Seventy Faces of TorahMarriage Equality: Monogamy and Metaphor
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.
As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.”
These are the extraordinary words of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, affirming and establishing the constitutional right to marriage equality in the United States. These words are now posted on my office door in Jerusalem. They ring with prophetic justice and vision; they echo, for me, a deep religious belief. And I could not help but think of them as I read this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan.
Marriage has often been a metaphor for the relationship between God and the Israelites — later, the Jewish people — beginning in the biblical text, and evolving in rabbinic literature and later in mystical literature. We, the children of Israel, the Jewish people, seek this union, based on “the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family” — including a variety of families, all built on love and commitment.
Parashat Va’etchanan is rich with passion and urgency. These are among Moses’ final words to his flock. This is true of the entire book of Deuteronomy, but Va’etchanan has the best “sound bites” and the most powerful passages. It includes the “watchword of our faith,” the Sh’ma (“Listen o Israel, the ‘Lord’ our God is One”); the words of the “Ve’ahavta” prayer; and the Ten Commandments.
It is as if Moses is pleading: If you take anything with you into the Land of Israel, take God’s Oneness, take love for this God and this God’s teachings, and take these 10 core commandments that are the basis of ethical behavior. Because you are in this relationship with God, and yes, it is like a marriage. Moses does not use this word per se, but again and again he asks the children of Israel to listen to, to love, to commit to this One God. The words sh’ma, “listen,” and re’eh, “see,” appear again and again.
Moses is saying, in essence: Be monogamous! This is a long haul, with ups and downs. Do not run after other gods, be steadfast, trust this God. This is a God of history, of justice, of compassion — and that is exactly what this God wants from you!
In this era of rampant divorce and multiple marriages, one can become cynical. Why would anybody choose marriage in the 21st century? The same might be said for sticking with your own religion tradition. And yet, there is something about both marriage and religion that still tugs, that still gives us hope and meaning and order.
In Va’etchanan — which literally means “I pleaded” — Moses pleaded with God one more time to take the Israelites into the Promised Land. No, God wants Moses to make a case for this covenant between God and the Israelites, without his presence in the Holy Land. Joshua will now have the task of keeping the Israelites on the path to the One God, in a land of many temptations and many diversions.
“Two people become something greater than once they were.” This is indeed the essence of a committed, monogamous relationship, each bound to the other for something beyond themselves, in time and space. This too is the essence of religious community, the nature of a group joined together for a greater and long lasting good.
“They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.” This appeal indeed captures our Jewish tradition. Starting with Genesis, the God of Israel has created all human beings in God’s image. The potential is there. And while not all of us behave as if we are walking in God’s image, that was the divine intention. If God is One, as Moses captures so succinctly, then in God’s Oneness, all are equal; regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, nation, or sexual orientation.
The Hebrew Bible is not egalitarian or democratic in 21st-century terms. It is rife with violence, prejudice and patriarchy. And yet, we get glimpses, precious insights of what might be, what could be, as generations of living with biblical interpretation unfold. We struggle with much of the text; we try to reconcile, harmonize and at times embrace what our ancestors could not understand.
Those who originally wrote down and heard the words of the biblical text would not necessarily embrace the recent Supreme Court ruling. But there are enough passages and portions, enough encapsulations of values and aspirations, that allow me and others to remain Jews of complete faith in the One God of justice and compassion. Va’etchanan gives us some of those passages, and perhaps a rudimentary roadmap for applying them: one in which the models of covenant and marriage are at the center.
Luckily and thankfully — and I dare say, thank God — in the U.S., all couples can now have all the benefits and responsibilities of marriage regardless of the individuals’ genders. In the final words of Kennedy’s majority opinion: “The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed. It is so ordered.” Amen, halleluyah — and let’s get back to work to spread freedom, equality and justice for more!
Rabbi Naamah Kelman is dean of Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jerusalem School. Previously, she served as associate dean.