Why are gays and lesbians marrying each other in Israel?
Arelah Harel is an Orthodox rabbi in Israel who matches religious Jewish gays with lesbians and arranges their marriages. YOMYOM asked Rabbi Harel to explain why gays and lesbians need this and what life is like for these kinds of families.
What does Judaism say about homosexuality?
— Homosexuality is divided into two parts — first there are feelings and then there are actions. Judaism doesn’t take into consideration the former. Every person feels what he or she feels. There is no obligation regarding feelings. Judaism doesn’t deal with feelings at all — in general, not only on this issue. Judaism tells human beings what to believe and how to act, not how to feel. This is a very important point.
Regarding the action, sex between men is absolutely and explicitly forbidden in the Torah (the written law). There is only indirect reference to sexual relationships between women, but the Talmud (the oral law) explicitly forbids it. Both the written and oral law compose Halacha — Jewish religious law.
But some rabbis do perform gay and lesbian weddings
— These are not Orthodox rabbis. I’ll try to be objective in my explanation. In the last 200 years Judaism split into two movements — Orthodox and Reform (and the others similar to them). Reform Jews and “rabbis” (I don’t think we should call them rabbis) say that they aren’t obligated to follow the commandments of Torah. For them, Torah isn’t something that God gave us, and it may be changed in different ways. So that’s what they did on the issue of homosexuality. No Orthodox rabbi would ever agree to perform a marriage between two men or two women.
How did you come up with this idea to match gays and lesbians for traditional Jewish marriage?
— The idea came to me from the ultra-Orthodox world. In certain ultra-Orthodox groups, couples meet only 10 minutes before their wedding and they still live happily ever after. When I was thinking about it, I realised that happiness in marriage depends on what a person expects to get out of it. I expected love, and I suppose you do too. So if we don’t find it, we’ll be disappointed. But couples, that from the very beginning, don’t expect to find love won’t be disappointed. This is one point.
The second point is that for religious men and women who want to keep the laws of Torah, but have this gay-lesbian issue, it’s a huge problem to have families and become parents. Parenting is a very important part of religious Jewish life!
From these two points, I came up with the idea to match religious gay men and lesbian women. In these matches, we have a gay man and a lesbian woman who both know from the beginning what the circumstances are and it’s clear that their goal is not love, but partnership and shared parenting. They can be happy. By the way, there are many examples of shared life and parenting in heterosexual couples that are not necessarily in love with one another or not necesserily sexualy attracted to each other.
But why do you need a gay man and a lesbian woman? A religious gay man could marry any woman for children, not just a religious lesbian
— Of course. But usually a straight woman would be disappointed if she married a gay man who isn’t attracted to her. The same with men. We’re not ultra-Orthodox. In the mainstream Orthodox community, we expect a normal life with love and sexuality. But there actually are three couples that I married where the women were straight and the husbands gay. These women came to me as to a matchmaker and told me that they’re not interested in sex, and didn’t mind marrying a gay man. But they all knew from the beginning what they were getting into.
How many couples have you matched?
Do their families know that they’re both gay?
— Every couple decides for themselves what to tell and to whom. But these are usually people in the age range of 30–35, which is older than the usual age Orthodox couples get married. In the couples I’ve matched, the parents were not involved. The men and women came directly to me — we sit together with the couple and discuss all of the issues and potential problems in advance.
What kinds of problems do you discuss with them?
— There are three issues. First, how to build a family, love and warm feelings in a relationship that is not erotic or sexual; how to become really good friends. For this to happen, I send them to a psychologist for therapy for 6 months or even a year. The therapist helps them find the tools and ways to build a good relationship.
Are these some kind of special, religious therapists?
— They may be religious or not, it’s not necessary that they be religious.
But I thought a secular therapist would just say: listen to yourself and if you like men, go find yourself a man
— A good therapist would say: listen to your soul. I have soul, not only a body. And my soul is committed to God. I love God very much and I don’t want to give up on this love. I love God more than I love my wife. So I’m listening to myself very carefully. A good psychologist will say to these people: listen to yourself, not to what everybody around you is saying, or to what the gay community says to you. Listen to your own soul and what it tells you.
A lot of gay people leave religion in their 20’s, they want to try things - but then they discover that LGBT community in not the paradise they thought it was. It might be a lot of fun to be gay in Tel Aviv in your 20’s, but as they get older they realise that having a stable relationship in the LGBT community is extremely difficult, so they come back to religion. They remember that they love God.
What’s the second problem you discuss with these couples before marriage?
— The legal aspect. In a regular heterosexual couple, love and feelings are usually so strong that the legal issues are usually a side note. But in the case where love is not particularly strong, you have to settle the legal issues first. Just like with older couples that get married in their 70s, when there is less passion. They go to a lawyer and make a contract.
The third point is the issue of children. How do your raise kids in a reality like this? And with this, we also send them to a therapist who deals with children. They have 10–20 sessions with a children’s psychologist before they get married, because usually couples want children right away — that’s the point of all these arrangements. Every couple decides for themselves whether they want to tell the kids about their situation. Until now the oldest children from the couples I’ve matched are around 14 years old. Most of the couples have decided to tell their kids when they’re grown up and 18 years old.
What about sexual relationships in these couples?
— There are three types of relationships, and it’s important to note that all of the couples talk about it with me before their marriages and choose for themselves which type they prefer. The first type — no sexual contact at all, they have kids using in vitro fertilisation and have no sexual relationship. The second type is couples that have sex, but only for kids. The third type, which surprises me the most, is couples that, despite the fact that they are gay and lesbian, enjoy seх together.
What’s the percentage, more or less?
— About a third of the couples are each type. Sometimes, a man will say: I’m gay, I’ve never been with a woman, but I’m ready to try. And after their marriage, they try and it turns out that it feels fine, not the same as with another man, but still nice. But, I should say that it’s a very sensitive question because you can end up in a situation where the couple tried to have sex and for one party it was nice, but for the other it wasn’t. And this is something you can’t know beforehand, until it’s happened. That’s why we require all the couples to commit from the beginning that sex it not an essential element in their relationship, and that it’s solely optional. If one of them doesn’t like it, they don’t have to do it. It’s a very important obligation from the very beginning of this matchmaking process to prevent this situation where one of them would feel pressured to have sex against their will.
Have any of these couples divorced?
— Four couples divorced. One of the couples was just crazy, and their problems had nothing to do with their sexual orientation. The second couple split because of religious differences. In the beginning they were at the same level of religiosity, but later on, the wife became very religious. In a normal heterosexual relationship, a situation like this could work out because of the great love between the couple, but for this couple it was too much. The third couple was a sad story for me. The man, after the wedding, suddenly decided that he didn’t try hard enough to change his sexual orientation before the marriage. He went to treatment, said he became bisexual and that he made up his mind to divorce his lesbian wife and find a woman that he would be sexually attracted to. Thank God it happened before they had kids! He behaved in a way that wasn’t fair to the woman. What, you get married and then suddenly you go to treatment and want to leave your wife?! The fourth divorce, I’m not sure if it’s a sad or happy story. Anyway the man became bisexual naturally with no treatment.
How did this happen?
— Before the marriage he was a very openly gay man, he tried therapy to change it, but it didn't work for him, he was in relationship with another man and he was definitely gay. After the wedding that I arranged for him with a lesbian woman, he met a young woman that was in the process of coming back to religion. He was teaching her Judaism. During their classes he started to feel that he was falling in love, he felt desire and passion, he was very confused and didn’t know what was going on inside him. It was the girl who said they had to stop the lessons because he was married. After a week she called him again and asked to continue her studies. But in the middle of the lesson she said: “No. We need to stop, it’s not moral. You are a married man, and I feel I’m falling in love with you, we need to stop now...”. She went away, but he went home and told his wife everything. The wife took his phone, called the girl and said: “Come here now”. She invited the girl to their home, told her their whole story, and said: go ahead and be happy. They came to talk to me, I thought it was crazy, and sent them to a therapist. It was a long process, but it finished happily. The couple divorced and he married the girl he loved, the ex-wife married another gay man, and everyone was happy in the end.
I should say that this story frightened me a lot! They were one of the first couples I matched. I thought, wow if this is what’s going to happen, it’s too risky! What if that had happened after they had children? I stopped for about a year. I thought about it again and again and I improved a couple of things in the matching process. Since then, a situation like this has never happened again.
What did you improve?
— First of all, we decided to deal with people of an older age. There is more flexibility in the sexual orientation of young people. The proper age for this kind of marriage (between a gay man and a lesbian woman) is 30–35. I’ve seen almost no one who changed their orientation after 30; with younger people it actually happens a lot.
What you’re doing probably seems completely wrong to both sides — both Orthodox Jews and the LGBT community
— That’s proof that I’m right!
Have you experienced negative attitudes or criticism from either side?
— The part of the LGBT community that calls itself religious is very much against me. They somehow think that they can live a religious Jewish life with a person of same sex. Meanwhile, the secular part of LGBT community is actually more OK with what I do. They say: «If that’s the way of life you choose, go for it! Do whatever you want». In the religious community there is a group of rabbis that are supportive, and a group of rabbis that are against.
Is there a Jewish religious reason to be against what you’re doing?
— To be objective, I have to say yes. Though in my eyes the reasons aren’t relevant. The first reason is that in Judaism sexuality is connected to family life. There is no sexual life without marriage and there is no marriage without sexual life. That is why some rabbis claim that we create some kind of separation — couples with no sexuality between the partners. The second reason that some rabbis object is the issue of kids. Until now we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen to the kids and if they’ll suffer in some way. In Judaism it’s forbidden to cause someone to suffer for someone else's happiness. The third reason some are against — it’s not connected to religious law though — there are rabbis who think that all gay and lesbians can and should change. Arranging marriages between them is like saying: “Don’t change your orientation, everything is OK”. In other words, I’m spoiling their opportunity to change, according to these rabbis. But I believe that some can change and others can’t. So we have to help the ones that can’t.
These treatments to change one’s sexuality, how do they work?
— The vast majority of secular psychologists are against the idea of changing one’s sexuality. And not all religious psychologists support it either. But some of them do offer this kind of treatment. The process takes months — but what’s important to say, is that it’s not what is called “conversion therapy”. Conversion therapy is an approach that was developed In Great Britain in 1980s. This therapy caused damage to many people, first of all because they were forced to do it. The second mistake of this approach was that they promised people they would 100% change. Lastly, the tools and methodology they used were not professional. So many people were damaged by this process. Our approach is different, we don’t force anyone to change, if someone says he wants to be gay — let him be gay. But if someone wants to change we don’t promise him, we say: go ahead, try, and we’ll see if it works. This approach is careful, not harming the patient is a very important point. We did a poll of 627 patients and asked them if the treatment harmed them in anyway — only two of them said yes. About 30% of them didn’t change, 30% said they became bisexual, and 30% say that they changed their orientation.
The LGBT community attacks our study saying that the patients didn’t really change, they only say they changed. But the same thing I can say about them: “you’re not really gay, you only say so, but you’re confused”. This is not an objective thing, and there is no other way to measure it.
What about sex change? Does Jewish law say anything about it?
— According to Judaism you can’t change your sex. If a man has a surgery and even if he looks like a woman, he is still a man. So he can’t marry another man even in this case. The other thing is that in Halacha [Jewish religious law] it’s forbidden for men to remove their genitalia, and it’s forbidden for a man who has removed his genitalia to get married.
Can a man who changed his sex to female, but did not remove his penis, marry a woman in a religious Jewish marriage?
It would be very difficult for me to marry them for psychological reasons, but, yes, according to Jewish law we can do that.
Did it ever occur to you that the matches you make means living a lie to the people around them?
— This is a question that bothers me a lot. But I think that we all live lying to each other, I don’t tell you everything about my life and you don’t tell me everything about your life. These couples lie to the world but not to each other. A lie is problematic when it hurts someone else. For example, if a gay or lesbian person marries a straight person and doesn’t tell them the truth — that’s a problem. There was this phenomenon in the religious world and it caused huge damage. That is living a lie; and that is exactly what we want to prevent — and we’re succeeding.
But why live a lie, why can’t they just say to the entire religious world: “Ok, I’m gay, she’s lesbian. But we’re married and we live together in a traditional marriage”?
— This is my dream, I think it’s supposed to be like that! But the religious community is still conservative. We happily accept people who left the religious community, lived secular life and came back to religion. Same here, if a man says: “I lived with another man, but I realised my love to God was stronger and now I live with a woman”. We should accept them. I’ll repeat the point what we started with. In Judaism there are two parts to homosexuality — feelings and actions. The religious community has understand this separation! According to Halacha [Jewish religious law] there is in nothing wrong with homosexual feelings (only actions), the feelings themselves are not abnormal, not bad or freaky. There is nothing to be ashamed of.
Text Asya Chachko, Benjamin Birely
Photo Maria Troyanker