A RABBI, TONY PERKINS, AND MAGGIE GALLAGHER WALK INTO A BAR...

Well, not really. But at a roundtable for reporters hosted by the Religion News Service this morning, Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg, president of the Rabbinical Assembly and rabbi emeritus of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., gave anti-gay-marriage advocates a little lesson on marriage in the Torah.

The roundtable was inspired by the Interfaith Alliance, and the efforts of its president, the Rev. Welton Gaddy, to excise religion from debates on gay marriage. Gaddy opened the conversation with a discussion of his paper, "Same-Gender Marriage and Religious Freedom: A Call to Quiet Conversations and Public Debates." In it, Gaddy, who supports gay marriage, calls for conversations about gay marriage to start with the Constitution, and not religion, for the sake of preserving both civil discourse and religious freedom.

Much of the discussion was substantively predictable. Maggie Gallagher, the anti-gay-marriage warrior who was hired by the Bush administration to opine in favor of its marriage initiatives and now leads the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), engaged in lengthy disquisitions on a mythical American culture of nuclear family. A well-trained pundit, Gallagher monopolized much of the conversation, throwing in lines like the gay marriage movement is "driven by powerful cultural elites." (Ooh, scary.) Like NOM's ad campaign, The Gathering Storm, Gallagher warned of gay marriage's supposedly disastrous effects on American culture and the religious liberty of people who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds. (Other people's religious liberty, not so much.) Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said, "This debate is really about a hostility toward orthodox religion and its defining influence on culture of country." Yes, we've heard these songs before.

But Rabbi Wohlberg, who opened his remarks with an objection to the use of the term "Judeo-Christian heritage" (one Perkins often employs), provided a fascinating history of marriage in the Torah and ancient Jewish law. Contrary to the apocryphal "tradition" of marriage propagated by gay-marriage opponents, Wohlberg said that the concept of marriage does not exist in the Torah; the term divorce is found in the Book of Deuteronomy, but the term marriage is not found in any of the five books. Later generations, he said, understood marriage as a bride entering the groom’s tent with witnesses, and the wife as the husband's chattel. Men maintained concubines. The practice of polygamy wasn't outlawed until the 10th century in Ashkenazic Jewish tradition.

Judeo-Christian heritage? That puts a whole new spin on it, doesn't it?

UPDATE: Rabbi Wohlberg, through a spokesperson, writes to say that he may have misspoken, and that the Torah makes no mention of a "marriage ceremony," not marriage. Still, I think his point was that there was no concept of a ceremony that sanctioned a particular type of relationship or conferred legal rights on the couple.

--Sarah Posner

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