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FOCUS ON ISSUES Proposal on gay marriage dividing Reform rabbinate

NEW YORK, March 29 (JTA) — The Reform movement”s rabbinical organization is gearing up for a controversial vote on whether to sanction religious marriage ceremonies for lesbians and gay men. The issue is already creating deep and painful divisions within the Reform rabbinate, and some fear it could further alienate the Reform movement from other, more tradition-bound streams of Judaism. “Everyone is hoping that this will be resolved and that it doesn”t split the movement apart,” said Rabbi Jerome Davidson, leader of Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, N.Y., and an advocate of same-sex Reform marriages. Davidson made headlines when he offered a blessing at the commitment ceremony of his assistant rabbi and her partner in 1995. Years of work by the Reform rabbinate to formulate a policy on gay marriage will come to a head in June, when the Central Conference of American Rabbis holds its annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif. At that meeting, a resolution supporting the idea of gay marriage within a Jewish context will be presented by the Central Conference”s Human Sexuality Committee. The careful wording of the resolution will not include the term “marriage,” according to members of the committee, because it is considered too controversial. But the resolution, which will come up for a vote before the Central Conference”s entire membership of some 1,800 rabbis, will endorse the idea of a Reform Jewish ceremony designed to sanctify the unions of same-sex couples. A draft was presented to the Central Conference”s Executive Committee when it met in London last week and will likely undergo further tweaking, but no substantive changes, when the Human Sexuality Committee meets again at the end of April, members said. But the committee”s position on the issue is at odds with the stance being taken by another powerful body within the Central Conference. The organization”s Responsa Committee recently issued a teshuvah, or religious ruling, stating that Reform rabbis should not officiate at same-sex ceremonies. The committee was unable to reach consensus on the issue, because of “radically different perspectives on homosexuality and Judaism” among its members, according to the 35-page written opinion. The same committee issued a short, unequivocal opinion against gay marriage in 1985. Eight of the 10 rabbis on the committee this time around shared the view that it is impossible to include gay relationships under the rubric of those considered kiddushin, or sanctified, by Judaism. They cited the Torah”s classification of male homosexual relations as to”evah, or abominable, a category that also includes incest and adultery. Though marriages involving lesbians or gay male couples may not be morally problematic, they are Jewishly troublesome, they wrote. Those siding with the majority suggested that rabbis welcome lesbian and gay male couples as Jewish households, by having them celebrate their life togther in the synagogue with a special kiddush or Oneg Shabbat, but not with any kind of ceremony that could be construed as a wedding. Reform rabbis in Israel have urged their colleagues in North America to reach a conclusion on its own merits. Still, the majority of rabbis on the committee were concerned that endorsement of gay marriage would only deepen the divide over religious pluralism by providing the Orthodox establishment with another example of the way the Reform movement has moved away from normative Judaism. It “would break so sharply with the standards of religious practice maintained by virtually all Jewish communities as to wreak havoc upon our relationships with most of them,” the rabbis wrote in their opinion. It would “continue a trend, which many Reform rabbis find quite troubling, of pushing the Reform movement toward the margins of our people.” Two members dissented, relying on contemporary evidence that homosexuality has a biological basis and the fact that many same-sex couples now establish partnerships that mirror heterosexual marriage in their permanence, monogamy and, in some cases, in the fact that they are raising children. The teshuvah also urged Central Conference members not to bring the proposed resolution to a vote because the differences dividing them on this issue run so deep. “A resolution at this juncture would do little to bring us together. It would persuade no one; it would change no minds. On the contrary, it would stifle the possibility of genuine conversation among us, serving but to enrage and embarrass the adherents of the losing side,” the Respona Committee wrote. Concerns about rabbis feeling pressure to vote one way or another are widespread within the Central Conference. Some members have suggested that they take the unusual step of voting on the upcoming resolution by secret ballot, rather than in the usual open floor vote, so that no rabbi feels pressured by “political correctness” to vote in favor of gay Jewish marriage. As important as both the teshuvah and the impending resolution are within the Reform movement, neither binds any of its rabbis, congregations or congregants to either position. Autonomy for rabbis and congregants undergirds all else within the Reform movement. Debate over the issue between Reform rabbis comes against a backdrop of discussion within their organization since the mid-1970s, when the movement first began advocating for the civil rights of gays and lesbians. The number of Reform rabbis who have officiated at commitment ceremonies or weddings of same-sex couples, while still a minority, is growing, according to members of the Central Conference. Among them is Rabbi Charles Kroloff, the rabbinical body”s incoming president. No one knows for sure how many Reform rabbis have performed such ceremonies, though it is thought to be fewer than who are willing to officiate at interfaith weddings. The debate over gay religious marriage is happening against a backdrop of near- universal support by Reform rabbis for the right of same-sex couples to marry civilly. A resolution advocating for the right of lesbian and gay male couples to form such legally recognized unions was adopted without much opposition at the Central Conference”s annual meeting in 1996. Why is there great disparity between the views of many Reform rabbis that same sex-couples should be able to marry civilly, but not religiously? Currently rabbis “don”t have to take on the responsibility of officiating at legally recognized gay weddings, so it”s an easy thing for them to endorse,”” said Rabbi Lisa Edwards, leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim, Los Angeles” Reform gay and lesbian congregation, and a member of the Central Conference. The debate in the Reform rabbinate also comes at a time that other religious groups are split over the same issue. A minister in the United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant denominations, was recently brought before a church tribunal on charges that he abrogated its policy when he officiated at the commitment ceremony of two women last September. He was acquitted when eight of the 13 tribunal panel ministers found him guilty. Nine votes were required to remove him from his job.