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THE COMMITMENT CEREMONY AND HALAKHA (JEWISH LAW)

The idea of a lesbian commitment ceremony for Orthodox Jews raises an obvious question. Is there any place for such a ceremony within the bounds of halakha (Jewish law)?

While this is not the place to go into a lengthy discussion of Jewish law, such a ceremony is unconventional enough that it merits our attention. The only source in Jewish tradition that appears to speak about same-sex marriage is the Sifra, an ancient work which links individual laws in halakha to biblical verses. One such verse is Leviticus 18:3:

DO NOT DO AS IS DONE IN THE LAND OF EGYPT, WHERE YOU DWELLED,
AND DO NOT DO AS IS DONE IN THE LAND OF
CANAAN, WHERE I AM BRINGING YOU,
AND DO NOT WALK IN THEIR WAYS.

The Sifra comments on this verse that it is not everything done by these ancient peoples that we are commanded not to do. Rather, we are commanded specifically to avoid those practices that were considered to be their quintessential "ways":

WHAT WOULD THEY DO? A MAN WOULD MARRY A MAN, A WOMAN WOULD
MARRY A WOMAN, AND A WOMAN WOULD MARRY TWO MEN.

On the face of it, this seems to be a prohibition of same-sex marriage, and indeed, it has been used that way. But it is not that simple. The term translated above as "marry" refers to a union that includes physical intimacy. In a traditional Jewish wedding, the first part of the ceremony creates a bond between a couple, but it is only the second part of the ceremony that permits a life of physical love between them. This second part bears the same name as the term used above: Nesuin.

In fact, the great Rabbi Moses Maimonides equates this comment of the Sifra with a Talmudic law that prohibits a certain specific act of physical intimacy between two women. Since all other great rabbis of our tradition agree that the act in question is a particular physical act, as opposed to a general category of actions ("lesbian sex"), it seems proper to conclude that the Sifra is giving us examples of individual acts that are prohibited, and not relating at all to the celebration of a relationship, such as a commitment ceremony.

Furthermore, had this comment of the Sifra been intended to prohibit committed relationships, it would surely be mentioned in the contexts of male homosexuality and polyandry. If, on the other hand, it refers to a forbidden act, the absence of its mention in those contexts is understandable: those acts are prohibited explicitly elsewhere, and the Sifra adds nothing to them.

That being said, a question still remains. While there is nothing in Jewish law that prohibits celebrating the union of two members of the same sex, there are also no precedents for it. It might be argued that in the absence of such a precedent, a commitment ceremony should be avoided. Furthermore, given that commitment ceremonies are carried out by members of movements which stand opposed to Jewish law and to Orthodoxy, some have suggested that for Orthodox Jews to celebrate same-sex unions would strengthen these movements.

Similar arguments were advanced regarding Bat Mitzvah celebrations when they were first introduced. It was never the custom for Jews to celebrate the coming of age of girls as was done for boys. When the founder of the Reconstructionist movement celebrated his daughter's reaching the age of Bat Mitzvah, it was also unprecedented. Yet despite the fact that it was first introduced in a non-Orthodox movement, Bat Mitzvah celebrations have become quite accepted in the Orthodox world.

Orthodox Bat Mitzvah celebrations are considerably different from non-Orthodox Bat Mitzvah celebrations. Similarly, Orthodox commitment ceremonies should be different from non-Orthodox ones. But like Bat Mitzvah celebrations, commitment ceremonies celebrate something that deserves to be celebrated. The acceptance of Bat Mitzvah celebrations in the Orthodox world has not strengthened opposition to Orthodoxy. If anything, by granting young women the respect of honoring their coming of age, it may have prevented many women from leaving Orthodoxy. The same would likely be true of commitment ceremonies. If the only same-sex commitment ceremonies are those performed by non-Orthodox movements, where else will gay and lesbian Jews turn but to those movements?

If there were an actual halakhic problem with such ceremonies, this reasoning would make no difference, but in the absence of such a prohibition, commitment ceremonies for Orthodox gays and lesbians can only be a good thing.

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