Don’t expect many Conservative rabbis in Canada to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies, even with permission from the movement. “I haven’t polled our members, but I haven’t heard of one who has indicated that they will officiate at commitment ceremonies,” said Rabbi Wayne Allen, president of the Rabbinical Assembly’s (Central) Canada region, as well as spiritual leader of Beth Tikvah Congregation in Toronto. “What that indicates is that the rabbis in our region are content with the traditional view of Jewish law.”
Coincidentally, only days after the Conservative movement’s highest legal body approved a responsa last week allowing rabbis to accept the commitment ceremonies and ordain gay rabbis, Canada’s Parliament defeated a motion to reopen the same-sex marriage debate as a possible prelude to rescinding the legislation.
Under legislation adopted in 2005, more than 12,000 same-sex couples — most likely including dozens of Jewish couples — have been married in Canada.
“Canada is politically a very liberal country, but in terms of the practice of Judaism, it’s a very conservative country,” said Rabbi Steven Saltzman of Adath Israel Congregation of Toronto. “There are Reform rabbis who will not perform intermarriages here. It’s a much more conservative community — with a small ‘c’ — Jewish-wise.”
The U.S. Conservative movement has lost ground to the now-dominant Reform movement in recent decades, but in Canada, Conservative Jewry appears to remain the dominant stream.
According to a 2005 survey by the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto, nearly 37 percent of the city’s Jews defined themselves as Conservative and another 20 percent as Orthodox. Roughly half of Canada’s estimated 360,000 Jews live in the Toronto area.
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation was part of the Conservative Movement’s 25-member Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that rendered last week’s decisions, which he described as “advisory opinions” rather than binding rulings.
Alongside the more liberal responsa, the committee approved two responsa maintaining a ban on gay rabbis or commitment ceremonies. That means there’s halachic backing for either position, and individual rabbis or congregations can decide for themselves how to handle the issue.
“Every local rabbi has the option of following or rejecting” the decisions, he said, adding that “probably very little” will change in Canada in their aftermath.
Canadian rabbis “didn’t perform commitment ceremonies before and they won’t perform them now,” he said. “They did welcome gays and lesbians into their congregations and communities before, and they’ll continue to do so.”
However, Frydman-Kohl expressed concern about the effect of permitting gay rabbis to be ordained. Canada has no institution that ordains Conservative rabbis.
“Will people who are traditional continue to see a place for themselves in the Conservative movement and continue to go into the Conservative rabbinate, or will they avoid the Conservative movement?” he asked. “That’s a much longer-term question.”
The committee’s decisions on the same-sex issue may lend momentum to a small but vocal separatist contingent among Canadian Conservatives.
Citing halachic incompatibility, Saltzman asserted that Canadians should seek a get, or Jewish divorce, from their American counterparts and form an independent body of their own, as their counterparts in Israel, Argentina and other countries have.
According to Saltzman, the law committee exceeded its mandate.
The committee’s decision “isn’t a halachic position but a political decision based on the liberal agenda of the United States,” Saltzman said. “In and of itself as a liberal agenda it’s fine, but as an agenda for traditional Judaism, it’s unacceptable.”
The result shows “that our notion of Conservative Judaism as practiced in Canada is radically different than the notion that governs the movement in the United States,” he said.
Frydman-Kohl acknowledged that some Canadian members have been talking about separating from the American-based body.
“I don’t know where that’s going to go,” he said. “Some people are actively advocating it, some people are not.”
Allen likewise seemed unsure if the talk would lead to action.
“My reading of the membership of this region is that there is a great deal of consensus that the traditional views of Judaism ought to be upheld,” he said. “But whether that translates into a disaffiliation, I cannot predict.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.