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Reform Decision to Admit Gay Rabbis Seen As Break with Other Movements

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The decision by the Central Conference of American Rabbis this week to allow qualified gay and lesbian rabbis to serve as members of the Reform rabbinate has reopened longstanding divisions among the major movements of Judaism.

Orthodox leaders were quick to condemn the decision, calling it an “outright distortion” of Jewish tradition and a “deeply disturbing move.”

Leaders of Conservative Judaism, while less outspoken, disclaimed any affinity with the Reform statement.

On Monday, more than 500 rabbis attending the 101st CCAR convention here adopted the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Homosexuality and the Rabbinate that “all rabbis, regardless of sexual orientation, be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation which they have chosen.”

The decision makes Reform Judaism one of the first major Jewish or Christian religious bodies in the United States to include acknowledged homosexuals among its clergy.

Only the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism and the Unitarian Universalist Association have formally chosen to include lesbian and gay men among their clergy.

The vote caps four years of CCAR study and discussion on the subject that included consideration of anonymous personal testimony by gay rabbis and rabbinical students, review of scientific, religious and legal viewpoints, and consultations with leaders of other Jewish movements.

The outcome of the vote was expected but nevertheless greeted with a great sense of relief by leaders of the CCAR, which is the rabbinical body of Reform Judaism.

HETEROSEXUALITY ‘NOT VIABLE’ FOR SOME

“The issue has been discussed with great earnestness, with some ambivalence and with a sense of inner struggle,” the CCAR’s president, Rabbi Samuel Karff of Houston, said at a news conference following the vote.

“The report is an attempt to be both supportive of our gay and lesbian colleagues, and respectful of Judaism’s norm of heterosexual, monogamous, procreative marriage,” he said.

“For the majority of the committee,” Karff said, “the critical issue is the matter of choice. For some Jews, the heterosexual norm is not a viable option. Such persons not only merit respect as God’s children and as Jews, but should not, on the basis of sexual orientation alone, be denied the right to be our rabbinic colleagues.”

Noting that other movements of Judaism are grappling with the issue, Rabbi Selig Salkowitz of Brooklyn, chairman of the panel that wrote the report, said, “Perhaps we, as a conference, will present a model that others can follow.”

But leaders of the other Jewish movements cast doubt this week on that happening, at least in the near future. And some said the stance taken by the Reform movement would exacerbate tensions among the various strains of Judaism.

The decision to admit gay and lesbian rabbis “will undoubtedly worsen the relationship” between the Reform and Orthodox movements, said Rabbi Marc Angel, president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America.

“The decision is exceedingly insensitive to religious tradition and will create a breach that is hard to bridge,” he said. “There will be a subtle increase in alienation between Orthodox and Reform rabbis that will make it hard to work together.”

REJECTS ‘BASIC TENETS’ OF TORAH

Agudath Israel of America, representing European-style Orthodoxy, used stronger language. This is “just another tragic step of Reform down the road of completely disregarding Jewish law and tradition,” it said in a statement.

It added that the CCAR move “underlines the absurdity of a movement that calls itself Judaism while rejecting basic tenets of Torah.”

The Conservative movement, though, takes a less hard-line position on homosexuality.

Last month, the Rabbinical Assembly, the central rabbinic body of the Conservative movement, endorsed full civil equality for lesbians and gay men in synagogue membership. The issue of homosexuals in the Conservative rabbinate, however, was not broached.

“The whole issue of homosexual rabbis is extremely difficult,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the assembly. “The Orthodox have taken a more adamant position, on the one hand, and the Reform, on the other.

“We are in the middle ground, trying to remain sensitive and concerned with equality for gay people and at the same time maintaining halachic principles,” he said.

Meyers rejected the notion that the Conservative movement would follow the Reform lead on this matter, though he admitted, “I cannot predict the future.”

Even within the Reform rabbinate, there were those who did not support the vote.

The debate on the adoption of the committee’s report took just one hour, and featured a handful of speakers in opposition.

Rabbi Phil Berger of Oceanside, N.Y., was among them. “It is my duty as a rabbi to love all human beings,” Berger said, “but it is not my duty as a rabbi to approve of the actions of all human beings.”

Rabbi Bob Miller of Newton, Mass., predicted that if congregants were polled on the issue, they would be overwhelmingly against gay and lesbian rabbis in the pulpit.

STEP TOWARD ‘OPENING UP’ MOVEMENT

But Rabbi David Horowitz of Akron, Ohio, who spoke last, appeared to speak for the majority in the room when he said, “It is too late for this conference to do nothing” about the issue.

“This resolution, though certainly not perfect, takes a wonderful step in the direction of opening up our movement to all those who are deeply committed to their Judaism and want to serve the Jewish community,” he said.

The report was accepted without amendment. The overwhelming vote was followed by prolonged applause and a standing ovation for members of the committee that drafted the report.

The report affirms the admissions policy of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which considers sexual orientation “only within the context of a candidate’s overall suitability for the rabbinate,” said Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, president of the seminary. “I think this was a resolution whose time has come,” he said.

(JTA staff writer Elena Neuman in New York contributed to this report.)

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