The media recently reported that an Orthodox rabbi performed a gay marriage ceremony (I, II). This is factually incorrect. The rabbi is no longer Orthodox and the media does the reading public a disservice by uncritically accepting his self-description.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg (bio), ordained approximately 20 years ago at Yeshiva University’s RIETS, is an advocate for homosexuals in Jewish ritual. In his book, Wrestling With God and Men, Greenberg reinterprets a biblical prohibition contrary to the Talmud’s interpretation which has been unanimously accepted for millennia (see this post: link). In rejecting the Talmudic tradition and permitting that which is universally considered forbidden, Greenberg removes himself from Orthodox Judaism. He lacks any support from canonical texts or leading rabbinic authorities. He is a lone voice on this issue but certainly not the only rabbi in history to drift away from Orthodoxy.
Greenberg describes his most recent action, performing a gay marriage, in a comment to the Morethodoxy blog (link):
…The ceremony consisted of a blessing over wine and a shehecheyanu to begin. Then we read their shtar shutafut. Earlier at a tish we did a traditional ritual of acceptance of the document’s terms that included lifting a bag with an object belonging to each party… [T]he men both took an oath to be loyal to the other in emotional and physical ways, conditional upon receiving a ring. When the partner gave the ring, he recited a descriptive sentence that made the moment of the neder’s legal force identitical to receiving a ring…
We followed with seven birchot shevah that the gentlemen chose and then the breaking of a glass…
Greenberg goes on to say that he does not claim that the ceremony was Orthodox. However, the media’s report was that an Orthodox rabbi performed the ceremony, which Greenberg does not deny. He should. He should declare that he is not Orthodox.
Greenberg created a new ceremony that is similar to a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony but modified in critical ways for the same-sex circumstances. In doing so, he not only created a new ritual for a religiously unsanctified relationship, he publicly implied that Orthodox Judaism accepts gay marriage as a religious construct. This constitutes a falsification of the Torah and Chillul Hashem. We must protest this false public portrayal of Orthodox Judaism.
Orthodox Judaism does not sanction gay marriage religiously. This has nothing to do with American law or politics. It is about a religion’s internal beliefs and religious rituals. We bear responsibility for a tradition dating back thousands of years and have no right to radically reform it. When a (formerly) Orthodox rabbi unilaterally disposes of a long-standing law, he forfeits the title Orthodox.
As a decentralized religion, Orthodox Judaism lacks an ecclesiastical body to authoritatively excommunicate anyone. Private excommunications have been repeatedly abused to the point of irrelevance. Ideally, the central organizations of Orthodox Judaism would publicly declare standards and decry breaches of those standards. However, for reasons about which I can only speculate, no rabbinic organization — neither the RCA nor the IRF, nor Greenberg’s alma mater RIETS — has commented on this latest development in any way. However, the RCA’s statement earlier this year leaves no doubt about its position (link):
The Torah, which forbids homosexual activity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. While we do not seek to impose our religious principles on others, we believe the institution of marriage is central to the formation of a healthy society and the raising of children. It is our sincere conviction that discarding the historical definition of marriage would be detrimental to society.
Similarly, leading RIETS rashei yeshiva have issued a statement on homosexuality, decrying “the heresy of elements who although identifying themselves as Orthodox demand change in the Torah, rachamanah litzlan, a clear violation of the thirteen principles of faith” (link). Additionally, Yeshiva University President Richard Joel and RIETS Dean R. Yona Reiss issued this statement two years ago: link.
Orthodoxy has red lines, boundaries that one may not cross. Who would have thought, twenty years ago, that we would see a time when self-described Orthodox rabbis would publicly advocate gay marriage, women rabbis and other obvious deviations from traditional beliefs and practices? If no one can legitimately object to misuse of the term “Orthodox,” and therefore anyone can claim that any deviation is “Orthodox,” then the term has no meaning. I reject this line of reasoning. There are deviations that cross the lines, as blurry as they may be.
The media was fooled by Greenberg. While the central Orthodox institutions have issued statements on this subject in the past, they cannot expect the media to remember them. I believe that in order to effectively protest the false claims of this news story and mitigate this Chillul Hashem, our leaders need to explicitly respond to the media. Sadly, this blog lacks the power of a press release from communal leaders, which can conclusively end this unprecedented breach.