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The Kibbitznik: Gay Marriage, Dayeinu?

Alyssa Goldstein
June 29, 2011

by Alyssa Goldstein

A few days ago, the New York State legislature voted to allow gay marriages. I wasn’t in New York that day, but I followed the proceedings on Facebook and Twitter. The legislature debated the bill until long after my bedtime, but I felt like going to sleep with the vote so near would be like turning in with two outs in the bottom of the ninth in the last game of the World Series. When the bill passed, I saw my newsfeeds erupt with joy from all corners--and all I wanted to do was celebrate with those friends and strangers at this new affirmation of freedom. It was a proud day for my home state indeed.

Or was it? There are many reasons to believe that the form of liberation that legalization of gay marriage presents is incomplete at best. First off, even though gay people now have the right to marry in New York State, there’s still a long, long way to go in achieving equality for transgender and genderqueer people, who must often struggle to receive proper healthcare or have their identity documents match their gender. Secondly, the bill includes a religious exemption, so that religious institutions do not face any penalties for refusing to perform or provide venues for same-sex marriages (imagine if there were religious exemptions for interracial marriages). But on a more fundamental level, there’s the issue of marriage itself. Though the centrality of marriage to the struggle for gay rights seems taken for granted today, there have been plenty of activists and theorists who argued that marriage is not the true path to liberation. After all, marriage has its roots planted firmly in patriarchy--for most its history it has had way less to do with romantic love and companionship than the exchange of women as property. Until quite recently in this country, women found their rights severely abridged once they married. For example, before the 1970s men were legally allowed to rape their wives, and marital rape was not outlawed in every state until 1993. Seeking equality through access to an oppressive institution can be problematic, to say the least.

Putting marriage at the center of the gay rights movement has also often led to an emphasis on mainstream, middle-class values. Gay people are just normal folks, the rationale goes, they want to settle down, get married, have families, live the American dream. Of course, not all gay people fit into this mold, and those who are openly into kinky sex, for instance, or who are highly gender nonconformist, or who want five partners instead of just one, will find themselves in a difficult position. After all, focusing on marriage means privileging monogamous relationships above all others. I’ve heard arguments that monogamy and polyamory are sexual orientations themselves--no one’s perfectly suited to monogamy, but some feel more comfortable with it than others. One of the conservative scare-arguments against gay marriage is that it’s a “slippery slope” which will lead to polyamory and group marriage--to which my response is, what’s wrong with that?

So why celebrate gay marriage at all? I think Judaism might have a few answers for us. Think about Dayeinu, that Passover song we all love to sing, which tells of the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt. For instance, part of it goes, “If He had given us their wealth, and not split the sea for us, Dayeinu, it would have been enough! If He had split the sea for us, and not taken us through it on dry land, Dayeinu, it would have been enough! If He had taken us through the sea on dry land, and not drowned our oppressors in it, Dayeinu, it would have been enough!” etc. During the seder we had at Bard, the rabbi asked us a question: why do we say that each step would have been enough when it clearly would not have been? If god had taken the Israelites through the sea, drowned the oppressors in it, but not supplied their needs in the desert, there would have been no liberation--the Israelites would have perished there. He offered a possible explanation which has really stuck with me: even though we know that our liberation is incomplete without all the necessary steps, Dayeinu emphasizes the miraculous nature of each step, and we celebrate each step as if it were the entire liberation. This thought has given me a lot of hope and comfort in the times we live in, when every small victory is shadowed by an uncertain future. Our world is rank with oppression, and the road to justice is unclear. We wander through the desert uncertain, not knowing where the promised land is, what it will look like, if it even exists at all. None of the Israelites who left Egypt lived to see the promised land, and this will be the case for us as well. We either celebrate each step as if it were our entire liberation, or we do not live to celebrate. So today we’ll rejoice for gay marriage in New York, and tomorrow it’s on to the next step.