Jesus, Judaism and same-sex marriage: A response to James Baaden

Rabbi James Baaden has written a very challenging and helpful blog post in response to a recent article I wrote same-sex marriage. James challenges aspects of my approach to the issue, particularly as they concern Judaism and the Hebrew Bible.

My article – written in response to the Church of England’s statement on same-sex marriage – appeared on the Ekklesia website. James’ article has been posted on the blog of Ray Gaston, an Anglican priest and activist who I have long admired. I am sorry that James and Ray have had to wait a while for my reply. I wanted to wait until I had time to reply carefully and in detail.

James describes my article as Ekklesia’s contribution to the debate on same-sex marriage. However, Ekklesia has made a number of contributions to this debate. This article is a response from me, written as my Ekklesia column on the week in question, rather than an official response from Ekklesia. It is in line with Ekklesia’s general response to the issue. However, any blame for inaccurate portrayal of Judaism or the Hebrew Bible really lies with me rather than with Ekklesia as a whole.

I agree with about ninety percent of James’ article. I have also learnt quite a bit from it. It has challenged me to rethink some of my assumptions and to be careful about the language I use. However, I also have to say that I think James has misunderstood some of my views. At points in his article, he associates me with views that I have not expressed. I very much hope that nobody would regard me as anti-Jewish. I am also delighted that Jews and Christians are campaigning together – and with others – in favour of legal recognition for same-sex marriage. I remember how delighted I was a few months ago when I heard the news that the Movement for Reform Judaism had decided to support marriage equality. Had I been at home – rather than in the office of The Friend magazine – I could quite literally have danced around the room. I remember remarking to a colleague that Jews seemed to be making more progress on the issue than Christians.

James’ article includes some fascinating observations about the lack of anything we would recognise as “marriage” in the Hebrew Bible. I find this really helpful and would like to hear more from him (and others) about this. I admit that I am no expert on the Hebrew Bible and would never claim to be. I am inspired by his observation that “this creates a blank space – a space in which people had to and have to respond to the needs of their times and create new institutions, new possibilities, new practices”.

I also agree that the Hebrew Bible includes many powerful, independently-minded women who are, as James puts it, “independent agents”. It also includes far less positive portrayals of women. The picture is mixed. However, I would be the first to acknowledge that this is also true of the New Testament: Jesus treats women as equals and Paul says that “there is no longer male and female”, but the writer of Ephesians (who most scholars believe was not Paul) tells women to obey their husbands.

I acknowledge the diversity of views and images found within both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This is important. It is a different position to one with which James seems to associate me early on in his article. He writes:

“As in so many areas, the implication is that the religion of the Old Testament was something rather nasty and was replaced by something thoroughly nice in the form of the changes introduced by Jesus. This is a very common model and maybe it helps advance Ekklesia’s cause and its concerns, but I don’t like it – and I don’ t think it’s accurate.”

This is indeed inaccurate, as well as simplistic and ridiculous. However, I was not not proposing this model. It is not something that I – or Ekklesia – would ever endorse. Nonetheless, I can understand that James is used to coming up against people proposing this model and that what I wrote may have inadvertently given the impression that I was coming from a similar perspective. I am sorry for my poor choice of words.

I want to make it clear that I think that both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, both Jewish tradition and Christians tradition – as well as the scriptures and traditions of many other religions – include a mixture of oppressive and liberating elements, of teachings that uphold injustice and teachings that resist it, of excuses for the love of power and calls for the power of love.

I think James misunderstands my position on the issue of legalism and power. He writes:

“Ekklesia in its statements clearly seeks to depict history in this way – with Jesus as a reformer who rejected the ‘legalism’ and ‘power’ of the ‘Old Testament’. I am not comfortable with this characterisation – and I do not think it serves this particular cause very well.”

I have just re-read my article. It is true that I suggested that Jesus challenged legalism and relationships based on power. But at no point did I suggest that this legalism and power was based on the Hebrew Bible. My thanks go to Keith Hebden, a Church of England priest, who wrote in a comment on James’ post that “Symon doesn’t set up an OT/NT binary in that article. He refers to ‘culture’ obliquely.”

In response, Ray Gaston – who clearly agrees with James – made his own comment, quoting from my original article. However, I would like to suggest that the quote reinforces Keith’s observation that I was referring to “culture” obliquely and not talking about the Hebrew Bible. The passage I wrote, and which Ray quotes, is:

“In a time when only men could initiate divorce – often throwing their wives into social disgrace and even poverty – he [Jesus] criticised casual divorce. In a culture that blamed women for giving men lustful thoughts, he encouraged people to take responsibility for how they dealt with their own thoughts, and be aware of what they did in their hearts.

“In other words, Jesus challenged relationships based on power and money in favour of relationships based on love, equality and self-control. It might be said that he redefined marriage.”

There is nothing in these paragraphs about the Hebrew Bible. I did not suggest that what Jesus was challenging was an authentic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible’s teaching on marriage and relationships. I did not suggest that Judaism is (or was) inherently legalistic, oppressive or sexist. I think Jesus was following the prophetic traditions of the Hebrew Bible in calling his listeners to a deeper and more liberating understanding of scripture. I am, however, truly sorry if I did not make this clear. I also accept that, while the New Testament shows Jesus debating marriage with Pharisees and Saducees, historians differ on the extent to which they consider these two groups to have been representative of Jewish society at the time. I should perhaps have written about Jesus challenging certain groups of people and been a bit less vague when I wrote about the “culture” and “society” of his time. I also readily accept that – as James points out in his article – early Jewish rabbis also sought to make divorce rules fairer.

It seems to me that many societies – including most that have considered themselves Christian – have upheld relationships based on power more than those based on love. I believe that Jesus posed a challenge to this situation, as did many prophets in the Hebrew Bible, later Jewish teachers and many prophets and teachers from outside both Christianity and Judaism.

In saying that Jesus arguably “redefined” marriage, I was not suggesting that he changed the Hebrew Bible’s understanding in favour of something better. I was trying to challenge the perception that marriage has always been the same. I was seeking to satirise the language of Christian opponents of same-sex marriage, who argue that it “redefines” marriage. I was pointing out that understandings of marriage have varied widely over time and space and that Jesus challenged people who seemed to think that their understanding was true for all time.

Please note how I am quoted in Ekklesia’s news story on the Church of England’s statement on same-sex marriage:

“Hill said that Jesus had arguably ‘redefined’ marriage when he challenged casual divorce and disputed the views of some who used selective quotes from the scriptures to back up their own position. He said, ‘In all areas of life, Jesus upheld relationships based on love, equality and respect, rather than on power or legalism’.”

When I say that Jesus’ opponents used selective quotes from the scriptures, I am of course comparing them to those Christians who do the same thing today to justify opposition to same-sex relationships. In my experience, their selective quotes come much more from the New Testament than from the Hebrew Bible. For me, the contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees is not about a Christian versus Jews (Jesus was as Jewish as they were). It is about approaches to scripture, tradition and life that are liberating and honest, rather than those that are legalistic and oppressive.

As we look at Jesus’ words today, the primary challenge is for those of us who consider ourselves to be his followers but who too often fall back on trusting in human institutions rather than recognising the “blank spaces” and seeking God’s guidance. Sorry this post is so long! I feel I have a responsibility to make my position clear. I suspect that James and Ray may still disagree with me after reading all this, but I hope that they will understand my position better. Many thanks to them both for encouraging me to think more deeply about this issues, to question my own assumptions and to be more careful in future about choices of wording that may give an inaccurate impression of my beliefs. I look forward to working alongside them on both marriage equality and other issues.

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