Religious Affairs: Taking on Halacha

In a country where marital laws are run by Halacha, Mazuz's ruling seems to some discordant.

gay couple 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
gay couple 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's decision this week to recognize same-sex couples as legitimate, normative families that are eligible to serve as adoptive parents sparked the requisite ranting from haredi and religious politicians. MK Avraham Ravitz (United Torah Judaism) called Mazuz's ruling "hallucinatory"; Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai termed it "nauseating and unnerving"; and even the more religiously liberal Zevulun Orlev lashed out at Mazuz for committing a "sin against the children up for adoption and against the Jewish faith." Garnering media exposure for gay-bashing is the dream of every religious politician. It is preaching faith to the faithful. Unlike stickier issues, such as Shas's attempts to convince its voters of the prudence of remaining in the coalition, voicing anti-homosexual views provides the perfect opportunity to express livid conviction on an issue that has a broad consensus among one's conservative constituents. The religious politicians' rancorous attack might also be attributed to the relative radicalism of Mazuz's groundbreaking decision. In a country where marital laws are governed by Halacha, Mazuz's ruling seemed unsettlingly discordant. How could he legitimize a same-sex couple for such an important act as adoption when the state does not even permit a divorcee to marry a kohen, let alone allow a non-Jew to marry a Jew? INTERESTINGLY, RELIGIOUS MKs' field day on Mazuz coincided with another event pertinent to both homosexuality and Orthodoxy: A group of gay Orthodox men launched an Internet community called "Hod." On the same day that Mazuz issued his decision, Hod sent a letter to leading modern Orthodox rabbis asking them to enter into dialogue that would foster better understanding and empathy for the plight of homosexual men. Although both Hod and Bat Kol (its lesbian counterpart, which created a Web community in 2005) are still squarely outside the Orthodox mainstream, there has been a literal revolution facilitated by the anonymity and openness of the Internet, says Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a senior member of Tzohar, an association of liberal Orthodox rabbis. "Five years ago when a group of rabbis publicly discussed the phenomenon of homosexuality for a few minutes in passing, it was considered extremely risqué," he said. "Last summer, Tzohar devoted an entire panel to the subject." Cherlow said that he and other rabbis who field halachic questions via the Internet are beginning to grapple with a myriad of issues relating to homosexuality. For instance, he has ruled that a gay man is obligated by Halacha to notify a woman of his sexual preference before he marries her. In another example given by Cherlow, Orthodox gay men have asked whether it is permissible for them to sit together with their partner in the synagogue. In Orthodox communities, men and women are separated to prevent men from entertaining sexual fantasies during prayer. However, for homosexual men gender separation is an ineffective tactic against such fantasizing. The very fact that Cherlow and other Orthodox rabbis are willing to answer halachic questions posed by homosexuals is considered radical, said Na'ama, an Orthodox lesbian. "Most rabbis refuse to even answer questions relating to homosexuality, except to forbid it outright, because that would constitute a form of recognition." Cherlow admitted that he was personally disgusted by homosexuality. "I find myself repulsed by the phenomenon," he said. "But I am convinced that homosexuals are sincere in their feeling that they have no control over their sexual preference." THE RELIGIOUS dilemmas facing Orthodox lesbians are much less severe than those confronted by gay Orthodox men. There is a biblical prohibition against male homosexual intercourse: "Thou shalt not lie down with mankind as with womankind; it is an abomination." (Leviticus 18:22). In contrast, lesbian sexual relations are not as controversial from a halachic perspective, since there is no biblical prohibition. Also, women are not commanded to "be fruitful and multiply" according to most opinions in Orthodoxy. As a result, lesbian women have reached a more advanced stage of recognition, if not acceptance, in Orthodox circles. Na'ama, a member of Bat Kol, said that she is in one of several lesbian Orthodox couples who live together with the biological children of one of them. Na'ama's partner is waiting to receive legal recognition as Na'ama's child's second mother. Na'ama said that Mazuz's decision would probably expedite their case. "Obtaining sperm from a sperm bank is relatively easy in Israel," said Na'ama, "which opened the way for me to become a mother." In contrast, men have to obtain both an egg and a surrogate, a much more costly, complicated process. But, according to Rabbi "Ron" - perhaps Israel's only outwardly gay Orthodox rabbi - gay Orthodox men are nowhere near the stage of setting up same-sex families and adopting children."Our battles are at a much more elementary level," he said. "We are trying to convince rabbis, educators, lay leaders and even the general public that homosexuality is not a mental illness." Rabbi Ron said that one of the goals of the Internet site is to break down stereotypes and foster dialogue. "We want religious people to know that we want to adhere to Halacha. But we also want them to understand that a homosexual is born the way he is and has no choice." He differentiates between the homosexual's identity and his or her actions. "Judaism's main emphasis is on actions. We understand that, and we are not asking rabbis to permit anal sex or to make any changes in Halacha. We just want basic understanding."