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Behind the Headlines: Rabbis’ Stance on Gay Marriage Consistent with Reform Policies

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When Reform rabbis got home from their annual convention, where they overwhelmingly supported a resolution endorsing gay civil marriage, many found local reporters waiting to interview them and congregants confused about what the resolution actually meant.

“People needed clarity to help them understand the distinction between civil marriage and officiation at a religious ceremony,” said Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, who is one-half of a husband-and-wife rabbinic team at Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul.

“It wasn’t clear to our congregants what the resolution endorsed,” but the few who did comment “appreciated the favorable resolution,” she said.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents about 1,750 Reform rabbis, held its annual convention March 24-28 in Philadelphia.

For the rabbis at the convention, the endorsement of same-sex civil marriage was not particularly controversial because the position is in concert with the Reform movement’s stand on the issue over the past two decades.

In fact, most of the discussion at the gathering focused on the implications of performing interfaith marriages.

But the decision comes amid a national debate over the issue, with Hawaii considering whether to legalize same-sex marriage, and conservative groups in 15 states trying to pass laws that would invalidate such marriages.

Because of the timeliness of the issue, newspapers across the country put coverage of the Reform rabbis’ resolution on their front pages. Network news broadcasts made it a top story.

“The media attention stunned the conference,” Abrahamson said. “People weren’t quite ready for it.”

But in many Reform congregations, the position was anything but controversial.

I heard “a couple of passing comments, nothing negative,” said Rabbi Paul Citrin of Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, N.M.

“People accepted it. The reason there is no extensive reaction is because the conference’s position is probably behind where many people in my congregation are” on the issue, Citrin said.

According to Rabbi James Rosenberg of Temple Habonim, in Barrington, R.I., there was no surprise in his Jewish community.

“People in the congregation said they were interested to see that I endorsed gay civil marriage,” and that was about it, Rosenberg said.

He said he anticipates some discussion among his congregants, however, when he has to explain to them “why it is that a rabbi will not officiate at a mixed marriage but will at a same-sex marriage if both people are Jewish.

“Intellectually, of course, it’s perfectly consistent, but emotionally it will create a lot of hard feelings and will take a lot of explaining.”

Despite the fevered pitch of media coverage of the issue, the endorsement of gay civil marriage is nothing new for the Reform movement.

“This was a logical step, not at all radical,” Abrahamson said. “I would have been stunned had the movement turned its back on the cause it has championed.”

In 1977, the CCAR adopted a resolution encouraging legislation to decriminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults.

In 1990, the movement adopted a position paper permitting gay and lesbian Jews to be ordained as Reform rabbis.

In 1993, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — the movement’s synagogue arm, which represents some 1.3 million temple members — came out in favor of gay and lesbian couples receiving the same benefits as married couples.

And earlier this month, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which is devoted to social activism and is jointly supported by the lay and rabbinic arms of the movement, endorsed gay civil marriage.

Also not surprising was the strong Orthodox opposition to the position of the Reform rabbis.

A spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, a group representing the fervently Orthodox community, called the position “intolerable.”

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregation of America said it views “with great dismay the current effort to portray homosexual unions as the moral equivalent of heterosexual monogamous relationships, and the suggestion that same-sex marriages constitute a valid ‘alternative lifestyle.'”

The Orthodox Union, which represents the centrist Orthodox community, termed gay and lesbian relationships “immoral behavior,” and said in its statement that “widespread media coverage of these misguided efforts simply results in the glorification of homosexuality as an acceptable moral behavior.”

Although the Reform rabbis’ stance on gay civil marriage was an easy one for them, the idea of giving religious sanction to gay and lesbian partnership, through what are usually termed “commitment ceremonies,” is more tendentious.

The group’s Task Force on Human Sexuality, now entering the third of its three years of study, drafted a preliminary report that outlined the basic elements of a relationship worthy of religious sanction, including truth, family, joy and love.

The task force has not yet formulated any proposed position on the topic of gay and lesbian religious marriage in particular, but is slated to come to the next convention of the Reform rabbis, in June 1997, with one to present.

No one knows precisely how many rabbis have officiated at commitment ceremonies, or would, if asked to do so.

But according to Rosenberg of Rhode Island, “the vast majority of CCAR members would be willing to officiate at some kind of commitment ceremony, as long as there is a proper distinction between it and a traditional kiddushin ceremony.”

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