In Judaism, Love Doesn’t Always Win

Plenty of Jewish groups are citing our religious tradition in backing the U.S. gay marriage ruling, but that's not what the religion really says.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran
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People take part in the annual LGBT Pride Parade in Milan, June 27, 2015.
People take part in the annual LGBT Pride Parade in Milan, June 27, 2015.Credit: AFP
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran

The Jewish soul’s innate concern for others, especially for the disenfranchised or oppressed, has surely played a lead role in American Jewish support for same-sex marriage in recent years.

According to data gathered in 2014 by the Public Religion Research Institute, some 77 percent of American Jews at the time expressed support for redefining marriage to include same-sex partners. And no less than 13 Jewish groups joined in an amicus brief filed in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, arguing for the right to same-sex marriage.Typical of the Jewish organizational responses was the American Jewish Committee’s tweet on the day of the ruling that “For 109 years AJC has stood for liberty and human rights. Today is a happy day for that proud tradition,” followed by the hashtag #LoveWins.

The three Jewish members of the court, moreover, were part of the majority that ruled that same-sex couples have the same right to marriage as a man and a woman.

The ruling was loudly celebrated by those Americans, those groups and, less loudly but no less surely, by those justices.

However, all of this begs the question of what Jewish religious tradition, which some invoked to support gay marriage, really has to say on the matter.

To be sure, it is true, as liberal Jewish groups like to point out, that the Torah teaches us human beings were created, as per Genesis 1:27, “in the image of God.”

And that idea should indeed guide us in our interactions with others, even others of whose behavior we may disapprove. But it should also be rather self-evident that respecting the humanity and potential holiness of every human does not somehow grant automatic imprimatur to whatever any human does.

Agudath Israel of America, the organization I’m privileged to serve – and the only Jewish group to file an amicus brief before the High Court arguing against gay marriage – put it pithily in a statement issued shortly after the ruling.

“The issue here is not whether all human beings are created in the Divine Image, or whether they have inherent human dignity,” the statement reads. “Of course they are, of course they do. The issue is whether the Torah sanctions homosexual conduct or recognizes same gender unions. It does not.”

This remains the incontrovertible, if for some uncomfortable, fact. Not all love, at least in the Torah’s view, wins. Even the highest court in the land presumably concedes that there are sincerely loving unions, such as incestuous or multi-partner ones, that are against the law in all 50 states and thus denied the option of marriage.

So, with all due respect to the American Jewish Committee and the others who extolled the winning nature of love, the expression of some affections, deep and strong as they may be, run afoul of what society considers acceptable.

Jewish religious tradition does not consider homosexuality – the desire for intimacy with a member of one’s own sex – to be wrong; it is, after all, an inclination, not an act. A homosexual act, however – whether by a homosexual or a heterosexual – is considered a sin. In fact, few moral precepts are as deeply rooted in the Torah as the one forbidding Jews – and non-Jews as well, since it is part of the Seven Noahide Commandments governing all humankind – from engaging in homosexual behavior.

The stance of the scriptures is well-known and unequivocal. And the Midrash associates homosexual acts with the “Generation of the Flood” in Noah’s time, and with Canaanite peoples whose behavior defiled the Holy Land and caused their expulsion A statement in the Talmud asserts that one of human society’s redeeming qualities has been its refusal to formalize unions between gay men. Like the Supreme Court has just done.

And so, despite some Jewish organizations and movements embracing homosexual unions as cause to celebrate, Judaism’s rejection of this is undeniable; it is no less a part of the Jewish faith than any of the Torah’s other imperatives.

Maintaining that position in the face of societal sea-change is, unfortunately, a recipe for garnering opprobrium. But the Jews’ forefather Abraham was known as the “Ivri” – the “other sider,” because, Jewish tradition explains, he didn’t shy from standing up for his God and truth even when the rest of the world remained opposed.

By remaining faithful to our religious heritage, Jews have in the past found themselves on what many considered the “wrong” side of history. Now, that’s where we Orthodox find ourselves once again.

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs and blogs at His most recent collection of essays is entitled “It's All in the Angle” (Judaica Press, 2012).

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