More than 100 Orthodox rabbis have signed onto a statement in opposition to same sex weddings, saying that gay marriage is a “desecration of Torah values.”
The statement was a response to a November wedding between two men that was officiated by the Orthodox-ordained rabbi and longtime gay rights activist Steven Greenberg. Hailed as an historic first by the Israeli magazine, +972, news of the wedding made waves among Orthodox rabbis, who claimed that the union could not be considered Orthodox.
“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,” the statement, which was published in full on the Algemeiner news web site earlier this week, read. “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 statement comes more than a year after the release of the “Statement of Principles,” a landmark document declaring that gay individuals in the Orthodox community should be treated with dignity and respect. The document affirmed heterosexual marriage as the “sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression,” but said that “embarrassing, harassing, or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.” It was signed by nearly 200 Orthodox rabbis and prominent members of the Orthodox community.
Though the two Orthodox declarations are not at odds with one another — neither one sanctions gay marriage, and both mention the personal challenges that gay Orthodox Jews face — they appear to represent a divide in the Orthodox world between rabbis who seek to welcome gay Jews and those who would emphasize what they see as the halachic prohibition of their unions. Of the more than 300 signatories to both documents, only a single person put his name on both.
The Forward reached Benjamin Hecht, a Toronto rabbi who runs a Torah study think tank called NISHMA, to ask him why he was the only person to sign both statements.
“The truth is, and I don’t know how to phrase this, I am hard to define,” said Hecht. “Along the various different groupings within Orthodoxy, in certain ways I am more to the right and in certain ways I am more to the left.”
Hecht said that he began to recognize the inherent difficulty in being a gay Orthodox Jew when he met a young gay man in the 1980s who was drawn to the movement. Hecht told him that Orthodoxy prohibits homosexuality. But framing the man’s conundrum as a challenge, he told him: “A lot of people think of religion as a comfort. I think what religious thought is supposed to do is to make you think and accept challenges and to recognize the complexity of life and deal with issues.”
The young man, already in a gay relationship, did not end up delving deeper into Orthodoxy, as far as Hecht knows. But, said Hecht, “he appreciated my recognition of his dilemma.”
Hecht said that there are many Orthodox rabbis that, like him, feel the need to extend an open hand to gay individuals, even as they reaffirm their prohibition of homosexual sex. Yet Hecht said it made sense to him that the rabbis who signed the document against gay Orthodox marriage did not also sign last year’s Statement of Principles, which was welcoming in comparison. Many rabbis are wary of going public as supporting gays, he said, lest they appear to be flaunting Jewish law.
“The point is, there is a concern that you could come across as so welcoming that you don’t get across the value you believe the law has.” If there is a divide in Orthodoxy on this issue, said Hecht, it is not one between open-minded rabbis and rigid rabbis, but one between rabbis who are willing to publicly affirm their acceptance of gays in the movement and those who aren’t. “That might be a reality of a rift that exists within Orthodoxy,” he said.
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at firstname.lastname@example.org
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.