by R. Gil Student
I. Is Officiating Forbidden?
For a long time, I struggled to understand whether there exists any technical barrier to an Orthodox rabbi officiating at a gay wedding. As long as the ceremony is sufficiently different from a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony to avoid confusion, and no unnecessary blessings are recited, what prevents a rabbi from leading the proceedings and adding religious meaning to a lifecycle event that would take place anyway? This seemed to me an area of judgment, in which we have to refrain from doing something otherwise permitted for public policy reasons. A new book has convinced me otherwise.
Homosexuality in general, and gay marriage in particular, have become generational challenges to traditional religion. The mainstream acceptance of alternative sexuality has generated questions about the fairness and truth of Judaism. Why does the Torah prevent our gay friends from settling down with a life partner? For too many people, the intangible theological answers cannot compete with a friend’s visible struggles. A person’s pain trumps God’s word. To avoid further alienating people who struggle with this issue, many traditionalists greatly limit explicit discussions of the subject or clear statements on the matter, leaving the microphone to the radicals. We live in a confused world and the real fear of alienating people causes silence on one side, which adds to the confusion.
II. Is Accommodation Possible?
One strategy of dealing with difficult situations like these is to accommodate non-traditionalists as much as halakhically possible. Don’t compromise your own integrity by violating religious laws, but enable others to fulfill as many religious dicta as possible while you walk them to the line and watch them cross it. We minister to the righteous and the wicked, as well as the majority of people who are somewhere in between. By taking part in this or other similar ceremonies, you are compromising on your teaching without compromising your personal observance. But sometimes a lesson will not be heard so you lose nothing by refraining from teaching it.
This strategy is thoughtful but short-sighted. You see the immediate gain by adding further religious dimensions to a family. But the long-term loss of failing to stand with your principles is immeasurable. The many others who witness this see a rabbi willing to wink at non-observance, to take part in a ceremony that is obviously contrary to the Torah’s teachings. If you are not willing to sacrifice for the Torah on your level, don’t expect others to sacrifice on their levels either.
However, R. Dovid Lichtenstein, in his recently published Headlines 2, convinced me that I was missing a factor in my halakhic evaluation of the subject. One chapter in the book discusses whether a marriage registrar may sign a gay marriage certificate. As the book’s title implies, it deals with real situations reported in the news. When I read about this episode, I thought that halakhah would allow the woman to sign to wedding certificate. She was not enabling them to get married because they could go somewhere else to get married. She was not involved in the ceremony itself as it took place. Therefore, it should be permissible.
R. Lichtenstein raises a further consideration. The Torah prohibits “chanufah,” loosely translated as flattery. The Mishnah (Sotah 41a) describes how Aggripas the king once read the Torah at the Hakhel ceremony. When he reached the verse “You shall not appoint on you a foreign man” (Deut. 17:15), which disqualified him from the kingship, he began to cry and the rabbis called out, “You are our brother.” The Gemara (Sotah 41b) points to this sinful rabbinic response as a reason for the destruction of the Jewish people that accompanied the destruction of the Second Temple. This was flattery, false approval of a sin, which is itself sinful.
Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:188) deduces from this story that you must suffer martyrdom before approving a sin. Otherwise, how could the rabbis have been expected to stand up to a ruling monarch with the power to kill them? Tosafos (Sotah, ad loc.) disagree based on Nedarim 22a). A murderer killed someone in front of the sage Ulla and asked him if he did a good job. Ulla responded in the positive and later, full of regret, he asked R. Yochanan whether he had done the wrong thing. R. Yochanan assured Ulla that he had acted properly because he had answered approvingly in order to save his own life.
This debate revolves around a case when one’s life is in danger. Absent that extenuating circumstance, all agree that you may not explicitly approve of sinful behavior.1
R. Lichtenstein proceeds to argue that signing a marriage certificate constitutes explicit approval of that marriage. If that marriage is forbidden, that approval is chanufah.2 Presumably, it is similarly forbidden to sign a marriage certificate of a Jew and a gentile. One can ask whether a gay marriage is technically forbidden but I find that argument hard to support. Marriage includes marital relations, unique exceptions notwithstanding.
For this reason, officiating at such a marriage, or otherwise explicitly celebrating it, should also be forbidden as chanufah. Just like we do not celebrate nor officiate at an intermarriage, despite the couple’s personal joy, we also may not do so at a gay marriage.
Note that this does not discuss praising someone who sins for his good qualities unrelated to the sin. See Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:51. ↩
R. Lichtenstein concludes some chapters with quotes from notable rabbis who discussed this issue on his radio show. On this issue, Rav Dovid Cohen said that, because of chanufah, you are obligated to forfeit your job rather than sign a gay marriage certificate. ↩