Before we proceed, I'll give you all a chance to silently voice your cynicism.
Okay, that was good. Now we can move on. Don't worry, though, you're not alone. People all over the spectrum have been doing the same since this Ha'aretz article was published. On the religious side, this has been expressed largely through the familiar method of ignoring it altogether. One, more progressive Haredi blog did post the piece, but—if the commenters are any indication—the readers simply didn't know what to make of the idea, with one asking "Is this real?" and another exclaiming that this sounds like Chelm, a town that in old Jewish humor was always finding foolish solutions to problems.
Liberal Jewish outlets instinctively reacted with disparagements that seem to stem more from objections to the halachic prohibition of same-sex intimacy in general than to this specific solution. Jewcy editor, Jason diamond, noting that this arrangement involves celibacy for both spouses, writes "I suppose this [type of marriage] is just a bizarre interpretation" of a philosophy that it is a great mitzvah "for a gay person to enter into a straight marriage, as it shows even greater respect for Halacha... Either way, we don’t get it." In the wider gay and lesbian community, one blog that aims, it's header states, to "discuss and promote all things GLBTQ" actually denounces the men and women entering into these marriages, calling this a "very sad day for the Israeli gay and lesbian community," and writing, "shame on those individuals involving themselves in these twisted concoctions of marital arrangements."
On Further Reflection
My own initial reaction was no different. When I first heard about this cross-marriage idea from a friend, I honestly thought it was some weird joke, or at least a really bad idea. So much of the isolation and emotional distress experienced by gays and lesbians in our community is a result of their having to lead "double lives," compartmentalizing their Jewish and homosexual identities, lying, and often limiting their contact with others in the community so that major aspects of their identities do not become revealed. However, once I realized that this was really being done, and, more importantly, as an earnest attempt to address part of the problem faced by Orthodox homosexuals, I began to actually think about the idea.
If nothing else, what Rabbi Harel has been doing is momentous because, to my knowledge, it is the first rabbinical initiative that extends beyond academic statements of principal (although those are important, as well) to actually create real change in the way gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews—who are already overcoming immense challenges in order to be fully shomrei halacha (observant of the letter of the law)—to interact with the community.
As far as my reservations? Well, the issues behind them are still quite real. However, when you look at those issues in their broad and painfully complex context, and consider the other existing or theoretical options for the men and women who would opt for this type of marriage, it becomes clear that for now, while this is at best an okay solution, it still is at least an okay solution.
It is true that in this arrangement the husbands and wives would still need to hide a major part of their identities from their communities. However, entering into a cross-marriage would likely lessen greatly the identity conflict, estrangement, and isolation, currently associated with that secrecy, especially as they relate to to the couples’ families.
In a study of gay Jewish men of various affiliations (Coyle & Rafalin, 2000), when describing their experience disclosing their sexual identity to their parents and the negative reactions they received:
Half the participants said that their parents’ main concern related to the continuation of their family and of the Jewish people. They described parental concerns about their sons not marrying, not creating a Jewish home and a Jewish family and not providing them with grandchildren. [One participant] reported that because of this, in his parents’ eyes, as a gay man he was ‘‘a waste of manhood [ ] or a life (p. 34).This would seem no less true for women who, especially in the more Haredi communities, are raised to see their primary function as raising a family.
For gay and lesbian Orthodox men and women, marrying one another affords them the opportunity to actually build Jewish homes, with grandchildren for their parents to spoil and to show off, wallet-sized, to their friends. With family continuity anxieties extracted from the process, disclosing their homosexuality their respective parents becomes an entirely different endeavor. Couples in cross-marriage arrangements could likely share their sexual identity with their families and maintain strong relationships with them, reducing their identity conflict and helping to retain their vital support network.
A Seat at the Table
Another thing that these marriages represent for their entrants is a place card. One of the drawbacks of the Orthodox community’s being so family-oriented is that most settings for acting or interacting in the community are dependent on traditional family roles. For example, women make friends and socialize as mothers in carpool, PTA, and playgrounds (and usually talk about their kids). Outside of school, boys—especially in the more Haredi communities—interface with the community as sons, in father-son learning programs or even simply having a place to sit in shul. In certain communities a man can’t daven for the amud (lead the prayers) if he’s not married.
In communities like that, being forced to live single can mean, in effect, having to stand along the community margins for one’s entire life. These marriages allow homosexual Orthodox individuals to form families and finally join (albeit with some concealment) their own communities.
Of course, the men and women like entering cross-marriages would not be looking to create families simply to ingratiate themselves with critical parents or as some sort of subterfuge for them to infiltrate our communities. Raising children is a universal human instinct, irrespective of one’s sexual identity. Providence did dictate that the act of procreation be coupled with the drive for copulation (heterosexual, of course). A happy confluence for humanity, no doubt; however that does not mean that those who don’t desire the latter won’t desire the former. Marriage for them is a chance to have what so many others take for granted: a real family, with deep conjugal—if not sexual—companionship and children who are biologically their own.
These points seem even more compelling when you consider the other options that homosexual Orthodox men and women face. If you were a young Orthodox man with yiras shomayim (awe of G-d) who deeply cares about keeping orthodox halacha, and also has same-sex only attraction, how would you choose to go through life?
You could take the approach that G-d would not give a mitzvah that a person by his or her nature can only observe with excessive hardship, and stick with the other 612. However, if your religious identity is more prominent than your sexual identity and you are committed to uncompromising adherence to halachah (in its normative Orthodox interpretation) then you will probably see in that approach a flawed mindset and an unacceptable (or at least guilt-inducing) halachic concession.
So you will have to choose an option that does not involve intimate relationships with men. Until now there have been two: get married or stay alone. Either way, however, if choose to stay within the Orthodox community—to which you feel you belong, and within which lie many of the requisites for your religious and spiritual advancement—you will almost certainly need to conceal your homosexuality (don’t forget, not critiquing Orthodoxy, critiquing the marriage plan!).
If you are terrified enough by the risk exposure and by communal and family pressure toward conformity, you might be compelled to follow the other bochurim (young, single men) into the “shidduch (matchmaking) scene,” and try your hand at a relationship with a woman. You might even do well in the dating process, which involves no physical contact, and—lasting, as it does for some, for only 2-3 months—will not pose much of a threat to your concealment. However, once you were engaged you would probably begin to realize what a serious mess you’ve gotten yourself and some poor, oblivious girl into, but you’d have little escape.
You might be able to stand the inner struggle behind the duplicity; between a desperate desire to fit in and be what your wife and family expect you to be; your inner yearning to show your true, full self to those same people; and your hopeful determination not to hurt anyone. Maybe you’ll be able to live with that for 20 years before you give up on the charade and dispel the illusions of the family you’ve built. Maybe you’ll talk straight with your kallah (bride) on your wedding night, and letting her know just what not to expect, and leaving her holding the bag. Or, you might just buckle under the pressure, like many have before you, despair of the battle and “cast your cares on the L-rd.”
If that vision doesn’t entice you then your only option is to remain alone for life, doubly isolated by the secret that you bear. The challenges that you face would be so trying that, Rabbi Chaim Rapoport comments in his Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View (2004), they would put any judgmental heterosexual Jew in their place. Rapoport challenges readers to ask themselves:
"If I were to find myself in a situation whereby I would constantly be yearning to be in a loving relationship—of a type that includes physical intimacy—and the only sexual relationships I could reasonably have would be with a member of the same gender, would I live up to the Torah’s demands?" or "If I knew that there is never likely to be any way of experiencing sexual fulfillment in a halakhically permissible manner, and at the same time, I would almost constantly be exposed to sexual temptation [because of the way that the Orthodox community separates the genders from one another], would I have the fortitude to remain alone and celibate?" I venture to say that many a heterosexual person who confronts himself honestly with such questions would indeed be humbled (p. 71).
Clearly, these options hold no hope for homosexual, Orthodox men and women. Rabbi Harel’s cross-marriages do have drawbacks, and some precautions--such as waiting a minimum number of years before having children to see if the match is viable--might be prudent. Nevertheless, this approach offers a chance for some level of love and inclusion that participants might never otherwise get.
Of course, we can’t hope to address the lack of tenable choices entirely through clever contrivances or work-arounds. Meaningful, long-term solutions must include systemic changes throughout the communal context. However, change on that level will never occur until the dilemma of homosexual Torah observant Jews is recognized as a legitimate, serious, and widespread problem. Leaders in our community must open dialogue, both amongst themselves and with gay and lesbian frum men and women, to hear their perspective and learn from their suggestions. We must, as a community, learn to move beyond instinctive reactions to recognize that, while there are homosexual groups who are highly resentful of religion, there are also earnest men and women in our own shuls and batei midrash who fight to suppress their drives only to be suppressed themselves by the very system for which they’ve sacrificed.
The process will be slow, assumptions will have to be abandoned, and sensibilities will likely be upset. We won’t know where we’re going or agree on how to get there, but one thing we do know: our own sons and daughters are dealing with struggles that our community can ease, and we are doing nothing about it.
Even so, large scale change is a worthy ambition, but we cannot use that goal for the future to duck the work for right now. Cross-marriages are not the solution. But for right now, I'm afraid they're the best we've got.
PLEASE NOTE: This essay is not intended to represent, in any way, psak halacha.
Coyle, A. & Rafalin, D. (2000). Jewish gay men’s accounts of negotiating cultural, religious, and sexual identity: A qualitative study.Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 12(4) 21-48
Rapoport, C. (2004) Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View. London and Portland: Vallentine Mitchell.
Rabbi Harel takes the world stage, discussing the upcoming launch of his online match-making service in Time Magazine. (article and video)