Orthodox rabbi marries gay couple in historic wedding in DC

For the first time in history, Steve Greenberg, an openly-gay American rabbi ordained by the Orthodox movement, has officiated at a same-sex wedding ceremony.

On Thursday night at Washington DC’s “Historic 6th and I Synagogue,” Greenberg stood under the chupah, a traditional Jewish wedding canopy, as newlyweds Yoni Bock and Ron Kaplan tied the knot before some two-hundred guests. Recognizing the unique – and controversial – moment, Greenberg’s voice notably cracked when near the end he stated, “By the power invested in me by the District of Columbia, I now pronounce you married.”
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Greenberg gained notoriety following his role in the 2001 documentary by an American filmmaker, “Trembling Before G-d,” which portrayed the conflicts of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews trying to reconcile their religious convictions and sexual orientations. After the films successful release, Greenberg traveled with director Sandi Simcha Dubowski, screening the film globally. He was approached by Bock and Kaplan about a year ago and was asked to perform the ceremony, to which he agreed.

Orthodox-ordained Rabbi Steve Greenberg presiding at same-sex wedding of Yoni Bock and Ron Kaplan in Washington, DC synagogue, 10 November 2011 (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)
Orthodox-ordained Rabbi Steve Greenberg presiding at same-sex wedding of Yoni Bock and Ron Kaplan in Washington, DC synagogue, 10 November 2011 (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

The couple had dated since 2005. They agreed to get married in 2008 while on a bike ride, but wanted to wait until doing so was actually legal. A recent change in Washington DC’s laws paved the way for them to do just that.

We were encouraged by the legislation of same-sex marriage in our home ‘state’ of Washington, DC,” Bock and Kaplan noted in the evening’s program guide. “At the same time, both of us wanted a ceremony that would be meaningful halachically (in terms of religious Jewish law) and create a set of Jewish legal obligations between us.

While a number of same-sex couples – many of them Jewish – have now married in US areas that recently legalized gay and lesbian unions, none were officiated by a rabbi who holds Orthodox ordination. The movement maintains a strict interpretation of Jewish law, including the biblical verse found in Leviticus 18 which refers to a man lying with another man as an abomination.

Greenberg assisted Bock and Kaplan in creating a ceremonial text that reflected the uniqueness of the event while incorporating the traditional elements of a Jewish wedding. Those familiar with the latter would have noticed an alteration in many of the texts, including the changing of genders for several of the pronouns. “Harey at mekudeshet li,” or “Behold, you (female) are consecrated to me” thus became “Harey atah m’kudash li,” or “Behold, you (male) are consecrated to me.”
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Elements of a traditional ceremony that, according to the couple and Greenberg, reflected gender inequality, were removed or subsisted with more egalitarian and gay-friendly versions. The traditional “ketubah,” or “marriage contract,” in which the bride is essentially purchased by the groom, was replaced with a “Shtar Shetufim,” or “partnership contract.”

Greenberg is no stranger to controversy. He publicly admitted his sexuality following his ordination from an Orthodox rabbinical school, making him the first openly gay practicing Orthodox rabbi. While he was warmly received by many, his book, “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition,” led him to be shunned by some in the Orthodox community and even by some gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews who felt his views did not align with Orthodox readings of Jewish law. His participation in Thursday’s ceremony will be viewed by some as a step that crosses a line of no return.

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While rabbis from the Reform, Reconstructionist and, more recently, Conservative movements of Judaism have presided over same-sex unions, even when the act did legally result in the State-recognized union of the couple, rabbis from the Orthodox movement have completely stayed away from such practice. And as the couple vowed to never forget Jerusalem, as is traditionally done before the breaking of the glass, some – critics and supporters – will never forget this occasion.

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To read about restrictions on rabbis performing Jewish weddings in Israel, read Ori J. Lenkinski’s account on +972