Rituals and Documents of Marriage and Divorce for Same-Sex Couples

Reference: Rabbinical Assembly

by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner

Section I: Introduction

In our responsum, “Homosexuality, Human Dignity, and Halakhah,” which was adopted by a majority vote of the CLJS on December 6, 2006, we wrote the following about the recognition of same-sex relationships:

We favor the establishment of committed and loving relationships for gay and lesbian Jews. The celebration of such a union is appropriate with blessings over wine and sheheheyanu, with psalms and other readings to be developed by local authorities…Yet can these relationships be recognized under the rubric of kiddushin (Jewish marriage)? Does their dissolution require a ritual of gerushin (divorce)? What format and force would such rituals require? These are complicated and controversial questions that deserve a separate study. We have no objection to informal rituals of celebration for gay couples, including the elements mentioned above, but we are not able in the responsum to address the many halakhic questions surrounding gay marriage. Our paper does not provide for rituals of kiddushin for gay and lesbian couples.

We have been asked to provide examples of ceremonies and documents of commitment and dissolution of same sex relationships that conform to our paper’s criteria, and we are pleased to do so here. Having inquired among rabbis from various points on the contemporary Jewish spectrum about such ceremonies, we recognize that there is a great variety available. We have incorporated materials from some of them, but others do not conform to the criteria of our own responsum. This paper will clarify the rationale behind our parameters for such rituals and will provide two wedding ceremonies as well as documents for marriage and divorce that are compatible with our responsum.

The traditional ceremony of kiddushin is said to be k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael, according to the laws of Moses and Israel. We acknowledged in our responsum that same-sex intimate relationships are comprehensively banned by classical rabbinic law, yet out teshuvah cited the oft-repeated halakhic principle, gadol k’vod habriot shedoheh lo ta’aseh shebaTorah, “Great is the demand of human dignity in that it supersedes a negative principle of Torah.” On this basis, and on the strong scientific evidence we cited that current discriminatory attitudes toward gay men and lesbians do indeed undermine their dignity, evidenced by their much higher rates of suicide, we concluded that for observant gay and lesbian Jews who would otherwise be condemned to a life of celibacy or secrecy, their human dignity requires suspension of the rabbinic level prohibitions so that they may experience intimacy and create families recognized by the Jewish community. For this reason we wrote in favor of the creation of ceremonies of recognition of loving, exclusive, and committed same-sex partnerships. We acknowledge that these partnerships are distinct from those discussed in the Talmud as “according to the law of Moses and Israel,” but we celebrate them with the same sense of holiness and joy as that expressed in heterosexual marriages.

Because this appendix substantially extends the concepts of our original responsum in crafting ceremonies for gay marriage and divorce, we have decided to bring it back to the CJLS for discussion and vote so that it may benefit from our movement’s collective while still providing room for rabbinic creativity in officiating at these events. We wish to acknowledge the work of our colleagues, Rabbis Simchah Roth z”l, Jeremy Kalmanofsky, who have developed ceremonies and documents which served as outstanding precedents for our own materials.

One of our first challenges was in establishing nomenclature for these rituals. Some American states and foreign countries have recognized same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships but reserved the language of marriage for heterosexual couples. Others have moved to full equalization of legal status and terminology for gay couples, but many states have refused all such recognition. Likewise among rabbis, some prefer to differentiate the terminology of gay partnerships from traditional marriage, while others insist that gay couples be given the same status and title as heterosexual couples. Having considered arguments in both directions, we are convinced that the nomenclature of gay marriage and divorce should be equal and clearly stated as such, not obscured in ambiguous language. Thus, even though the halakhic mechanism for binding the couple together is distinct from the traditional model of kiddushin, the result is still a Jewish marriage. The status of this relationship in civil law will depend upon the jurisdiction within the ceremony occurs and the reciprocal recognition rules in the state where the couple resides. Performance of the Jewish wedding ceremony is not to be considered a civil marriage in those jurisdictions which prohibit same-sex marriage.

At the first CJLS reading of this appendix in November 2011 it emerged that some colleagues preferred that gay marriage ceremonies resemble the traditional hyppah ceremony as closely as possible, while other colleagues recommended that this new ceremony be differentiated in a variety of ways. All agreed in wanting the gay marriage ceremony to receive full recognition from out community, but some felt that this could be accomplished better by utilizing a distinct liturgical format. We recognize this as a good-faith debate with the shared goal of strengthening stable and loving unions for both gay and straight couples. Indeed, conversations with gay and lesbian colleagues have confirmed that some of them prefer rituals that follow traditional formats as closely as possible, while others prefer more distinction, and all welcome the availability of options.

As a result, we are offering to model ceremonies, one that closely follows the traditional Jewish wedding liturgy, and one that starts fresh. Each ceremony accomplishes the following tasks, which we consider to be essential to any Jewish marriage ceremony:

  1. The couple is welcomed, and God’s blessings are requested for their marriage.
  2. Traditional symbols of celebration – such as wine – and of commitment – such as rings – are used to add significance to this moment.
  3. A document of “covenant” committing the couple to live a life of mutual fidelity and responsibility is read and witnessed. This covenant is affirmed at the rings ceremony and constitutes the halakhic mechanism for binding the couple together as a family.
  4. Blessings thanking God for this sacred moment of loving covenant are recited, and the couple’s relationship is linked to the broader narrative of the Jewish people and its redemption.

These two wedding ceremonies, like the kiddushin ceremony developed in Jewish tradition for heterosexual couples, emphasize values such as faithfulness, compassion, and financial responsibility. They employ traditional symbols of love and marriage, speak to the couple’s commitment to living a life infused with study and devotion, and ask for God’s blessing upon their union. In all of these ways these ceremonies communicate that the family established by the couple has the potential to become a bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael, a faithful household in Israel. They accomplish this with a mechanism distinct from the traditional kiddushin, but they reflect kedushah or holiness in the covenant that now binds the couple together as equal partners.

Our hesitations about calling for same-sex “kiddushin” are threefold: First, the ancient model of kiddushin, which may be translated either as sanctification or designation, is an inherently non-egalitarian model of marriage. The original concept from antiquity, when polygamy was permitted, was for a man to designate a woman for himself in a one-way exclusive arrangement. She was exclusively his, but he was not exclusively hers. Already 1,000 years ago the decree of Rabbenu Gershom began to change this reality by banning polygamy in the Ashkenazi community. Conservative wedding ceremonies have for many decades emphasized an egalitarian ideal in the exchange of rings, have modified the ketubbah text to include commitments from the woman, and have made use of poetic verses such as Ani l;dodi v’dodi li” (“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”), which emphasize mutual devotion in love and marriage. Still, we have worked within the boundaries of the established rituals and texts so that our weddings can fulfill traditional halakhic requirements even as they express our egalitarian values.

Read more: http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/2011-2020/same-sex-marriage-and-divorce-appendix.pdf