by: David Harris-Gershon on March 1st, 2014 | 1 Comment »
A survey published this week by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) confirmed what several other polls have shown: that a majority of Americans – 53 percent – now support marriage equality.
However, perhaps the most interesting finding in PRRI’s survey was this: a staggering 83 percent of Jewish Americans support marriage equality, more than any other religious group in the United States. (White Roman Catholics are next in line, at 58-percent support, while all Protestant denominations are below 50 percent.)
Why do Jews overwhelmingly support marriage equality, particularly given that most negative views on homosexuality in our culture originate from the Hebrew bible? On the surface, one could point to Pew’s recent survey of Jewish life in America, which reveals that 62 percent of Jews feel that “being Jewish” is more about culture/ancestry than religion.
One could also point to American Jews’ historic liberal leanings, with 70 percent of Jews today identifying as Democrats (versus 22 percent who identify as Republicans).
However, the truth on this issue goes much deeper, and is far more interesting than these relational figures. It has to do with how Judaism has radically reinterpreted the biblical view of gay sex, which on the surface seems unequivocal and cringe-worthy. Allow me to briefly explain.
In Leviticus, the biblical view on gay sex could not be clearer. When first mentioned, it is sandwiched between prohibitions against bestiality and child sacrifice. And when it is next mentioned, it’s an “abhorrent” act so severe as to merit the death penalty.
Now, the Hebrew word used to describe gay sex (תועבה) literally means ‘abomination.’ It’s a word used to describe many acts prohibited by God in the bible. However, the Rabbis of the Talmud (~700 C.E.) did something radical: with regard to gay sex, they reinterpreted the word, explaining that it doesn’t really mean ‘abomination,’ but instead is a contraction for three Hebrew words (תועאה אתה בה) meaning ‘you are straying.’
What are men who have sex straying from, according to the Rabbis? Simple: the biblical mandate to procreate. Meaning: the Rabbis of the Talmud a) recognized gay sex as a legitimate human desire, b) removed the ‘abomination’ stigma, and c) removed the biblically-mandated death penalty, as was their custom.
Now, this may not seem progressive to our eyes – nor would the span of Jewish commentary on this issue over the last thousand years. However, this radical reinterpretation represents something both fascinating and instructive: Jews have always been willing to create complex, legal loopholes to extricate ourselves from biblical commands that seem, well, impossible. And Judaism has structurally supported this.
Which leads us back to American Jews’ staggering support for marriage equality. That support is no doubt a result of liberal leanings and cultural identifications which often trump religious ones. However, those liberal leanings and cultural identifications haven’t developed in a democratic vacuum. They are borne from a tradition willing to reinterpret legal codes in order to protect individuals’ right to life and dignity.
Even if those legal codes come from God.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, just out from Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.