Officiating At A Gay Marriage

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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.

III. Flattery

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

IV. Conclusion

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.

 


  1. 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. 

  2. 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. 

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

15 comments

  1. But doesn’t the Torah prohibit gay marriage in an of itself, not just for Jews but also for Noachides?

    Vayiqra 18:3:
    כְּמַעֲשֵׂ֧ה אֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֛יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּ֖הּ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ…

    Sifra ad loc:
    יכול לא יבנו בנינים ולא יטעו נטיעות כמותם? תלמוד לומר “ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו”– לא אמרתי אלא בחוקים החקוקים להם ולאבותיהם ולאבות אבותיהם. ומה היו עושים? האיש נושא לאיש והאשה לאשה. האיש נושא אשה ובתה, והאשה נישאת לשנים. לכך נאמר “ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו”.

    • I’m hesitant to pasken based on a midrash without support from later poskim. Are you aware of poskim that discuss this or quote the source in this context?

      • The Sifra is a medrash halakhah; not that I think you need the clarification, but I am concerned about a third party seeing the word “midrash” and thinking my source was aggadic. The Sifra on Vayiqra, a/k/a Toras Kohanim, is often cited in halachic arguments. But RGS is correct that it’s hard to justify pasqen-ing from a tannaitic source if no one since touches it.

        However, the Rambam (Issurei Bi’ah 21:8) does quote this Sifra as one of the problems with lesbianism.

        The Gra also cites it in his biur on EH 20:11. Although the SA he is commenting on uses the pasuq to argue against nashim mesolelos, not marriage. But then, the aforementioned Rambam conflates the two.

        So, the idea did enter the stream of pesaq.

        • I’m not convinced that this midrash can’t be interpreted as condemning specifically the sexual acts. Some commentaries on the Sifra seem to explain it that way. That’s why I’m interested in seeing how poskim use it in practice.

      • Regarding Bnei Noach, the Rambam in Hilchot Melachim lists the arayot they obligates them.

  2. I don’t entirely follow the argument from chanufah. This is taken to mean the flattery of pretending one approves of a certain sin. But signing a marriage document, or even officiating a marriage, doesn’t necessarily require one to approve the sin. If you were a rabbi officiating, couldn’t you say that you don’t approve of this particular choice in their lives, but you respect their willingness to continue their Orthodox observance, and want to be part of their lives. It can be explicit or implicit. But it’s not the same as the rabbis crying out to Agrippas that what he did was alright.

    • I don’t see how signing a marriage certificate or officiating at a marriage is anything but approval of that act.

      • Even when you state, explicitly, that the signing of this certificate does not signify your religious approval of that act?

        Besides, even were it implicit, you could approve of the people, and desire their happiness, as well as wishing them to continue their religious lives, even when you don’t approve of the act that it entails.

        Let’s come up with another example where you might be part of a process for other reasons besides the approval of the act it implies.

        You run a blog. Do you agree with every word stated on TorahMusings? I daresay you might allow a guest writer to publish an article you disagree with, because you appreciate the process and the idea of a discussion surrounding the topic. But according to your response above, any signing off of anything in essence must signify an approval of it.

        Obviously there is no sin here to deal with, but I’m trying to demonstrate signing off on something doesn’t imply approval at all.

        Much closer to our topic, it doesn’t seem that chanufah is used when it comes to irreligious couples. Let’s say a couple wants to be married by an Orthodox rabbi, but they are clearly not the religious type that would be concerned for such things as niddah when they are married. Let’s say it’s extremely clear they are not religious at all. Does the rabbi have to abstain, because it would be an act of chanufah to approve of this marriage?

        If you respond that in that case, the rabbi might just assume they will keep halacha, but he cannot assume that with a gay couple, imagine our irreligious couple state explicitly to the rabbi they will not keep niddah law when they are married. Can he marry them? Or sign their certificate? I think there are many, many rabbis who do indeed marry off such couples.

        • I disagree. A blog owner is responsible for the content on his site, even if he doesn’t write it.

          Can you sign a semicha certificate and say that you think the man is an ignoramus but you like him and wish him happiness? This is a marriage certificate you are signing!

          When it comes to an irreligious couple, that is a serious question that requires thought and consideration. There are people who claim that a rabbi should not officiate at the wedding. I remember seeing a sefer dedicated to arguing that point (I think it was called Sefer Lifnei Iveir). The Netziv has a responsum forbidding making a shidduch between non-religious Jews. However, in the common case, most people today permit it because we want them to get married and we want them to observe the commandments.

      • It is approval of the act, but it does not necessarily reflect the signers independent approval. The signer is required to follow the accepted policy of the jurisdiction and is signing on behalf of the jurisdiction. Somewhat analogous a Rav is required to pasken what the accepted psak is even if he would have ruled differently if there was no accepted psak.

  3. Calling a strict definition of Chanufa into our every day psak is a double edged sword (does fund raising ring a bell)
    on a technical level does the registrar have any discretion in the approval process? May a file clerk make a copy or file such a document? May they register a mixed marriage?

    • Fundraising does not permit chanufah. However, it need not entail violating the prohibition. Please see the responsum from Rav Moshe Feinstein in footnote 1 above.

  4. Signing a marriage certificate is an act of the state, not an act of an individual. A marriage registrar or clerk is bound to follow the laws of the state and therefore, signing the certificate provides state approval, not individual approval. Where’s the individual approval here?

    • I’m not sure that is correct. Can a registrar or judge refuse to issue a marriage license in a non-discriminatory case? I believe the answer is yes.

      • I think you’ve all lost the plot. The question is: Does Hashem want this or not? The answer is: No! That’s what is says in the Torah. Stop being so clever and quoting all kinds of mekoros and sevoros and distorting the truth. Let people who have problems deal with them and get help. Don’t try to make the Torah fit it with every piece of garbage that the outside world throws at you and try and dress it all up with clever quotes and arguments. All of you should go back to the Bais Hemedrash (if you were ever there) and sit a learn and see what Hashem wants from us.

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