Rabbinic Authorities Flex Muscles in Response to “Gay Orthodox Wedding”

Posted on December 13, 2011 by

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Last week, over 100 Orthodox rabbis around the world added their signatures to a declaration condemning a recent event that the media identified as an “same-sex Orthodox wedding.”

On November 6, Yeshiva University-ordained Rabbi Steven Greenberg, known to many as the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, officiated at a marriage ceremony between grooms Yoni Bock and Ron Kaplan at the Historic 6th and I Synagogue in Washington, DC. This was the first such ceremony conducted by Greenberg, who is the author of Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition and was involved in the production of the 2001 documentary film Trembling Before God, which chronicles the struggles of various Orthodox Jews to reconcile their sexual orientations with their religious identities.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg

In response to the wedding, the aforementioned 100+ rabbis, including YU rosh yeshiva Rabbi Herschel Schachter and Los Angeles-based rabbis Yitzchok Adlerstein, Nachum Sauer, and Avrohom Union, issued a statement declaring their desire “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….[The] Torah, which forbids homosexual activity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. This is the only statement on this matter that can reflect Orthodox Judaism. Any claims or statements to the contrary are inaccurate and false,” reads the declaration.

In response to the criticism, Greenberg told The Jewish Week, “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.”

In addition to criticizing this event, the declaration also reached out to Jewish homosexual individuals, extending an invitation to discuss the “sensitive nature of intimacy.”

“We, as rabbis, lovingly play a crucial role in helping Jews who may be facing great personal challenges to feel comfortable and welcome in our communities. Rabbis are always available to discuss congregants’ personal issues, including intimacy. We understand from our experiences in offering pastoral care that some individuals experience deep inner conflict as they seek a holy path to serve G-d and to fulfill their spiritual needs. As rabbis, we devote our lives towards helping all those in our broader community achieve their loftiest spiritual potential, while fully upholding the timeless values expressed in our Holy Torah.”

For Greenberg and many others, though, this is not necessarily enough. Although he concedes that the ceremony was not Orthodox in the conventional sense of the term and that he does not encourage others in the Orthodox community to perform such ceremonies, Greenberg does see a need to provide Orthodox homosexuals with a spiritual context in which they can build their lives and families.

“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,” said Greenberg.

Other Orthodox rabbis have come out indirectly supporting Greenberg by decrying the effort allotted by Orthodox authorities toward a futile and relatively narrow objective, at the expense of more pressing ones. Rabbi Mordechai Rackover, an associate chaplain for the Jewish community of Brown University wrote:

“While these non-conversations about sex and gender proliferate, the incidence of child rape, verbal and physical abuse of women, poverty, weakening schools and riven families, to name only a few crises, increases. Fewer children keep Shabbat and more adults work like dogs to send their children to day schools, sacrificing time they might otherwise actually spend with them….Sex has nothing to do with most of the problems I’ve listed, and the energies that are put into hand-wringing and petition-signing over sexual ethics could be far better placed….An Orthodox rabbi myself, I happen to agree that this was not an Orthodox wedding. But I think these rabbis’ response is a much bigger problem than two Orthodox gay men seeking a way to dignify their relationship through marriage.”

Rackover, like many in the gay Orthodox community, does not believe that a signed article can change the minds of those who do perceive the DC wedding to have been Orthodox, leading him to the conclusion that the rabbis who signed the declaration must have had other motives.

“We are bereft of relevant leadership and opinions that matter. In recent years we’ve watched as an increasing number of aspects of orthodox Jewish life have become narrower. Kashrut is beset with polarizing stringencies. Increasing swathes of public life (synagogues, buses, sidewalks, funerals) are becoming less hospitable to women. Conversion is a minefield and women remain bound in unwanted marriages by rabbis who refuse to respond. These rabbis bang on their lecterns and chests and fight for attention to keep themselves in the center of attention: to declare that they are in charge and that they alone define Judaism. And in so doing, in drawing lines where no one is looking for them, they routinely miss the places that everyone is looking for wisdom and moral guidance in the problems they face in their actual lives.”

Yesterday, the Rabbinical Council of America — the body of rabbis that many consider to be the ultimate decisor of what is and is not Orthodox — reaffirmed its previously published policies regarding homosexuality in light of recent events. These policies echo those of the 100-rabbi declaration.

“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….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.”

On the anonymous online discussion forum run by Jewish Queer Youth, members of the gay Orthodox community continue the debate over the ramifications of these rabbinic flourishes. Richard Dweck, an openly gay Orthodox Jew who runs a blog called “Gay Syrian Jew,” is calling on supporters to write letters to the more prominent signatories of the initial declaration to express their appreciation for Rabbi Greenberg’s activism, which, according to Dweck, has “saved many lives [from suicide].” Others respond arguing that the rabbis who signed the declaration and those at the RCA do not deny the plight of the gay Orthodox Jew; they are simply reiterating the facts as they exist clearly in Jewish tradition.

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Posted in: Jewish Society, Torah