Marriage, Faith, and the Aura of Fatality
To the cynical American, marriage is death. We know this to be true. Flip on any local network at 7:30, and you can watch a rerun of The King of Queens that will tell you the very same thing. If Kevin James’ charmingly gelatinous shenanigans don’t tickle your fancy, change the channel and watch Family Guy, or Everybody Loves Raymond, or even The Addams Family if you require such literalism. Our cultural landscape has informed us that devoting oneself to another person for eternity is tantamount to signing a death certificate, a life condemned to eye-rolling and exasperation. In fact, it’s even in the wedding vow: “till death do us part.”
But to the thousands of Americans swinging signs and waving flags on the Supreme Court Plaza in June of 2015, marriage is about more than the confines of life-and-death. It certainly was for Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff and namesake in the Court decision who sued the state of Ohio for the right to be named on his husband’s death certificate. Though their union had only been recognized for a brief three months (and not even by their home state) the partnership that Jim Obergefell and John Arthur committed themselves to spanned over two decades, and was bound not by any sort of state-sanctioned marriage/death certificate, but by that all-powerful force the poets have told us is stronger than life or death: love.
The t-shirts and placards, the buttons and flags, the rainbow-frosted cupcakes and the appropriately dyed hairdos, all of them preached what has been the message of every fairytale since the beginning of text: love wins. A sweet sentiment, and certainly a symbolic shibboleth that acknowledges, on a national scale, the welcomed entrance of gayness into the American mainstream. But why had legal marriage become such an imperative goal for the homosexual population? Did the same community, not forty years ago, hide in the bathhouses and backdoor clubs of New York Cities and San Franciscos, bent on a life of sexual freeness and liberation from the constraints of the marriage/death cycle? Was the case of Obergefell v. Hodges even necessary? Rabbi Jordan Millstein believes it was.
“It goes to this issue of kedushah,” the Reform Jewish rabbi explains from a diner booth in Tenafly, the New Jersey town where he serves the congregation of Temple Sinai. Kedushah is the Hebrew word for holiness. “What marriage does is establish a covenant which creates what is intended to be a lifelong commitment. I think it’s that commitment that allows for the level of trust, and intimacy, that can allow for kedushah to really be there.” Indeed, marriage has always been deeply imbedded in Jewish custom, as it is in most religious and ethnic tradition, and is enumerated in a passage from the Talmud (a slightly younger and more philosophical companion text to the Hebrew Bible). Known in English as The Obligations without Measure, they are a short set of the most indisputable commandments one can fulfill to serve God, and among them:
“To honor father and mother;
To perform acts of love and kindness;
To attend the house of study daily;
To welcome the stranger;
To visit the sick;
To rejoice with bride and groom;
To console the bereaved;
To pray with sincerity;
To make peace where there is strife.”
Consider three obligations from the midsection of the list: Visit the sick; Rejoice with bride and groom; Console the bereaved. Certainly the framers of the Talmud could not have foreseen how drastically the world would change in the coming millennia, but part of Rabbi Millstein’s mission — and the mission of the Reform Jewish Movement — is to balance tradition with modernity, and find ways in which even modern folk can fulfill God’s commandments. As the end of the Twentieth Century and the bulk of the Twenty-First have displayed, there is often great disparity in who may visit the sick, how we rejoice with bride and groom, and what sort of consolation can been given to the bereaved. These issues do not only manifest the heart of the Obergefell case, but also the case of United States v. Windsor, the 2013 decision which overturned several discriminatory passages from the Defense of Marriage Act.
Edith Windsor, the plaintiff, had married her partner Thea Spyer in Ontario in 2007, a union recognized by their home state of New York. When Spyer passed away in 2009, she left the entirety of her estate to her lawfully-wedded wife, but when Windsor sought the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses, she was barred from doing so because the federal government did not recognize same-sex marriages.
Between bites of a turkey burger sans ketchup or mustard, Rabbi Millstein acknowledges the disparity inscribed in the Torah, and dissects how he became involved in the conversation of gay marriage — an experiment he was already vocally defending in his days at Hebrew Union College, one of two rabbinical seminaries for Reform Jews, located in the lungs of New York’s Greenwich Village. Rabbi Millstein and his wife, Rabbi Paula Feldstein, met as students at HUC in the early 90’s, an era in which all eyes were focused on Greenwich Village, not because of the promising band of up-and-coming rabbis, but because of the plague that had been accosting a different community centered there.
By 1990, more than 120 thousand Americans had died from AIDS-related complications, according to the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Ten years prior, in 1980, the recorded death count from AIDS was a whopping zero. In the final two decades of the Second Millennium, the AIDS epidemic spread rapidly and mercilessly, but not indiscriminately, choosing gay victims far more frequently than any other population group. As an informal capital for gay life, New York City spawned, among other activist organizations, the Gay Mens Health Crisis and ACT-UP, two leagues dedicated to increasing visibility and prevention of the plague in the early 80’s. These activist groups were formed by the allies, friends, and partners of AIDS victims — as well as the victims themselves — who knew firsthand that the unwavering toll of the plague had consequences not just for those afflicted, but to their loved ones as well.
In a time without gay marriage — let alone politicians who would openly condone the so-called “gay lifestyle” — the gay community was tasked with combatting the disparity in compassion that it was receiving. Larry Kramer, founder and later defector of the GMHC, utilized anger and notorious indignance to get the attention of political leaders. But even as AIDS became better known not solely as a gay issue but as a human issue, gay people without legal claim to their lost loved ones were still at a permanent disadvantage. All of Larry Kramer’s anger could not change the fact that those who died at their lover’s side were left with no benefits, no official remembrance, nothing but a pile of expensive medical fees.
While some may have predicted AIDS would end the gay lifestyle — what seemed on the surface to be a shallow and hedonistic bathhouse culture — the plague actually had the opposite effect on the world. It brought homosexuality to light, it dissipated the secrecy around it and forced the issue into conversation. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni writes, “for Americans in the 1980s to care about AIDS, they had to care about homosexuals, and to care about homosexuals, they had to realize how many they knew and loved.”
This was particularly true for Rabbis Millstein and Feldstein, who studied at HUC in 1989, the first year in which the College accepted openly-gay applicants. Gayness was no longer a mysterious moral transgression, but rather the happenstance identity of some of their close friends. As this new crop of thinkers contemplated how Hebrew tradition could serve gay Jews, a similar question was making a glacial yet relentless exodus into the mainstream: how do we recognize this community that, despite its terrible disadvantage and predisposition toward malady, will not die?
Marriage seemed like an appropriate answer to Rabbi Millstein: “I made a decision then that if it ever came up I would officiate.” And true to his word, in 1995, shortly after his ordination, Rabbi Millstein made waves by rejoicing with groom and groom at his first rabbinical job in Chicago. “If we believe,” he explains, “that people who are gay are not only equal, but that their relationships are equal to [those of] heterosexual people, and that there’s the same potential for kedushah in a same-sex relationship as there is in a heterosexual relationship, why would we not do that?”
To be clear, Rabbi Millstein was never an AIDS activist. But his understanding that marriage was not banal, but rather a spiritual and practical tool to, as the Talmud says, “make peace where there is strife,” helped him to remedy the disparity faced by individuals of non-normative sexuality.
To understand this argument fully, we must understand how much the definition of marriage has changed since biblical times. Once a social contract that allowed for the trading of money or cattle in exchange for ownership of a bride, the marriage of modern-day America is intended to be a consensual partnership between two equals. Ideally, participants each choose to take part, and either party may exit the arrangement at any time. This shift would have been impossible were it not for the efforts of the feminist movement, which demanded equality among the sexes, transforming a previously obedience-based patriarchy into an institution of personal choice and mutual respect. Justice Anthony Kennedy writes in his Obergefell opinion:
As women gained legal, political, and property rights, and as society began to understand that women have their own equal dignity, the law of coverture was abandoned…These and other developments in the institution of marriage over the past centuries were not mere superficial changes. Rather, they worked deep transformations in its structure, affecting aspects of marriage long viewed by many as essential.
Kennedy uses the word “dignity” no less than thirty times in his opinion, exploring the changing purpose of marriage, its persevering relevance, and the benefit it continues to offer to lovers living and dead. What plaintiffs Windsor and Obergefell requested from the Supreme Court was nothing more than equal dignity, not just dignity unto their respective marriages, but dignity in the deaths of their loved ones.
Is that it? you may ask. Dignity is what they want? What is dignity? An empty, intangible word, as unknowable as love, or God. How, in the face of injustice, in the face of a crisis as grandiose as AIDS, could gays and lesbians settle for something as insubstantial as dignity? Certainly marriage represents more than the unknowable. Dr. Anthony Petro, professor of religion at Boston University and author of After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality & American Religion, argues that modern marriage can provide the very legal, political, and social benefits that American homosexuals were deprived of during the years of the crisis. In conversation over the phone, Dr. Petro considers whether “marriage and the thought of gay marriage became a part of the agenda for gay political rights precisely because of AIDS and all the legal stumbling blocks that people found themselves in.” What would happen, he asks, when “you’re living in New York in a rent-controlled apartment and your partner gets sick and dies of AIDS, and you’re not on the lease?…Or your partner gets sick, is in the hospital, you make choices about end-of-life care, but you’re not recognized as the family?”
Certainly the bureaucratic repercussions of a cohabited gay existence in the 1980’s and 1990’s were more palpable day-to-day than intangible inequities like a lack of dignity. But marriage was an institution whose relationship to gay America was one of mutual rejection. “If you look back,” he says, “at feminist and then early queer critiques of society in the Sixties and Seventies, marriage is one of the major things that they critiqued as an institution that upheld patriarchy, and an institution that gave a lot of power over to the State to define what a relationship ought to look like.” The fusion of gayness and marriage has not always seemed obvious.
And yet, AIDS continued to take lives even as the Millennium closed, and the justification for condoning a gay way of life could no longer be attributed simply to hedonism. It was, as Larry Kramer described, a “coming-of-age.” When asked about certain conservative gay thinkers mentioned in his book, Dr. Petro reduces the traditionalist argument for same-sex marriage this way: “Gay men had their period where they were promiscuous and insane, and now [they] really [needed] to grow up and be responsible, and what that means is finding a partner, getting married, settling down, and fitting into a particular kind of lifestyle.” His tone while making this statement is almost mocking of the conclusion’s defeatist nature.
So what did the AIDS crisis really show us? Was it a sort of great awakening, like a child losing his golden retriever and discovering that all things must die? Perhaps it was a coming-of-age, a pivot in the trajectory of the former Sexual Revolution that forced awareness of gay America, and forced responsibility into the laps of American gays. But this cannot be exclusively true, because even within marriage, true monogamy is far from ubiquitous. Says Dr. Petro, “There’s adultery at really high levels in marriages and I’m sure that will continue whether they’re gay, straight, or whatever.” But whatever has never been the maxim of a revolution.
Open relationships and non-labels “could not be the face of gay marriage rights,” Dr. Petro conceits. “The face of gay marriage rights had to be the perfect middle-class white couple who are monogamous and perfect in every way.” For American homosexuals to gain recognition, they did not need a loose idea, but rather a solid ideal. They needed the kind of dream that everyday people could relate to and would want to aspire to. They needed marriage.
And yet, this answer is still inconclusive, still unsatisfying. Marriage cannot simply be a convenient way to display how normal gay people are and to dissuade the youth from having free, unprotected sex. Rabbi Millstein would never suggest such a thing. Isn’t there still something holy about the union of two into one?
“We do imbue marriage with this idea of sacredness,” Dr. Petro explains. “Whether it’s immediately connected to a religious tradition or not, it has this sort of aura of fatality to it, and it’s done through the wedding and the vows.” Aura of fatality he says, a preparation for the end of life, a way to anticipate death, to plan for the time when we will no longer be. How many sitcom characters have hollered “I don’t want to die alone!” as the airplane spirals out of control? How common for people to yearn for somebody to be at the bedside as they die. While death and the short life we experience before it are bleak, it is so comforting to think that we have made a permanent connection on earth, that the signatures on the state certificate are proof that we have committed to something.
“I do think that human beings are meant to have relationships,” Rabbi Millstein says. “And this is in the Torah, though it’s put in a rather patriarchal way, that ‘it is not good for man to be alone.’ We need other people. We’re not really complete as solo individuals.” When stripped of its political ramifications, when purged of its historical purposes, how are we meant to understand marriage in modern times? What does it even give us at the end of the day? What do you get for it?
The year is 2015. Same-sex marriage is legal in all fifty United States, and America’s most popular sitcom is Modern Family, a comedy about the shifting definitions of marriage. At the show’s center are three couples, one a traditional white husband and wife, one an interracial May-December pair, and one a same-sex couple who, in Season Five, become legally married after California adopts marriage equality. While the show is reliably farcical and episodic, it does bring to mind the major questions of matrimony, the very question this piece has attempted to answer: why marriage? Why do these six central characters, each quirky and selfish in their unique ways, feel most comfortable within the confines of a state-sanctioned partnership?
The answer is that marriage is death. That is, marriage is the death of the singular self. When one makes those holy vows in front of a cleric or judge, before their family and friends, he is kissing goodbye his old self and embracing a new joint identity. Marriage kills the self, but from its ashes, conceives a new dualistic self, one in which the identities of two become one. This is what Rabbi Millstein would call kedushah, what Dr. Petro would call sacredness, and what the masses on the Supreme Court steps would call love. As any 80’s rock ballad would tell us, love is not easy to find, or to keep, or even to recognize. Who is to say if it even exists in this world of vast divorce and adultery? But herein lies the true connection between love and religion and death: what we claim to know about any of these things can never be proven with evidence. But they all continue to exist, whether or not we are willing to accept them. And if death truly is our definitive end, we may as well seek the others while we are alive.
Bruni, Frank. “The Angel in Larry Kramer.” The New York Times [New York] 26 Apr. 2014: n. pag. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Kennedy, Hon. Anthony. Obergefell v Hodges. United States Supreme Court. 26 June 2015.
Liptak, Adam. “Supreme Court Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage a Right Nationwide.” The New York Times [New York] 26 June 2015: n. pag. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Millstein, Jordan. Interview. 13 Oct. 2015.
Rosenwald, Michael S. “How Jim Obergefell Became the Face of the Supreme Court Gay Marriage Case.” The Washington Post [Washington, DC] 6 Apr. 2015: n. pag. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Petro, Anthony. Interview. 4 December 2015.
“Thirty Years of HIV/AIDS: Snapshots of an Epidemic.” AmfAR. The American Foundation for AIDS Research, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.