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A Match Worth Making? A Response to Orthodox Jewish 'Straight' Marriages

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"Move to Denver!" It was all I could do to keep myself from shouting at the screen while watching Brokeback Mountain a few years ago. In a New York City movie theater, this behavior would not stand out. Jack and Ennis, the central characters, secret lovers for decades, were fighting. Jack was insisting that they could have had a good life together, and Ennis was trying to push him away. I was rooting for Jack, for the possibility that the two of them could have been a couple instead of entering into heterosexual marriages. I, and a number of fellow movie-goers, wanted to tell them: "Please go somewhere that you can live your lives together already."

I had similar thoughts when I read that Rabbi Areleh Harel, an Orthodox rabbi living in the West Bank, is acting as a matchmaker between gay men and lesbians. Rabbi Harel's idea is that marrying gay men and lesbians to each other allows them to have families, while keeping their secret and staying within their religious world. Presumably, having them marry someone who is gay instead of someone straight is meant to lessen the collateral damage that Jack and Ennis' families suffered.

Still, collateral damage is easy to imagine in this situation. The people who enter into these arrangements, no matter how pure their intentions, are deceiving their families and their communities. Every affirmation they receive for their wedding is based on a fiction. They are modeling a marriage that is not based on romantic or sexual intimacy and love. They are setting themselves up for infidelity and a life lived under constant threat of exposure.

I also wonder where God is in the legal fiction of these marriages. Harel abdicates responsibility for the consequences of these marriages, saying that if adultery takes place it is "not [his] business." There is a Jewish teaching that if you make three successful matches, you earn a place in the world-to-come. Where do you go if you have set up a situation that could cause tremendous pain and suffering to entire communities?

I also wonder why, if these marriages are meant to conceal the identities of the couples, Rabbi Harel's work is being featured so prominently in national and international media. Lavender marriages have been going on for centuries, and have been discussed in other traditional communities for years. Why has the Harel story gone viral, and why now? It may be that the trend towards the legalization of same-sex marriage has upped the ante, and made those who oppose it want to show alternatives. Why risk disapproval by marrying your same-sex partner, if you could find an opposite-sex gay or lesbian person to marry and gain heterosexual privilege instead?

I have to believe that the people who are entering into these marriages are sincere. They are trying to find a way to live lives that are normative in their communities. What disturbs me is that this is being presented as their only choice, the only way that they can continue to live as observant Jews. In this situation, "Move to Denver!" need not mean: "Leave your religious practice!" Rather, it means: "Find another way." Lech lecha, go forth like Abraham did. The territory may feel unknown, but with faith you can make it there. Live the life that is yours to live.

The key problem with these matches is coercion, people feeling forced into marriage because they see no viable alternative. Notably, this is a problem in same-sex and heterosexual marriages as well. Recently, there has been talk about the pressure on same-sex couples to get married in New York. A recent New Yorker cartoon shows two men in bed, one turning to the other and saying: "Please stop looking at me like now I'm gonna propose." And in July, the New York Times ran an article titled: "Ready to Wed? No, Mom ... Some Parents of Gay Children Push for Marriage." This phenomenon, in which partners and parents pressure people to wed, is old news for straight couples, and almost everyone who is single.

The situation in the Orthodox community that Harel and his clients inhabit is one in which it is virtually impossible to have a social life without being married with children. In this world, being known to be gay would be cause for condemnation, exclusion, or worse. No wonder then, if these individuals feel like they have to live a lie, they would rather have companionship, social standing, and safety. But how many people, in the secular or liberal religious world, also feel immense pressure to be married, as if their only options are to be married or to be miserable? How many single people in our communities feel like their social and even professional options are limited by their single status? How many of them settle for mediocre marriages, preferring that to being alone?

Marriage should be an option for everyone -- but it needs to be a choice, not a foregone conclusion. I fought to support marriage equality in New York State, as a lesbian and as a rabbi. My partner and I had our religious wedding back in 2001, when no one was pressuring us to get married; it happened entirely by the force of our own wills. What gives marriage its value is that it is chosen. "Choose life," the Torah teaches, "that you and your children may live." (Deut 30:19) As a liberal rabbi, I believe in informed choice: it is our privilege -- and our obligation -- to educate ourselves about our options and choose wisely, informed by our tradition and by our values, by our hearts and by our minds. It may be that for the gay men and lesbians who are calling Harel, they feel that this is their best choice. I wish that they could see more choices in their lives.

Some would argue that marriage has always been a business arrangement, a societal tool to create stable families. But in Judaism, marriage has always promised something more. Even in Biblical times, Rebecca needs to agree to her match with the patriarch Isaac, and her agreement is seen to set legal precedent: you cannot have a Jewish marriage without the consent of both parties. Indeed, Isaac and Rebecca's marriage is the first one which the Torah describes as involving love. In another venerable Jewish source, "Fiddler on the Roof," a daughter sings for the matchmaker to make her a match. But then she realizes that a bad match is worse than no match at all, and so she concludes:

Matchmaker, matchmaker, plan me no plan,
I'm in no rush, maybe I've learned
Playing with matches a girl can get burned ...
So bring me no ring,
Groom me no groom,
Find me no find,
Catch me no catch,
Unless he's a matchless match!

The Jewish wedding ceremony culminates in the sheva brachot, seven blessings. In them, the couple is described as re'im ahuvim, loving companions. Their voices on their wedding day are meant to be kol sasson v'kol simcha, the voice of rejoicing and the voice of happiness. I want to suggest another blessing, and it is this: may everyone be blessed with the ability to truly choose whether, and to whom, they will be wed. Then, as the wedding blessings promise, we will truly be celebrating with loving companions, their voices ringing out with happiness. Now that is a match worth making.