Why I, as an Orthodox Rabbi, Support Legalizing Same-sex Marriage

The separation of church and state is what enables me to practice my religion freely - and we have a responsibility to welcome gays into our community.

Annual Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco.
Stuart Gaffney (L) and John Lewis (C), plaintiffs in the 2008 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) case, celebrate Supreme Court decision at Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco. AFP

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex couples can marry under civil law throughout the United States. I support this decision.

My support may come as a surprise because I am an Orthodox rabbi. I do not perform nor participate in same-sex weddings, as it runs contrary to my religious commitments.

But the Supreme Court ruling addresses civil law, not religious law. As a strong proponent of the separation of church and state, I believe religion should not dictate the law of the land.

Nor should the law of the land criminalize my refusal to conduct gay weddings. Indeed, in my almost 50 years in the rabbinate no civil law has forced me to perform any wedding or religious service that runs contrary to my religious convictions.

Blurring the lines between church and state jeopardizes freedom of religion. Religious minorities could be especially vulnerable to the greater power of the religious majority, who could shape and inform decisions of the civil courts. What, for example, would the reaction of the Jewish community be if the Supreme Court were to mandate that students pledge allegiance to Jesus in public schools?

Many of my Orthodox co-religionists obviously understand this danger, yet they insist that homosexuality is so perverse that it should override the church/state consideration, for it threatens the very moral fabric of our society.

It is here that I take strong exception. Over the years, I have met countless gay people and gay couples who live loving, exemplary lives. I know this firsthand as some are members of my synagogue. Of course, there are gay people who live unethical lives; this fact, however, is a reflection of their humanness, not their sexual orientation. The same is true for heterosexuals.

I did not always see things this way. I grew up being taught that the Bible regarded homosexuality as an abomination. This is the most common translation of the word “to’evah” used by the Bible to proscribe homosexual intercourse. To’evah, however, is a biblical term that has no exact English equivalent. The Talmud interprets it as a composite of three words: to’eh atah bah – “you have gone astray” in engaging in this kind of relationship. That is a far cry from an “abomination.”

Still, as an Orthodox Jew, I submit to the Biblical prohibition. But as an open Orthodox rabbi, I refuse to reject the person who seeks to lead a life of same sex love. If I welcome with open arms those who do not observe Sabbath, Kashrut or family purity laws, I must welcome, even more so, homosexual Jews, as they are born with their orientation. In fact, many heterosexual improprieties are called to’evah, in addition to violations of laws wholly outside the realm of sexuality such as cheating in business. To single out homosexuality from other biblical proscriptions is unfair and smacks of a double standard.

I have always believed that the test of community is not how it reaches out to the most powerful, but to the most vulnerable, to those – like the gay community – who suffer from discrimination.  It follows that as Orthodox Jews, we have the responsibility of being more loving, more welcoming to the Orthodox gay community as well as to the gay community at large  – welcoming them into our synagogues, and their children into our schools. This general approach was outlined in a courageous statement drafted by Rabbi Nati Helfgot in 2010.

After signing this statement with numerous rabbis and community leaders, I received two calls from Orthodox rabbinic colleagues. “We have a son/daughter who is gay,” each one said. “Although we could not sign fearing we’d be ostracized by our communities and rabbinical organizations, we bless you as we know that Rabbi Helfgot teaches at your yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Those who signed this document have saved our child. They have saved our family. They have saved us.”

I, too, offered a silent blessing, a blessing that perhaps one day those callers will be unafraid, and their children will be embraced and loved.

Are these easy issues? No.

Certainly, the role of homosexuality in the Orthodox community is something that must be deeply considered, discussed and evaluated. We must bring the plurality of voices to the table as complex dynamics will require thoughtful, sensitive and wise conversation.

But one thing is clear: this decision by the Supreme Court, a court that is mandated to separate church and state, to champion civil liberties of all Americans regardless of creed, belief, race or sexual orientation, is one that this Orthodox rabbi supports. 

Rabbi Avi Weiss is Founding Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, NY. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry Movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.