If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of thousands of sermons being prepared for this Shabbat all over the United States. After all, the homily practically writes itself: the eponymous hero of this week’s Torah portion, Phinehas, is a pure zealot, a champion of sexual morality, a warrior for traditional marriage.
Except he’s not. At least not the way the Western world talks about it.
Now, we could argue about the simple meaning of the text, which indicates that God’s anger is all about the idolatry and blasphemy, that the Peor incident is about (Baal) Peor, not his groupies. But let’s follow the hermeneutical route, which takes Phinehas’s action as a template. The Mishna (Sanhedrin 9:6) dictates:
He who has intercourse with a Syrian woman, the zealots strike him.
Maimonides also endorses this law a thousand years later; interestingly, R. Joseph Karo omits this from Shulchan Arukh, but R. Moses Isserles mentions it there twice. Of course, it does require the couple to be in flagrante delicto before a full minyan (quorum), which I believe only happens at the most debauched Purim parties.
In any case, Phinehas is not fighting for traditional marriage; he is fighting against interfaith intercourse–which may not even be a Torah prohibition, but that’s a topic for another day. Of course, the Defense of Marriage Act never had a problem with that; in fact, it consecrated all unions between one man and one woman. This is particularly striking in the response of Agudath Israel of America to the ruling:
Society’s mores may shift and crumble but eternal verities exist. One is marriage, the union of a man and a woman. Its sanctity may have been grievously insulted by the High Court today, but that sanctity remains untouched.
So, is Aguda now upset that unions between Jews and non-Jews will not be recognized by the state? Does that wound them? Who exactly invests that with sanctity, in their view?
The response of the Orthdox Union is less oblique:
[W]e reiterate the historical position of the Jewish faith, enunciated unequivocally in our Bible, Talmud and Codes, which forbids homosexual relationships and condemns the institutionalization of such relationships as marriages. Our religion is emphatic in defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Our beliefs in this regard are unalterable.
Ah, but you might say: we still want non-Jews to be good Noahides, and according to our laws, a Noahide man should not be marrying a male. Of course, he would have every right to marry as many females as he wants (including his daughter). But if we truly apply Noahide law, as codified by Maimonides, most of the world would be on death row:
This applies to one who forcefully robs an individual or steals money, a kidnapper, an employer who withholds his worker’s wages and the like, even a worker who eats from his employer’s produce when he is not working. In all such cases, he is liable and is considered as a robber… Similarly, he is liable for stealing an object worth less than a penny. Thus, if one Noahide stole an object worth less than a penny and another stole it from him, they are both executed because of it.
It is dangerous indeed for us to theorize about what laws Jews should support for society as a whole. For millennia we had the luxury of not being asked; Saladin’s vizier was not asking Maimonides for legal opinions, but medical ones. Now, after emancipation, we have the vote and our say in democratic societies. But how should we use it?
While serving as a rabbi in Canada in late 2004 (at Kitchener’s Beth Jacob Congregation), I was approached to take a stand against same-sex marriage. I thought long and hard about it, and then I stood up that weekend to give a sermon. It was Shabbat Hanuka.
I spoke of the amazing regard the sages of the Talmud had for Alexander the Great, whose name appears 18 times there. Indeed, the Yiddish version, Sender, is used to this very day. But why would this pan-sexual conqueror be a hero of Jewish history?
The answer, I still maintain, is that Alexander let the Jews be. That is all we have ever looked for from foreign rulers. Alexander may have been a true disciple of Aristotle, but he was not a zealot. That honor, of course, belongs to Antiouchus, the bad guy from the Hanuka story.
If you truly believe marriage is holy, then you should stop looking for the state to define it. If you demand that the state define it for you, then your holiness will ultimately be defined by the state. In our collective historical experience, that does not end well for the Jews.