Three years ago the internet was awash with pictures of two frum Jewish men under a chupah in New York, wearing white kittels. The headlines screamed that this was the first “Orthodox” gay wedding.
But this was not actually true. Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the gay officiant, explained that even under his personal ultra-liberal, pro-gay interpretation of Judaism, a same-sex marriage as such was impossible in halachah. Nevertheless, he contended that the ceremony he performed had Jewish legal implications of its own, a brit ahavah, covenant of love, binding the couple together, even if it fell outside the parameters of kiddushin (sanctification of marriage) and was linked to a wedding in secular law. Although it was no kiddushin by any stretch of the term, unsurprisingly it received short shrift from Rabbi Greenberg’s Orthodox colleagues, as it sought to give a hechsher to something treif.
Life is hard for gay Jews attracted to Orthodox Judaism. The spirit of ahavat Yisrael, love of all fellow Jews, means that every Jew should be welcomed. My own community of Reading strives to be the most friendly place an Orthodox shul could be to any member of our Jewish family. There is no place for demonisation. But in much sorrow we find ourselves at a point of divergence.
Put aside the powerful passage in Leviticus, which we read just before Pesach, and the many rational arguments made for exclusively heterosexual marriage, fundamental though they be. Leave behind visceral, nonsensical hate and discrimination. We acknowledge that same-sex marriage is now part of the law of land.
The unseemly rush of some Jewish movements to be the first, and the turmoil of others over the issue, displays an increasingly destructive rift in the Jewish people. More than any other, the issue of whether two men or two women can be married under Jewish law defines what sets some Jews firmly outside normative Judaism.
In halachah, marriage is a way of protecting women (the weaker party) from their (stronger, richer, more powerful) menfolk. A wife holds the ketubah contract, promising her rights in the event of the marriage ending. A husband acquires the valuable exclusive right to be married to his wife. We have two witnesses to ensure that everything is done legally. There is a whole structure of halachah to determine what is a kosher marriage, even legislating how a man and a woman should not be alone together unless they are married.
Gay marriage does away with all this in the name of the secular liberal value of equality — another system altogether. Who is the weaker party in this institution? Why, indeed, is it needed? What of the structures carefully built over millennia? Even Rabbi Greenberg, with his personal interest, created a different ceremony. Since some claim that marriage is a patriarchal institution outmoded for the 21st century, would it not be better to choose a more honest approach and introduce a secular form of commitment for everyone rather than call it marriage at all?
The state would have been wiser to make civil partnerships obligatory for all couples, heterosexual or same-sex. After that, people could celebrate marriage ceremonies in synagogues, churches or elsewhere as they saw fit, without giving these any legal force or involving a re-definition of “marriage”.
It is disingenuous for Jews to claim that the novel same-sex unions have any halachic foundations or that they are in any way related to Judaism. When movements do what is expedient for their membership rather than maintain any relation with halachah, it creates a clear fault-line in the Jewish world. The rush to follow society’s current mores severs the links a Jew has to the Torah, the ultimate source of morality. This wholesale demolition fails the faith of our ancestors, defying justification.
That so many Jewish leaders feel that adopting gay marriage is supremely Jewish says more about how far they have strayed than how true they are to their own traditions. Why not just say no? Is “no” really only kosher if you are Orthodox?
Attempts to bring Orthodoxy to work with the other movements, over issues such as conversion, now appear utter folly. Until recently, some might have turned a blind eye, arguing that different streams did not hold totally antithetical approaches and had much in common. But same-sex marriage is a “kosher pork” moment. With this latest extreme departure, Orthodoxy and the rest of the Jewish world stand on either side of a gulf, which can only become wider