For over a month, Reform leaders have been predicting that a resolution affirming rabbinic officiation at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies is almost certain to pass at the movement’s annual rabbinic convention next week in Greensboro, N.C.
But 11th-hour negotiations this week could lead to a compromise version, one that makes clear the lack of consensus among Reform rabbis on one of the most controversial issues to hit the movement in years.
However, the outcome of the debate — which some claim has been “McCarthyist” – – is still far from certain.
At its core, the debate is not over whether Reform rabbis can or must officiate at same-sex ceremonies. Reform rabbis are autonomous to act according to their conscience on virtually all matters. Rather, it is on how strong a statement the movement should make on the issue.
Opponents uncomfortable with ceremonies that parallel wedding rituals claim that the current resolution does not adequately acknowledge the diversity of opinion in the movement and fear it could adversely affect perceptions of Reform Judaism among Israelis and members of other Jewish streams.
But proponents believe it is important to “be at the forefront of important social change, both civilly and religiously,” as one leader in the effort, Rabbi Shira Stern of South River, N.J., puts it.
The resolution, which was first introduced by the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Women’s Rabbinic Network, of which Stern is co-president, states that “the relationship of a Jewish, same-gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.” It does not compel rabbis to officiate.
If approved, it would mark the first time that “a major group of American clergy, as an organization, gives its blessing to those of its members who officiate at same-gender ceremonies,” according to the CCAR.
Many Reform rabbis, as well as Reconstructionist ones — whose movement is already on record in support of the issue — already officiate at such ceremonies.
Even some of the opponents of the resolution say they would officiate at some same-sex commitment ceremonies as long as the rituals and language were distinct from those used at a wedding.
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, of Port Washington, N.Y., said he would hold a “chanukat bayit,” or dedication of the home, for a same-sex couple, but would not call it a wedding or conduct a ceremony using a chupah or ketubah.
Whatever the outcome of the session, slated for March 29, the debate has been heated.
Rabbis uncomfortable with the current resolution want it to state clearly there is a diversity of views on the topic and to refer to the 1995 majority opinion of the CCAR’s Responsa Committee, which voted 7-2 against permitting officiation at commitment ceremonies. The current version only mentions the minority opinion.
Those involved in the discussions to reach a compromise wouldn’t discuss details.
But Rabbi Charles Kroloff, CCAR’s president and a proponent of the same-sex marriage resolution, said there are “always possibilities of some adjustment in it, but I wouldn’t be comfortable commenting on any details right now.”
Kroloff, of Westfield, N.J., declined to predict whether the final resolution might be a compromise that the vast majority would support, or instead, one that would have a significant minority voting against it.
Opponents of the resolution, many of whom claim they have been unfairly labeled as homophobes by their colleagues, are hoping the current resolution can still be modified enough to snag their support.
But in case a compromise version cannot be reached, the opponents have submitted an alternate resolution, one that does not explicitly oppose same-sex marriages but notes that “there is a diversity of views” within the Reform movement on “same-sex unions and the propriety within Judaism of their ritual sanctification.”
The alternate statement calls on Reform rabbis to create a welcoming atmosphere for gays and lesbians, “doing so in those ways that they deem ritually most appropriate.”
Like the main resolution, it also calls upon rabbis to promote civil rights for gays and lesbians.
Asked about the possibility of a compromise version of the current resolution, Stern said compromises would likely be suggested on the debate floor, but that in the past year the resolution has already been modified extensively to take into account concerns of its opponents.
As for the alternate resolution being proposed, Stern said, “Better we should have no resolution at all than an alternate one that adds no new information to the discussion.”
Whether their views are heard or not, several in the opposition complain their colleagues have handled the debate in a manner reminiscent of the McCarthy era, including one message posted — and later retracted — on a CCAR electronic bulletin board suggesting that younger rabbis avoid working under senior rabbis who do not officiate at same-sex weddings.
“I don’t know what one must do to get out from under the charge of homophobia except outright surrender to the agenda of those who are routinely circulating that charge,” said Rabbi Clifford Librach of Sharon, Mass., one of the rabbis who submitted the alternate resolution.
Kroloff agreed that the rhetoric has been “excessive” at times and said that has “disappointed” him.
“I wish some of the discussion had been on a higher level, but I want to emphasize that most of the discussion has been informed and well thought out,” he said.
However, Stern said the rhetoric was no worse on either side of the issue.
“To accuse the resolution’s proponents of carrying out a McCarthy-like attitude, it’s beyond paranoid,” she said.
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.