A religious dilemma -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

My friend and former student Esther (not her real name) embodies all the values and qualities that are deemed praiseworthy in the Orthodox Jewish community…except for one.   She is a leader of Jewish people helping to form observant and learned communities wherever she goes.  She is smart, modest, humble, learned in Torah, observant with the punctiliousness and passion that is the Orthodox ideal, and she even grew up Orthodox, the perfect match for any Jewish man…except that she is, and has always been, only attracted to women.

Esther tried for many years to figure out what her observant Jewish life would look like.  She knew two things for sure, she was gay and she was Orthodox.  The question for her and for many Orthodox Jews who are only attracted emotionally and sexually to people of the same gender is: How should I live my life?   Should I be celibate?   Should I live with a roommate of the same gender and raise children but not tell the world in any official way that we are as loving, supportive and as one person as much as any married heterosexual couple?  Should I have a partner and be open about it and raise an Orthodox family and risk being ostracized?  The easy fixes like not being gay or not being religiously observant are usually not options for people who really are gay and who really are observant Jews.

I always knew the time would come when Esther would realize that she would not really be able to live alone her whole life.  A woman of community and family, steeped in the beauty of Jewish family values, of Shabbat (Sabbath) tables filled with rejoicing, singing, and words of torah study, and of community.   A woman who knows what the important values are and is not moved by the narishkiet (Yiddish for nonsense) that larger American society and its superficial media driven values constantly churns out to us.   Esther is a woman steeped in Orthodox Jewish family values and Torah through and through.

The time that I knew would come, has come.  She met someone she loves, someone she can create a loving, religious Jewish family with which will embody the very best of Orthodox values.   Is creating a Jewish home with another woman and raising Jewish children the best thing for Esther’s Jewish life?   I believe it is.

Esther wants to take the values that Judaism teaches about relationships, as embodied in its writings about Jewish family and weddings and in the Jewish wedding ceremony itself, and utilize them in a ceremony that will deepen and solidify the relationship with her same gender spouse that will serve as the foundation for their “bayit neeman biyisrael,” their house of faith among the Jewish people.  Instead of slinkingly living with a “roommate” she wants to publicly solidify this relationship and foundation for her new family in front of friends and community in order to encourage its longevity and strength.

The halachot (Jewish laws) of Jewish marriage pertain only to a Jewish man and a Jewish woman who are permitted to each other.  True, it is not forbidden in Judaism to ceremoniously read sections of the book of Ruth about relationships, or the Song of Songs, or to make a blessing on a cup of wine, or to offer a prayer on behalf of a bride and a bride.  On the other hand all of the paradigms of marriage in the Torah are only between men and women.

Is it the time to say our focus on drawing lines and holding ground against gays, their relationships and their marriages is wasted energy?  To say as Rabbi Shmuly Boteach recently has that we should stop focusing on gay marriage and worry about the 50% of heterosexual marriages that fail?  To acknowledge that marriage does not have to prompt a community analysis of what happens in people’s bedrooms but can just see what happens in their dining rooms and living rooms such as loving children and teaching them Judaism in a house of Jewish celebration and faith among our people?

Maybe this is the moment to stand up and say it is better for gay orthodox Jews (at least those who can not be celibate and still keep the rest of the Torah with joy) to be in monogamous relationships which are the most observant ones they can be?  To say why  assume every relationship is only judged based upon what we think might be going on in the couple’s bed room and not on the building of a traditional Jewish home?   That when it comes to heterosexual couples who may be violating things in their bedroom that are forbidden by the Torah we turn a blind eye but when it comes to gay couples whose bedroom violations may be much less, perhaps only rabbinic, that suddenly we are up in arms?

If I believe the best thing for Esther is to “marry” a woman and raise a Jewish family and I do not help facilitate that because I fear the reverberations in the Orthodox community am I a hypocrite?   On the other hand I am a Jew committed to Jewish law and tradition and same gender marriage has never been part of that, indeed has been seen as outside of it.

So what is a rabbi to do?

16 Responses to A religious dilemma -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

  1. Paul Ilie says:

    Ask yourself 2 questions. (1) Will HaShem be angry with me and punish me if I assist this woman? (2) Will I lose the respect of my congregation or of my essential religious support network if I assist her? Then weigh the importance of each answer and decide.

  2. Shachar Ha'amim says:

    I first saw this on Gil Student’s blog and posted some questions there which I will try and distill here as food for thought.

    If you agree to perform and/or consecrate such a “marriage” how do you address the issur do’rayta of performing same-gender marriages which is based on the Sifra’s interpretation of the lav of lo taaseh kmayseh mitzrayim? True the Rambam connects this Sifra with secual acts in the bedroom, but on the face of it the two sources upon which such Rambam in Hilchot Issurei Biyah are based are disconnected and as such it seems there is a torah level prohibition on same-gender or ployandrous marriages. So even though you focus on the bedroom activities in an attempt to suggest that this is a private matter, from a halachic perspective there is a big leap from a “common-law” monogamous same-gender relationship to a “santicfied” one called “marriage”.

    Last week in Makor Rishon there was an article http://musaf-shabbat.com/2011/08/18/%d7%9e%d7%a9%d7%a4%d7%97%d7%94-%d7%a2%d7%9c-%d7%a1%d7%a3-%d7%a4%d7%99%d7%a8%d7%95%d7%a7-%d7%a2%d7%99%d7%a0%d7%aa-%d7%a8%d7%9e%d7%95%d7%9f/ that discussed the polygamy question. It pointed out that intellectucally honest thinkers admit that if society can – and will – recognize same-gender marriages, then it HAS to allow polygamous marriages. So my question is simple – if a lesbian couple bear a child and enter in a contract with the “sperm donor” to be a father to the child (this is more common than most would think – read the rest of the article – even many lesbian couples prefer the child to have a father) then how is this different or more acceptable than two women who share the same man – i.e. what changes things when it is the two women who have relations with each other but neither have with the father, from the situation when the two women do not have relations with each other, but rather each have with the father?

    In the context of certain recent initiatives to “arrange” matches between gay and lesbian potential parents, why is it more legitimate to arrange father-mother matches in order to “produce” more Jewish children even knowing that the parents are innvoled in other same-gender relationships, than it is to arrange marriages for single women to married men in order to “produce” more Jewish children? Why does a single straight woman who wants to have children need to have the child as a single mother or out of wedlock only to a single (or gay) man? or via a sanctified lesbian relationship? why not via marriage to a married man whose wife agrees?

    from a strict halachic perspective it is certainly easier to countenance polygamy (only gezeyrat kehilla and not 100% accepted) versus lesbian marriage.

    what would you say if “Esther” (with all the same characteristics you desrcibe) came to you and said she found a way to have all that you described in your article – family, siblings for the children, support of aspouse, etc. – but rather than “Esther” being a lesbian, “Esther” was a 33 year old single woman who wants to have children, does not want to do this alone and out of wedlock and has found a like-minded committed religious couple that was willing to take her on as a second wife in the family?

    Would you countenance – or even perform a kiddushin – for a single woman such as “Esther” who wants to marry a married man who has the full blessing of his wife to take on another wife? If you wouldn’t but would be willing to perform a lesbian marriage for a couple that will obtain sperm from a man and keep that man involved in their lives as a father to the child, then I think uou owes us all an explanation as to why the 2 cases are different?

    I want to stress that I am not advocating polygamy. I’m just stating that liberal acceptance of “alternative” marriage and/or child bearing arrangements, irrespective of what agenda it is based on, will automatically lead to acceptance of polygamy for the same reasons.

    It is only a matter of time before the SCOTUS revreses the late 19th century decisions which upheld the view that State bans on polygamy were constitutional, and this will be helped along by inttelectually honest liberals who will have to support the view that polygamous households are no more problematic than same gender households
    Also if you read the views of the producers of HBO’s Big Love you will see that they viewed the show as “feminist” and supporting feminist views. It is not a given that polygamous households necessarily lead to abuse of women and children any more so than it is a given that there are never abusive same-gender relationships (which is of course not the case).

  3. Ruh says:

    Rambam said in Moreh Nevuchim not to think of the sages as ignorant because they did not know what we know today (in the context of science: they believed in the four elements, but even by the time of Rambam it was obvious that this theory was untrue). They lived in their time, and we in ours; we owe them much, if it had not been for them we would not be who we are.
    Today science is telling us that homosexuality is not a choice, it is born into the individual. If the sages had known this, how do you think they would have acted? Take the advice of Rambam: Do not think them foolish for not knowing; but knowing, act in the way they would have acted if they knew.

    • Nate says:

      The only problem with your thinking is that none o the rulings are based on anything Rabbinic. They are based on Torah text, which in the case of homosexuality, is not ambiguous. It is forbidden unconditionally.

  4. Patrick says:

    I have reed an interesting post about Femal Homosexuality :
    Be well.
    Shabbat Shalom


  5. Shachar Haamim says:

    After I posted my original comments on Torahmusings and here I found Maragaret Sommerville’s original article on the topics I raised.

    I think that the challange is clear – if iberal “morethodox” rabbis begin to accept same gender marriages, single mothers of choice and all other forms of households or “marriages” as being acceptable and part of orthodoxy”s (or evem only “morethodoxy’s”) -as Sommerville puts it ” core values” – than they will HAVE to accept polygamous households.
    Naturally, everyone reading this blog know that the average orthodox – and certainly morethodox -person will recoil from the idea that polygamy is legitimate in the 21st century. I challenge them to address my questions as well as her questions. I am quite certain that they won’t be able to. Same gender households lead to recognizing 3 people as the parents of a child, and if that is acceptable and everone involved keeps the mitzvot, then halachic norms and social values really can’t distinguish between the lesbian relationship where the father is one who sleeps in the second apartment in the house, versus the situation where it is the2 wives who alternate sleeping in the second apartment in the house. As Sommerville points out correctly – the idea that the former is “monogamous” and involves only “2 people” ultimately holds little water. As Orthodox Jews we CANNOT say that the latter case of 2 wives is inherently immoral because it is not monogamous, whilst the former is moral because it is even though it is lesbian. No serious religious thinker can argue that a Yemenite Jewish family that recently immigrated to Israel – or even the ones that cae 60 years ago – formed of multiple wives were inherently anti-halachic or immoral

  6. You’re kidding, right?
    Honestly, does halacha only come in as an afterthought as long as it doesn’t conflict with the liberal outcome you’re already decided to achieve?
    At no point do you discuss the concept of being fruitful and multipying, an obligation on all males including gay ones. What, because they have an “alternative” drive they’re suddenly exempt? What about the concept of God designing the world to be settled which, according to some, also applies to females? Would you exempt lesbians? On what halachic basis?
    The bottom line of any legal system is that sometimes the answer is “no”. It might not be compassionate in your eyes, it might not even be fair but the answer is still “no”. A homeless and starving man is still committing a crime if he shoplifts. We can feel sorry for him, maybe even try to prevent him from doing it by helping him out but if he steals he has broken the law.
    Judaism emphasizes an objective right and wrong, in contrast to mushy secular liberalism which tries to avoid any such labels as being judgmental is sin no. 1.

    • noam stadlan says:

      It must be a a nice feeling to insult Rabbonim while hiding behind the facade of a pseudonym. If you had actually read the post carefully, Rabbi Shafner is wondering aloud what to do, and has not come(as far as posted) to a decision. Your contributions to the conversation might be heard better without the sarcasm and the ‘I know much better than you’ attitude. In addition, you jump to the unfounded conclusion that Rav Shafner decided the outcome he wanted, and was just fishing around for justification.
      What you are missing is that there are reasons within halacha to care about the feelings of homosexuals and of women(yes I have seen your posts on that issue). Any halachic judgement has to be the outcome of a halachic balance. If you are not satisfied with your tzitzis check of Rav Shafner, please read Rav Eliezer Berkovitz “Jewish Women in Time and Torah” and Rav Eugene Korn “Tzelem Elokim and the dialectic of Jewish Morality” published in the RCA journal Tradition in the late 90’s. This is a mainstream Jewish position that unfortunately has been partially buried by the turn towards intolerance in the last 200 years. It is easier to measure the length of skirts than the discomfort of the person wearing it. We have come to discount anything that we cant measure and quantify, and lost the sensitivity to people and feelings that characterized previous generations.

      All that being said, on this issue I think it would be wrong to give this relationship any sort of halachic sanction. The issur of homosexuality, even if it is rabbinic in the case of women, is still an issur. The two people involved can have a civil ceremony, and can build a house together. If they choose they can raise children, invite people to shabbat dinner, celebrate chagim, and do everything that families do. From the perspective of religion, we would applaud the family life, the continuation of traditions of Shabbat, the commitment to responsibility etc. However, our religion cannot applaud the choice to engage in homosexual activity, which such a union implies. I guess if there were a commitment to celibacy, there may be room to argue. However, by blessing this union, no matter what the positives, you are blessing their choice of sexual partners and sexual action. They can do all the positive things you mention without your giving them your approval, and it is fine and right to encourage the positives. But it isn’t right to approve of a union that you know will be in violation of an issur.
      I think that in marriage there is an assumption, even though it may have no basis in reality, that the relations are going to be in accordance with halacha. A chezkat kashrut if you will. In this case, the assumption is unfortunately in the opposite direction.

      • Dr. Stadlan:

        I’m not sure why you say that you “think that in marriage there is an assumption…that relations are going to be in accordance with halacha.” What is this based on? I have asked many Rabbis who perform weddings for non-observant couples knowing full well that the couples have not kept the laws of Niddah until that point and will not keep the laws of Niddah after that point but nonetheless feel it is important for an Orthodox Rabbi to be performing a Jewish wedding for them. These Rabbis officiate at such weddings not because they believe the couple will observe the laws of Niddah (just like a Rabbi performing a conversion doesn’t have to believe that the convert will observe all of the mitzvot), but because they believe that it is better for them to officiate than a non-Orthodox Rabbi—i.e. to them, it’s not all or nothing.

        Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t concern ourselves with what happens in other peoples’ bedrooms and leave that for God to worry about?

        I’m also not sure why officiating at such a ceremony gives homosexual sex a “halachic sanction.”

        In short, can you explain this “chezkat kashrut” that you mentioned in a bit more detail?

    • Dr Richard Wolberg says:

      The analogy of a homeless man to someone gay is ludicrous. Any professional worth his or her salt will tell you that to label as an “alternative” drive someone’s homosexual desire, is sheer ignorance. The homosexual does not choose that lifestyle (with rare exceptions) anymore than you or I choose heterosexuality. Also, they are not asking you to “feel sorry for him.” That is pure patronization. Whether you understand the intricate psychological structure or not does not take away at all from the exceptional insight and understanding of Rabbi Shafner. And it’s unfortunately, thinking such as yours, that keeps us in the Dark Ages.

  7. Shachar Haamim says:

    please strike the last two words of my previous comment. and change immoral to “halachically impremissible”.
    I should have seen that you would pick up on that and ignore the salient points of my comment.

    Would you perform a polygamous kiddushin under the same circumstances you describe? I think all intelligent readers understand that you would perform a same-gender marriage but that for various reasons – like many “issues” which morethodoxy likes to confront – you aren;t ready to come out and say as much – – – yet.

  8. Dr Richard Wolberg says:

    Regarding the comment: “I think all intelligent readers understand that you would perform a same-gender marriage but that for various reasons – like many “issues” which morethodoxy likes to confront – you aren;t ready to come out and say as much – – – yet.” What an insult and affront! And just for your information, a polygamous kiddushin is against the law. Did you forget “dina d’malchuta dina” since you are so m’dakdek? I really respect Rabbi Shafner for allowing your sarcastic and demeaning post since freedom of speech gives one the right to be cruel.

  9. Some of us really appreciate that people even take this into consideration. We can discuss halacha left and right, up and down. But for a lot of us, what it really comes down to is how dare we encourage yidden that are gay and lesbian to completely go off the derech, to throw them to a dangerous and hostile world, to say that they should no values at all because we cannot make a home for them. Most of these people are not even asking for anyone to sanction anything, merely not to be thrown out like garbage. For anyone else we would encourage them to do their best, mitigate the situation; why be cannot as reasonably is truly perplexing.

  10. Anonymous says:

    blah blah blah, v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha.


  11. Mr. Cohen says:

    Babylonian Talmud, tractate Gittin, page 57B:
    400 Jewish boys and girls were captured by the Romans and were being taken to Rome on a ship. They all committed suicide by jumping into the sea.

    RASHI: The boys did this [committed suicide] to avoid being forced into homosexuality, and the girls did it [committed suicide] to avoid becoming concubines to Gentile men.

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