In his February 13 column “Communal Confusion,” the Forward’s David Klinghoffer took aim at Jewish groups that back gay marriage. Klinghoffer argued that the Torah’s disapproval of homosexuality is clear, and that on gay issues these Jewish groups have privileged an alternative set of values over Judaism. “The reigning value of the Jewish organizations you most often hear about is the presumed right of every person not to suffer any hint of disapproval that might make him feel ‘uncomfortable.’ Not having an official, sanctioned, applauded and hailed ‘right’ to their sexual union makes gays feel down in the dumps.” He concluded: “Hey, I don’t like feeling uncomfortable either. But comfort is not a fruitful value on which to build the whole structure of a society’s laws.” Klinghoffer’s column prompted the following exchange with the Forward’s managing editor, Wayne Hoffman.
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“Down in the dumps” is how you feel when someone says your spouse is a bad cook. Outraged is how you feel when someone says your spouse is not your spouse. When my country sells a message of inclusion and equality but denies my basic human rights, that doesn’t make me feel “down in the dumps.” When my religious community prides itself on its unity and passion for social justice but declares me unqualified to be a full participant in its rites, and declares my relationships unworthy of recognition, that doesn’t make me feel “down in the dumps.”
You may believe that gays are not worthy of equal treatment, you may support anti-gay discrimination and you may justify your feelings in Torah — all fair game for a columnist — but to trivialize the discussion by using such glib phrases is unconscionable.
Yes, gay people lose some “comfort” when straight people say we violate scripture and should be castigated for our sins. Similarly, Jews lose some “comfort” when Christians say we violate scripture and will spend eternity in hell. But while for American Jews the problems typically end with this discomfort, for gays that is only the beginning.
Straight Americans take their religious tenets and legally enforce them by going on to say that because gays violate religious scripture, they can be denied other citizens’ secular rights of privacy and sexual self-determination, denied equal housing and fair employment, denied (dishonorably!) military service and security clearances, denied the right to keep their biological children in custody disputes and denied the right to adopt no matter how qualified they are, denied the tax breaks, immigration privileges, inheritance rights, insurance benefits and other perks that accrue to married straight couples — including criminals, the mentally incompetent and those who violate most if not all of the Ten Commandments.
What if lawmakers — representing America’s majority-Christian populace — passed laws, or amended the Constitution, to restrict Jews from equal housing, employment and religious rights, arguing that since Jews are hell-bound, they should be forbidden to marry, have children, adopt or teach for fear of spreading their demonic beliefs? Or that because Jews do not worship Jesus, they cannot be trusted to defend this Christian nation, and should therefore be denied military service? Would you tell Jews that their concerns were a petty matter of “comfort”?
“Comfort” is the least important element of the push for gay civil rights. In fact, quite the opposite: Anti-gay discrimination is about making sure those who condemn homosexuality don’t feel uncomfortable, being forced to accept that sodomites might rent out their basement apartments or lesbians might be bagging their groceries — or even, horror of horrors, that gay couples might file joint tax returns.
My comfort isn’t the issue. If you want to stand on the street corner or on the bima and tell me that my relationships go against the Torah, go ahead. But in the meantime, how about giving me the equal rights I deserve by simple virtue of being an American citizen and a human being?
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I’m glad you shared your thoughts with me — it’s important and helpful to be reminded that there are readers for whom my words aren’t just about a political or religious “issue” but instead touch directly on the most intimate aspects of their lives.
In this case, we do see things differently, but I certainly respect your view, even while disagreeing. My response would be twofold. The gay-marriage question has a religious and a civil aspect. On the religious side, I don’t think I would feel “outraged” if some clergyman, Jewish or Christian, told me my wife isn’t really my wife. I don’t think I’d even feel down in the dumps. If his whole perspective was so different from mine, which it would have to be for him to say that, I don’t think I’d pay him any attention.
On the civil side, I think you rightly speak of the legal “perks that accrue to married straight couples.” Withholding these “perks” from gay partners is a long way from the nightmare fascist Christian state that you envision. No one is preventing you from doing anything you want with your chosen partner. You are simply being denied an official stamp of approval or recognition, and “perks.” Or looking at it another way, you have precisely the same rights that I do: the right to marry a member of the opposite sex and then to receive the perks.
That having been said, I didn’t mean to be glib or insensitive. Thank you for reminding me of the need to express thoughts in as sensitive a way as the topic allows.
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Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Yes, we do see things differently.
Clergymen who rail against gays in churches and synagogues wouldn’t bother me if only they saw such a clear division between religious and civil issues as you claim to. But religious leaders and their fervent adherents are (successfully) applying tremendous pressure to change America’s civil laws, using religious scripture as their guide. If I had full civil rights as an American citizen, I’d be content to deal with the fact that certain religious leaders didn’t recognize my relationships. But I don’t enjoy that civil equality, thanks in large part to people who blur the lines between church and state by basing secular law on religious tracts.
Fundamentalists and their political lackeys are actively changing the civil laws of this country. The federal Defense of Marriage Act passed just eight years ago. Anti-gay-marriage laws have been enacted in 38 states since then. Congress will soon consider a constitutional amendment, endorsed by the president this week, to ban gay marriage. These are unprecedented, proactive steps designed to codify and make explicit the de facto discrimination that has always reigned. Making inequality the explicit law of the land is new, and fighting against this move is, I believe, vital for anyone concerned with civil equality and human rights.
The question is not whether you would be outraged if a rabbi told you that your wife was not your wife, but rather whether you would be outraged if the government — using rabbinic law as its rationale — told you that your wife was not your wife, and that all the benefits you had assumed were your birthright were suddenly revoked. If she couldn’t visit you in the hospital, inherit your property, get a green card, adopt your children from an earlier marriage or share your health insurance. These “perks” are hardly insignificant; if they were frivolous niceties, there wouldn’t be such a loud reaction against granting them to gay couples.
That said, I believe your argument that gay people and straight people already have equal rights — the right to heterosexual marriage — is specious, no more logical than contending that Saudi Arabia has freedom of religion because people of all faiths are equally entitled to practice Islam.
The right for consenting adults to marry the partner of their choice is, to me, a fundamental human right. You may disagree and say that gay people should not have that choice and should not be entitled to the “perks” that straight people receive. But please don’t call this equality. The inequality may be justified and defensible in your eyes, but it is inequality nonetheless; if you firmly believe that such inequality is justified, stand proud in its defense, but don’t pretend that black is white.
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I see two fundamental differences of perspective between us that probably bar any kind of reasoned resolution.
First, we seem to live in alternative realities. In your reality, it’s fundamentalists who are trying to “change the civil laws of this country.” In my reality, civil laws have always withheld this stamp of approval from same-sex partners. Very recently, a couple of states and their courts have tried to “change the civil laws” to give that stamp of approval. You speak of “benefits you had assumed were your birthright” being “revoked.” Growing up, why did you ever assume that marrying another man was your “birthright” — only to find that this “birthright” had shockingly been “revoked”?
Second, you adduce your own opinion as a kind of revelation. You say your right to marry any consenting adult you like is “a fundamental human right.” Who gave you this right? It’s not a legal right, obviously, nor has it ever been. So it’s a moral right, then? And where would this moral right come from? The God of the Bible? I don’t think so. From some other Source, then? And just how are you channeling your revelations from this Source? Or do you mean it’s simply your desire to have this right under the law? That I understand. Then let’s take a vote on it. If an amendment to the Constitution is passed defining a marriage as between a man and a woman only, then we’ll know for sure you have no right to society’s congratulations for marrying a member of your own sex.