Tag Archives: marriage

The Existential Religious Challenge of Same-Sex Marriage

I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested.
I’d like to think that if I was I would pass.
Look at the tested, and think there but for the grace go I.
Might be a coward, I’m afraid of what I might find out.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “The Impression That I Get”

With the recent US Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges declaring same-sex marriage to be a constitutionally protected right, religious organizations are understandably concerned as to how they will be affected by this new legal reality.  In addition to public statements issued by The Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union, several rabbinic colleagues have expressed similar concerns shared by other religious leaders regarding what this ruling might mean for their own practice, particularly if they will now be forced to officiate or facilitate a practice which violates their religious beliefs. 1

Aside from these concerns over government interference in religious affairs, the Supreme Court’s ruling may have more salient ramifications on a communal level. Specifically, with same-sex marriage legalized nationally, Orthodox homosexual couples may be more likely take advantage of the benefits such legal recognition provides. This new reality may create new tensions within communities where such couples may expect or demand religious recognition for their union.

While these concerns are currently dominating the discussion, my sense is that the attention is misplaced. I do not mean to be dismissive of the concerns of others, but I suggest the details are not nearly as significant as the underlying existential tensions.
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Notes:

  1. In 2011 when New York was about to legalize same-sex marriage, I argued that Orthodox Jews should not oppose such legislation but rather insist on religious protections.
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The Meaning of “Bashert” in Rabbinic Judaism and its Implications

YUTOPIA's 10 Year Anniversary SpecialIntroduction 1

In colloquial Jewish vernacular, the description “bashert” essentially means “from God” or the consequence of divine intervention. When someone refers to an event as “bashert,” he is asserting that the invisible Hand of God was intimately involved in its fruition. This is usually due to the improbably circumstances surrounding the event, or its heretofore unappreciated fortuitous outcome. Bashert is perhaps most used in the context of dating and marriage, where the divine intervention refers to the finding, or even the preordained selection, of one’s spouse. Thus the word “bashert” has become synonymous with “soul mate,” the person whom one was divinely ordained to marry.

The primary source for the Jewish idea of a soul mate is the statement by R. Yehuda in the name of Rav in B. Sotah 2a:

א”ר שמואל בר רב יצחק: כי הוה פתח ריש לקיש בסוטה, אמר הכי: אין מזווגין לו לאדם אשה אלא לפי מעשיו, שנא’: +תהלים קכה+ כי לא ינוח שבט הרשע על גורל הצדיקים. אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר ר’ יוחנן: וקשין לזווגן כקריעת ים סוף, שנאמר: +תהלים סח+ אלהים מושיב יחידים ביתה מוציא אסירים בכושרות. איני? והא אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: ארבעים יום קודם יצירת הולד, בת קול יוצאת ואומרת: בת פלוני לפלוני בית פלוני לפלוני שדה פלוני לפלוני! לא קשיא: הא בזוג ראשון, הא בזוג שני.

R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: When Resh Lakish began to expound [the subject of] Sotah, he spoke thus: They only pair a woman with a man according to his deeds; as it is said: For the sceptre of wickedness shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous (Ps. 125:3). Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Johanan: It is as difficult to pair them as was the division of the Red Sea; as it is said: God setteth the solitary in families: He bringeth out the prisoners into prosperity (Ps. 68:7)! But it is not so; Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: Forty days before the formation of a child, a heavenly voice issues forth and proclaims, The daughter of this person is for that person; the house of this person is for that person; the field of this person is for that person! — There is no contradiction, the latter dictum referring to a first marriage and the former to a second marriage.[Emphasis added]

Although the idea of divinely matched soul mate is certainly romantic, it does pose significant theological problems especially in the aftermath of divorce or abusive relationships. Perhaps the most significant theological challenge to the preordained bashert is the denial of one’s free will. In fact this definition of bashert is explicitly rejected by Maimonides on these very grounds in his Shemoneh Perakim Chapter 8.

שמונה פרקים לרמב”ם פרק ח
אבל הלשון הנמצא לחכמים, והוא אומרם: “הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים” – הרי הוא אמת, ומכוון אל מה שזכרנו, אלא שהרבה יטעו בו בני אדם, ויחשבו בקצת מעשי האדם הבחיריים – שהוא מוכרח עליהם, כגון הזיווג לפלונית, או היות זה הממון בידו. וזה אינו אמת, כי זאת האשה, אם היתה לקיחתה בכתובה וקידושין, והיא מותרת, ונשאה לפריה ורביה – הרי זו מצוה, וה’ לא יגזור בעשיית מצוה; ואם היה בנשואיה פגם – הרי היא עבירה, וה’ לא יגזור בעבירה.

[There is no contradiction to this from the following] statement of our Sages: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” 2 This statement is true and conforms to the conceptual framework that we have explained. Nevertheless, many people err with regard to it and imagine that a person is fated with regard to many of the matters in which he is given free choice: e.g., whether he will marry a particular woman or acquire a sum of money through theft.

This is absolutely not true. For if a person marries a woman, granting her a marriage contract and performing the rites of kiddushin, he is performing a mitzvah, 3 and God does not decree that we will perform any mitzvot. Should the marriage be forbidden, [entering into it] is a sin, and God does not decree that we will perform any sins. 4

Given the theological difficulties inherent in the classical definition of “bashert,” and based on numerous alternative contradictory sources in Rabbinic literature, I will propose a radical reinterpretation of the passage in B. Sotah 2a and redefine the Talmudic approach to bashert. Those who are personally committed to believing in a Jewish concept of a soul mate should minimally interpret this essay as an explanation for Maimonides who does seem to contradict an explicit Talmudic passage. 5 Otherwise, I hope to offer an approach which best represents the myriad of opinions found in the Rabbinic sources, and thus provide a more accurate and defensible portrayal of the compelte Rabbinic tradition.

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Notes:

  1. The following essay was initially prepared and presented in honor of the Auf Ruf of my friend, chavruta, and world-class educator Rabbi Mordy Friedman at the Hotel Paradise (now Leonardo) in Be’er Sheva in June 2002. But this study is also meaningful to me for other personal reasons. One of my greatest resentments in popular Judaism is the pervasive tendency among laity and Rabbis to cite one passage – in or out of context – as the singular opinion on a theological issue, often to the exclusion of all other conflicting sources. Even the specific corpus of Rabbinic literature is so vast that it is rare that one singular text may be honestly presented as exemplary of the entire body of work. Utilizing the academic methodologies I studied under Dr. Yaakov Elman in Revel and inspired by having finished reading Ephraim Urbach’s The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs cover to cover, I began compiling a series of classes in Rabbinic Thought and Theology or Machshevet Hazal. This essay on bashert was my first foray into my endeavor to prove that Torah does not necessitate obedience to a mono-dogmatic religion, while also attempting to dispell a popular, though possibly debilitating, theological myth.

    While I have given this essay as a class on multiple occasions, I had refrained from publishing it in essay form, preferring to wait until the event of my own engagement. Given the uncertainty of when that may actually occur (as an aside, any comments referring to my personal dating status will summarily be deleted) I decided that now would be as good of an alternative occasion as any being part of YUTOPIA’s 10th Anniversary and Tu B’Av.

  2. B. Berachot 32b, B. Megillah 25a, B. Niddah 16b
  3. See Hilkhot Ishut 1:2
  4. Translation by R. Eliyahu Touger p. 48
  5. Although there is no requirement to accept all aggadic statements as literal fact, it is unusual to reject a Talmudic passage so definitively.
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Why Same-Sex Marriage Violates Jewish Law

The national trend toward legalizing same-sex marriage has posed a unique challenge to Modern Orthodox Judaism. Part of the allure of Modern Orthodoxy is its willing integration with the secular world and in legitimizing a wider range of religious lifestyles than their parochial counterparts. However, the religious proscriptions against homosexual activity must necessarily limit the extent of Modern Orthodoxy’s pluralism. While the topic of homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism has been discussed at length elsewhere, the frequent focus is on individuals struggling with their personal conflicting religious and sexual identities. In contrast, gay marriage is a public announcement and celebration of two people embracing a lifestyle forbidden by Jewish law.
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New York Same Sex Marriage Law’s Religious Exemptions

Many thanks to the Loyal Reader(s) to sent over the link to the full text of New York’s same sex marriage law just signed permitting gay marriage in the state of New York. As I wrote extensively, my position on the subject was less about restricting gay marriage than about maintaining religious exemptions. For those interested, here are the relevant passages from New York’s new law.

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The Myths and Realities of “The Shidduch Crisis”

There are few topics in Jewish society which can simultaneously evoke rage, empathy, and unsolicited opinions and advice as Jewish dating. To take just one example, my statistical analysis of dating prospects drew approval from other frustrated singles, criticism for contradicting the positive experiences of others, and suggestions as to other sites to try and even a few specific set-up offers. Aside from the blog posts here and elsewhere, there are numerous books on the world of Jewish dating including “Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures,” which ironically can be added to your wedding registry.

To be sure, I’ve done my share of personal reflections as a single – after all it’s great blog fodder. Longtime loyal readers may recall such classics as The Harm in Being Nice, Waiting on a Friend, The Mind of a Matchmaker , and Top 10 Dating Questions – all of which for the most part still holds up today. And I’ve been guilty of offering my own Guide to Jewish Dating and another one specifically for online dating sites. But fast forward several years, countless women, forgettable dates, even more encouragement, criticism, and unsolicited advice, I am still single. However in the past few years serving as a Rabbi I’ve also gained a much better perspective. While my community attracts young Jews, it is by no means a “scene” which means there is significantly less communal pressure for single’s to get married. Furthermore, I have personally adopted a “no dating congregants” policy, meaning my religious communal experience of synagogue attendance is uncharacteristically devoid of any pretense of trying to impress women.

Thus I write from the relatively unique perspective of being a single rabbi – aware of the struggles of others while experiencing the same challenges first hand. Consider it unintentional participant observation if you will. And with this dual perspective I have come to the following conclusion: the so-called “shidduch crisis” is a collection of myths which only exacerbate the social pressures and anxieties at the core of the Jewish single’s community, specifically the denial of individuation.
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Why Orthodox Jews Should Not Oppose Legalizing Same Sex Marriage

On May 23 2011 several prominent Orthodox Jewish organizations issued a joint statement declaring their opposition to legalizing same sex-marriage. The brief statement is as follows:

On the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage, the Orthodox Jewish world speaks with one voice, loud and clear:

We oppose the redefinition of the bedrock relationship of the human family.

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.

Moreover, we are deeply concerned that, should any such redefinition occur, members of traditional communities like ours will incur moral opprobrium and may risk legal sanction if they refuse to transgress their beliefs. That prospect is chilling, and should be unacceptable to all people of good will on both sides of this debate.

The integrity of marriage in its traditional form must be preserved.

This statement was issued not only by Orthodox institutions considered “right-of center” such as Agudath Israel of America or National Council of Young Israel, but also by more moderate Orthodox organizations such as the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).1 Unlike most religious proclamations which are directed towards specific religious communities, this joint statement advocates a political position – though based on religious principles – to the secular world beyond the normal scope of religious influence. To be sure, this joint statement is hardly the first time rabbinic organizations have issued political statements. Across all major denominations, the Orthodox RCA, Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, and Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis have all passed resolutions advocating public polices exemplifying their respective religious beliefs, with few (if any) complaining about the separation of church and state.

But due to the inherent subjective moral arguments against same-sex marriage, I argue that Jews – especially the Orthodox – would be better served in not opposing its legalization.
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Episode 31 – Politics of Exclusion: R. Moshe Feinstein vs. Conservative and Reform Weddings

Rabbi Josh Yuter’s Politics of Exclusion class continues with a discussion of R. Moshe Feinstein’s opinions regarding the halakhic status of weddings and marriages of Reform and Conservative Rabbis.

R. Moshe Feinstein vs Conservative and Reform Weddings Sources (PDF)

Politics of Exclusion – R. Moshe Feinstein vs Conservative and Reform Weddings

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Religion, Romance, and Rebbitzens

In my recent post “Defending the Rebbitzens” I discussed some ways in which the rabbi’s wife may be taken for granted by a congregation in terms of her communal contributions. Beyond those examples cited, there are many areas in which a rabbinic couple faces unfair if not unrealistic expectations, not the least of which is their marital relationship. Like other public figures or celebrities, the rabbinic couple is the de facto familial role model for the community, and subsequently held to a higher standard than “normal” couples. For better or worse, a community may look towards the rabbinic example with the intent to mimic their matrimonial model.1

This expectation no doubt can put a tremendous strain on a marriage, which some rabbinical schools attempt to address as part of the training process. Most of my colleagues in Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school were already married, but I do remember being told that those who were still single should not only look for a wife, but also a rebbitzen. Perhaps more helpfully, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah includes spouses in the rabbinic training program itself:

…we have instituted a monthly support group for spouses. YCT realizes that the role of rebbetzin is a complex one. Women come from varied personal and professional backgrounds and anticipate different degrees of engagement in their husbands’ professional lives. The support group, facilitated by a rebbetzin who is also a social worker, allows exploration of these issues and provides opportunities for students’ wives to talk with other rebbetzins who come to New York specifically for group meetings.2

It is clear that in addition to normal marital difficulties, rabbinic couples often must face additional if not magnified tensions. One such overlooked area of potential discord is, ironically, the matter of familial religious practice itself.

Conventional wisdom dictates that a healthy marriage is based on mutual trust, understanding, and a sense of equality and partnership. But while both the rabbi and rebbitzen may be equally passionate about their observance, the husband – by virtue of his rabbinic education – will be more knowledgeable than his wife in matters of religious observance. Thus, any religious dialogue will necessarily be unbalanced.

In order to convey this point, I will give a few general examples from my own experience in dating. In once particular instance I once found myself arguing over the proper use of a microwave in terms of kashrut. I was arguing my position based on my understanding of Yoreh Deah and she steadfastly held by whatever her rabbi said, regardless of whatever source I would happen to quote.3

In another relationship I found myself unable to even engage in the text themselves with my significant other. If I assumed a role of superiority I would come across as patronizing and condescending. On the other hand, if we exchanged as equals she would not be able to engage with sufficient textual and contextual background.

To be sure these exchanges may have been unique to my relationships, and I should remind the reader that I am still single after all. However I suspect these sorts of exchanges are not uncommon among other married rabbinic couples in some form or another.

Consider first that successful rabbis must already compromise on religious observance for their communities i.e. they know which stringencies and which leniencies are appropriate for their congregations. But at home one would suspect the rabbi would have some control over his own observance, if nothing else as a spiritually stabilizing element in his life.

Secondly, for a rabbi halakhic observance is not subject to negotiation like dishes, driving, or diapers. It is a way of life determined by ones understanding of technical legal sources imbued with religious significance, not to be traded for taking out the garbage.

Finally, even mature compromises will not prevent every possible conflict. For example, assume a rabbinic couple takes a position of respectful autonomy – where the husband and wife agree to follow their own understanding of Jewish law. This arrangement will only sustain until such time as one requires the other to compromise on their own expectation of religious independence.

Like any relationship dispute, the greater point of contention or seriousness of the dispute, the greater the tension. And just like “normal” marriages, rabbinic marriages sometimes do end in divorce. But given that rabbis and rebbitzens often live long and happy lives together, it is clear that none of these issues of religious tensions are necessarily insurmountable and that healthy couples can live together even with persistent religious disagreements.

I suppose the rabbinic couples may be considered role models after all.

1. In one extreme Talmudic example, R. Kahana spied (poorly) on his teacher Rav’s marital life on the grounds that even intimacy is a matter of Torah and must be learned by a teacher (B. Berachot 62a).
2. Friedman, Michelle. “Pastoral Counseling at YCT Rabbinical School.” Milin Chavivin vol. 1. (2005) p. 82-83. Despite this effort from the rabbinical school, there have still been multiple divorces and broken engagement, though it is difficult to tell if such rates are higher than those for other rabbinical students or the population at large.
3. There’s an often repeated story that R. Yosef Soloveitchik was once told by his wife, “you and your Shulhan Aruch are treifing up my kitchen.”
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