The Personalist Project

The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, has some memorable reflections on marriage and its counterfeits in this month’s First Things.  It's a mixture of strikingly expressed common sense and rare personalist insight. 

In fact, I hope to whet your appetite sufficiently so you’ll read the whole thing (which is admittedly pretty lengthy).  A few rabbis like this and a few more bishops like, say, Dolan, 


 and Arinze,

and things might start looking very different in the West.

I’m going to give away the punch line right away.  Here’s his summary of the harm inflicted by declaring same-sex unions to be marriage:

It would mean, he claims, “the irreversible scrambling of three things”:

  • “genealogies, by substituting ‘parenting’ for fatherhood and motherhood”
  • “the status of the child, who would go from being a subject to being an object to which others have a right” and
  • “sexual identity as a natural given, which would have to give way to an orientation as an individual expression, in the name of the struggle against inequality, perverted into the elimination of differences”

Let’s take them one by one.


Anyone marginally familiar with the Bible will have noticed that Jews have an affinity for genealogy ("...and Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob...").

 But it’s not just an ethnic oddity.  Rabbi Bernheim explains:

…marriage is not only the recognition of a loving attachment.  It is the institution that articulates the union between man and woman as part of the succession of generations. 

Lest that sound like a pleasant abstraction, he elaborates:

To identify a child’s parentage is not only to indicate who will raise the child, and with whom he will have affective relations, and who will serve as his adults of reference.  It is also, most important, to situate him in a generational chain.  The chain guarantees each individual a place in the world in which he lives, for he knows where he came from. 

Not only is genealogy significant to the person; so is the body itself:

The term “parent” is not neutral; it involves sexual difference.  To accept the term "homosexual parenting" is to strip the word "parent" of its intrinsic bodily, biological, and fleshly meaning.

This unabashed appeal to biology is a recurring theme: Jews, like Catholics, aren’t overly discomfited by the body; we acknowledge it as a God-given reality.

Later in the essay Rabbi Bernheim calls sexual difference “a fact of nature infused with spiritual intentions.”  That’s very nicely put—in fact, I think it’s true of the whole physical world.  This “spiritual infusion” would be more obvious were our scientific knowledge less fragmented and our self-inflicted blind spots less ubiquitous.  

Postmodernists, on the other hand, are inclined to deal in abstractions to the point of absurdity, falling prey to Spherical Cow Syndrome

They’re perfectly capable of holding a lengthy discussion of “gay marriage” without ever addressing the biological facts. I’ve known adolescents and elderly people long immersed in gay-friendly propaganda to turn out to have no idea just what the physical activities they’re presumably defending are.


The promotion of homosexual couples adopting inevitably involves a skewed view of the child.  Rabbi Bernheim elaborates:

The child is not an object of rights but a subject of rights.  To speak of a “right to a child” instrumentalizes and objectifies the child.  In the current debate, the child as a person, as a subject, is absent in the arguments of those who demand adoption for homosexual couples.

The situation is exacerbated, of course, by the mainstreaming of various and gruesome artificial reproductive techniques.

 Multiple factors coincide to push us towards treating the child as an object, and worse, a product, complete with a manufacturing process, quality control protocols, and concern for customer satisfaction. 


Defenders of traditional marriage are sometimes stumped by the question:

What's it to you?  What harm does marriage equality do to you and your marriage? 

Bernheim articulates the depth of the change:

Once heterosexuality has lost its self-evidence, all forms of      sexual construction become possible

And, after all,

       If gender is constructed, it can…be deconstructed.

The most radical [gender] theorists…wish to eliminate all disparities between men and women and to achieve perfect equality between them.  Since they believe there can be no difference without inequality, they demand the end to sexual difference between men and women.

Does this seem far-fetched?  It shouldn't. It was humdrum at Harvard twenty years ago, and just the other day, what was left of the ban on women in combat was lifted.

 And yet:

What a paradox it is, in a society where we swear by nothing so much as the acceptance of difference, to perceive difference as a problem.

Bernheim has a fascinating and far-reaching phenomenological analysis of the primordial datum of male-female complementarity. But don't worry: that's grist for next week's post, not the tail end of this one.

And since I can’t improve on it (and in case anyone doubts his personalist credentials) I’ll conclude with the rabbi's own words:

I am one of those who believe that a human being is not an autonomous construction with no given structure, order, status, or role.  I believe that the affirmation of freedom does not imply the negation of limits and that the affirmation of equality does not imply the leveling of differences.  I believe that the powers of technology and of the imagination do not require that we forget that being is a gift...

Comments (8)

Sam Roeble

#1, Mar 4, 2013 9:12am

The best part about this article is that the example of Bernheim, as a rabbi, lives out this 'sexual difference' in his daily life.  Orthodox Judaism, like authentic Catholicism, has complementarity of sexes in it's DNA. 

I just finished Jerzy Kluger's (Wojtyla's lifelong Jewish friend) book, The Pope and I.  In it, Kluger recounts the manliness of Wojtyla as a Catholic, alongside the "older brothers"(JPII's phrase for Jews).  WWII devastated their families, yet they were still able to live authentically as men of faith whose memories were chock full of good families, geneaologies, and heroes of the past. 

Sam Roeble

#2, Mar 5, 2013 9:28am

Great argument for identity from Bernheim, !thanks Devra!:

Lest that sound like a pleasant abstraction, he elaborates:

To identify a child’s parentage is not only to indicate who will raise the child, and with whom he will have affective relations, and who will serve as his adults of reference.  It is also, most important, to situate him in a generational chain.  The chain guarantees each individual a place in the world in which he lives, for he knows where he came from

I tried to argue this point in another post on marriage vs SSM:  children get their identity from their parents, e.g. Jesus bar Joseph (the carpenter's son).  Trouble was, it didn't have a fitting context until this Bernheim article.

Devra Torres

#3, Mar 6, 2013 4:27pm

Samwise, I'll have to read The Pope and I.  I'm Jewish myself, so I'm always especially delighted to discover thinkers like Bernheim making such a strong case from a different angle than people are accustomed to expect.  

William B. May was the one who first helped me see how neglected the child's viewpoint has been in this whole debate.  It's easy to become tongue-tied when trying to defend something like "traditional marriage," which really is intuitively evident but which (it turns out) we can manage to make ourselves unable to see.

I'm working on a post on the second half of Bernheim's essay, and especially the way he brings out why complementarity is such a big deal--how much our primordial experience of it reveals to us, and how thoroughly it demolishes our foundations when we try to pretend sexual difference is nothing but socially constructed "gender."  

I do hope everyone will read Bernheim's original essay.  I'm trying to edit my post down to a reasonable length, but it's especially hard to do in this case!

Sam Roeble

#4, Mar 6, 2013 5:28pm

No doubt, then, Bernheim must have been included as one of the key organizers for France's recent "march for marriage".  It was an impressively attended protest against Francois Hollande's push for SSM in France, and the funny part about it was that no one saw it coming--it was as if millions of people stormed the streets of France one day shouting for traditional marriage!

Unfortunately it wasn't enough to overturn the legislation, but it still shows that there is a strong underground current of sane human beings in France.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Mar 6, 2013 6:28pm

I lately have been making a point of saying "natural marriage" instead of "traditional marriage."  I hate that we need any modifiers at all, but, since we do, I'm thinking that "traditional" has the downside of seeming a matter of custom, whereas "natural" puts the emphasis on its "givenness".  
I'm wondering what others think on that point.

Devra Torres

#6, Mar 6, 2013 7:36pm

Katie, exactly--it's like having to say "analog clock" or "acoustic guitar."   

Jules van Schaijik

#7, Mar 7, 2013 9:33am

Thanks Devra. I never would have read the whole thing without your encouragement. But you're right. Definitely worth the effort. I was especially struck by his point about orphans being adopted by homosexual couples: that it is not a way of healing but of "aggravating the trauma of the abandoned child."

I can't follow your latest comment though. In what way is saying "analog clock" similar to saying "traditional marriage"? (I don't mean to be nitpicking. I'm just curious to know what you mean. Isn't the distinction between analog and digital clocks a perfectly sensible one?)

And, Samwise, you are right. I understand better now the point you tried to make before. It is a crucial one. 

Devra Torres

#8, Mar 7, 2013 6:06pm

Oh, there's nothing objectional about any kind of clock!  I just mean you never had to specify whether a clock was "analog" or "digital" before the latter was invented--just as you never had to say "traditional marriage" or "natural marriage" or "man-woman marriage" until SSM was "invented."  You could just say "marriage" with no modifier.

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