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Reform Rabbis Poised to Endorse Gay Marriages

February 3, 2000
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American Reform rabbis are poised to take pivotal action next month on the question of gay and lesbian Jewish marriage — one of the most divisive issues to be addressed by their professional organization in recent years.

A resolution to endorse rabbinic officiation at what are often called commitment ceremonies is expected to pass after much discussion on March 29, the last day of the convention of the 1,800-member Central Conference of American Rabbis, to be held in Greensboro, N.C.

“I’m expecting a vigorous debate,” said Rabbi Charles Kroloff, president of the CCAR. “I’m looking forward to an informed debate in which we respect each other’s differences.”

The resolution, submitted by the Women’s Rabbinic Network, an independent group of female Reform rabbis within the larger professional organization, “resolves that the relationship of a Jewish, same-gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”

The resolution goes on to say that “each rabbi should decide about officiation according to his/her own informed rabbinic conscience.” The view of individual freedom is true of every religious position for Reform rabbis, who are not bound by any position adopted by the CCAR.

Debate over giving religious sanction to same-sex unions has roiled the CCAR for the last decade, but has only come into sharp focus over the last three years.

It has been a deeply polarizing, and passionate, issue for the Reform movement, which ordains openly gay male and female rabbis. The movement is grappling with the tension between the classical Jewish position, expressed in the Torah, which lists homosexuality among the clearest prohibitions, and the Reform movement’s humanist, progressive orientation.

The resolution proposed by the Women’s Rabbinic Network has been circulating widely among Reform rabbis, and debated and discussed at regional conferences over the last several months.

Voting on the subject was deferred by CCAR officials at their 1998 convention after a report was presented by the Ad Hoc Committee on Jewish Sexual Values.

At about the same time, a statement endorsing officiation at gay Jewish marriage was signed by 530 Reform rabbis.

That came against the backdrop of a 1997 decision by the CCAR’s Responsa Committee, whose majority, by a vote of 7 to 2, said that officiation at commitment ceremonies is not permitted. That decision, while unusually long and detailed, echoed the same position taken in a 1985 decision by the Responsa Committee.

One rabbi opposing the resolution, Jeffrey Salkin, said he is concerned about the impact such a resolution will have on the Reform movement in Israel, where there is less support for such positions, and about “how it will affect relationships with other Jewish groups” here and in Israel.

The Reconstructionist movement permits its rabbis to officiate at such commitment ceremonies. The Conservative and Orthodox movements do not.

Salkin, senior rabbi at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, N.Y., said, “I am also concerned that this could potentially increase the pressure on rabbis to perform interfaith marriages.

“People have already said, `If you will marry John and George, then why not John and Gretchen?’

“Lay people have difficulty understanding why we would depart from one ancient tradition so vociferously and cling to another one with equal strength,” Salkin said.

The CCAR’s Kroloff backs passage of the new resolution. At his synagogue, Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, N.J., Kroloff held an aufrauf, or prewedding Sabbath celebration, and officiated at a later commitment ceremony for one lesbian couple about four years ago.

At the same time, he noted the delicate nature of the issue, saying that he worked hard to lay the groundwork at his congregation for the commitment ceremony, which involved the daughter of a congregant.

“I took it step by step for about six months, preparing the congregation with a program of education and open discussion at many levels.”

In the end, he said, “there was tremendous support” within the congregation for it.

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