The Definition of Family

My mom and dad got married 28 years ago today, and in spite of all they have in common, they are still together.

On this final day of the most popular month of the year for weddings, let us reflect upon the rather momentous recent development in the history of marriage in the United States—namely, the twin Supreme Court rulings last Wednesday that struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and, in effect, rendered California’s Proposition 8 moot.

This first decision establishes the equal treatment of same-sex unions under federal law, while the second allows such unions to resume and flourish in America’s most populous state.

Asked for his reaction to these pronouncements, New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, reiterated his opposition to gay marriage and his view that the issue ought to be adjudicated by the public rather than the judiciary, offering the familiar trope, “You’re talking about changing an institution that’s over 2,000 years old.”

Indeed, this question about “changing the definition of marriage”—the cornerstone of the argument against gay marriage—is one that must always be addressed, and which holds particular interest for your humble servant at the present time.

In addition to my parents’ anniversary, this weekend sees a sizable family reunion on my mother’s side—an assembling, as such events are, of all sorts of couples (and non-couples) marking their places within the larger family unit, which itself serves as a microcosm of the melting pot that is America.  In discussing the meaning of the country, considering the definition of marriage is inescapable.

Per example:  While both my parents are Jewish, three of their four combined siblings married people who were not.  (One spouse later converted, but the others have retained their religion of birth.)  Under traditional Jewish law, these so-called “interfaith marriages” are invalid:  The Talmud expressly forbids them, and most rabbis refuse to officiate over interfaith wedding ceremonies in their synagogues.  Only through contemporary civil laws are they allowed to exist at all.

Another of my family’s matrimonial duos consists of my white cousin and her black husband, a union that in 1967 would have been illegal in 16 states and, in 1948, in 14 others.  What is more, American public approval of interracial marriage—Governor Christie’s standard for determining which marriages are legitimate and which are not—did not eclipse 50 percent until 1994.  In the early 1980s, when my cousin and her husband were born, only a third of their fellow citizens thought their eventual merger was a good idea.

(As a footnote:  Despite the Supreme Court ruling anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, the state of Alabama did not remove its own ban from the books until a 2000 ballot proposal to do so, which passed with 59 percent of the vote.)

This is all an illustration of a very simple point:  My family, as I know it, only exists because the definition of marriage has changed on several occasions within my parents’ own lifetimes, both in law and in the minds of the people.

When my uncle brought a nice Christian girl home for dinner for the first time, my traditional Jewish grandparents were slightly less than welcoming toward the idea, and toward her.  With time, however, they came to accept a non-Jew into the family, growing to love their daughter-in-law as their own.

A generation later, faced with a suitor for their granddaughter who was not Jewish and (gasp!) not even white, no objection was raised because no objection was felt.  He was a great guy, they were in love, and that was that.

Neither of my grandparents lived to see their great-grandson be born and quickly become the most delightful member of every family gathering, so it is left to the rest of us to appreciate the radical changes to a 2,000-year-old institution that allowed him to come into existence.

I recount this set of personal anecdotes in light of the latest turn in America’s understanding of marriage because I suspect mine is not the only family affected by such turns in the past.  To the contrary, I cannot imagine any great number of families which are not.

Accordingly, in a culture that has come to regard the phrase “changing the definition of marriage” negatively—people such as Christie use it as a slur, while members of Team Gay tend to avoid it altogether—I offer the humble proposal that, in light of the facts, we instead treat the concept as a necessary and welcome one, and something to which every one of us, in one way or another, literally owe our lives.