Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The revolution will not be televised

Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History, has written an oped in today's Times. She argues that same-sex marriage is not the revolution that its opponents claim it is:

But in this case, Dr. Dobson's warnings come 30 years too late. Traditional marriage, with its 5,000-year history, has already been upended. Gays and lesbians, however, didn't spearhead that revolution: heterosexuals did.

The real revolution was turning marriage into a relationship between two equal partners rather than between a powerful husband and an obedient wife. Once that was done, disregarding the genders of the partners is a very simple change; in Massachusetts, they just replaced "Bride" and "Groom" on the marriage license application with "Party A" and "Party B".

I've been arguing this for a while in regard to Jewish marriage. In the liberal Jewish world, the paradigm shift in how we think about marriage is a fait accompli. Even if our wedding ceremonies echo the traditional kiddushin and nisu'in on the surface, we now conceptualize the transaction as a merger rather than an acquisition. Combine this with the fact that we now have an egalitarian approach to gender: other than areas that are limited biologically (pregnancy, circumcision), no one is excluded from a role on the basis of his/her gender. Women can be rabbis, and men can be primary-caregiver parents. Putting these two together, marriage without regard to gender follows naturally.

Therefore, if one wants to take issue with same-sex marriage, one should take issue not with the unrevolutionary development of same-sex marriage itself, but with the revolution that preceded it. And that's precisely what the opponents of same-sex marriage seem to be doing under the surface, both in the political realm and the Jewish realm. Even though they have already lost the main battle about the equality of men and women, they have found a new front on which to continue this battle. Even if the Massachusetts ruling (etc.) is just a cosmetic change codifying into law what is already well-established in society, they are fighting against that last step.


  1. Yes, but until we stop male genital in the Jewish community, we will never be egalitarian.

    I'm sure progressives like yourself will be fine with admitting that the Jewish community has problem in that regard, being that you are so concerned with gender issues, and would never deny boys the same rights and concerns.

  2. Male genital mutiliation, that is. AKA circumcision.

  3. Thinking of the evolution of marriage as a shift from acquisition to merger is a beautiful thought experiment. Another thought experiment would be to reconcile the role of the state in what is essentially a religious commitment with the principle of separation of church and state,

    If marriage is a religious comitment, it should be beyond the regulation of the state. (State restriction of marriage would be the equivalent to religious persecution.)

    The state is certainly entitled and obliged to regulate partnership agreements, which may or may not be marriage. But the state is in error to limit such agreements to marriage or to presume to put limits on the ability of religious institutions to consecrate relationships.

    Thus, I am suggesting that the state has an obligation to provide a mechanism for individuals to form and dissolve domestic partnerships for purposes of sharing and sheltering resources; that these partnerships may or may not coincide with a religious commitment and may or may not include a sexual component. (These latter two criteria should be irrelevant as far as the state is concerned.)

    In this scenario, the decision to create dependencies or share health benefits is a secular decision. In this scenario, it is our responsibility as members of a Jewish community to wrestle with our texts and determine whether we can bless unions of men and men and women and women. The state is not entitled to intervene; it has neither a voice nor a veto.