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06 December 2011

Repudiation: 100 Orthodox Rabbis Against Same-Sex Marriage

On Thursday 10 November 2011, Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Steve Greenberg did the unthinkable. Rabbi Greenberg, who is openly gay, performed a “marriage” ceremony for Yoni Bock and Ron Kaplan in Washington, D.C. I put the word marriage in quotes because it was technically not the same as a Jewish marriage, despite the similarity of the outward ceremony. As described in detail at +972,

The traditional “ketubah,” or “marriage contract,” in which the bride is essentially purchased by the groom, was replaced with a “Shtar Shetufim,” or “partnership contract.”

The language of the prayers was also modified to refer to two men instead of a man and a woman. In terms of civil law, this was entirely permissible in the District of Columbia.

But it is not entirely permissible in the world of Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Greenberg wrote about the dillemma of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews in his 2004 book, Wrestling with God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition (highly recommended reading). Before November 2011, there had never been a legal same sex marriage officiated by an Orthodox Jewish rabbi.

It should not be a surprise that there has been a response from other rabbis in the Orthodox community. Yesterday, Algemeiner published the response of 100 Orthodox rabbis who disagree with Rabbi Greenberg. Here is the full text of the response with some of my comments inserted:

Orthodox Rabbis Stand On Principle
Recently, an American Jewish clergyman officiated at a matrimonial ceremony that is incorrectly being reported by some in the media as “the first time that an ordained Orthodox Rabbi has officiated at a same-sex marriage in the United States.”

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.

While the wedding may not have been “Orthodox-approved”, Rabbi Greenberg is an Orthodox rabbi.

Jewish tradition unequivocally teaches that marriage can only exist as a union between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of a homosexual relationship. It is a distortion of Torah to confound that sacred principle. We strongly object to this desecration of Torah values and to the subsequent misleading reportage.

Jewish tradition of only allowing opposite-gender marriage is real. However, calling same-gender marriage a “desecration of Torah values” is hyperbole. There are several reasons that one use to object to same-gender marriage with supporting arguments from the Torah, with responses from those who see the Torah in a different light.

We appreciate 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.

The public should not be misled into thinking that Orthodox Jewish views on this issue can change, are changing, or might someday change. The Rabbinical Council of America recently declared that “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.

No. Jewish views, even Orthodox Jewish views, are not locked in place for all time. I will discuss in detail below.
Rabbi Elie Abadie – New York, NY; Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein – Los Angeles, CA; Rabbi Eitan Allen – Fairfield, CT; Rabbi Sol Appleman – Woodsburgh, NY; Rabbi Moshe Averick – Chicago, IL; Rabbi Ian Bailey – Silver Spring, MD; Rabbi Yisroel Bendelstein – Brooklyn, NY; Rabbi Etan Berman – New York, NY; Rabbi Azriel Blumberg – Brighton, MA; Rabbi Heshy Blumstein – Hewlett, NY; Rabbi Avram Bogopulsky – San Diego, CA; Rabbi Kenneth Brodkin – Portland, OR; Rabbi Zev Cinamon – West Hempstead, NY; Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen – West Palm Beach, FL; Rabbi Judah Z. Cohen – Hewlett, NY; Rabbi Yitzchok Cohen, New York, NY; Rabbi Mordechai Cohen – Milwaukee, WI; Rabbi Yosef Cohen – West Hartford, CT; Rabbi Nissim Davidi – Los Angeles, CA; Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz – Valley Village, CA; Rabbi Ari Enkin – Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel; Rabbi Ephraim Epstein – Cherry Hill, NJ; Rabbi Aaron Feigenbaum – Memphis, TN; Rabbi Dovid Feinberg – Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel; Rabbi Emanuel Feldman – Jerusalem, Israel; Rabbi Ilan Feldman – Atlanta, GA; Rabbi Eliyahu Ferrell – Passaic, NJ; Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer – Brooklyn, NY; Rabbi Shmuel Fink – Lawrence, NY; Rabbi Dov Fischer – Orange County, CA; Rabbi Arie Folger – Munich, Germany; Rabbi Barry Freundel – Washington, DC; Rabbi Zvi Friedlander – New York, NY; Rabbi Cary Friedman – Passaic, NJ; Rabbi Zev Friedman – Lawrence, NY; Rabbi Mallen Galinsky – Jerusalem, Israel; Rabbi Benjamin Geiger – Forest Hills, NY; Rabbi Avraham Ginzburg – Forest Hills, NY; Rabbi Saul Gold – Brooklyn, NY; Rabbi Jay H. Goldberg – Far Rockaway, NY; Rabbi Chaim Goldberger – Minneapolis, MN; Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer – New York, NY; Rabbi Shlomo Grafstein – New York, NY; Rabbi Alan Greenspan – Jerusalem, Israel; Rabbi Yonah Gross – Wynnewood, PA; Rabbi Yosef Grossman – Monsey, NY; Rabbi Ben Hecht – Toronto, Canada; Rabbi Ari Jacobson – Monsey, NY; Rabbi Ari Kahn – Givat Ze’ev, Israel; Rabbi Howard Katzenstein – Brooklyn, NY; Rabbi Joseph Kolakowski – Richmond, VA; Rabbi Ira Kronenberg – Passaic, NJ; Rabbi Pinchas L. Landis – Cincinnati, OH; Rabbi Eliezer Langer – Austin, TX; Rabbi Levi Langer – Pittsburgh, PA; Rabbi Avi Lebowitz – Palo Alto, CA; Rabbi Yonah Levant – Queens, NY; Rabbi Menachem Levine – San Jose, CA; Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz – Chicago, IL; Rabbi Yaakov Luban – Highland Park, NJ; Rabbi Avraham Maimon – Sunnyvale, CA; Rabbi Reuven Mann – Phoenix, AZ; Rabbi Harry Maryles – Chicago, IL; Rabbi Baruch Pesach Mendelson – Brooklyn, NY; Rabbi Jacob B. Mendelson – Bridgeport, CT; Rabbi Yossi Mendelson – Queens, NY; Rabbi Lester Miller – Brooklyn, NY; Rabbi Yerachmiel Morrison – Lakewood, NJ; Rabbi Jonathan Muskat – Oceanside, NY; Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer – Forest Hills, NY; Rabbi Gavriel Price – Passaic, NJ; Rabbi Steven Pruzansky – Teaneck, NJ; Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet – Jerusalem, Israel; Rabbi Michael Rapps – Far Rockaway, NY; Rabbi Hershel Reichman – New York, NY; Rabbi Rachmiel Rothberger – New York, NY; Rabbi Gidon Rothstein – Riverdale, NY; Rabbi Lawrence Rothwachs – Teaneck, NJ; Rabbi Yackov Saacks – Dix Hills, NY; Rabbi Nosson Sachs – Pittsburgh, PA; Rabbi Nachum Sauer – Los Angeles, CA; Rabbi Hershel Schachter – New York, NY; Rabbi Moshe Schapiro – Bergenfield, NJ; Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld – Queens, NY; Rabbi Zev Schostak – Queens, NY; Rabbi Tsvi G. Schur – Baltimore, MD; Rabbi David Shabtai – New York, NY; Rabbi Dov Shapiro – Spring Valley, NY; Rabbi Jay C. Shoulson – Long Island City, NY; Rabbi Zecharia Sionit – Dallas, TX; Rabbi Ze’ev Smason – St. Louis, MO; Rabbi Aryeh Sokoloff – Queens, NY; Rabbi Aryeh Spero – Great Neck, NY; Rabbi Reuven Spolter -Yad Binyamin, Israel; Rabbi Leonard Steinberg – Brooklyn, NY; Rabbi Gil Student – Brooklyn, NY; Rabbi Michael Taubes – Teaneck, NJ; Rabbi Moses David Tendler – Monsey, NY; Rabbi Benzion Twerski – Milwaukee, WI; Rabbi Michel Twerski – Milwaukee, WI; Rabbi Avrohom Union – Los Angeles, CA; Rabbi Noach Vogel – San Jose, CA; Rabbi Gedalia Walls – Potomac, MD; Rabbi Yaakov Wasser – East Brunswick, NJ; Rabbi Philip Weinberger – Teaneck, NJ; Rabbi Matan Wexler – New York, NY; Rabbi Ari Zahtz – Teaneck, NJ; Rabbi Asher Zeilingold – St. Paul, MN; Rabbi Aharon Ziegler – Jerusalem, Israel

As I mentioned above, there are several reasons that one could object to the marriage of Mr. Bock and Mr. Kaplan. The reasons start with numerous references in the Torah to procreation. The first commandment to humans is in Genesis 1:28, to procreate. My response is that we have already fulfilled this commandment. With over seven billion people on planet Earth, which can sustainably support between half a billion and two billion people without environmental degredation, we have more than fulfilled the commandment. It made sense when the family of Adam and Eve and later the family of Avram and Sarai needed greater numbers to ensure continuation. It no longer makes sense when our burgeoning numbers are destroying the environment that God gave us.

A second reason that Christians often claim is that homosexuality is the sin of Sodom. This is a misunderstanding of scripture. We see in Genesis 18, Abraham greets three strangers with welcome and hospitality. In the very next chapter, Lot welcomes the three strangers who are then threatened by the Sodomites with the opposite of hospitality. The sin of Sodom is the grave sin of failing to be hospitable. It is not about sexuality even though threatening to rape the strangers is a critical part of the failure of hospitality.

A third reason appears in the comments of the article at Algemeiner, public nudity. Leviticus 18:6–18 is prohibitions against most nudity. Modesty is a significant part of Jewish laws and traditions. While public nude sexual acts are certainly forbidden, a sexual acts within a marriage are usually thought of as very private matters. This would not apply differently to couples of the same gender than to couples of the opposite gender.

The big reason that most people cite is found in Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, prohibition of homosexual sex.

18:22. You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination.
20:13. And a man who lies with a male as one would with a woman both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon themselves.

The wording is very specific. There are several interesting interpretations, including that this may refer specifically to anal sex and not to oral sex or mutual masturbation. Rabbi Greenberg leans in this direction and offers a slightly different translation and interpretation in Wrestling with God & Men, p. 79 – 82.

And a male you shall not bed (sexually penetrate) (engulfing one’s penis) as in the lyings of a woman, it is abhorrent.

The full discussion of the implications of this translation are part of why Rabbi Greenberg’s book is worth reading. Another interpretation is that if one is homosexual, then one is not lying with a man as with a woman as a homosexual man would not lie with a woman in the first place. This interpretation is problematic for bisexual men.

The rabbis in their letter of disapproval claim that their view cannot change. Animal sacrifice is called for in Deuteronomy 12. There is no law that says to stop, but since the Temple was destroyed it is impossible to fulfill the commandments of animal sacrifice. Oops. Things changed.

There are many subtle changes in how the laws of the Torah have been interpreted over the centuries. Some of the changes are evident in the Talmud, a debate across the centuries between differing rabbinical interpretations of the same words of Torah. There is no one answer that stands for all time without debate in Judaism.

On p. 247 of his book, Rabbi Greenberg recounts a discussion in a synagogue over whether it was okay for a gay synagogue to march in a gay pride parade.

The assistant rabbi of the synagogue who ran the minyan said that he wished to speak about the issue, but first he wanted to get a sense of the community’s feeling on the matter. People were asked to voice their opinions, and individuals said all sorts of things. Some were angry, others were understanding, and most were not in favor of the gay synagogue’s presence at the march. At the end I decided to add my own perspective. I shared with the group that recently in my travels as a community educator, a young single man approached me and asked if he could speak with me in private. He told me that he was Orthodox and gay and was looking for an understanding rabbi to help him sort things out. I was totally in the closet at the time, so neither this young man nor the shul was aware of my connection to the issue. I told the assembled minyan what I had told him then: “I have no unambiguous way to deal with the verse in Leviticus at this point, but I can tell you that if you find a committed monogamous partner and avoid anal intercourse, you are better off halakhically speaking than all the Orthodox Jews you know who do not keep the niddah laws.”

A few definitions:  minyan is a group of twelve men (Reform and Reconstructionist allow women) for prayer. halakhah is the collection of Jewish laws. niddah is the period of a woman’s menstruation when all sexual activity is prohibited.

My take on all of this is fairly simple. Those 100 rabbis are welcome to their opinion. They are welcome to not marry any two people for any reason. They are welcome to not recognize any marriage performed elsewhere. That they have expressed their views publicly is good, so people who disagree can avoid their synagogues.

Rabbi Greenberg was right in conducting the Shtar Shetufim and I applaud him for doing so. Consecrating the partnership and legal wedding of Mr. Bock and Mr. Kaplan is the next logical step in Rabbi Greenberg’s reinterpretation of Judaism. Although I do not consider myself to be Orthodox (I have studied with most denominations of Judaism at some times in my life), I believe that he brings much needed scholarship and activism to the ongoing debates among Jews.

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