Rabbi Mordechai Vardi is the rabbi of Kibbutz Ein Zurim and a filmmaker. He recently focused his keen eye on his Orthodox community’s inability to offer any credible future to gay and lesbian young people. His film, Marry Me However, (in Hebrew: Chatunah Hafuchah) tells the stories of three men and two women who marry against their sexual orientations in order to fulfill religious and cultural expectations.
Those cultural expectations are experienced by most of us as sweet. At every brit milah, we envision the future infant standing under a huppah (wedding canopy). “Just as he has entered the covenant, so may attain the blessings of Torah, the wedding canopy and a life of good deeds.” Everyone is expected to mature, find love, marry and continue the promise of Abraham and Sarah with multiple children. This is what Orthodox adulthood looks like. What happens when all the good futures are straight and you are not?
In the words of Yarden in the film, “from seventh grade, I felt like a monster, like I deserved to be banished. If they find out about me they’ll stone me.” Later he describes how he managed the monster. “I performed taxidermy on myself, removing my guts—what I really felt—and I filled myself up with cotton ideals, with what the rabbis say and what the society expects of me.” As the film begins with Yarden’s wedding videos he shares why he married: “My experience was this: Either I marry now or let the world be destroyed.”
For subjects of Rabbi Vardi’s film and for many others like them, the first defense is the closet. Zvi describes it in this searing fashion: “There is nothing like the pain of hiding. It is like being a spy in a hostile foreign land, just without a mission….You go to school and hide, to yeshiva and hide, you suppress all that the body and soul loves and desires and you hide. You finish exams, finish the army, finish yeshiva, finish your degree, you finish finishing and hide. And then you get married and you bring her into the circle of hiding.”
For others, the conflict results in splitting the self into two and waging a war with the yetzer hara (evil inclination) that can be best defeated by normative marriage. Rabbis have often bolstered the hope that the dark cloud of same-sex desire will evaporate with marriage when sexual satisfaction becomes regularly available. Having no real experience with sex prior to marriage neither party really knows what to expect. Once they are alone together both have trouble understanding what is happening. Nadav in the film describes his being obligated to perform sexually without desire felt like rape. Yarden tells us that his wedding day was the hardest day of his life. Already on that day he began thinking about divorce. While the film shares with us the anguish, fear, confusion, regret and guilt of its gay subjects, it explores as well the trauma of the women lured into marriage by religious men desperate for a “normal” life.
Rotem, Yarden’s ex-wife, shares that for six years she was married to a man whom she adored, who did not desire her back. Speaking to Yarden in a touching moment she says, “You were always so sad….and as I slowly began to understand why you were so sad and realized it…it simply ended me because I loved you so much…you were the love of my life.”
Some men actively deceive their wives to achieve their ends. Ronit’s ex-husband willfully deceived her. In the film, she shares her story with rabbaniot, female educators and counselors at a school for young women, Migdal Oz. She describes what it’s like to come home from the mikvah to an empty house.
“Other husbands are waiting outside for their wives to return and your house is cold and empty.” Finally, after tiring of giving his excuses, he shares with her that touching her disgusts him. “Why did you marry me,” she asks. He responds, “I hoped that (with marriage) I’d be normal and I knew that you’d be a good mother to my kids.”
Sofie shares a different story. Her husband was direct with her. He told her before they were married that he was gay, but she didn’t really understand what it meant. Along the way, he claimed that things were getting better and that she needed to be patient, but in time he confirmed that he was gay and it wasn’t going to change. After these painful testimonies, there is one especially heartbreaking expression by a closeted ex-wife who chooses not to show her face. Her testimony moves the rabbaniot to tears. When the ex-wives express their anger at the rabbinic establishment that did not protect them, there is silence.
What the film exposes is that both the gay subjects and their straight spouses are victims of the social expectations and religious standards that leave no approved coupled life for gay people and in doing so invite devastating consequences. Reactions to the film in Israel have included both wide support and deep resistance. It is just now beginning to reach North American audiences. Its role in changing hearts and minds should be compared to another documentary film that debuted twenty years ago.
Trembling Before G-d told the stories of seven gay Orthodox Jews and awakened the community to our existence. The “double exposure” of recognizably familiar characters, people who were or had been members of various Orthodox communities, and who were also gay was groundbreaking in 2001. Trembling birthed and nourished a number of “frum-gay” networks. Within a decade those networks grew into support organizations: Eshel, a North American support, education and advocacy organization for queer religious Jews and their families (that I helped to found with Miryam Kabakov), Havruta that does similar work in Israel and Jewish Queer Youth that runs a teen drop-in center in New York City.
Over the past two decades since Trembling, much has changed. Three factors have been most important. Hundreds of us from traditional backgrounds have come out. It is increasingly hard to find a Modern Orthodox Jew who does not know an LGBT+ person. The US Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage marked the dignity of our love and broadly framed gay liberation less as a sexual revolution and more as a bid for fairness. And lastly, a broad consensus in the Modern Orthodox community came to the conclusion that “reparative therapy” does not work. This last recognition has been game-changing.
In December of 2012 the Rabbinical Council of America rejected “reparative therapy” and the following week Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky wrote in the clearest of terms what this meant. With the decision that therapy cannot make gay people straight — and that indeed it could be destructive — Kanefsky wrote that the Orthodox community “is acknowledging that homosexuality may very well be simply part of the human condition.” Kanefsky understood that the RCA acknowledgment was the beginning of a new Orthodox discourse, one that marks homosexuality as a naturally occurring non-pathological, minority expression of ordinary human sexuality.
Kanefsky’s insight led him to take responsibility. “Accordingly, we have decided that homosexuals should not any longer have to pay the psychological, emotional and even physical price for our theological comfort. We have effectively designated our theological question as a teyku, one whose answer still needs to be determined, but one that will, meanwhile, not prevent us from seeing the human truths in front of our eyes. The shift from Rabbi Lamm’s “sympathy” to the RCA’s recognition of the reality of sexual orientation can and should bring us to a place in which we can accept our friends and children and siblings for who they are, grant them the dignity and respect that any person deserves, and love them as our own.”
Rabbi Kanefsky led his synagogue on a 15 month-long effort of discernment with learning and listening on issues that related to inclusion and synagogue policy. The resulting policy statement supports the integration of gay individuals and even gay couples into the life of the synagogue. However, it stops short of any communal celebration for lesbian or gay unions even to the point of refusing to print a mazel tov in their newsletter.
Rabbi Kanefsky’s work remains vital and it may be where most Orthodox congregations can land for the present. But it has not addressed Rabbi Vardi’s central question. How can dignity and respect be possible without offering some frame for a reasonable adult life? If human sexual diversity is a natural part of the creation, as Kanefksy suggests, then the logical next step would be to find a way to move forward on giving gay young people hope. This step will be challenging to many modern Orthodox rabbis, but nonetheless this step has been taken very recently by Rabbi Benny Lau.
After viewing Marry Me However, Rabbi Benny Lau, an Orthodox religious leader and thinker in the dati leumi community in Israel, wrote a ground-breaking article in cautious support of gay marriage. Orthodoxy, he says, must support the life partnerships of gay people because “it is not good for the human to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). This includes development of same-sex weddings or commitment ceremonies.
“Living life as a couple, with a formal agreement and a commitment to building a deep partnership in the form of a family, is part of human nature for most people. Even if the framework of Orthodox Jewish law does not have a solution that enables halakhic marriage between same-sex partners, there is no reason to deny or renounce a child’s same-sex relationship. The desire to have a wedding is not simply a matter of wanting the external trappings of the ceremony and celebration; rather, it stems from a desire to make a public declaration of mutual commitment when entering a committed union. The desire to affirm to ourselves and to others that we have decided to formally enter into a committed union is understandable and explains why many people in same-sex relationships wish to be recognized as a couple and to marry. It is both impossible and wrong to ignore or deny this need.”
The distinction between “halakhic marriage,” which he claims is impossible for same-sex couples and “a formal commitment” and even a “wedding,” which he feels should be available to such couples might seem confusing. If he means to say that the halakhic marriage ritual of kiddushin does not make sense between two women or two men, he is right. It is a ceremony shaped by gender role divisions that have no relevance to same-sex relationship or commitment.
I and others have used other halakhic structures of formal partnership (shutafut) and personal commitment (nedarim) when doing same-sex weddings so that the framework is binding on both partners in equal and identical ways. There is a small but growing number of Orthodox rabbis, barely a minyan, who have already started to perform commitment ceremonies for religious gay couples.
The technicalities aside, Rabbi Lau makes it clear that while empathy is a good beginning, a solution that does not guide a young gay person toward a credible adult life is no empathy at all. Marry Me However marks the painful result of futurelessness that induces young people to tragically deceive themselves and others. While its focus is on a contemporary Israeli social reality, it conveys a moving invitation to everyone in the Orthodox world. This film urges us to consider how we can all open a space for our gay kids to begin to envision their lives, their futures, as they are, within our communities.
*Eshel is partnering with Rabbi Vardi and Go2Films to bring Marry Me However to North American audiences. If you are interested in bringing this film to your community, be in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.