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?
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