Although I am not surprised that the Minnesota Rabbinical Association decided to vote No on the proposed marriage amendment that would define marriage between a man and a woman, it is great news to hear. You can read the news here. Moreover, you can read their proposal over at Jewish Community action, which outlines their rationale for opposing the marriage amendment.
News like this doesn’t surprise me because the Pew Research Center has shown that a majority (75-76%) of the Jewish population has supported same-sex marriage, the group with the largest support of it. Even though the queer politics of same-sex marriage is immensely complicated (that is, same-sex marriage having some deep messianic significance in the queer community and the amount of attention and funding that goes to this issue instead of say poverty, which I think is a far more important queer issue, among many important queer issues, for instance), I still think that stories like this are important to me as a queer and observant Jew. Equally important is the title of the Pew article titled, “Beyond Secular versus Religious.” I think titles like these are important to combat the impression that same-sex marriage is a secular issue or the narrative that same-sex marriage is supported by a secular elite and being forced on religious groups. Therefore, somehow any innovation is constituted as a threat to religious freedom. Polling like this shows, however, that many political issues are not issues of religiosity over against secularity but religious people versus religious people. This isn’t to mitigate the importance of secular or nonreligious voices. However, what it is to point out is that religion should not be used as a linchpin argument. That is, if religiosity is important to us, it should have community value for us, not be something that is forced upon all of America. I recognized that “forced” is a highly contentious term. But it is also clear that the right’s vision of the United States as a Christian nation is a reading of the past that, to use Benjaminian terms attempts to convey to the present how the past “really was” and these totalizing readings of the past tend to end in violence because they flatten out the inherent tensions in history.
To move to the MRA’s rationale is equally significant because it reveals the “flashes of the past” that Benjamin found as a site of potential liberation. The MRA had two principles surrounding their decision Kavod HaBriyot “the dignity of [God’s] Creation” and Lo ta-amod al dam rei-echa “do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds” (Lev 19:16). The importance of the first rationale is significant because it is a specifically halakhic degree employed by rabbis in exceptional circumstances. That is, if Halakha is found to deny the dignity to human creations, or to use Butler’s term, if Halakha renders subjects unintelligible, then by the power of human dignity, Jewish law is suspended. I believe this is an immensely intelligent move on part of the MRA because while it does not deny that Halakha is discriminatory in regards to queer sexual activities, it argues that in this case human dignity trumps halakhic decision making. Moreover, their use of this term brings up “flashes of the past.”
The Association states, “The Jewish community has faced discrimination and therefore we will not stand by while others are targeted.” This leads them to the second principle found in the Torah. This represents the flashes of the past precisely because the Rabbis are recognizing that in this historical moment, that another group is facing discrimination. They are not arguing that this is exactly like the past, but are recognizing that our shared historical experience as the Jewish people has visited upon us disasters. It means that if we are witnesses to the injustices of our own past, it means that we must take a stand against the injustices of the present even if such a decision runs counter to our own traditions.
It is interesting that I am reading about Benjamin and also reading a book entitled Lost Intimacies: Rethinking Homosexuality under National Socialism by William Spurlin. Spurlin employs queer theory to argue that homosexuality in and of itself was not targeted in Nazi Germany but talks about the ways in which sexuality was racialized in Nazi Germany and that it was considered a Jewish invasion upon German sexuality. Moreover, Jewish men in European culture were often feminized and that homosexual men and Jewish men were often considered synonymous because both were too feminine. Spurlin is careful to argue that the persecution of homosexuals was less systematic than that of the Jewish people but he also points out that this persecution was not only real but that we cannot work out oppression on the basis of a single-axis of analysis.
The flashes of the past, at least for me, is that European culture often feminized Jewish men and considered them the root of homosexuality in Europe. This history signifies to me the importance of standing in solidarity with queerness and Judaism. It signifies solidarity and support in the present. For that, I am glad that the MRA evokes the Jewish past in their decision, even if such an evocation fails to mention the intersections of the queer and Jewish communities in Europe. It also means that religiosity moves not only beyond its often scriptural assumptions but also the assumption that religion is solely about faith and towards a sense of shared culture and historical memory.