Ireland’s Vote on Gay Marriage

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 5/30/15

One week ago today, Ireland became the first country ever to legalize same sex marriage by a popular vote. When the results were tallied, a resounding 60 pus percent of Ireland’s people voted yes, and Ireland joined a growing list of now 20 countries where same sex marriage is legal, to include Belgium, Canada, Spain, and France, among others. One of the striking things about this list, and Ireland is a perfect example, is how Catholic many of these countries are. About 85% of Irishmen are Catholic – 85%! And not just by birth – they are also relatively traditional in their practice and observance of Catholicism.

So what is particularly striking about the vote on gay marriage is that you would expect a country of observant Catholics to follow Church teaching, and to vote no on the issue. In fact there is precedence in Ireland for this – the official teaching of the Church, for example, is that contraception use is not permitted. And believe it or not, in Ireland it was actually illegal to buy or sell any kind of contraception until 1980. Even today, abortion is illegal in Ireland in most situations, again following Church teaching. But somehow that very same country, as Catholic as it is, and as committed to its Catholicism as it is, voted yes on gay marriage. Given the fact that the United States Supreme Court will be ruling on gay marriage this summer, it might be interesting to think about what happened in Ireland, what was the impulse behind the vote?

On the surface you might think it is simply a case of individual freedom trumping organized religion. It is certainly not a secret today that individual freedom is more valued than it has ever been before, probably in the history of humankind, so you could explain the Irish vote as an affirmation of that freedom. If individuals want to marry, they should be free to do it in any way they choose. And I am sure this was a factor in the vote in Ireland, and it is clearly a factor here in the States as well, where the sense of gay marriage being acceptable has risen dramatically in a very brief time, really just a 3-5 year window.

But I don’t think the individual freedom answer is the only explanation for what happened in Ireland, and I actually don’t even think it is the main answer, the most important answer. After all, as I explained a moment ago, on other very similar issues – abortion, contraception – which are also individual freedom issues – Ireland has by and large remained staunchly conservative, following Church teaching. So there must be something else. What might that something else be?

The answer I am going to give you will at first seem contradictory, but bear with me for a moment and I’ll see if I can make sense of it for you. I have a feeling the Irish voted so overwhelmingly to allow gay marriage precisely because of the Catholic values that are so deeply embedded in their culture and their society. Now you are saying ‘wait a minute rabbi, you’re not making sense! Catholic values teach against gay marriage.’ And you are right about that. But that is one value in a sea of values that the Church teaches. The Church also teaches, for example, that one should care for the underprivileged, the poor, the sick, and the needy. The Church teaches that special rewards come to those who uphold the rights of the marginalized. The Church teaches that being kind to one’s fellow human beings is one of the, if not the, highest value. The Church teaches that you should love your neighbor as yourself.

And if you are Catholic, and you take all of those messages seriously, if you believe in your heart and soul that God wants you to be kind and caring, to stand up for the oppressed, to help the marginalized, to give voice to those who do not have a voice, if you believe all of that – and then you see another value in your faith tradition which is exclusionary and oppressive, you might say to yourself because I am a Catholic, I am going to reject a message of exclusion that I see in my tradition, and I am going to embrace the larger, more important message of inclusion, common humanity, and dignity for all people. And I can’t prove it, but I do wonder if that was what drove that vote in Ireland.

Now the liberal Jewish community – and when I say that I mean Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform – has been far ahead of the Church on the issue of gay rights. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements have been ordaining openly gay rabbis for many years already, the Reconstructionist movement from the mid 80s, the Reform movement from the late 80s. It took the Conservative Movement almost 20 years to catch up, and in fact when I was at the Seminary there was a lot of discussion about the issue, and it wasn’t until 2006 that the first openly gay conservative rabbis were ordained. And all three of the movements at this point permit their rabbis to officiate at gay weddings.

Now it is true that there is a specific verse in the Torah, in Leviticus 18, that forbids homosexuality. But Judaism has long understood that the Bible contains its fair share of anachronistic material. You can find a perfect example of this in the Torah portion we read this morning, which contains the passages about the Isha Sotah, the adulterous woman. The Torah instructs us that when a woman is accused of adultery – even if there is no proof – she is put through a cruel and potentially life threatening ritual that will indicate whether she sinned or not. It is the biblical equivalent of tying rocks to a woman accused of being a witch to see if she’ll sink in water, thus proving she actually is a witch. There are few passages in the Torah that are more disturbing, more out of touch with modern values and ideals.

But the Torah is also filled with powerful stories about the innate dignity of every human being. The Torah also tells us that every person is created in God’s image. The Torah reminds us again and again that we as Jews have a particular responsibility to guarantee the rights of the orphan, the widow, the stranger, those with no voice, those who otherwise would have to live their lives on the margins of society. And when you read the Torah looking for an overarching message, when you develop a sense of the direction the Torah wanted to move us in as a culture, as a civilization, you can clearly see that these are the overriding messages, these are the fundamental, core values of the Torah, and hence of Judaism. To bring people in, and not turn them away. To care for those who struggle to care for themselves. To remember that every person – regardless of race, faith, sexual orientation, or anything else, is created in the image of God, and should be treated with dignity and compassion.

And so when you see a series of verses about the bizarre ritual of the adulterous woman, or when you see a single verse that forbids homosexuality, you have to be able to say to yourself this reflects an ancient time, and it is simply not in line, not a part of, the greater and more important message of life, dignity, and freedom for all that the Torah wants us to learn.

The Talmudic rabbis knew that lesson well, and they made it clear in the Talmud that the ritual of the adulterous woman should never be practiced. In the liberal Jewish community today we have proudly followed in their footsteps, with the issue of gay rights and many other issues as well, and by doing so we have not rejected our tradition, but instead we have honored it. And I would say that is what the Catholics in Ireland did with their historic vote last week. Someday soon, I hope, all nations, and all of the world’s faith traditions, will follow Ireland’s example.

Author: Steve Schwartz

Husband, father of three, Deadhead, and rabbi. I am now in my 22nd year of serving a large congregation in the Baltimore area.

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