Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Stray Gay Thoughts Part 3: Ulla FAQs

Ulla, the fourth century amora, is enjoying some fresh popularity nowadays as Rabbi after Rabbi cite him on gay marriage. To review,  here is what Ulla said about 1700 years ago:

[Ulla says:] These are the thirty commandments which the sons of Noah took upon themselves but they observe three of them, namely,(i) they do not draw up a kethubah document for males (ii) they do not weigh flesh of the dead in the market, and (iii) they respect the Torah.

FAQS about Ulla

Did Ulla approve of homosexuality? 

Probably not. Almost definitely not. 99.99 percent with a bar over it not.

Would Ulla have approved of the Obergfell decision? 

Probably not. (But he also probably wouldn't have approved of a Supreme Court, female justices, Catholic justices, rude and pompous justices named "Antoin", constitutions, Congresses, or representative democracy.)

Can Ulla's observation about the sons of Noah credibly be used to attack Obergfell?

No. In the passage cited above Ulla is complimenting the sons of Noah from refraining from issuing ketubah contracts. Obergfell has nothing to do with ketubah contracts. Obergfell found that states must issue licenses. A license is a permit from an authority. A contract - even a ketubah contract - is an agreement drawn up between two parties that impose  obligations and corresponding rights. Gay lovers who wanted to draw up contracts that outlined rights and obligations regarding inheritance, divorce payments, custody and all of the other things that might have been covered in a 4th century ketubah (as opposed to the generic, ritualized one we use today) were always free to do so. Obergfell didn't change anything in that respect.

So while I agree Ulla probably would not have celebrated Obergfell, using his famous observation to attack it is a little like using a recipe for lemonade to make chocolate milk. Obergfell is about apples, while Ulla is talking about oranges.

But isn't Ulla talking about marriage? Even if he and Obergfell are addressing two categorically different things, doesn't it all come down to this: The Supreme Court is making it easier for gays to marry which is something Ulla fundamentally opposed?

Its notoriously difficult to decode a 1700 year old figure of speech so while it may sound to us like Ulla has marriage in mind when he says "they do not draw up a kethubah document for males" this is by no means certain. Moreover, even if we stipulate that Ulla is speaking about marriage, the 4th century marriage he had in mind is nothing at all like a 21st century marriage. And if Ulla has a Jewish marriage in mind, his words also have nothing to do with Obergfell as the decision will not cause anyone to write up ketubah deeds for SSM,

So to reiterate. You can use Ulla to attack gay (4th century style) marriage. You can't use Ulla to attack Obergfell.

I've invited Rabbi Y. Bloch to compose a post about the 30 commandments Ulla mentions and why this is an additional reason to say that Ulla's observation can't be used to attack Obergfell. 

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