Friday, 22 June 2012

Jesus, Divorce and Equal Marriage - A Rabbi reflects on a Christian 'debate'

Rabbi James Baaden
The last couple of weeks has seen much debate concerning the Church of England's and to a lesser extent the Methodist Church's responses to the Government's consulation process on Same-Sex Marriage. One of the leading Christian campaigners for equality on this issue has been the radical social justice think-tank Ekklesia. On 12 June Ekklesia published its response to the Church of England's contibution to the process. 'CofE and same-sex marriage: Serving society or protecting privilege?'

In a guest post  Rabbi James Baaden of Wolfson College,Oxford and  Sha'areiTsedek Synagogue in north London offers a critique to some of the arguments employed in Ekklesia's piece and that social justice Christians often employ when debating these issues - setting up Jesus over and against the Judaism of his time.

In the process James attempts to point the way to some alternative methodologies for reading Biblical texts which may help open up new spaces for innovation, study and dialogue, and likewise advance the cause  of  both same-sex marriage and gender equality.

I have read with interest Ekklesia's response to the Church of England statement opposing same-sex marriage.

Whilst I support the cause which Ekklesia seeks to advance, I am intrigued and rather disturbed by the emphasis on Jesus as a reformer who "redefined" the "legalism" of marriage as understood in the "Old Testament". As in so many areas, the implication is that the religion of the Old Testament was something rather nasty and was replaced by something thoroughly nice in the form of the changes introduced by Jesus. This is a very common model and maybe it helps advance Ekklesia's cause and its concerns, but I don't like it - and I don' t think it's accurate.

The truth is that the "Old Testament", whether legalistic or not, says nothing about marriage or weddings. There are no words in Biblical Hebrew for "marriage", "to marry", "wedding", etc. No weddings as such are described. Instead, men simply "take" (or sometimes "lift", "pick up") women - often more than one (consider the example of Jacob - or Abraham). Accordingly, a man was also able to "dismiss" or "send away" a woman. This is what we encounter at least in the Pentateuch. To my mind it sounds rather far away from what we call marriage. And frankly, I think it's a pity that we forget this. On both sides of the current debate (if that's what it is), Christians eagerly cite the Bible and Biblical teaching - but sometimes I wonder how much they actually read it. At any rate, I think that it would be quite helpful and quite liberating if people accepted that the Hebrew Bible simply doesn't know "marriage" and doesn't even have a word for it. This creates a blank space - a space in which people had to and have to respond to the needs of their times and create new institutions, new possibilities, new practices.

Additionally, I am not sure it is very helpful or very truthful to tell people additionally - as Ekklesia does - that the "Old Testament" view of "marriage" was marked by "power and legalism". Really? Legalism? Where are there laws about marriage in the "Old Testament"? I will gladly accept that there are plenty of laws, precepts, rules, judgments - but not in connection with marriage.  Secondly, why the emphasis on power? We have a number of interesting man-woman relationships, indeed partnerships in the Hebrew Bible: Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Tizippora, Hannah and Elkanah, David and Bathsheba. They are described in different ways. And of course, they often existed in the context of arrangements which we would call polygamous. But the women are full characters and powerful agents. Deborah, after all, is a judge, a prophet, and a military leader - her husband Lapidoth scarcely registers. Was Deborah subject to some sort of "legalism" or "power" which was then radically reformed by Jesus? I'm not so sure.

With regard to what's seen as the "religion of the Old Testament" as known today, namely Judaism, please note that Liberal synagogues in this country - i.e. the Union of Liberal & Progressive Synagogues dating back to 1902 - have been fully in favour of same-sex marriage for quite a number of years and already responded very positively to the government's most recent proposals.  The Reform Synagogues (the "Movement for Reform Judaism") likewise support same-sex commitment ceremonies and indeed marriage equality in law.

Personally, I do not see Judaism of the past 2000 years as the successor to the Israelite religion of the Hebrew Bible, but that's another issue. Ekklesia in its statements clearly seeks to depict history in this way - with Jesus as a reformer who rejected the "legalism" and "power" of the "Old Testament". I am not comfortable with this characterisation - and I do not think it serves this particular cause very well.

There are times, perhaps, when it is in order to speak of "legalism" or extreme "power" imbalances in the Hebrew Bible, and Jews do not shy away from them, I would say. However, I often find that when Jesus is brought into the picture, the emphasis is placed in some startlingly odd places - which seem wrong to me.
Above all, I feel that there is a notable gap in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), an absence, around the subject of what we now call "marriage".

And we may contemplate this gap as something positive:  We have an important open space before us - a space where Jews and Christians who really love and really read the Bible can meet and arrive at some, well, new insights.

Anyhow, the next part of my reflections: with regard to what we call "homosexuality", there is again no such word in the Hebrew Bible - nothing even close to it. And this is not splitting hairs - we all use the term "homosexuality" (and "gay sexuality", "lesbianism" etc) to speak of identity, orientation, relationships, community allegiance, love, desire, and yes, certain sexual acts. And therefore it is vitally important to accept that the Hebrew Bible knows nothing about this complex combination of elements which we call "homosexuality". Instead, two verses in Leviticus, in the midst of a text focusing on the duty of the ancient priests of Biblical/Israelite religion and the threat posed by the idolatrous cult of Baal, specify that an individual male should not "lie" with another male mishkavei isha - literally "in the places where a woman lies", "in the lying-places of a woman".

Our Judaism of these past 2000 years is of course not the Israelite religion of the Bible - we have no priests, no Temple, no altar, no rite of sacrifice, no pilgrimages, no incense. For two millennia, Rabbinic Judaism has been built around rabbis, synagogues and prayers - the first two never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, the third little touched upon. Thus Rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism of these past 2000 years, is in not the "religion of the Old Testament"; it is far more the creation of the rabbis of antiquity, the sources quoted in later (post-Biblical) foundational texts such as Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash.  These rabbis who created Rabbinic Judaism were very intrigued by this explicit qualification in the verses in Leviticus. Clearly, the two verses did not simply say "you must not lie with another male" - that would have been adequate, the obvious way to prohibit male-male sexual activity.

So what did the additional words mean? Some thought that they described real places where a woman has actually lain with a man; others thought that they related to the hermaphrodite, the tumtum, a person with two sets of genitalia, two sets of sexual "places [or ways] to lie". Additionally, we could say that half of what we now understand by "homosexuality" is female homosexuality, lesbianism, and there is absolutely no Hebrew Bible text which can be construed as even mentioning it. Again, we have a void, an empty space.

Yes, the rabbis (and here I am thinking principally of the sources named in the Talmud) did take a dim view specifically of male-male sexual acts leading to orgasm, but they seem to have related this to the story of Onan and their more general opposition to non-procreative sexual acts. They did not cite Leviticus 18:22 as their proof-text. Across its 30 to 40 volumes, the Talmud makes very little mention of Leviticus 18:22 - and the ancient Midrashic text accompanying the book of Leviticus, Sifra, completely ignores the verse.
Again, my point is to say that there is a gap, an empty space, a silence here; and to refute the ubiquitous claim that "homosexuality" has been condemned and forbidden in all our sources since - well, Since Time Immemorial.

Once we see that there was this absence in the text, this gap, this free and open space, we can see that various inspired figures with questions in their minds - and I believe, driven by a desire to help real human beings - stepped into it and began to create and innovate. One was Jesus. The others were the early "Sages" before the era of the rabbis, and then those subsequent rabbis of the ancient world - the "Tannaim" of the Mishnah and the "Amoraim" of the Talmud.

Here I think the example of "divorce" is a good one. But I feel the decisions of Rabbi Jesus and of the founders of Rabbinic Judaism went in rather different directions. However, their concern was the same: they wanted to help women - and they knew that Biblical Scripture authorised a man to send away or dismiss a female companion. As I see it, Jesus dealt with the dilemma by appearing to abolish this "right" of men, insisting that the union of man and woman must be permanent. The other rabbis, however, addressed the issue by creating a new "right" for women: they did not give a woman the right to dismiss her male partner, no - because this was not explicitly allowed for in the Bible - but they did give a woman the right to demand and secure a "divorce" from her "husband": that is, the woman acquired the absolute right to be freed from the union, and though the man was the one doing the severing of the bond, releasing the woman, he was required in certain circumstances to carry out her demand. They saw that there was a gap here in the Biblical text - the situation of the woman, her needs and her welfare, were simply not addressed - and they created something new - something new which in no sense ran against the existing Biblical text: they added to it.

And to support them in their efforts, they had the clear evidence from their Hebrew Bible that women, however much they appeared to be treated as the property of men, transferred from father to husband, were nevertheless powerful independent agents, in numerous cases possessed of a strength equal to that of a man - able to be queens, judges, military commanders, and prophets. As I say, Debora embodied several of these roles - whilst her husband Lapidoth was a bit of a cipher. Thus it was clearly in order to enable women to obtain their release from unsatisfactory unions.

Personally, I prefer a "legal" view and indeed perhaps a "legalistic" view which allows for divorce - and this is based utterly on my own knowledge of life and my dealings with my fellow human beings and the reality of relationships. But I think that Jesus was offering a "counsel of perfection", maybe - his own way of being helpful and dealing with the difficulties which many women faced. But in this case, I prefer the decisions of the rabbis in favour of divorce, rather than the perfect vision of permanent marriage.

At any rate, I feel strongly that when we look back to the time when both Christianity and our form of Judaism, namely Rabbinic Judaism, came into being - roughly 2000 years ago - we find this open space, this place where wise and inspired teachers were grappling with ways to deal with the real problems and real needs of real human beings - and confronting a text which did not "legislate" for all cases or answer all questions. Instead, that text left gaps, gaps for others to fill in - in their different ways. 

To my mind, this is a very freeing and empowering way to look at the Biblical text and to understand our own situations in relation to it today. Plenty may disagree with me on that - but I feel that what I have just offered is a very neutral and accurate summary of what is in the Hebrew Bible: no one can jump in and tell me that there really is a discussion of "homosexuality" in the Bible - or that there really are "laws about marriage". There is simply silence. Jesus and the rabbis tried to fill that silence with some helpful and innovative opinions and decisions - as do we today.


Unknown said...

More like this!

Unknown said...

To be fair though, Symon doesn't set up an OT/NT binary in that article. He refers to 'culture' obliquely. But I think the general point stands and needs to be made. Radical Christians can have a tendency to contrast OT Judaism with Radical Jesus.

Jeni Parsons said...

excellent article - the beauty of space and silence which allows us to think creatively, theologically and pastorally. Thank you.

Ray Gaston said...

Keith, I think James' point is clear. The statement below falls clearly into a false understanding of Jesus' context and a MASSIVE overstatement of what can be deduced from Jesus' sayings - which fails to deal with the complexities and interesting alternative understandings in 1st century Judaism that James goes onto outline. Symon may not directly talk of 'legalism etc' but that is at root the hermeneutic he is relying upon one that is rampant in liberal Christian understandings.

'Jesus shocked his listeners with his comments on marriage. In a time when only men could initiate divorce – often throwing their wives into social disgrace and even poverty – he criticised casual divorce. In a culture that blamed women for giving men lustful thoughts, he encouraged people to take responsibility for how they dealt with their own thoughts, and be aware of what they did in their hearts.

In other words, Jesus challenged relationships based on power and money in favour of relationships based on love, equality and self-control. It might be said that he redefined marriage.'

Anyone who wants to look deeper into these issues see previous posts on this blog about Amy Jill Levine's book 'The Misunderstood Jew - The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus'

and a posting about the excellent 'Jewish Annotated New Testament'

Symon Hill said...

Many thanks for your article, James. Thanks for making me think through my own article in more detail. I am sorry I have not responded sooner to your criticism. I wanted to wait unti I had time to reply in some detail.

You can read my response at

Unknown said...

my copy of Amy Jill Levine's book "The Misunderstood Jew" has arrived. :)

Julie Mansfield said...

James & Ray,
Your post and your blog are just so encouraging and exciting to me as someone who feels like a pariah in the Christian community. I can’t thank you enough. I study the Bible with an amazing bloke called Andrew Parker . Andrew has a new book coming out at the end of the year, 'The Rape of Dinah & other strange Bible stories’ in which he says,
Moving from the Old Testament to the New raises the question of the relationship between the Testaments themselves. Most people assume Jesus founded a new religion, Christianity which was a new and improved form of Judaism. But this flies in the face of everything found in the texts. For the New Testament itself makes it unmistakably clear Jesus’ intention was rather to fulfil the Mosaic tradition adding nothing to the Law and the Prophets. It explains he set about doing this by calling on his fellow countrymen to join him in collectively performing as Yahweh’s light; his objective being to demonstrate to the (Gentile) world what ‘loving the neighbour as the self’ consisted of. In doing this, his hope was that Yahweh would vindicate the exercise by bringing in his Kingdom, as he had always in the past promised he would do.

But most folk think he is mad! I am so glad to have found your blog.

Colin Smith said...

The literal meaning of the words “mishkavei isha” in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is “lyings of woman” or “the lyings of a woman”. Papers by Saul Olyan and Jerome Walsh show that the verses only prohibit a male having sex (lying) with another male when the sex is the lyings of a woman, that is, how a woman has sex (being penetrated). So the prohibition is on penetrative intercourse between men. Details of the papers and their reasoning are on