Rabbi Jared H. Saks
Shavuot 5777. May 31, 2017 – 6 Sivan 5777
I remember sitting in a seminar in my first year of rabbinical school, and one of our professors wanted us to engage in a thoughtful conversation about intermarriage. He recognized that, even as we were beginning our rabbinic studies, we were probably not all on the same page about whether or not, as rabbis, we would officiate at wedding ceremonies for interfaith couples. In order to start at a point with all of us on the same page, he posited this situation: Imagine three people walk into your office and ask you to officiate at their wedding ceremony. Clearly, this scenario had worked before. Surely, we would unanimously say that such an arrangement would not mesh with Jewish tradition. But, one of my classmates, a member of the queer community, chimed in: “I know that as a future rabbi, you want me to say, ‘No,’ but as a queer person, I might have to say yes.” The professor didn’t quite know where to go from there.
Our culture, both Jewish and the larger secular society around us, assumes that monogamy is normative human behavior, but what if that assumption is wrong? In their book, Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha challenge that assumption. Recently, I was listening to the TED Radio Hour on NPR, examining the seven deadly sins and their representation in pop culture. Of course, the seven deadly sins are not a Jewish text, but Christopher Ryan presented some of what he and his wife have covered in their book about lust. “If you look at the famous Old Testament, thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife, like, we all think that’s about respecting their marriage, right? But if you read it in context it says nor his house, nor his servants, nor his ox, nor his sheep. In other words, keep your hands off your neighbor’s property. And his wife is just one part of his property that you shouldn’t interfere with. So that’s what sexual monogamy is. Sexual monogamy is an institution designed to protect the property of the father or the husband. It’s not a response to any sort of evolved tendencies.”
I heard this and thought, I wonder how Torah commentators handle this proposition? Pretty much universally, the classical commentators back up this assertion. In Me’am Lo’ez, the 18th century Ladino commentary, which presented a number of classical midrashim, the comment on the last of the Ten Commandments, our Torah reading for this morning of Shavuot, we read, “Here the Torah designates that one may not covet anything belonging to another, his wife, his slave, his livestock, or anything else that is his.” It’s pretty cut and dried. The man’s wife is his property, no less than his servants, his animals, and his possessions. Surely, the Torah does not assert monogamy. Even while many of the characters in Torah were in relationships with only one woman, many were not. Abraham had a wife, Sarah, and a maidservant, Hagar. Jacob had two wives and two maidservants. Even Moses had more than one wife. Any time opponents to same sex marriage asserted that the Bible insists on marriage as a one man-one woman arrangement, I wondered if they read the Bible.
So, where did we get the notion that monogamy is normative human behavior? This is what Christopher Ryan says. “Now, since Darwin’s day, there’s been what Cacilda and I have called the standard of human sexual evolution, and you’re all familiar with it, even if you haven’t read this stuff. The idea is that, as part of human nature, from the beginning of our species’ time, men have sort of leased women’s reproductive potential by providing them with certain goods and services. Generally we’re talking about meat, shelter, status, protection – things like that, right? And in exchange, women have offered fidelity or at least a promise of fidelity. Now, this sets men and women up in oppositional relationship, right? What Cacilda and I have argued is that no, this economic relationship, this oppositional relationship, is actually an artifact of agriculture, which only arose about 10,000 years ago at the earliest. So we’ve argued that human sexuality essentially evolved, until agriculture, as a way of establishing and maintaining the complex, flexible social systems – networks – that our ancestors were very good at. And that’s why our species has survived so well.”
So, what is it that Ryan and Jetha are saying? “Our ancestors were promiscuous. But I’m not saying they were having sex with strangers. There were no strangers, right? A hunter-gatherer band – there are no strangers. You’ve known these people your entire life. So I’m saying, yes, there were overlapping sexual relationships, that our ancestors probably had several different sexual relationships going on at any given moment in their adult lives. But I’m not saying they were having sex with strangers. I’m not saying that they didn’t love the people they were having sex with. And I am not saying there was no pair-bonding going on. I’m just saying it wasn’t sexually exclusive… What I’m saying is that to argue that our ancestors were sexual omnivores is no more a criticism of monogamy than to argue that our ancestors were dietary omnivores is a criticism of vegetarianism. You can choose to be a vegetarian, but don’t think that just because you’ve made that decision, [a hamburger] suddenly stopped smelling good.”
Ryan and Jetha compare human sexual practice to the animal world. Sometimes, when someone is sexually promiscuous, we may say that they are like an animal, but the animal world functions entirely differently than human sexuality. The vast majority of animals only have intercourse when the female is ovulating, but for human beings, “what’s happened is that sexuality has become useful for social purposes, for establishing and maintaining social bonds and social networks of trust and intimacy.”
Neither Ryan and Jetha, nor I, are suggesting that being swingers or polyamorous or promiscuous is the suggested behavior for everyone. But we balk at the idea that a wife is her husband’s property, so why do we still hold to the structure of monogamy that created that dynamic? It’s been something that’s intrigued me for a while. Judaism is ever-changing. That’s what receiving Torah year after year on Shavuot is all about. We receive Torah over and over again, each year finding something new in it that we never saw before. Ever since that day in my first year of rabbinical school, I can’t wait for the day when three people walk into my office and ask me to marry them. I look forward to revealing some new Torah when that happens. Chag sameach.