Responding to Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the Orthodox Rabbi Who Supports Toeivah Marriage


rabbi-avraham-edelsteinBy Rabbi Avraham Edelstein

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s recent blog, entitled 5 Reasons Being an Orthodox Rabbi Compelled Me to Support Gay Marriage[1] is a masterful compilation of  misrepresentations and false logic woven into a compelling tapestry that sounds like a brave liberal position, but is actually a mighty act of manipulative cowardice.  “I believe the essence of religious conviction is that we must do what is right” is fine as a philosophy for someone who wants to put together his own religion, but not for someone who claims to be an Orthodox rabbi. He ends that sentence, and “not [to do] what is popular“.


The Jewish position on gay rights is everything but. But Rabbi Yanklowitz wants to style himself as the trailblazing hero, instead of the man who went panting after current mores as is in fact the case.

Judaism has a very sophisticated and comprehensive legal system, one that, in my belief, inspired much of Roman law, the basis of Western law today. People often ask why that is – why does God care about the details?  The simplest way to get a grip on this is to understand the extraordinary detail of the physical system at any level – atomic, molecular, ecosystems – and to appreciate how the tiniest differences can produce the largest consequences. Precision is the key here.

So when Rabbi Yanklowitz dispenses with what Judaism actually says by saying that “the theological issue is complicated” and then breaks out into “but the moral issue is increasingly clear,” we know already that this is not Judaism that he is speaking of.  He too recognizes this when he says, “Traditional Jewish law has no established model for gay marriage,” put so mildly that the quick reader would miss this, and then makes sure that anyone who catches it will immediately read his dismissive, “but this is an entirely separate matter”. His way of dealing with the verses in the Torah which unfortunately contradict his stand amounts to, “Well then we will just jolly-well have to reinterpret those words so that they fit into my position.”  Rabbi, please tell us: Are you talking in the name of Judaism or secular humanism?

It sounds so heroic to be bold: “Faith leaders must stand as public allies; private support is no longer enough” and “I take the pervasive biblical call for justice very seriously”  but first, my dear rabbi, you have to prove what you are being bold about. You actually have to prove, from primary sources, that your position is a Jewish one. And you know it is not, because you won’t – in fact, can’t – officiate at gay marriages. “Fifteen states and counting have formally approved marriage equality,” making it “time that traditional faith leaders stand for … the right to marriage,” is great for a religion that says “stay with the times as your meta-principle,” but it  just ain’t going to hack it as an argument representing the Torah of the timeless people.

Judaism is about details and not just grand moral posturing. I have enormous empathy for the pain of others, but that does not turn me into God. As a Jew, I must do the utmost I can to ease anyone’s pain, including gay people, but Rabbi Yanklowitz seems to have understood that this is an enabling principle. He says the equivalent of “how would I feel if I were denied the legal ability to marry and have a family” and then moves on to say that ipso facto we must advocate for full rights for all others to have do the same.

Wait a minute! I have debated others on this topic, and there have been sophisticated arguments on either side: “What comprises a family?” “Is marriage a separate notion from other legal rights of two people committed to each other (the rights to inheritance, or to make decisions for one’s partner in a medical crisis” for example)?”  But empathy itself cannot be our moral compass.

Paul Bloom, recently wrote an excellent article in the New Yorker on just how poor a moral guide empathy really is.[2]  When Natalee Holoway went missing in Aruba in 2005, “the story of her plight took up far more television time than the concurrent genocide in Darfur”.[3]  Similarly, the tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina and Sandy solicited an enormous outpouring of volunteerism of every sort, but “each day, more than ten times the number of people who died in Hurricane Katrina die because of preventable diseases, and more than thirteen times as many perish from malnutrition”. Bloom brings numerous similar examples, explaining that we empathize with those with whom we can identify and not push into the background suffering and need of a vastly greater scale.  Experiments in the lab showed that volunteers would give far more money to save one child whose name, age and picture were shown to them, than they would for eight children they knew nothing about.[4]

“Imagine” says Bloom, “reading that two thousand people just died in an earthquake in a remote country, and then discovering that the actual number of deaths was twenty thousand. Do you now feel ten times worse? To the extent that we can recognize the numbers as significant, it’s because of reason, not empathy.”

Here is the key to Rabbi Yanklowitz’s mistake. He confuses empathy with ethics, and wants to reduce Judaism to his own feelings.  Parents in India who mutilate their children at birth in order to make them more effective beggars do indeed solicit more charity as Bloom points out. Empathy will only lead to a perpetuation of the problem. We need a different basis to our ethics.

What we are trying to do in the case of gay marriage is to really understand what the long-term consequences for society are. The complexity of such discussions is engendered by the fact that different values often clash. We limit some people’s freedom to provide equality to others’. We prevent people from choosing incestuous or bestial relationships because of the harm they will do to their children and to the society as a whole. We are constantly making choices out of the grey.

Of course, the pain and the suffering any decision may cause or alleviate have to be a part of the equation. It is significant, morally, whether gay people are in more or less pain. Judaism does exhort us to reach into our own history of national pain, for example, in order to be more welcoming to the stranger in our midst.  But it cannot become the only value that we consider.  What value we give each variable is an awfully complicated business. And it is simply confusing to pull at our heartstrings with a simplified argument in the name of empathy.

I was once involved in trying to get hold of an experimental drug being developed at Duke University that might have saved a patient.  The person was not eligible to receive it on any clinical trials and getting it on purely compassionate grounds required careful consideration. The person got the drug, but too late to save them. It never occurred to me that there had been a lack of empathy here, just as I never saw anyone’s position on gay marriage as reflecting more or less empathy. Accusing the other side of being coldhearted is, in fact, an unfair argument. It moves the discussion from the mind to the heart, and the results might only reflect the right answer by accident.

Starting with the French and English philosophers of the 17th and 18th century, the Western world took some amazing moral leaps. The entire old order of man was overthrown and replaced by freedom, equality and the dignity of man. Democracy and the rule of law, fairness and accountability – all were put into place in fits and starts. War amongst democratic countries virtually ceased.  Capitalism, combined with medicine and other sciences, revolutionized standards of living. Violence and crime no longer occupied our daily lives. Every person was endowed with inalienable rights, by mere virtue of being human. All of this is truly remarkable. Although empathy may have been lurking in the background, the writings of Voltaire, Lock, Diderot, Mill and others hardly ever mention the word.   I don’t think we would have come nearly this far if we had relied on the sloppy moralizing of the Rabbi Yanklowitzes of this world.   I empathize with my wife’s finger more than I empathize with the suffering of millions who go hungry every day. This is natural. Bloom gets it right when he says, “Empathy is what makes us human; it’s what makes us both subject and object of moral concern. Empathy betrays us only when we take it as a moral guide.”

Rabbi Yanklowitz also takes sides (without realizing it, I think) with those who limit the harm principle to physical rather than spiritual harm. (“We have no right to coercively prevent, by force of civil law, an individual from enjoying true happiness and fulfilling their life potential when it poses no harm to any other.”)  Would the good rabbi then agree with the recent ruling of a Swedish judge that ruled that public masturbation was legal because it did no harm to anyone else?  But the American liberal tradition does not agree.  We ban hate speech, even though freedom of expression is an elevated ideal. We ban discriminatory language against women in educational and workplace environments. We ban nudity and applaud zoning laws that drive out sex shops and striptease nightclubs from residential areas.  We obviously do adhere to a stricter standard of the harm principle and so we must have a reasonable debate about whether gay marriage is included in that as well.

Jews should, as Rabbi Yanklowitz says, be the supporters of causes of all who are oppressed and discriminated against – but he leaves out a vital detail; we must oppose discrimination against anyone for the sole reason of who they are or what they look like.  However, when we exclude special ed. kids from Harvard based on their SAT scores – while that is discrimination, because they certainly did not have an equal chance to those who had a genius IQ – it is a necessary discrimination for society to function. And reverse discrimination would do more bad than good. We ought to forcefully and rapidly get rid of any discrimination against gays that reflects homophobia. We must punish perpetrators of harassment and stigmatize those who exclude gay people, just because they are gay. But we cannot use that as a stick to end conversation about whether gay marriage would harm society.

I and my colleagues are interested in having that conversation with those who disagree. But we gain nothing by Rabbi Yanklowitz’s conversations-stoppers – sentences like “granting full and equal rights is the only moral option.

Rabbi Yanklowitz and I do agree on one point.  If we focus too much on this issue, it will distract from other very pressing issues that we, in the Orthodox community, should address. In fact, I have only twice written on this issue in recent years for that very reason. I will go further.  As I have written elsewhere[5], the main assault on the concept of marriage in America today is not gay marriage and we will not restore family as a core ideal by fighting gay marriage.  

I was only aroused to address this issue because an Orthodox person, a rabbi to boot, claimed: “I am pro-gay-rights because I am an Orthodox rabbi, not in spite of it.” No, you are not; you simply don’t have a clue what you are talking about.


[2] Paul Bloom, The Baby in the Well, The New Yorker, May 20, 2013.

[3] Bloom, ibid, quoting Paul Slovic.

[4] Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov, quoted by Bloom.



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  1. Either we redefine Orthodoxy or we redefine a Rabbi. Since an Orthodox Jew cannot possibly be one who transgresses any Torah law intentionally, and an unlearned boor cannot possibly be a Rabbi unless he’s an “open orthodox” or “reform” one, what is this guy? Is he a boor or a heretic?

  2. it an open verse in the Torah that a man with a man should be put to death. End of story. So Perhaps this “rabbi” is NOT orthodox. Maybe the church fits his news more.

  3. “I don’t consider myself an Orthodox I am a Torah Jew. Orthodox is a Greek Word ‘
    R Mordechai Gifter -Telshe Rosh Yeshiva

  4. Wonderful article!

    Matzav – please put a parental discretion disclaimer at the top of this article because of some of the language used within.

  5. The question is not whether Yanklowitz believes it is mutar to engage in homosexual relations, or even to marry such people in a halachik framework. He is saying what he has learned from halacha including justice for the oppressed encourages him to think America, as a secular non-religious society, should allow SECULAR marriages, allow SECULAR benefits etc. He clearly doesn’t say it’s mutar, and I am in now way defending “Open Orthodoxy”. But people who comment should take the time to read what he says. The question really is why SHOULDN’T the USA, a country who prizes separation of Church and State, allow people to marry in a secular way. You cannot quote a medrash of the effects of Gay Marriage as a source why the constitution should be amended. If we don’t like it, we should leave. We are guests here.

  6. As Harav Mordechia Gifter used to say, Orthodoxy is a Greek word, not a Torah word. In the Torah there are two groups. Those that keep the Torah and those that don’t.
    We are Torah Jews, he said. We follow what Hashem commanded us to. Anyone else who doesn’t follow the rules is not a Torah Jew. They may be a Rabbi. They may even be an ‘Orthodox Rabbi’ (in this case). However, a Torah Jew, they are not.

  7. Here we go again, another group of Yidden changing Torah to meet their agenda.

    If we gave you a 300 million dollar painting and when you put it on your wall you looked at your friend and said, “I think the artist missed a stroke, get me the paint brush”… only a fool would adjust something of great value.

    Torah = priceless = greatest value of all time. Only a fool would change it.

  8. If we are to condone toeivah marriage on the basis that we cannot deprive people of finding their “life partner” than we as as well institute incestuous marriage as well. No logical argument can be presented to differentiate between the two relationships.
    If we are concerned about suicide or depression should we then allow people who have the “urge” to engage in such behavior? Would any sane person condone stealing because the thief was depressed with his financial situation? Aside from being against every halacha and moral standing that we have lived by for thousand of years this “rabbis” logical arguments are near comical.

  9. #7:
    I think you are missing the point.
    By granting same-gender couples the ability to marry, with all the benefits etc. of civil marriage, society is redefining marriage.

    That is the crux of the issue.

    Rabbi Yanklowitz’s article is not calling on faith leaders to realize that despite their personal beliefs, there’s really not much anyone can do to prevent the secular law from going into effect. He is calling upon them to ACTIVELY SUPPORT the legalization of gay marriage as a moral imperative.

    That is reprehensible.

  10. There is no such thing as “Toeivah Marriage”

    “Marriage” is now and has since its creation been defined as one man and one woman and leads to children. That is the way its been since the creation of the institution.

    Thus, Toeivah “Marriage” is NOT within the definition of marriage. Rather, Toeivah Marriage is a another “social justice” leftist cause, sufficiently bankrolled by rich leftist lobbyists, designed to undo the very fabric of our society.





    Better you should CH”V put on the ground and step on it

    TRY this Headline:

    ..Coming next year

  12. This guy shmuly is not frum. Why are you even entertaining him by responding to silliness that he wrote? He will continue to voice his opinion for attention and for every response he receives, it just pushes him to write more.

  13. @#12 no it does not, he’s saying because he is an orthodox rabbi, he has gained insight and that allows him to stand up for “social justice”. Nothing about halacha itself.

    @#13 What goyim call marriage is not what we call marriage. They have a priest and a ceremony. We have “k’das moshe v’yisroel”. We have a halachik kinyan with predefined rules that cannot change regardless of what any goy around us does.

    @#14 Leads to children? So sterile man or woman cannot get married? I think we need to understand the the word ‘marriage’ is an english secular word, we should be talking in halacha. Kiddushin, Nisuin, Eirusin, these are the words that apply to us.

    @#15 What is your source for saying he is worse than Amalek? He is a (perhaps misguided) Jew, who is trying to do what he thinks is right. He is not attacking you, you are attacking him. You are embarrassing yourself, this website and it’s readership by responding like that.

  14. @#17 Kiddushin, Nisun & Eirusin do not apply what does not apply to us who follow halacha: Namely, Toeivah “marriage”.

    Re: Children: How about this then: The overwhelming majority of marriages have children.

    This is about the institution of marriage and the proper family unit.

    Marriage is now and has since its creation been defined as one man and one woman and leads to children. That is the way its been since the creation of the institution.

    The reason is that the proper and best family unit for raising children is one man and one woman.

    Marriage is defined as one man and one woman. Am I stating the obvious here? In today’s meshugana world, maybe not.

  15. Ari,

    You are being utterly ridiculous and disingenuous.

    I have no question that you would not be so eager to find such out of left field terutzim for a frum Rov.

    In fact, I suspect that you would even interpret their plainly said comments in the same way you are twisting Yanklowitz’s words.

  16. Arguing with Yanklowitz of Open Orthodoxy is like arguing with some Conservative or Reform spokesman. Their movement is totally against the Torah and debating them is a waste of time and gives them credence that they do not deserve.

    There is no way that compassion can be applied to gay people when the Torah says that they are chayav misa. This is slipping the corrosive garbage of today’s immorality into the pure environment of the Torah.

    No more time should be wasted on the Open Orhtodox perverters of our holy Torah. They should be driven out and shunned totally.

  17. I think its time for the torah true world to stop using the term Rabbi for anyone coming out of “Yeshiva” Chovevi torah.
    YCT and the rest of the “open orhodoxy” ilk have long ago crosed the line into the new conservative movement.

  18. “I believe the essence of religious conviction is that we must do what is right” is fine as a philosophy for someone who wants to put together his own religion, but not for someone who claims to be an Orthodox rabbi.”
    I have to disagree with Rabbi Edelstein here. R Yankelowitz is correct that the essence of OUR religion is to do what is right. The mistake he makes is thinking that he knows what “right” is. “Right” is defined by Halacha, not by his desire to be inclusive. Everything the Torah tells us is “right” and we should have the conviction to follow its’ directives.

  19. To people who wonder why Matzav posts these articles: I don’t know how much longer you’ll be able to keep your head in the sand but YCT and OO rabbis are getting shtellers and chinuch posts in many communities, even if not the shul or school you and yours go to.

    And to anyone who says, “Think of the children!”: ya think they’re going to plow through this whole thing, and all the hyperlinks? Anyway, reading these articles will teach them some critical thinking, at the very least.