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The Case For Companionship
Tue, 12/06/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Special To The Jewish Week
Special To The Jewish Week

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). 

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Comments

Yesher koach, Steven. Thank you for your courage and compassion.

great article, thank you rabbi. We need more of you out there...

the definition of Orthodox is someone who accepts all 613 commandments. This Rabbi does not, he rejects the Torah prohibition against homosexual relations. so how is he Orthodox

"I am not challenging the Torah, but rather, its application to real people."

Can't this be said about any aveirah? What would you say to a burglar who told you that he is not not challenging the Torah, but rather, its application to real people?

R. Greenberg,

Thank you for this article, and for continuing to teach your Torah to the world. It is in large part because of your book and example that I, as a gay man, am still religious today, and still have hope for the future of the Jewish people to confront the challenges of a new and changing world, while remaining true to our tradition.

Don't listen to the haters:) You're doing more to help save and enrich lives than they ever will.

Thanks you Rabbi Steven. I am a jewish man living in London with my jewish partner and both of us were brought up Orthodox. We are also looking into the surrogacy issue however we are concerned that our child will not be recognised as jewish by the orthodox establishment unless we find a jewish surrogate. I was just wondering how you had dealt with this? Sorry if this is a little too personal!

Hi Guys, email dave@gayjewsinlondon.com and I can put you in touch with other Jewish same sex parents in London to discuss these issues.

I'm wondering how most of the commenters would address the Orthodoxy of the head of JONAH. The head of JONAH stole millions from American municipalities by issuing for them municipal bonds. He was prosecuted for it, and made a deal with the prosecutors, where he admitted his guilt. Did anyone tell him he could no longer consider himself Orthodox? Probably not. But then again, when did religion ever not lead to double standards?

  Can someone please point me to the texts in the Shulchan Aruch or any of the other codes in which the term "Orthodox Rabbi" is used. I'm sure that rabbis in the Agudah do not consider Chovevei Torah musmachim (ordainees) to be legitimate "Orthodox Rabbis". I'm sure that any graduate of RIETS wouldn't want to be lumped together with the "Orthodox Rabbis" of Neturei Karta.    Rabbi Greenberg IS an Orthodox Rabbi in the sense that he received his semicha from RIETS. Standing under the chuppah with two men who want to spend their lives together, raise a family and grow old with each other lovingly does not negate his ability to call himself an "Orthodox Rabbi."

Thank you for being brave enough to perform this ceremony, and to write about it publicly. You are paving the way for other's leadership and ultimate happiness!

Interesting to see all those above who are so sure Halacha can't change but who also insist that the ceremony performed was in fact a halachic marriage. Had a straight couple had the same ceremony, I'm pretty sure they'd say it wasn't halachic.

Also nice to see Rabbi J. Yuter's recent article critiquing Orthodoxy's obsession with disproving other's Orthodoxy so clearly in action here. Nice proof text!

How wonderful! Finally, a brave orthodox rabbi who looks at the real world in the eye and deals with real people, instead of casting them aside in a fit of self-satisfaction. There is hope.

WOW what a subject. Happiness verses the instruction of GOD.

Thanks Rabbi for the great article. And for people saying that someone cannot be Orthodox and gay, they are mistaken. I am one, and I am probably more observant than most of other Orthodox friends who are not saints in their private lives either. People like Steve Greenberg are the ones that give me and other people like me reason to continue being a proud Jew. And people that go on on criticizing gays (without ever really understanding them as they never lived in the shoes) should examine their own life instead, and let G-d be the judge.

Thank you Rabbi! You are an inspiration to many of us! We all deserve to be happy! No exceptions and I don't think God would want it any other way!

Beautiful and articulate. Yashar koach.

An eloquent defense. I'm wondering how you address the halacha regarding issur mishkav zachar in your thinking, which was not mentioned in the article.

To view a family a spouse and a child as set of credentials toward legitimacy, while not unheard of is deeply cynical and opportunistic. And that is what has gone on here. India? How much did he or they pay for that baby? I suppose the exploitation of poor women is acceptable (she was paid I assume) moving away from outright biological slavery is good and when money changes hands it is just exploitation--so much more. Or maybe a woman was showing her love for him by bearing his child.

What absolute drivel !! "Orthodox gay rabbi" is a total oxymoron. Any Jew who believes in the divine authority of the Torah and its interpretation through the ages know that homosexual relations are called "toeivah" that is an abomination. Homosexuality is an affront to G-d who created man as male and female According to Kabbalah there are male and female aspects at the core of the universe. If Steven Greenberg wants to live in sin that is his decision. But to make a public mockery and a sham of the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony is simply a desecration of the Name of G-d

A loving commitment of two human beings to each other is beautiful and real and trumps an imaginary affront to an imaginary god.

As Orthodox Jew we should show compassion to a person who faces many challenges in life including forbidden sexual desires.

However, the ceremony that Steve Greenberg performed in the eyes of Steve Greenberg, Yoni Bock and Ron Kaplan, the audience and you tube viewers was than just a simple business partnership ceremony, it was a wedding.

Steve Greenberg is attempting to do damage control and still maintain his Modern Orthodoxy affiliation.

Sorry, Steve you have crossed the line of no return and you can no longer consider yourself orthodox.

Dear Rabbi Greenberg,
I am heterosexual (happily married, grown kids, and adoring savta of one) and try to lead an ortho-practicing life. I say this at the outset so that you can get a sense of me as a person. I heard you speak once at the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston where I was on the faculty for many years. I was extraordinarily moved by your speech; I came up to you afterwards to say so in person. I have consistently been impressed by your commitment to halakha and moved by your struggle to find joy while remaining within the constraints you legitimize.
However, the wording - הרי אתה מוקדש לי בקבלת טבעת זו בתוקף הנדר אשר נדרת - and the recitation of שבע ברכות you and the couple chose for the ceremony are a mirror image of the traditional wedding ceremony a man and a woman under the חופה. I think it was a serious mistake to follow that format so closely. It is being seen, I think, as an affront by those who believe that marriage is a matter only for hetero couples and is probably the reason for the confusion that resulted in the "Gay Orthodox Wedding" headline. You were trying to do something totally new and revolutionary; why in the world would you revert to the tradition? Because it is the only one that feels authentic? It is a terrible dilemma, but I would reconsider the format for any future such unions.
Wishing you as well and Yoni and Ron lots of נחת and true joy.
בברכה,
Susann Codish
Pardesiya, Israel

I wonder if Orthodox Rabbi Steven Greenberg can explain to me how it is logically possible to endorse a gay partnership all together, and call himself Orthodox and gay at the same time. Let me explain...

Yes, we can't assume gay partners are definitely breaking the Halacha found in Leviticus against gay sex if you interpret that to be specifically anal sex. After all, gay partners don't need to do anal sex to show love and commitment to each other.

But I wonder, if two gay men are going to commit to each other, or if a man with homosexual attractions decides to come out as gay, how do you get around other Rabbinical prohibitions around sexual acts, in particularly, "wasting seed."

Orthodoxy by definition means following the tenants of the Oral Torah, and the subsequent thousand year old rulings of the Tannayim, Ammorayim, Rishonim and Achronim, and you can't deny that according to them, wasting seed is not tolerated under Judaism.

Lets face it: Every human has sexual needs. And yes, while wasting seed is something I am sure most Jews end up doing, that does not nullify the prohibition and it would be very un-Orthodox to imply that such a prohibition does not apply any more. Logic would then tell me, that since individuals have sexual needs, and two gay partners are interested in fulfilling that need, sperm is going to be wasted one way or another. Endorsing a gay partnership or simply a gay lifestyle, is without a doubt, saying it is ok to overlook this Rabbinical prohibition of wasting seed. This is not Orthodox Judaism.

Therefore, I don't get how Steven Greenberg is an Orthodox Rabbi, or how under Orthodoxy, a union like this, whether it is done by Kiddushin or not, can be accepted.

Whatever Greenberg may say, it is important that the public not be misled.
He is most definitely not an orthodox rabbi, modern or otherwise.

Over 100 Orthodox Rabbis recently signed a statement to that effect, among those who signed were the Roshei Hayeshiva of RIETS where Greenberg received his semicha. While I imagine the the semicha itself will not be revoked for all kinds of legal and political reasons, Greenberg has certainly crossed the line and should be honest enough to admit he is now a traditionalist Conservative rabbi.

Here is the article and the official statement:
http://www.algemeiner.com/2011/12/05/100-orthodox-rabbis-issue-same-sex-marriage-declaration/

The author identifies himself as a Modern Orthodox rabbi. Yet, the ceremony he describes was replete with Halachic violations. By definition, a person who redefines Jewish law to accomodate his personal agenda is not orthodox.

What really amazes me is that over 100 orthodox rabbis issued a clear rebuttal of his actions, and the Jewish Week didn't feel it sufficiently newsworthy to even mention it.

The author writes: "I am a Modern Orthodox rabbi who . . . "

Not really. Indeed, not at all. See: http://orthodoxrabbis.wordpress.com/

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