Friday, December 16, 2011

Yes, An Orthodox Rabbi Can "Do" a Commitment Ceremony

Co-written by Rabbi Jason Miller and Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Our colleague and teacher, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, is an Orthodox rabbi who will go down in history as being the first Orthodox rabbi to officiate a Jewish commitment ceremony and civil marriage for two men. In a recent article in The Jewish Week, Rabbi Greenberg explained that this ceremony which took place in Washington D.C. was not a "gay Orthodox wedding" as was sensationally reported. He wrote, "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."

Rabbi Reuven Spolter responded to Rabbi Greenberg's actions in a blog post "Why Has My Yeshiva Not Revoked Steven Greenberg's Semichah?" We write this as a response to Rabbi Spolter.

As two Conservative rabbis who were both ordained at the same rabbinical seminary, we also regard our semicha (rabbinical ordination) as a special honor whose legitimacy must be preserved. Like Rabbi Spolter and Rabbi Bernard Revel before him, we would hope that our rabbinical seminary would take back the semicha of a colleague who grossly violated either Torah law or civil law. However, Rabbi Spolter is mistaken in his characterization of Rabbi Steve Greenberg's writings and actions.

Rabbi Greenberg has neither violated Torah law or civil law. He has used his rabbinate to help right a wrong. In officiating at a same-sex commitment ceremony between two men, Rabbi Greenberg may not have acted in a way that fits Rabbi Spolter's belief structure, but he also did not violated any laws. The "to'eva" (abomination) in Leviticus speaks to a sexual act. No where does it discuss a life-cycle ceremony drawing upon the language of our sacred tradition to bless a relationship between two souls.

As to Rabbi Spolter's concern with Rabbi Greenberg using the title "Orthodox Rabbi" (or more specifically: "Modern Orthodox Rabbi"), he should know that "Orthodox Rabbi" is not a halachic (Jewish legal) term. Rabbi Spolter would be hard pressed to point to any text in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) in which the term "Orthodox Rabbi" is used. We are certain that rabbis in Agudath Israel of American (Haredi) do not consider Chovevei Torah (Open Orthodox) musmachim (ordainees) to be legitimate "Orthodox Rabbis". I'm sure that any graduate of Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), like Rabbi Spolter and Rabbi Greenberg, wouldn't want to be lumped together with the "Orthodox Rabbis" of Neturei Karta (anti-Zionist Haredi). These are political distinctions with religious implications, but they are not halachic categories.

Rabbi Greenberg IS an Orthodox Rabbi in the sense that he received his semicha from RIETS. The way he uses his semicha is not "vulgar," as you put it. To the contrary. Standing under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with two men who have committed to spend their lives together, raise a family and grow old with each other in a loving way does not negate a person's ability to call himself an "Orthodox Rabbi." Yeshiva University or RIETS could certainly yank Rabbi Greenberg's semicha, but it wouldn't be for a violation of halacha. Rather, it would be for his violating a social norm that makes some Jews like Rabbi Spolter uncomfortable.

The role of Judaism has always been to raise the mundane to touch the sacred. God's world is full of opportunities for holiness. When two Jews find each other, and are prepared to enter into covenantal relationship, there is more than enough guidance that halacha provides to frame the moment. Furthermore, it is a responsibility we each carry as rabbis to stand with our People, person by person.

We hope that Rabbi Spolter and others will read these words from Rabbi Greenberg and try to understand why this Orthodox rabbi chose to courageously do what no other Orthodox rabbi before him had done:
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.
We offer our congratulations to the two men whose relationship Rabbi Greenberg has helped to make sacred in our Tradition. We also offer our highest praise to Rabbi Greenberg and pray that he will serve as a beacon of hope to those in the Orthodox gay community who never thought they could be in a committed, blessed partnership.


ChloƩ Simone Valdary said...

okay...regardless of what you think about this issue, the suggestion that since he isn't officiating a ceremony in which two men have sex, he hasn't violated anything in the Torah is RIDICULOUS because you and I and he all know what those two men are going to do later on. Come on. Be reasonable.

AE said...

So to be clear - they are getting married legally, having a "commitment ceremony" under a Chuppah, want to "spend their lives together, raise a family and grow old with each other in a loving way", but there will be no sexual acts?

Lisa said...

Do either of you think their sexual activity or lack thereof is affected in any way by the ceremony? Look, I'm extremely opposed to the fact that the ceremony was done in public, officiated at by a person with Orthodox smicha, and done in a synagogue. I think all three of those were poor choices. Unacceptable, in my view. But as far as your assumptions about their sexual activity, the fact of the matter is, you're both talking like you think they were "saving themselves" until after the ceremony and that it's the ceremony that's creating a potential problem. And that's just silly.

All that said, I think it's kind of silly for two Conservative rabbis to be weighing in on whether something is right or wrong from an Orthodox perspective. More than silly, really. Offensive. I don't imagine they enjoy hearing Orthodox rabbis weighing in on questionable Conservative choices, like abolishing mamzerut, permitting Kohanim to marry converts and divorcees, or allowing the desecration of Shabbat (driving) in order to maintain membership numbers at Conservative synagogues. Not cool, guys.

David said...

I'm a gay Jewish man, civilly married to a shaygets (OK, a Unitarian-Universalist. Frankly, if he was a devout christian, I'd have had a problem, but we've been together for 35 years) in the People's Republic of Massachusetts. So, the comments don't necessarily apply to me personally (I've apparently stepped way over the line), but I feel the need to defend my more observant Jewish gay brothers and sisters from irrational prejudice.

To say that the three previous comments are bigoted and ignorant doesn't begin to express the dismay I feel on reading them. The "RIDICULOUS" (quoting you Chloe) and the absurd notion that the men involved are incapable of following what is specifically prohibited in Torah is bigoted, judgmental and bizarre. Your notions of what all gay men do sexually, and certainly what Orthodox and Conservative gay men do sexually is simply wrong. In a sense, you've been watching too much cultural porn. Porn is not real life sister.

Lisa seems to think that all gay men indulge in male-male intercourse, which is also wrong. Lisa also has a laundry list of things other Jews should not comment on unless they are Orthodox. Best of luck Lisa.

Lisa said...

David, you should read more carefully. I don't think anything of the sort. In fact, I argue all the time against people who think exactly the wrong idea that you're imputing to me.

My objection, as I said, is solely limited to (a) the fact that it was done by someone with Orthodox smicha, (b) it was done in public, and (c) it was done in a synagogue. And (d) the fact that Conservative dudes think they have anything to say about this.

It's between each of us and God to deal with what we do in private. It's none of anyone else's business unless they shout it from the rooftops. And "I'm gay" does not mean "I do things against Jewish law." I know men who have said that they don't engage in that act, some of whom don't simply because they don't like it. The "common knowledge" that it must be going on is stupid, and I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't suggest that I support that stupidity.