Same-sex marriage is a mainstream issue. What was once considered a radical position is now debated by candidates of the two major political parties, is permitted in a number of states as well as foreign countries, and is a pressing case before the federal bench. In the Jewish community the question is even less ambiguous. The two largest denominations permit same-sex ceremonies, while gay and lesbian clergy are open and accepted in all but the Orthodox world. One would think that it would be a given that a Jewish paper serving the spectrum of the Jewish community would not exclude same-sex announcements from its “Lifecycles” page. Indeed, when two Conservative Jews submitted their notice to The Jewish Standard, the newspaper went ahead without special mention that they were both men. But the newspaper soon discovered that this is a very heated question. I would like to address the substance of the question here, putting aside the editorial questions of what the paper should have done and should do (except to say that the Standard was correct to print the announcement and should continue to print similar announcements).
When we hear that two Jews are getting married we say, “Siman tov umazel tov” (“a good sign and good luck”), “yehei lanu ulekhol Yisrael” (“let it be so for us and for all Israel”). The last phrase, “and for all Israel,” is paramount. A Jewish wedding is a simcha for the whole Jewish people. Judaism is unique in how it values marriage. More than a social, economic, and legal union, marriage is a holy state, beginning with a sanctification – Kiddushin. And it is a holy state that is ideally prescribed for all Jews. We have no ascetic value of celibacy or solitude. The custom in some Orthodox congregations for men not to wear their talleisim until they are married signifies that marriage is the ideal state for the religious Jew. In Jewish tradition, marriage has two distinct but interrelated purposes: companionship and child-rearing. They are distinct because marriage is a mitzvah even when the couple is beyond the age of child-rearing. They are also distinct because child-rearing can take place without the two parents being married. But nevertheless, the Jewish ideal – ideal in that it is the vision that we strive for – is for two adults to marry and raise children together. We say that a marriage is a mazal tov for us and for all Israel because we believe that married people have the support at home to keep them contributing to the community and society at large, and because we pray that they will have children – whether through natural means, with medical assistance, or through adoption – and thereby contribute to the future security of the ancient but ever-insecure Jewish people.
The institution of marriage, even Jewish marriage, is in need of defense, as we see the acceptance of homosexuality become more and more mainstream. We do not have to agree on or even understand the causes or reasons for homosexuality in order to recognize that a gay or lesbian person is uncomfortable in a straight marriage. Any marriage where one partner is unable to feel attraction for the other is a marriage in trouble, and if gay and lesbian men and women are expected to enter straight marriages, then the institution of marriage is in trouble. But why should gay and lesbian men and women not seek committed relationships of companionship and support, and why should they not raise children? Every individual has the right to find love. And every individual has the right to reproduce. And every orphaned child has the right to find parents who want to love him or her and provide a home. We need to defend marriage by extending its boundaries to include same-sex couples. As a Conservative rabbi, and perhaps as a conservative rabbi (with a small “c”), I believe in the traditional Jewish values that teach that intimacy belongs in marriage, that we need more homes where children can be raised by two Jewish parents, and that we ought not be so quick to accept wherever our surrounding society may be without teaching and fighting for these values. These values are the values of marriage, and they ought not be denied to gay and lesbian Jews.
I believe in these values so strongly that I cannot imagine that the Torah would guide us any other way. The prohibition in Leviticus against a man lying with a man reflects a context where same-sex couples did not have the option of living together and upholding the values of Jewish tradition the way they do today. The Torah was concerned, in my view, about a married man who might think that intimate acts with another man would not “count.” But indeed such acts would constitute a serious violation, the Torah teaches us. The values of marriage extend even into the relationships between men and between women. Today, we can continue this extension by requiring marriage as the Jewish ideal for gay and lesbian couples as it is for straight couples. In my view, that would fulfill the vision of the Torah.
Every time any couple, straight or gay, decide to marry, siman tov umazel tov yehei lanu ulekhol Yisrael.