JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review May 5, 2003 / 3 Iyar, 5763

Selective morality

By Rabbi Avi Shafran

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | In one of those meaningful coincidences that Jung called "synchronistic events," Senator Rick Santorum's controversial comments about sexual morality came mere days before the Sabbath whose Torah-portion addressed the very topic.

For anyone who may have been in a wine-induced stupor over the entire week of Passover, the Pennsylvania Republican, discussing a Texas sodomy statute currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, told a reporter that if the Court endorses a fundamental "privacy" right to homosexual acts, "then you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything."

A furor, predictably, ensued. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee demanded that Mr. Santorum step down as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. The Republican Unity Coalition demanded an apology to gays. And David Smith, spokesperson of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization, accused the Senator of "disparaging an entire group of Americans" and "advocating that a certain segment of American society be disavowed from constitutional protection."

"He put being gay on the same legal and moral plane as a person who commits incest," Mr. Smith charged. "That is repugnant in our view and not right."

What Mr. Santorum did, put more accurately, was place homosexual and incestuous activities on the same plane, and in that he had that Sabbath's Torah-reading in his support. That weekly portion, Acharei Mot, contains a long list of forbidden unions (which list comprises as well the Torah reading for the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year). The roster includes incestuous, bestial and homosexual unions.

It is considered gauche these days, if not worse, to associate the latter category in any way with the former ones. But it cannot be denied that the Torah, the source of what the world has come to call morality, does precisely that. Both incestuous and homosexual unions are prohibited equally, and in no uncertain terms.

Whether secular law should reflect a concern with morality is arguable. A true libertarian would consider it no business at all of the state to legislate any private behavior between adults. But if said libertarian is truly true, he or she would have to accept incest - intimate relations between a brother and his sister, for example, or a father and his adult daughter - as well as polygamous and polyandrous (multi-husband) arrangements, and bestiality (which has its advocates, like Princeton Professor Peter Singer) no less than homosexual relations.

The Orthodox Jewish organization I represent, Agudath Israel of America, often advocates in defense of personal rights. Libertarian, though, it is not. Its brief in the current case before the Supreme Court explains that it makes its submission not to "advocate that the modern-day secular state should use its police power against persons who engage in homosexual sodomy, but because we are deeply concerned about the potential far-reaching consequences of a decision that states are constitutionally prohibited from doing so." Such a decision, the brief notes, might well lead "to the jettisoning of many if not all morality-based laws."

Most Americans (presumably including the Human Rights Campaign's Mr. Smith, judging by his umbrage and apparent reluctance to extend constitutional protection to all immoral acts) believe that morality is important enough to legislate. While no law can actually prevent incest, for example, laws serve not only a practical purpose but an important educational one as well. As Agudath Israel's brief goes on to note: "The laws by which a society chooses to govern itself have, among other things, an educative function; they establish norms of conduct deemed acceptable by the society. even if they are not actually enforced." Thus it is that we enact laws against immoral behavior. What Mr. Santorum's critics would like, however, is the privilege to do so selectively.

To be sure, the current American cultural milieu heartily embraces such selective morality. So did a number of ancient cultures. But for those of us who believe that while the Constitution prohibits the establishment of religion it does not abandon the concept of morality, the prospect of our society being constitutionally compelled to cut its moral moorings is not something to countenance lightly.

That gay groups are politically influential and gay characters are regularly featured in mass media makes it all the more important for us all to hear occasional reminders of the fact that there is a less fleeting - in fact timeless - source for our moral code, and that it does not allow for picking and choosing.

And so, amid the loud sounds of indignation and condemnation, there might well be some quieter, more thoughtful, expressions of gratitude to Senator Santorum, for having forced us all to confront an uncomfortable but important societal issue: the meaning of morality.

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Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. Comment by clicking here.

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