their teenage daughter. See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/aug/03/shafilea-ahmed-parents-guilty-murder