Harry Maryles

Ordaining an openly gay Jew

Some lines can never be crossed no matter how much compassion one has for one’s fellow man. You cannot change Jewish law
(via iStock)
(via iStock)

Marx once said “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” (Not Karl Marx. Julius Henry Marx. Better known as Groucho.)

This is kind of how I felt the day I got Semicha. I had always considered the title ‘Rabbi’ to be one of high accomplishment. A rabbi had to be an exemplar of observant Judaism. And just as importantly a Talmid Chacham and Posek. Someone that knew Halacha like the back of his hand. In short a true religious leader. When I got Semicha, that bubble kind of burst. I do not consider myself an exemplar of anything. Nor am I am really a Talmud Chacham. And certainly not a Posek.

The truth is however, that well before my ordination, I saw plenty of Musmachim (ordainees) that could barely read Hebrew. I had always wondered how on earth they ever got Semicha. I kind of found out on that day.

As most Yeshiva students know, Semicha in our day is not the Semicha of ancient times. The institution of Semicha began in the Torah. Moshe placed his hands on top of Yehoshua’s head (which is why it’s called Semicha) and handed over his leadership position to him as he (Moshe) was about to die.

That was how our rabbinic leaders were chosen all the way until the Talmudic era. Those leaders exemplified all the above traits. In spades. It stopped being conferred at about that time for reasons unclear to me. With the exception of an attempt to re-establish it in the days of R’ Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, it has disappeared. It was conferred it to him controversially and never went further, failing for reasons beyond the scope of this discussion.

Today it is not really much more that a kind of degree given to observant students that have spent many years studying the Talmud; have studied the relevant portions of the Shulchan Aruch and passed oral or written exams. (How the above mentioned Musmachim that could barely read Hebrew passed those tests is beyond me.)

It is also a fact that some Yeshivos don’t even do that. They just allow their students who have been studying Talmud for a long time to assume the position if they need it for a job. (like Chaim Berlin in my day – don’t know if they still do). My alma mater, HTC,  had a version of that too. They gave what they called a ‘Rav U’Manhig’ to senior Beis HaMedrash students that needed it for afternoon school jobs. (I don’t know if they still do that).

All of this speaks to the low bar now being set for Semicha these days. Even in Orthodoxy. Which I suppose is one reason most serious yeshiva students don’t waste their time getting Semicha anymore. They do not value it. They value only being a Talmid Chacham. If they want a job in Chinuch they get their Rosh Yeshiva’s permission to call themselves ‘rabbi’ and he will back them up. I know of several Mechanchim that do not have Semicha and yet are referred to that way by their students and parents. No one is checking to see if they actually have Semicha.

I bring up this rather lengthy introduction in light of what I consider to be an outrageous break from in the traditional institution of the Orthodox rabbinate as we know it today. From JTA:

[Last Sunday] Daniel Landes, a prominent American-Israeli rabbi, granted semichah, Hebrew for ordination, to Daniel Atwood…

Daniel Atwood is an openly gay student who has made his relationship living with another gay man public. Rabbi Landes did this because Daniel was denied an ordination by his school, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT). They would have granted him Semicha knowing he was gay as long as he did not publicize it. He did. And Semicha was denied.

If Semicha has such a low bar these days, what is my problem? If people that can’t even read Hebrew are getting Semicha, how can I deny someone who not only reads Hebrew but actually studied the relevant portions of the Shulchan Aruch and passed the exams?

Good question. But it also has a good answer. That some people are able to get all kinds of university degrees despite the fact that they don’t deserve them – is not a question. It is unfortunate but it does happen. (A lot depends on who or which institution is granting those degrees for example.) But that does not mean that university degrees become meaningless. It just means that there are a lot of unscrupulous people around that are willing and able to abuse the system.

As for others calling themselves rabbi that have not gone the traditional route – sometime even with the permission of their schools, there might be pragmatic reasons for that which they believe do not damage the institution of the rabbinate as it exists today. I’m not saying I approve of that. But I also understand the reasoning behind it and do not protest it publicly – since Semicha in our day is not the real Semicha of old.

However, what Rabbi Landes has done does damage to the institution of the rabbinate. Ordaining a  publicly gay man that lives with another gay man is a violation not only of the traditional image of a rabbi – it in effect says that a man who lies with another man as with a woman –  a cardinal sin – is nevertheless an acceptable religious leader.

It would be one thing if a man had a same sex attraction and did not act on it. It is quite another when one acts on it and then advertises it. What he is advertising is that something the Torah clearly forbids. And by example saying that not only is it permitted but does not disqualify those who sin publicly with pride from becoming a religious leader. It would be as as though he advertised that he ate Treif (Non Kosher food) and still considered himself worthy of becoming a rabbi.

What about the idea that we don’t know what actually goes on in the bedroom. Perhaps he does not violate the Torah’s prohibition against gay sex. There is after all no proof that he does.

That would be like saying that a person that brings Treif food into his home saying there is no proof that he actually eats it. But even if one wants to use that rationale to accept gay people into their community, it is a horse of an entirely different color to allow someone like that to become the exemplar of Jewish law that a rabbi is suppose to be. You can’t bring treif food into your house and say that you don’t really eat it. If you believe that, I’ve got two words for you: Bridge and Brooklyn.

There are some lines that can never be crossed. No matter how much compassion one has for one’s fellow man that faces personal challenges… no matter how much dignity they might otherwise deserve as fellow human beings created in the image of God. You cannot change Jewish law. Nor should you try and twist it to fit your personal circumstances with convoluted interpretations – as Daniel Atwood does. (…and others before him did.)

Anyone that tries to justify giving Semicha to people like this by pointing to the fact that we don’t really have real Semicha today…. and that if it can be give to every Tom, Dick, and (yours truly) even if they don’t deserve it, should certainly allow us to give to a man that has studied and passed exams but proudly and publicly celebrates his lifestyle – misses the point. It is one thing to give it to people that don’t deserve it. It is an entirely different matter to give it to people who advertise they are violating a cardinal sin – while treating it as though it were a Mitzvah.

This is what we all must understand is happening here. I feel bad that Daniel Atwood is being dragged through the mud like this. He can’t help who he loves, I suppose. But he can help which profession he chooses. It should never have been the rabbinate. No matter how much it meant to him. We cannot always do what we want. Certainly no rabbi worthy of the title should be conferring Semicha to a public sinner. No matter how low the bar for that is. Because sometimes image is as important than substance. And since rabbis are still seen a religious leaders and role models by many people, they need to actually follow Halacha.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.
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