On Entering Into Holy Relationship:
Same-Sex Wedding Ceremonies in Judaism
Rabbi Yair Hillel Goelman
Elul 5761 (Aug. 2001)
What I’ve written here is my attempt to explain what has gone into my thinking about the issue of same-sex wedding ceremonies in Judaism. I owe a special debt to the people who participated in the Or Shalom course I taught on “Sexuality, Gender and Marriage in the Jewish Tradition” where we examined both classical Jewish sources as well as material prepared by current gay and lesbian Jewish thinkers. The many classes, discussions, questions we entered into and the many tears, laughter and hugs that punctuated these discussions have taught me so much and I thank all of you who entered into this exploration with me. These issues are huge both in the Jewish textual tradition and, more importantly, in the lived reality of our lives. Obviously, what I present here is not “the whole story” and for those who wish to further their own education in this area I would cite my own namesake in the Talmud, Hillel the Elder: “Go and study!” (The full reading list the sexuality course is available and a few complete reading packages can be borrowed from Or Shalom).
In this article I discuss five related issues:
Sexuality in Judaism
Heterosexual intercourse in Judaism
Heterosexual marriage in Judaism
Homosexuality and Judaism
Same-sex wedding ceremonies in Judaism: Psychological, spiritual, and liturgical considerations
In the last section I hope to summarize briefly (Ha!) what I have learned and how I feel we can, in fact, honour same-sex couples who wish to enter into holy relationships through sacred ceremony in a way that draws on and honours our tradition.
1) Sexuality in Judaism
What do we mean by the terms “sex”, “sexuality” and “gender”? No, this isn’t one of those stupidly academic questions like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. These are important differentiations because, in fact, the tradition speaks at different times about these related but distinct concepts. In the course at Or Shalom last fall we used the term “sex” to differentiate between people born with penises (males) and people born with vaginas (females). “Sexuality” refers to one’s sexual orientation and preferred kinds of sexual activity. “Gender” is a social construction. Different societies define what counts as more “masculine” or more “feminine” characteristics in human beings.
In Judaism, one’s “sex”, just like any other aspect of your physical body, is considered to be gift from G!d. Similarity, the expression of one’s “sexuality” in the world is seen as having the potential of great blessing and joy or, on the other hand, the potential for abuse, violence and pain. Judaism spends alot of time discussing how positive expressions of one’s sexuality can honour one’s partner’s humanity and connect with the partner’s G!dliness as well. Like all societies, Jewish communities have constructed what were considered to be appropriate that “gender-related” norms, expectations, roles and regulations.
In the course we began to understand the ways in which Judaism _ in different ways and at different times _ developed ritual, liturgy, myth, law, story and ceremony around our embodied sexualities. We saw that there were no easy answers. There are positive commandments (“mitzvot aseh”) regarding what we should do with our sexuality as well as negative commandments (“mitzvot lo ta’aseh”) that prohibit other sexual activities. We learn that some activities are permissible (“reshut”) that is, they are neither obligatory nor are they prohibited. We also learned that there are lots of questions that have been raised in our long tradition as well as apparent omissions, oversights and inconsistencies, as well as poor information or misinformation on the nature of our sexuality.
I think that is a fair statement to say that most traditional sources see sexual pleasure as both a positive expression of both our godliness and our humanity, but also something we should be wary of when it manifests itself as “the evil inclination” that could lead to sexual greediness, abuse and violence. We learned that the Jewish tradition sees sexual relationships to be appropriate primarily within the context of marriage and that, conversely, a major purpose of marriage was to provide a framework for positive sexual relationships. So, now we turn to what halacha says about heterosexual intercourse.
2) Heterosexual intercourse in Judaism: On procreation and intimacy
Traditional Orthodox Judaism has strongly emphasized the role and importance of procreation in heterosexual intercourse. The first positive commandment in the Torah is “be fruitful and multiply.” Further, the large number of laws on family “purity” and husband-wife marital relations are replete with instruction and information and prohibition that are designed to ensure that the outcome of the heterosexual intercourse will be the birth of a (healthy) baby. The emphasis on procreation can be seen in the many laws that govern “taharat ha’mishpacha”, the so-called laws of family purity. These laws stipulate that husband and wife are prohibited from engaging in sexual intercourse while the woman is menstruating and for 7 days after her period. Thus, the times that husband and wife are permitted (commanded to) have intercourse are during ovulation, when the likelihood of conceiving are the highest. The Talmud goes to great lengths to discuss how to best and most precisely determine when a woman is bleeding and when she has stopped bleeding. In short: Intercourse is forbidden during menstruation when conception is impossible and prescribed during ovulation. A man may divorce his wife if after 10 years of sexual relations they do not conceive a child.
Despite this strong emphasis on procreation, it is also clear that procreation was never seen in Judaism as the only rationale for intercourse or for marriage. The legalistic, folklore, kabbalistic and Hasidic literatures all speak strongly about the importance of human intimacy for its own sake and the holiness of sexual union. This material acknowledges that while procreation may be a primary factor, sexual heterosexual intercourse is also expected to occur even in situations where conception is impossible, such as when a woman is already pregnant or has already crossed the threshold of menopause. A famous medieval text entitled “Iggeret HaKodesh” (The Holy Letter) speaks beautifully (and instructively) as to how the husband and wife should approach each other’s bodies with love, respect, sensitivity and the desire for mutual satisfaction and gratification. The sexual act has immense spiritual implications that go far beyond the specific couple who are coupling. Sex is not, in the Jewish tradition, just about churning out babies. Further, the historical emphasis on procreation did not anticipate the current reality in which homosexual couples are raising children whom they conceived and gave birth to in previous heterosexual relationships. Nor did they anticipate the continuing revolution in reproductive technologies.
Summing up: Judaism recognizes our sexuality as an integral part of which we are as individual human beings. Judaism stresses that our sexual relationships and activities must be guided by an ethic of compassion and shared intimacy and that the expression of our sexuality can lead us and others further on our path toward G!d. The tradition is clear that our relationships be based on sensitivity and caring towards our sexual partners and that it is fundamentally wrong when sexuality is expressed through aggression, violence, or greed. The major spiritual and legal framework the tradition created was the institution of marriage, which was seen as the most appropriate, secure and dignified way of protecting and elevating the sexual expression of both partners.
The twin blessings of procreation and intimacy through sexual intercourse are presumed to take place within the context of marriage. In the next section, I talk a little bit about heterosexual marriage in the Jewish tradition.
3) Heterosexual marriage in Judaism
In Judaism, the commitment to a sacred relationship between a man and woman is called kiddushin in Hebrew. Kiddushin comes from the word kadosh (or kiddush), meaning “holiness.” The wedding ceremony sanctifies the holy relationship between two individuals. In the Jewish tradition, kiddushin provides many ways for a couple to enrich their relationship, each imbued with emotional and spiritual meaning. The marriage of a man and woman in this plane of reality is seen as an earthly representation of a cosmic unification of masculine and feminine energies in the heavenly realms. The kabbalistic literature says this: “When man faces woman and woman faces man, then G!d sits on the throne of glory.”
The wedding ceremony contains the heterosexual imagery of men and women uniting with the potential to create new life. Prior to the wedding ceremony itself is the traditional “veiling” ceremony in which the bride is blessed as the “mother of future generations.” The traditional seven blessings include repeated references to G!d as the “Creator of humanity” who has “formed human beings in G!d’s own image” and created within human beings the ability to recreate themselves “for countless generations”. Bride and groom are to be as happy as Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden and twice the prayer invoked that the groom should rejoice (using the word with sexual connotations) with his bride.
The ceremony, like all other Jewish ceremonial activities, is to be approached with planning, consciousness, clear intent and the use of ritual and symbols that reflect a deep spiritual understanding. As noted above, the tradition goes to great lengths to describe how sexual relations with your significant holy partner is woven into relationship of mutuality, love, respect and sensitivity. The sexual aspect of a couple’s marriage is to be approached with consciousness and intent. In traditional communities both husband and wife are taught the rules of “family purity” regarding when and how sexual relations may/must be conducted and when they are forbidden.
Just as there is a way to step into kiddushin through the wedding ceremony, there is a way to step out of the relationship through Jewish divorce procedures, called gittin. Interestingly, the Bible itself says very little about the legal requirements for a wedding ceremony, but is far more explicit about the legal and spiritual means of ending a marriage. Like the wedding ceremony and the spiritual foundations of the couple’s sexual relationship, the divorce ceremony is similarly approached with spiritual consciousness and intent. The spiritual intensity of marriage bonds require that the untying of those bonds also be performed with attention, respect and sensitivity.
There are three relevant points I want to highlight: (1) We have a holy ceremony for publicly affirming that two soul mates are entering into a holy covenant with on another. (2) Through the laws of family purity, the marriage covenant includes explicit and well-understood guidelines regarding the appropriate and inappropriate forms of sexual interaction. (3) The tradition also articulates a clear and systematic way in which the formal marriage bonds may be dissolved.
True, much (most?) of the imagery refers explicitly to marriage between men and women and the complementarity of the masculine and the feminine. For many centuries out tradition has assumed that one’s sex, one’s sexuality and one’s gender were all perfectly lined up in a specific way within each and every individual. If you were born into a man’s body it was assumed that that your sexual preference would be for women and that you identified exclusively with the social norms and expectations of what society thought of as “masculine.” The mirror image would hold for someone born into a woman’s body whose sexual preference was assumed to be for men and who identified with gendered roles of being “feminine.” These rigid assumptions no longer hold.
There are interpretations that the kabbalistic images of the balance and unification of male and female sexual energies are not necessarily restricted to people who physically fit into the categories of men and women. There are understandings the cosmic balance of masculine and feminine energies in the world must also be affected within individuals. That is, that the feminine and masculine parts of each individual must be recognized and balanced. And, perhaps, that we can recognize and acknowledge the feminine and masculine aspects of our sexual partners regardless of the body into which they were born.
4) Homosexuality and Judaism:
Halachic, Non-Halachic and Neo-Halachic Perspectives
While the tradition speaks extensively about healthy love and sexual relations between men and women, traditional sources are largely silent on the question of same-sex relationships. The few cryptic lines in Leviticus that prohibit a “man laying down with a man as he would lay with a woman” have largely provided the foundation for what some have interpreted to mean a blanket condemnation of all homosexual relationships. In a tradition that values the power of text, the holy text of Torah offers very little in the way of clarity. Commentators have pointed out that the verse in Leviticus should be read in many different ways. In a tradition in which that which is prescribed, prohibited and permitted is usually so explicit we are left with a textual tradition which, in my opinion, is characterized by large silences, fragmentary, ambiguous and even contradictory interpretations.
We learned in the course last fall by studying both traditional and post-modern sources that many of the prohibitions of homosexual activity were based largely on what we now know to be inaccurate or badly understood aspects of human sexuality and on the fears of heterosexuals. Beyond these sweeping and blanket prohibitions, however, we found in the tradition precious little discussion about homosexual behaviour and no discussion at all about same sex relationships and commitments. We noted that some aspects of homosexual activity, for example lesbianism, were simply beyond the scope of the traditional texts, much as women’s sexuality in general was given little attention by the male rabbis who dominated the discourse.
But before entering more deeply into the halachic discourse on homosexuality, we must examine a much more serious question that has been raised by radical feminist theologians like Judith Plaskow and Rachel Adler. They argue, basically, that halacha itself is a discourse that is characterized by misogyny and homophobia. My interpretation of their interpretation goes something like this: In Orthodox interpretations of halacha, the only really normative person is the adult, married, non-disabled heterosexual Jewish man who has children (preferably boys). Deviating from any of these basic normative characteristics will result in your marginalization in Jewish law. There are fewer rights that accrue to you (i.e. serving as a witness ), there are fewer laws you are obligated to fulfill and more prohibitions that you will face. Children and disabled people face specific legal obstacles. Both married and unmarried women face huge legal barriers in religious and civil law. Persons accused or suspected of homosexuality are excluded from the mainstream of Jewish religious life. Women homosexuals are prominent by their huge absence in the halacha. They were so far off the radar screen of the men who created and interpreted Jewish law, that the lack of specific prohibitions speaks volumes of how little these men understood the sexuality of heterosexual women as well as Lesbians.
These are powerful arguments that force us to re-examine traditional sources altogether. After a lot of thought I realize that what troubles me in Plaskow and Adler is the extreme neatness and simplicity of their arguments. For me it resonates with too much “throwing the baby out with the bath water”. I agree with them that there are strong elements in the tradition that are misogynistic and homophobic and we must deal with those areas critically. My sense is that the homophobia and misogyny were “laminated” into our tradition at specific times and were based on prevailing societal views at those times. But halacha also provides a remedy within itself to deal with such situations when we clearly see that the social laminate is largely an historical artifact that, instead of revealing core truths about Judaism, actually distorts some of our most central and fundamental assumptions about our humanity and our divinity.
I want to offer two cases in which, to the best of my knowledge, certain groups of people were discriminated against in halacha and those legal discriminations were overturned in light of changing realties and new knowledge. One is the case of suicide. The taking of any life _ your own or the lives of others _ is absolutely forbidden. But Jewish law has also instructed us that Jews who do commit suicide are not to be buried in a Jewish cemetery or, if they are, in a separate section of the cemetery. This practice is almost never practiced today because of the assumption suicidal ideation is almost always considered an expression of some form of mental illness. Depression, despair and the desire to end one’s life are now seen in Judaism as a tragic medical condition. The almost universal practice now is honour both the life and death of the person who commits suicide by giving them the same respectful funeral that all Jews are given. Our ancients who prohibited the burial of suicides in Jewish cemeteries were working with a set of social assumptions that got laminated into practice. We have evolved. New information has come to light. Traditions have changed.
Another example: in the Talmud, deafness (and other conditions) were seen as indications of idiocy and mental incompetence. There are long debates in which rabbis debate whether deaf people can lead prayer services or whether a hearing person can say “amen” to the prayer of a deaf person. The assumption was that the deaf were mentally incompetent, didn’t know what they were saying and so were incapable of leading prayers. In the 19th centuries the biological and medical dimensions of deafness were being established and educators and psychologists began to demonstrate that deaf people were not different from hearing people in terms of intelligence. This information came to the attention of a number of leading Orthodox rabbis. The looked into the research and the new knowledge that was becoming available and wrote major treatises instructing their communities that the deaf were no longer to be marginalized, discriminated against or demeaned. We have evolved. New information has come to light. Traditions have changed.
My argument with Plaskow and Adler, then is that I have not given up on halacha as a source of and framework for the creation of just and egalitarian Jewish communities and practices. I am heartened by the halachic remedies that are in place specifically to make changes in halacha. The halacha does, I believe, permit us to replace the old laminated picture of homophobia with a new representation based on the dignity and sexualities of all persons. And so, we proceed to the question of same-sex wedding ceremonies in the Jewish tradition.
5) Same-sex wedding ceremonies in Judaism:
Spiritual, legal and liturgical considerations
Some years ago I looked into the possibility of becoming a provincially approved “Marriage Commisionaire” in British Columbia. Currently, I am permitted by the province to perform weddings through my affiliation with Or Shalom, but I was curious about what the status of “Marriage Commisionaire” might give me. (I had this fantasy that I would have some sort of authority to force people to get married. I saw myself pulling a car over to the side of the road and saying, “You seem like a nice couple. Can I see your marriage license please? Don’t have one? Ok, I’m going to ask you to exit the vehicle, keep your hands where I can see them and to step away from the car. Fine, ok. Now, by the power vested in me by the Province of British Columbia I hereby proclaim you to be married. You may get back in the car and please have a nice day. And Mazal Tov”.)
According to the rules at the time there were two major conditions I had to agree to in order to even be considered for appointment as a Marriage Commisionaire. First, I had to be available 365 days a year, day or night to perform wedding ceremonies. Second, I had to promise to never, ever mention G!d or any other religious deity. These conditions made me realize that the Marriage Commissionaire job was not for me. First of all, in planning all Jewish weddings the specific date is extremely important. The Jewish calendar is very much the lifeblood of our spiritual life and being attuned to the rhythms and qualities of time is part of our Jewish consciousness. There are days we are prohibited from having weddings, there are some time periods during which weddings are prohibited and there are days that are especially propitious for having weddings. Also, given what I’ve written above about what I see as the profound manifestation and presence of G!d in wedding (and other) ceremonies, I couldn’t conceive of having a G!d-less ceremony.
This little exercise made me realize that I was, at heart, not a Marriage Commisionaire at all but, rather, what is referred to in our tradition as a misader kiddushin. The misader kiddushin, the person who guides the couple through the Jewish wedding ceremony, is responsible for bringing together the software of Jewish wedding technology (the prayers, rituals) with the appropriate hardware (ring, huppah, glass) and to customize a ceremony that fits this particular couple on this particular day. My tool kit, as it were, has given me access to certain specific tools.
Around the same time that I was exploring the Marriage Commisionaire possibility I received a call from non-Jewish friends asking me to do their wedding ceremony. I was honoured, flattered and, frankly, a little challenged by the task. I had to wonder what parts of my tool kit as a misader kiddushin could be used in a wedding of two non-Jews. This made me reflect really deeply not just on the symbols and rituals in Jewish ceremonies, but on the underlying intent and integrity of the rituals themselves. Which _ if any _ were uniquely Jewish expressions and which _ if any _ could be applied more broadly to people in other religious traditions or _ in this case _ people who identified with no religious tradition.
They called to discuss the date and the ceremony and told me that they had found a beautiful church where they wanted to get married on a certain Saturday afternoon. Interesting. Could I walk to the church on Shabbat/Saturday? Could I “work” on Saturday/Shabbat? We designed a ceremony with readings from different traditions and an integration of rituals from different traditions. Ultimately we did the ceremony in their backyard on a Sunday and by all accounts it was a very special and meaningful event. But for me it felt strange to pick and choose from different traditions and to come up a kind of “greatest hits” ceremony. I wasn’t sure what the underlying spiritual intent of the ceremony was. Afterward, I felt fairly certain that I would probably not do another no-Jewish ceremony again for the same reason that I could not be a Marriage Commissionare. My spiritual tool kit has enabled and empowered me to act as a misader kiddushin but has not provided me with the insights, knowledge and rituals to take responsibility for a non-Jewish wedding ceremony with the same level of integrity and confidence that I feel in doing a Jewish wedding ceremony.
I tell these two stories in order to say something about myself as a misader kiddushin. First, I feel that my job in a wedding ceremony is to serve as the spiritual accompanist to the couple getting married. For me this means both knowing the couple and knowing how I can connect the liturgy, ritual and symbols to this particular couple. Second, I have to consider what spiritual tools I actually have in my spiritual toolkit and whether I know how to use them. As I found out in the two stories I told you above, I’m not always sure what tools I have or how to use them.
And so, in considering the voices of our living tradition and the voices of our people living the tradition, it has become clear to me that homosexual couples must have the same access as heterosexual couples to sacred ceremony. This is an incontrovertible human right and spiritual gift which cannot be denied in a tradition that values the sanctity of every life and the biblical dictum of lo tov heyot he’adam levado, “it is not good for someone to [go through life] alone”. In sacred ceremony each partner publicly declares that s/he is entering into a holy and exclusive relationship with his or her partner. To maintain continuity with Jewish tradition, I would also see the need to begin to articulate what we might see as appropriate “family purity laws” that frame sexual expectations and boundaries and to consider what same-sex divorce ceremonies would also look like.
What is the most appropriate ceremony in which a same-sex couple will enter into a sacred and exclusive commitment to one another? Some gay and Lesbian writers have claimed that the whole concept and institution of marriage is a relic of a misogynistic and homophobic past and same-sex commitment ceremonies should be a new and distinct form of ceremony. Some same-sex ceremonies have used the identical wording and liturgy as the heterosexual ceremony with minor corrections for gendered grammar and other wording changes. One close friend of mine adapted the Saturday night havdala ceremony into a beautiful ceremonial framework within which two Lesbians expressed their love, their commitment and their desire to build a Jewish home together. We live in exciting times with much exciting discussion on homosexual wedding ceremonies in general and Jewish homosexual wedding ceremonies in particular. It is a lively and discussion and one that, in my mind, has not yet achieved consensus. I cite this wide range of examples to show that there is far from a consensus regarding the content and format of same-sex wedding ceremonies. We must therefore acknowledge that what works for one particular couple and one particular rabbi in one particular situation may not always work somewhere else with someone else.
Ceremonies, language and ritual have integrity in and of themselves. A case in point comes from the development of the brit banot and simhat bat ceremonies that have been developed in the past 30 years or so. Until the late 1960’s the birth of a baby girl was _celebrated’ only by the father taking an aliya in shule and naming the baby. In the past 30 years we have seen the development of many different and exquisite ceremonies that welcome the birth of the baby girl that parallel those of a boy’s brit milah in joy and celebration. We now have ceremonies of “brit banot” and “simhat bat” that resonate deeply with traditional forms of prayer and yet are both creative and modern at the same time. These ceremonies for girls did not simply use the wording of traditional ceremonies with liberal doses of white-out. The liturgy acknowledges and draws on an emerging and re-discovered theology of the feminine in Jewish spirituality.
Had we simply adapted the language and ritual of the traditional brit for boys, we would have lost out on the beautiful and embracing ceremonies that have been developed by women for women entering into the covenant of Sarah and Abraham. An emerging feminist theology both nurtured _ and has been nurtured by _ the skilled and creative development of meaningful ceremony for women that has not been developed not so much with white-out and word processors, but with caring hearts and intuition. Our emerging knowledge of the further mysteries of sex, sexuality and gender present us with an opportunity to articulate a theology that embraces and celebrates the sacred joining of two partners of the same sex.
The ceremony itself, though, is only one of three critical pieces that I believe must be developed in articulating a theology of homosexual couples. The are two other pieces. One is the development of a parallel theory and practice of taharat hamishpacha, the traditional laws of “family purity” that provide guidelines and safety zones that frame couples’ sexual interactions. The other is the development of appropriate and relevant procedures for divorce. For me, the ceremony that joins a same-sex couple together is one very important part of allowing same-sex couples the same rights and privileges of all heterosexual couples. Equality and parity before Jewish law and custom must also, I believe, pertain to the continuing holiness of their sexual relationship and to a mutually agreed upon framework for or the dissolving of a same-sex union.
I look forward to working with my friends in the Or Shalom community as we continue, together, to creatively search out and to create ceremony and ritual that that speak from our hearts and to our heart. I look forward to doing so in a way that accords respect to the tradition. In the words of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the tradition has a vote but not a veto. I look forward to continuing this task in a way that accords respect to all Jews.
I am in the debt of many who have devoted thought, caring and research to these questions. I’ve been slow but I am also confident that the proposal R’ David Mivasair and I have forwarded to the Board and the community is the right one. This proposal will hopefully allow both R’ David and me to be responsive to same-sex couples in the Or Shalom community to try and provide them with a meaningful sacred ceremony. We must remember that the word halacha does not really mean “Jewish law.” Derived from the verb “to walk”, halacha means “the path.” We are all walking the path of personal, social and community development together and may it be the will of Holy One Source of All Blessing that we will continue to walk the path with sincerity and sensitivity. Kain yi’hee ratzon.
This article accompanies the policy proposal entitled, “On Broadening Our Vision of Holy Relationship: A Proposal to the Or Shalom Community”.
 Yes, yes, yes….there are persons who do not fall neatly and clearly in one or the other category. In fact, the Talmud refers to the “tum-tum and adrogynous” person whose bodies are either neither clearly male or female or, in some ways, both male and female. The point remains the same: “Sex” is a biological factor as opposed to a social or legal factor.