Orthodox Judaism and Gay Marriage: Incompatible?

Photo from Roee Rottenberg's article at 972+ http://972mag.com/orthodox-rabbi-marries-gay-couple-in-washington-dc/27424/

The text of the Torah informs us that (the act of), “homosexuality … is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22).

The majority of Jews reject this.  The New York Times in 2007 reported that 67 percent of Jews support gay marriage, and in 2008, The Los Angeles Times wrote that 78 percent of Jews opposed California’s Proposition 8.  Jews, in fact, are more accepting of gay marriage than any other major religion in the United States.

But though gays and gay marriage have slowly trickled into the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist communities, the issue is still a point of contention, and it is especially so in the Orthodox community.  Ordinarily this is subject that we at GTJ would leave to our expert friends at yeshivas or national Jewish websites, but the discussion now has local flavor following the recent marriage of DC residents, and DC Minyan regulars, Ron Kaplan and Yoni Block at Sixth & I Synagogue.

The Orthodox Wedding that Never Was

Owing to this first-to-the-scene report by Roee Ruttenberg, the wedding between Bock and Kaplan has been branded as, “the first time an ordained Orthodox rabbi has presided over a gay marriage.”

But this is not how Bock and Kaplan see it: “We’ve never said anything to suggest that it was an Orthodox wedding” (Kaplan), nor is it how the officiating rabbi – Steve Greenberg – intended the wedding to be presented (“It wasn’t a traditional Jewish wedding.”)

Rather, Kaplan labeled it a civil wedding with a Jewish commitment ceremony conducted by a rabbi who “has long been our friend and just happens to be ordained in the Orthodox tradition.”

Mark another tally in the “media inaccuracy column.”

The Rabbi

The Orthodox rabbi in question is Steve Greenberg.   Greenberg’s career is an interesting one:  He received his Orthodox semikhah (ordination) from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan; 17 years  later, Greenberg came out as openly gay in a documentary titled Trembling Before G-d , and he later wrote the book, Wrestling with G-d and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. (information from Steven Philp, New Voices).

Greenberg is no stranger to debate, and he seemingly takes pride in pushing traditional Judaism to address hard questions that prompt discussion.  But in an interview with yours truly, Greenberg repeatedly stated that his “intention was not to create a storm of controversy.  I wanted to conduct a ceremony in a way that would create both a civil and a religious bond between the two men in a fashion that both families could enjoy, appreciate, and feel was meaningful.”

Orthodox response

Good intentions pave the road to hell.  And Greenberg’s efforts, rather than being celebrated as a nice deed for two of his deserving, long-standing friends, has generated, not a storm, but a light shower of controversy.

Responding to the media-driven idea of a gay Orthodox wedding, 100 prominent Orthodox rabbis from around the world signed a letter on December 5 stating that:

“We, as rabbis from a broad spectrum of the Orthodox community around the world, wish to correct the false impression that an Orthodox-approved same-gender wedding took place. By definition, a union that is not sanctioned by Torah law is not an Orthodox wedding, and by definition a person who conducts such a ceremony is not an Orthodox rabbi.”

Among the declaration’s signers is the local intellectual and Modern Orthodox powerhouse Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel, a popular synagogue located at 28 and N streets, NW.

Rabbi Freundel did not respond to my request for a discussion, but I did get a hold of another signatory who wishes to stay anonymous, but shared his thoughts on the subject:

“The issue of gay marriage is … complicated, and to me, quite depressing.  The Torah is clear that it forbids homosexuality.  While other religions do not address … our Talmud says that it [is] a serious anathema.  … God can forgive the sin of homosexuality, as long as people are humble and regret their sin, and are not so arrogant as to try to justify their sin through a ‘marriage’ agreement.”

The rabbi went on to say that the Torah does not recognize homosexuality, only homosexual actions.  People committing homosexual actions, however, should not throw in the towel and call themselves homosexual:

“Even if a person feels like this, it is not hopeless.  There is always possibility for repentance and healing for any sin, even those that are most ingrained – even biologically – into any person.  Even if someone does not overcome this sin totally, they can at least recognize it as a sin.  If someone tries to turn a sin into a non-sin, that is heresy.  … The so-called ‘gay rights’ activists are really the ones who have contempt for those who are struggling with homosexuality, as it robs them of hope.”

With respect to Rabbi Greenberg and the marriage he performed, the rabbi said,

“Rabbi Greenberg recently officiated a same-sex marriage in Washington, DC, claiming to be the first Orthodox gay marriage in the USA.  This is a misrepresentation of Orthodox Judaism.  While Greenberg was ordained by an Orthodox institution, his action cannot be justified by Orthodox Judaism.  … This officiation may ipso-facto lead to his being defrocked as an Orthodox rabbi.”

Asking for a conversation

Greenberg regrets that the wedding has alienated many of his good “friends, colleagues, and former allies.”  But he does not intend to back away from this point.   On December 6, he penned a response in The New York Jewish Week, and in our phone conversation, he expressed frustration with the declaration signed by 100 rabbis.

“I’m asking that this conversation be had.  None of this is about me or the particulars of the ceremony I conducted.  It is about giving a sixteen-year-old hope for a good future.  What hope for love and companionship would they offer their own children who discover themselves to be lesbian or gay?”

Where do gays fit in?

The conversation that Greenberg wants to have is: “Where do gays fit in the Orthodox community?  In his words, “homosexuality is a common, non-pathological, minority expression of human sexuality.   Every professional psychological organization in the country understands homosexuality this way.   Without abandoning the fundamental claims of Modern Orthodoxy, how can my colleagues in good conscience not feel compelled to come up with a better answer for how to address homosexuality?”

Greenberg is especially upset by what he feels is the neglect of rabbinical responsibility.  “If a 16-year-old wants to know what God wants of her or him, and the answer we provide is lifelong celibacy and shame, that’s a formula for self-destructive behavior.  It’s just not a credible response.”

What is to be done?

Some in the Orthodox community feel there is little to be done.  “There is no such thing as gay Orthodox wedding, period,” said one Kesher congregant.  And, as another community member said, “The Orthodox community does not suffer change lightly.”

But change in the Orthodox community is not without historical or intellectual precedent.   The tradition used to allow no interest bearing loans between Jews, until a loophole was found.  Orthodox tradition used to prohibit women from studying Talmud.  That has changed.**   Greenberg said, “the ideology of a changeless law, is just that, an ideology born in the Nineteenth Century.   It may have been useful in the dawn of modernity, but we now need to revert to an earlier sense of halakhic creativity.  As one of the greatest Orthodox thinkers of the Twentieth Century – Rabbi Avraham Kook wrote, ‘The old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified.'”

In the years to come, Greenberg predicts that Orthodoxy will begin to open new ways of understanding and responding to gay Jews.  “Twenty years from now, there will be many Orthodox rabbis committed to making the Orthodox community a hospitable place for gay people.”

A happy ending

Because we at GTJ are upbeat, positive people who like Meg Ryan romantic comedies (ok, maybe I’m just describing myself) and because we held our most recent staff meeting at an advanced screening of the cheesily uplifting movie New Year’s Eve, we have to end on a happy note.  And that’s not hard to find in this case.   Kaplan told me that the wedding went very well and that Sixth & I was a great venue.  David Goldstein of Sixth & I confirmed the success of the wedding, and he noted that Sixth & I has already performed six or seven gay weddings and that it will continue to be a home for “all and any type of Jews.”

Update:

Since the original writing of this article, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has issued the following policy notice:

In light of the extensive media coverage concerning the attitude of Orthodox Judaism towards homosexuality, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Rabbinical group within Orthodox Judaism, has decided to issue the following clarifications:

  1. The Torah and Jewish tradition, in the clearest of terms, prohibit the practice of homosexuality. Same-sex unions are against both the letter and the spirit of Jewish law, which sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony.
  2. Attempts to ritualize or celebrate same-sex unions are antithetical to Jewish law. Any clergyman who performs or celebrates a same-sex union cannot claim the mantle of Orthodox Judaism.
  3. While homosexual behavior is prohibited, individuals with homosexual inclinations should be treated with the care and concern appropriate to all human beings. As Rabbis we recognize the acute and painful challenges faced by homosexual Jews in their quest to remain connected and faithful to God and tradition. We urge those Orthodox Jews with homosexual tendencies to seek counsel from their Rabbis. Equally, we urge all Rabbis to show compassion to all those who approach them.
  4. On the subject of reparative therapy, it is our view that, as Rabbis, we can neither endorse nor reject any therapy or method that is intended to assist those who are struggling with same-sex attraction. We insist, however, that therapy of any type be performed only by licensed, trained practitioners. In addition, we maintain that no individual should be coerced to participate in a therapeutic course with which he or she is acutely uncomfortable.
  5. We pray that God will ease the way for all who struggle with a full heart to feel His presence in their lives.

Resources:

Original report on wedding from +972.
Declaration from 100 Orthodox rabbis.
Greenberg’s Response in The New York Jewish Week.