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Reform rabbis table vote on blessing gay marriage

NEW YORK, May 5 (JTA) — Leaders of the Reform rabbinate have shelved a scheduled vote on the validity of Jewish same-sex marriages after more than two years of effort to come up with an official position on the matter. An open discussion and vote were planned for the upcoming annual meeting of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, scheduled to take place June 21-25 in Anaheim, Calif. But even without such a vote, more than 200 Reform rabbis signed on to a list — in its first week of circulation alone — of those who say they have performed such a ceremony, or would if asked. Rabbi Richard Levy of Los Angeles, currently the CCAR president, has signed on to that list. Instead, the two CCAR committees that have spent thousands of working hours trying to develop a position on the matter will present their mutually exclusive conclusions and then have participants break out into small group discussions. A full-throttle effort by opponents of a vote, led in part by the head of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, are largely responsible for the 11th-hour reversal, said those behind the scenes. Hirsch circulated a six-page memo to his colleagues in the Reform rabbinate last month strongly urging them not to allow the matter to come up for a vote, and if it did, to vote it down. He was concerned, he said in the memo, about harming Reform interests in Israel by taking steps that would distance them from the Conservative and Orthodox movements, which don’t condone gay unions. The divergent positions within the Reform rabbinate are most visible in the conclusions reached by the CCAR’s Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality — which is soon to be renamed the Committee on Jewish Sexual Values, according to one member — and its Responsa Committee. The committee on sexuality arrived at the position that there can be kedushah, or holiness, in committed same-gender relationships, according to a draft of its original resolution. Members of that group concluded “that these relationships can be affirmed by Jewish ritual, and that each rabbi should decide about officiation according to his/her informed rabbinic conscience.” The Responsa Committee, on the other hand, concluded that there is no basis in Jewish tradition for the religious sanctification of same-sex couples and that it is not possible to find a way to consider such unions within the category of those with “kedushah.” The latter committee’s full report, published in the Winter 1998 issue of the CCAR Journal, emphasized that committee members were even unable to arrive at a shared vocabulary with which to debate this issue, a problem that has been playing out on a larger scale throughout the Reform rabbinate. “In our discussion there is a spectrum of opinion,” Rabbi Selig Salkowitz of Highland Park, Ill., chairman of the sexuality committee, said in an interview. “We’re prepared to look at that and share the opportunity of having people help us formulate a final position.” But those who had favored a vote are concerned that the discussions at the upcoming convention won’t further the debate any more than those that took place at the conference two years ago, in Philadelphia, where it was a prominent issue. “It would be much more productive and in the tradition of Reform Judaism to be more open and democratic” with a full-fledged discussion, said Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Great Neck, N.Y. “We have to do what’s right for the large number of gay and lesbian Jews, and the time is now,” said Davidson, who is also on the sexuality committee and is a vocal advocate for the adoption of an official policy OK’ing same-sex commitment ceremonies. “Postponing it is really failing to meet a Jewish need, and we ought to be on the cutting edge,” he said. Also being considered for the convention is a session at which Reform rabbis who have officiated at same-sex commitment ceremonies will describe the rites they have led, said one of the rabbis involved with the planning. The group is also considering a session in which gay and lesbian couples who have had such commitment ceremonies will come and talk about their experiences.