A month ago I officiated a Jewish commitment ceremony and civil marriage for two men in Washington, D.C. The event was sensationally reported as a “Gay Orthodox Wedding,” and this news has stirred controversy within the Orthodox community. I am aware that my conducting this ceremony has made many uncomfortable, among them, some of my friends and supportive colleagues. In light of the strong feelings I felt that it was important that I clarify the facts, describe the context and explain my intensions. I am hopeful that controversy will give way to conversation.
I did not conduct a “gay Orthodox wedding.” I officiated at a ceremony that celebrated the decision of two men to commit to each other in love and to do so in binding fashion before family and friends. Though it was a legal marriage according to the laws of the District of Columbia, as far as Orthodox Jewish law (halacha) is concerned, there was no kiddushin (Jewish wedding ceremony) performed.
I am a Modern Orthodox rabbi who, while totally committed to halacha, maintains that it is not a closed system. I sincerely believe that it has an unused ability to respond responsibly to gay people in a way that would bring it honor. It is my position — a position that I believe is shared by a growing number of young Orthodox Jews and some of my rabbinic colleagues — that if “it is not good for the human to be alone,” then some form of life trajectory that includes love, intimacy and companionship and even family building must be possible for all of us.
Sexual restraint is a foundation of civilization, a prerequisite of health and well being for individuals and societies. However, absolute sexual denial is not a Jewish value. An externally imposed lifelong exclusion from love and intimacy for tens of thousands of people (in the Jewish community alone) borders on religious irresponsibility, if not cruelty. God is not cruel and does not demand the impossible from anyone.
I am not challenging the Torah, but rather, its application to real people. I am claiming that the correct halacha would, without denying the ideal of heterosexual marriage and family, make room for the full lives of people who are, sexually speaking, left handed in a mostly right-handed world.
To be specific, the ceremony that I shaped with Yoni and Ron was fashioned in the following manner. It defined the grooms’ mutual desire to build a household together as shutafut ITAL, or business partnership. Since exclusivity is not articulate in an ordinary partnership agreement, each of the gentlemen also took a neder (a vow) to be loyal to the other in emotional and physical ways, conditional upon receiving a ring. In this way the moment of the vow’s legal force was identical to receiving a ring. Each said: “Behold, upon receiving this ring you dedicate yourself to me through the power of the vow which you have taken.” We discussed in advance that were the couple to terminate their relationship, beyond ending the legal partnership, they would need to approach a religious court for hatarat nedarim (a formal procedure for the release of vows). The ceremony ended with seven praises of God offered by friends and family. Priestly blessings were bestowed upon the men by their parents and two glasses were broken. It was a truly joyous celebration.
I do not claim that this ritual was Orthodox, in the sense that any Orthodox authority would now approve of it. I myself hesitated for over a decade to perform a same-sex ceremony. During this period I have been asked many times and have consistently, if not without discomfort, said no. I only recently changed my mind.
Last December my partner and I returned from India with our newly born daughter. During the year of planning for her birth, I began to feel that I was failing as a rabbi to give young gay people hope in a religiously coherent future. As friends and students found spouses and decided to make families, it felt increasingly wrong to provide no context for commitment and celebration. Naming our daughter in an Orthodox synagogue and celebrating her birth there sealed my resolve.
While the condemnation of many is strong, I have received the quiet encouragement (if not always agreement) of a number of my Orthodox colleagues. While I do not expect other Orthodox rabbis to perform a ceremony of this sort any time soon, I do expect that we come to earn their understanding and respect as we take the frames of halacha seriously in the constructing of our committed relationships. In my view, the ceremony was beautiful, halachically informed and religiously meaningful, and I do hope that through consideration of it, the Orthodox community (and perhaps beyond) will come to recognize the human issues at stake.
According to Hillel, the whole Torah can be summed up as: “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your fellow man.” The source for Hillel’s famous remark is the commandment in the book of Leviticus to love one’s fellow as oneself. The hallmark of love for one’s fellow is empathy that begins with the self. What you would like for yourself, do for others. What you would hate were it done to you, do not do to others. Those who cherish their ability to give and receive lifelong love from a partner, to be chastened and challenged, held and comforted by an intimate friend, should want that sort of love for all of us.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg is a senior teaching fellow at CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, director of the Diversity Project at CLAL and author of “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition” (University of Wisconsin Press).