Rabbi Stuart Dauermann and Boaz Michael have been valued friends of mine for years, and I greatly appreciate them both as thinkers and teachers. So it is an honor to read and learn from their responses to my paper.
Before addressing Stuart’s main criticism, namely that my effort to develop a definition of marriage is inherently problematic, I will open with a point of strong agreement. Stuart rightly argues that the “one-flesh” union of man and woman in marriage should not be limited to or equated with sexual union. His treatment of 1 Corinthians 6:15-17, and particularly the distinction in that text, pointed out by Powers, between “body” (soma) and “flesh” (sarx) is relevant to my whole paper, which of course builds on the notion of “one flesh.”
On the one hand, Paul seems to argue that a man becomes “one body” with a prostitute because it is said, “The two shall become one flesh.” Gordon Fee interprets the passage in that way: “He who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body. . . . How so? Because, as it is said, ‘The two shall become one flesh.’ ” Fee claims that gar, the Greek word for “because” is “clearly explanatory here.” On the other hand, however, since Paul switches from “one body” to “one flesh,” Powers might be correct in interpreting this passage as contrasting, or at least hinting at a contrast, between a merely physical act and genuine union. Stuart expands on this: “While sexual union with a prostitute is only ‘a union of bodies,’ where the word soma is used by the Apostle, ‘the one-flesh union [of marriage rightly so-called] is a total union of two people.’ ”
Whether or not the contrast between mere sexual union and the holy union of marriage can be established simply by contrasting soma and sarx here, the contrast remains valid. Marital union isn’t limited to the physical sex act, but is a union of complementary persons, even if they are non- or post-physical in their one-flesh relationship. The capacity for sexual intimacy in marriage entails a capacity for intimacy that goes beyond the physical, an intimacy that better characterizes marriage than does physical intimacy alone. In my section on singleness I note, “The capacity created in ‘the two shall become one isn’t limited to sexual intimacy . . . but can be expressed in non-sexual friendship, which also defines and fulfills our humanness.” Certainly the same would apply to a marriage that is, or becomes, non-sexual for whatever reason. One flesh, then, encompasses physical union, but is a broader concept, describing the union of two persons, not just two bodies.
Stuart transitions out of this point back to what seems to be his main problem with my paper, his “plea that we speak not of definitions, but rather of boundaries, and of what is permitted and forbidden.” I understand his problem with the term “definition,” which I do indeed employ right at the outset, describing my plan to explore “the accounts in…[Genesis], and especially the key verse 2:24, to develop a definition of marriage.” The terms “definition” and “define”can imply a degree of abstraction and rigidity that is not helpful to the task at hand. In retrospect, perhaps terms like “description” and “describe” would have worked better. At the same time, I see two flaws in Stuart’s critique, and particularly in his plea that we speak of boundaries instead of definitions.
First, when Yeshua is questioned about the boundaries of divorce in Matthew 19:3ff, he must get at the nature of marriage to answer the question. He is doing definitional work, albeit based on haggadah and midrash, rather than abstract formulation. He can’t provide meaningful boundaries without considering the nature of what is being bound. Again, this work might better be understood as descriptive rather than definitional, but it still remains distinct from the boundary discussion that Stuart would favor. Before we can discuss boundaries, what is permitted and not permitted, we must understand what is being bound. This is especially the case in Matthew 19, where Yeshua does not deal with the boundaries regarding divorce at all until he pictures that which is the opposite of divorce, namely marriage.
Likewise, Stuart’s illustrations of abuse or misapplication of biblical texts strike me as more about rigidity vs. compassionate flexibility than about definition vs. boundaries. One could be just as rigid and abusive in discussing boundaries or what is permitted and not permitted as in discussing definitions. It is worth noting again that to respond to a permitted-not-permitted question, Messiah Yeshua describes the nature and meaning of marriage as it was intended from the beginning – which seems akin to defining marriage. The resulting boundaries, by the way, have been the cause of as much rigidity and lack of compassion as has any definition. Nonetheless, we would do well to heed Stuart’s warning against “doing violence to people in pastoral situations . . . rather than serving them by understanding, explaining, protecting, and preserving proper boundaries, and recognizing their absence or breach.” Proper application of biblical truths about marriage is a vital component to our whole discussion.
Boaz Michael in his response raises one boundary issue that he would have liked for me to have discussed, namely same-sex marriage. This omission in my paper seems even more striking now, in light of the Supreme Court ruling in the Obergefell case, which was announced after the Hashivenu Forum. My assignment, however, was to lay out the biblical norms and purposes of marriage rather than to address all current controversies. Also, it seems to me that those of us who hold to traditional positions on marriage can mount our strongest argument against same-sex marriage by marshalling the images of marriage in Genesis – that is, by describing marriage as portrayed in Scripture, as I do in my paper. (This approach reflects the strategy of Messiah Yeshua in responding to the controversy surrounding divorce in his day.) From a biblical perspective, same-sex marriage is questionable not just because homosexual behavior is questionable, but because it does not conform to the essential nature of marriage itself. In other words, even if one can argue for the permissibility of homosexual union by deconstructing specific texts in Leviticus or Romans, such union would remain incompatible with marriage as described in Scripture.
One example of the biblical picture of marriage that has bearing on the issue of same-sex marriage is the portrayal in Genesis of male-female union as the culmination of the entire process of havdalah, of making distinction between opposite kinds to create order. Against this background, it is striking that only at the first marriage is the creative process of dividing reversed, as man and woman, after being made distinct, “become one flesh” (2:24). Here God’s purpose advances not through separation into distinct kinds, but through merging, joining two kinds into one. The distinct bodies of male and female now reunite to become one flesh, not as a reversal of the process of creation, but as its culmination. The consummation achieved by male and female, therefore, becomes the paradigm of the consummation toward which all Creation is moving.
Whatever else might be said of same-sex union, it clearly does not conform to marriage as portrayed within the Creation account, nor to the purposes and destiny implicit within marriage. And it bears repeating here that when Messiah Yeshua was questioned about specific marital boundaries and constraints, he went back to the same Creation account to portray what marriage is all about.
This treatment of same-sex marriage would be an aspect of my “fairly traditional approach,” which Boaz said he appreciated. Before I comment further on that approach, I turn to aspects of Boaz’s paper that I appreciated: his treatment of family purity and of singleness. Boaz went into more depth on family purity than my brief mention. My paper was already too long, but from a traditional Jewish perspective this topic is central to marriage, so I thank Boaz for developing it at more length in his response.
In particular, he adds two vital aspects to my brief discussion of family purity:
(1) The importance of providing “halachic direction” and “encouragement” for family purity within our Messianic Jewish communities. I would see this direction and encouragement as taking place primarily in the context of pre-marital and marital counseling, with some broad instruction in more public settings. In addition, I appreciate Boaz’s emphasis on providing infrastructure, which would include a mikveh, or access to a mikveh, wherever possible. (2) Family purity laws as empowering to women. Boaz brings in a fresh note with his observation that the laws of niddah help to reverse traditional marriage roles, “granting the wife a certain authority to forbid and permit.” He argues that this creates a shared responsibility and leadership in sexual expression, an “emotional and relational balance within the marriage around areas of sexuality.” The practice of family purity is highly traditional, of course, but it helps dismantle traditional stereotypes of male dominance and female passivity.
Boaz brings the same combination of fresh insight and practicality into his discussion of singleness. He agrees that we should “support those who find themselves single without choosing it,” and claims that such support means prioritizing their needs and our responsibilities to help them find spouses. He hopes that my expression of support “has this level of emphasis,” and I will say that it does. I am not sure how we as a community are to help those who are single find spouses, but I agree that its a responsibility that we need to take on. At the same time, we need to affirm and support those who are single in their current state of singleness, even if we are working with them to bring it to an end.
I will conclude with a comment about what Boaz calls my “fairly traditional approach.” In today’s environment, to be traditional is to be radical. When we uphold traditional marriage, we are standing up against the narcissism and shallowness of today’s dominant culture. God-given sexuality has been hijacked for the purposes of self-expression and self-fulfillment. It seems clear that these purposes are not working, either for the individual selves pursuing them or for our families and communities. When we articulate a traditional approach to marriage, however, we are not just arguing for its practical benefits, but for a restored sense of God as Creator and giver of every good gift, including sexuality, marriage, and family.