NEW YORK, March 29 (JTA) — Modification or compromise? Whatever you want to call it, the Reform rabbis’ final decision on Jewish same- sex commitment ceremonies is being touted as “groundbreaking” and a major step forward for gay and lesbian Jews.
After years of often heated debate on gay marriage, Reform rabbis overwhelmingly passed a resolution Wednesday affirming that “the relationship of a Jewish, same-gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”
The resolution marks the first time a “major religious body has indicated its support for any of its clergy who decide to officiate at same-gender ceremonies,” said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive director of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Rabbi Denise Eger of West Hollywood, Calif., who is one of the co- chairs of the CCAR’s Gay and Lesbian Rabbinic Network, said the resolution will “create the opportunity for spiritual fullness for gay couples.” Eger, who underwent a Jewish commitment ceremony with her lesbian partner under a chupah several years ago, also said the vote would “send a message of hope” to Jewish gays and lesbians, their friends and families.
However, the resolution — which passed almost unanimously in a voice vote at the rabbis’ annual convention in Greensboro, N.C. — is not the wholesale endorsement of gay marriage that some proponents originally had hoped for, or that Reform’s critics will likely characterize it as.
The resolution does not use the words “marriage” or “wedding,” and was modified shortly before the vote to say not only that “we support the decision of those who choose to officiate at rituals of union for same-gender couples,” but also “and we support the decision of those who do not.”
It is unclear whether the resolution will influence the practices of Reform rabbis or lead to an increase in the number of gay couples gathering under the chupah. Even before the resolution, many Reform rabbis, as well as Reconstructionist ones — who went on record in support of same-sex ceremonies in 1993 — were officiating at such ceremonies.
The resolution means that the CCAR can now distribute liturgy, wedding contracts and other resources for people officiating at same-sex commitment ceremonies.
According to the handful of rabbis who voted against the resolution and even some who voted in favor, the move may harm Reform Judaism’s credibility among more traditional streams of Judaism and, possibly, Israelis.
In response to concerns from rabbis hesitant about endorsing religious officiation at gay ceremonies, the resolution was modified in the week preceding the vote to add support for rabbis who do not choose to officiate. Under their influence, the rabbis also omitted from the body of the resolution a quotation stating that “kedushah,” Hebrew for holiness, “may be present in committed same gender relationships between two Jews.”
In addition the rabbis added a background statement outlining the CCAR’s positions over the years on the rights of homosexuals, including a 1995 Responsa committee that, by a vote of 7-2, concluded that gay relationships “cannot be called kiddushin,” the Hebrew term for marriage.
Those rabbis who had pushed for these changes, among them Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of Port Washington, N.Y., said they were pleased with the final version, which they described as a “compromise.”
But proponents of the original resolution insisted the changes were only “modifications” and that the final resolution still sends a strong message.
“The essential nature of the resolution remained,” said Rabbi Shira Stern of West River, N.J., adding that the final resolution “affirms the sacred relationship between two Jews who are gay and lesbian and says that we are going to create materials to reflect that affirmation.”
Stern, who is co-president of the CCAR’s Women’s Rabbinic Network, which introduced the resolution, was one of many who insisted that they were pleased with the outcome.
Eger described the resolution as “very strong,” and said she was pleased it was something the vast majority of Reform rabbis could agree upon.
“Even though Rabbi Salkin and I don’t agree on every issue, we have one movement and to that we’re both committed,” she said.
The debate leading up to the convention was long and heated — at times even “McCarthyist” according to those who initially opposed the resolution and felt they were unfairly labeled as homophobes and bigots.
However, reflecting the mutual satisfaction with the last-minute changes, the actual floor discussion lasted only an hour, with few people speaking out against the resolution.
The discussion’s efficiency and prompt vote contrasted sharply to the CCAR’s vote in Pittsburgh last year on adopting a statement of principles. That vote, which was seen as a movementwide acceptance of more traditional Jewish practices, took place almost 24 hours after it was initially scheduled, following a passionate, late-night debate.