France’s Chief Rabbi: what has been forgotten in the debate on gay marriage

[Editor’s note] Shortly before Christmas, in his annual address to the Curia, Pope Benedict XVI cited a paper against gay marriage and same-sex parenting by the Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim. In what the Pope described  as a “detailed and profoundly moving study”, he said Rabbi Bernheim showed that “the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question.”

What follows is not a translation or even a precis of the 25-page  paper, Mariage homosexuel, homoparentalité et adoption: ce que l’on oublie souvent de dire, but an attempt to summarise and paraphrase, in about 2,000 words, his main arguments.  It is particularly appropriate to make it available to English-speaking readers on the day of the publication, or First Reading, of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill, which will be debated in Parliament on 5 February. Over the next ten days, we will be making available other resources to enable a debate which has not yet happened in the UK over the massive implications of dethroning conjugal marriage. [AI]

Many people see in gay marriage simply the next stage in the democratic struggle against injustice and discrimination. I believe, on the other hand, that we need a debate about what is really at stake in this proposal – the denial of sexual difference, and the damaging impact of legalising same-sex parenting, surrogacy and adoption. What matters here is not homosexuality – which is a fact – but the irreversible risk of destroying genealogies, identities and rights (making the child an object, rather than a subject), and so undermining the common good and the public interest, for the sake of a tiny minority.Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim - Scholar - Large

‘Equal marriage’ is an empty slogan

The idea that marriage should be made available to all who love each other is unsustainable. Loving a person does not give you the right to marry them: a man cannot marry a woman who is already married; a woman who loves two men cannot marry them both. We cannot, in the name of equality, allow to marry to all those who love each other; ‘marriage for all’ (‘equal marriage’) is therefore merely a slogan. The legalisation of same-sex marriage would continue to ‘discriminate’ against all those people who love each other but who are not allowed to marry.

The slogan ‘marriage for all’ (‘equal marriage’) conceals the fact that what is being proposed is a radical new vision of marriage to replace the existing one.

In the traditional, conjugal understanding of marriage, with which most people would agree, marriage is not simply the recognition of love; it is an institution which binds the union of a man and woman to the succeeding generations.

Protestors hold placards and balloons during a demonstration against a draft law to allow same-sex marriage in ParisMarriage is the institution of a family, a cell which creates a direct relationship between its members through ties of blood. It creates descendants. And in doing so, it is a fundamental act in building the stability both of individuals and of society.

In the new understanding of marriage being proposed, the definition above is seen as passé – the leftover of a traditional society now vanished.

So why should the LGBT militants seek to enter it? The answer is: in order to change it, from an institution charged with legal, cultural and symbolic meaning to an asexual object, one divorced from the basis of the family.

Love is not enough

The capacity for gay people to love is not in doubt. Yet to love a child is one thing; to give a child the structure he or she needs is another. The role of parents is not just to love and care for a child. To reduce parenting to parents’ affective and educational roles is to deny the fact that ties of blood provide a psychological basis for a child’s sense of identity. All the affection in the world cannot provide the basic need of a child to know where he or she comes from. A child only knows she is different because she knows whom she resembles.

A child needs to know he is the product of the loving union of a man, his father, and a woman, his mother, thanks to the sexual difference of his parents. Adopted children, too, know they are the products of the love and desire of their parents, even if it is not their parents who are raising them.

A mother and a father indicate to a child his genealogy. A child needs a clear and coherent genealogy to position himself both as an individual and in relation to the succession of generations.

For millennia, ourmarriage1 society has been founded on a dual lineage – that of the father and that of the mother. It is a system which guarantees that each individual can find his place in the world; he knows where he or she comes from. There is a real prospect now of destroying that system in a way that is immense and irreversible.

The fiction of same-sex parenthood

‘Same-sex parents’ (homoparentalité) are not parents. The term has been invented to conceal the impossibility of gay couples being parents. It is an attempt to give legal reality to a fiction: two people of the same sex cannot be parents except in the reduced sense of emotional and educational roles.

The term ‘parents’ includes the anthropological distinction between men and women; it is a ‘sexed’ term, with sexual difference at its heart. To accept the term ‘Same-sex parents’ means to get rid of the biological, corporal meaning which is intrinsic to the term. The substitute terms which the LGBT lobby propose – ‘coparents’, ‘homoparents’, ‘legal parents’, ‘social parents’ – make it extremely unlikely that a child could ever find his identity in relation to them.

An attempt to abolish sexual difference

Behind the drive to gay marriage is an attempt to deny sexual difference, and to enshrine gender theory. Gender theory has developed from ideas first used by feminists to denounce social distinctions between men and women. Against the idea of biological differences between men and women, the theory suggested that the differences were social constructs; there is no such thing as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’, only a ‘sexuality’ (homo or hetero).

A more radical version of this theory seeks to eradicate all differences between men and women, to attain a perfect equality, on the grounds that there cannot be sexual difference without inequality. ‘Sex’ as a natural category has been gradually relativized. ‘Queer theory’ takes this theory of gender to another extreme by positing the idea that heterosexuality is not a given, or norm; and that sexual identity is merely a social construct, not a determinant. It can be chosen, or thrown off; there is no need to take account of it.

Queer theory seeks to replace sexual identity with sexual orientation, which an individual chooses or embraces as they wish – feminine and masculine are merely roles which can be renounced or exchanged. Women, men, straight, gay, bisexual, transgendered … there are no longer sexual identities, only individuals with ever-shifting orientations.

In this theory, family is a form of social conditioning – an obstacle to the expression of the self – which imposes the straightjacket of sexual identity. It is not sexual identity which matters, but sexual orientation: a physically masculine person might be psychologically feminine and vice-versa. In this theory it is not nature which determines sexual identity but the individual’s will. Why not, therefore, institutionalise the union of two people, whatever ‘sex’ they are?  And on what grounds does society refuse to entrust to them children, given that that the different models are considered equivalent?

Faced with these demands, we need to ask whether the true objective of the LGBT militants is not simply the destruction of marriage and the family themselves – at least as they have been traditionally conceived. Gay marriage and gay adoption are the easiest ways of making possible all forms of union, freed from the constraints of an ancestral morality, in order to banish for ever the very notion of sexual difference.

Why sexual difference matters

The notion of male-female complementarity is found in many traditions and religions, as well as in non-religious thinking, and is seen as the basis of the organisation of society by the vast majority of people. Here I will focus on that idea as it is found in the Bible.

In Genesis sexual difference is part of God’s creative act: “God made Man in His own image. Male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). The masculine-feminine polarity runs through all of existence. Each person is called to recognise that he or she possesses only one of the two fundamental variants of humanity; the other is inaccessible to them. Sexual difference, then, is a mark of our finitude. I cannot be all of humanity. A sexed being is not the totality of a species. He or she needs the other to reproduce.Manif-pour-tous

Genesis sees the similarity of human beings to God in the association of man and woman rather than in each considered separately.  Each of us, because of our sexual identity, is forced to look outside ourselves, to another who is inaccessible, desirable and never totally comprehensible. The experience of sexual difference becomes, in this way, the model of all transcendence – which is why the Bible uses the relationship between man and woman as a metaphor for the relationship of God and Man. Not because God is masculine and Man feminine, but because the sexual duality of Man is what most clearly manifests an unbreakable otherness even in the most intimate relationship.

The fact that the Bible announces sexual difference just after the statement that Man is created in the image and likeness of God shows that this difference is ordained and blessed by God. It is a fact of nature; yet it is noticeable that animals are not described according to their sexual differences but according to their kinds and species. Only human beings are described according to their sex because it is in the relationship of love, including the sexual act, that men and women realise their purpose as the image of God.

Sex is not an accidental characteristic. Because they are sexually distinct from each other, men and women can complement each other. Masculine and feminine, male and female – these are relational terms. The masculine is only masculine in so far is it is turned towards the feminine, and likewise feminine is only feminine in relation to the masculine – and through him, to a child.

The limits on our sexuality – I cannot be all of humanity; the other sex will always be to me partly unknowable – means that human beings are not self-sufficient. This limitation is not a deprivation but a gift allowing me to discover the love born of delight in difference.

Escher's Garden of EdenThat is why, says Genesis, “a man leaves his mother and father and takes a wife, and the two become one flesh” (Gen 2:24) – in Hebrew, ‘one’ here means also ‘unique’. The third chapter of Genesis meanwhile portrays sin as the refusal of the limitation of the self and of difference: the ‘knowledge’ which Adam and Eve seek is the rejection of otherness which leads to violence and death.

Is this not what ‘gender’ sets out to do – to refuse otherness, and difference? To vindicate all sexual behaviour, independently of sexual identity, the first gift of nature? And to claim to ‘know’ the woman as a man, and vice-versa – to become all of humanity, to be “like the gods”?


Arguments grounded on equality, on love, on the protection of or right to children, are inherently flawed; no basis for this proposed law can be derived from them.

Whether same-sex couples are granted, or denied, the right to become parents and adopt, it also follows that LGBT activists will use same-sex marriage as the Trojan horse of their attack on sexual differences. This is part of a much bigger agenda, which aims at replacing “male” and “female” with gender choices – choices that would free us from the “fetters of nature”, thereby wiping out the heterosexual foundations of our society.

There is nothing brave or glorious in pushing through a law through slogans instead of arguments, in surrendering to the conformism of self-appointed progressives in order to avoid social disapproval.

What I find distressing in all this, is the way people refuse to question their own sets of beliefs and the evidence before them.

The real problem here is how harmful this bill would be for our society as a whole, and how, whilst benefiting a very small minority, it would irrevocably blur three crucial concepts:

  • Genealogy: replacing motherhood and fatherhood with “parenthood”;
  • The status of children: no longer the subjects of rights, but objects which people claim to have a right to;
  • Identity: our gender ‘preferences’ or ‘orientations’ coming to take precedence over sexuality in the name of a supposed fight against inequality, which has been distorted into a movement to eradicate difference.

These are the core issues which should be openly tackled when debating same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting, because they take us back to the ground rules of the society in which we all want to live.

I believe that human beings cannot grow, if they are denied structures, order, a status, and guiding principles. I believe that promoting freedom does not mean doing away with all limits. That promoting equality does not mean eradicating differences. That the very power of technologies and imagination means we must never forget that life is a gift, that is will always be there before us, and has laws of its own.

I want a society which fully embraces modernity, without violating in the process the elementary principles of human and family ecology.

A society which values different persons, and their various lifestyles and aspirations, and does not dilute this variety by reducing it to the lowest common denominator – thereby wiping out all differences.

A society which, in a virtual age which praises nothing more than a critical mind, still attaches meaning to the simplest words – father, mother, spouses, parents – both as symbols and as living realities.

A society which welcomes children, where children naturally belong without becoming in the process the rewards in a quest for possession and power.

I want a society which will continue to single out in its institutions the extraordinary encounter between a man and a woman, under a specific name

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4 Responses to France’s Chief Rabbi: what has been forgotten in the debate on gay marriage

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