On Wednesday afternoon the United States Senate voted against moving forward on a proposed amendment which would have added to the constitution these words, “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.” Some Americans are celebrating this as a triumph of tolerance while others are mourning it as the defeat of decency. However, I suspect that many Americans, whose basic credo is live-and-let-live, are ignoring it entirely. It is to these readers, who regard the Senate vote as largely irrelevant in their lives, that I address myself.
The majority of us live our lives confronting challenges that demand that we make decisions many times each day. Should I invest this unexpected windfall or spend it on a long awaited necessity? Should we send our children to private or public school? Should I remain in my job or switch careers? Should I marry the person I have been seeing or wait for someone else? Should I do my homework or go swimming?
Many of these decisions would be easy if we didn’t all live in a state of exquisite tension, constantly suspended between two opposing poles. Almost every decision forces us to choose between the two poles, each pulling us in a different direction. Sometimes the two poles appear dressed as duty and pleasure. Other times they wear the costumes of our short term interests versus our long term interests. Often, in our own minds and for our own emotional convenience, we interpret the two conflicting tugs to be good and evil. However, for many of us, that distinction usually reflects nothing but our own preexisting inclinations.
Often our basic two choices masquerade as continuity and change. For instance, do I divorce my spouse or remain in a flawed marriage? We all feel a pull to keep doing what we have been doing, because continuity is comfortable and change can be terrifying. On the other hand we are also attracted by change with all its promise of excitement, novelty, and perhaps improvement.
For many years now American public policy seems to have been guided by the false credo that instead of continuity, change is always the best path. To be sure the abolition of slavery and the outlawing of child labor were overdue and good changes, but many public policy decisions have also caused dreadful changes.
Things don’t just happen. Many specific decisions, each made with only good intentions, gradually made life in these United States indescribably more squalid, more expensive, and more dangerous than it was only say, about fifty years ago.
Violent and salacious lyrics that would have made a hardened convict blush back then, now pound remorselessly through the earphones of almost every suburban teenager. Do you recall how, in the 1950s, an enviable middle-class lifestyle could be maintained for a family by the earnings of one worker? Back then women could walk safely at any time of the day or night through the parks of any major city in the country. We embraced the public policies that brought about these terrible changes. People like you and I failed to remember that life involves reconciling continuity and change, not just thoughtlessly accepting change.
Public policy decisions do have consequences in our lives. You may not feel the impact of a bill passing Congress until years have elapsed, but feel it you will. Eventually it will impact your children, your finances, and most other aspects of your life; and not necessarily for the better.
Whether you personally see the two poles as continuity and change, duty and pleasure, or present and future, they are alluded to by the opening words of the Torah—“In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” Rather than viewing this sentence as a cosmological insight into Big Bang theory, ancient Jewish wisdom reveals it to be a fundamental insight into the most basic dilemma of human existence: the need to choose between heaven and earth. Virtually every difficult choice resolves itself in terms of this dilemma—at every confusing cross road, in the face of two choices, reality restricts our footsteps to only one path. The trick is to identify the real nature of the two paths regardless of what the signposts may say.
Clearly, the real nature of the two paths is hinted at by the terms heaven and earth, but what in our real lives do heaven and earth represent? Within no more than twenty words, the Biblical text provides a hint: the choice is light and darkness. For those of us still unsure a later verse spells it out: “I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse, therefore choose life so that you and your children should live.”
Back in 1973 because people like you and I considered public policy to be irrelevant to our lives, and because some of us were seduced by the propaganda of choice and freedom, the country chose death. It took many years but today in most states, your teenage daughter can get an abortion without your knowledge or consent.
At its deepest level, the existential choice we each confront many times each day is a choice between heaven and earth, a choice between eternity and mortality, and yes, ultimately a choice between life and death. The question we now ought to ask ourselves is whether publicly sanctioned homosexual marriage corresponds to the path of life or that of death. Can anyone really be sure of the impact this legislation would have upon the essence of all our lives a few years down the road?
To those who ignore the public debate on homosexual marriage and to those who feel it is irrelevant in their lives and to those who advertise their tolerance by singing "live-and-let-live," I say the time has come to choose continuity over change. The time has come to choose heaven over earth, and yes, life over death.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, is president of
Toward Tradition: The American Alliance of Jews
and Christians, a bridge-building organization providing a voice for all Americans who
defend the Judeo-Christian values vital for our nation’s survival. Article reprinted by permission.