The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 3:44:58

The Chief Rabbi of France and the Irreversible Scrambling of Sexual Identity

Devra Torres, Mar 01, 2013

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”:

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...