Reform Divided Over Gay Unions
04/28/98
Staff Writer
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Will Reform rabbis endorse officiating at same-sex marriages? A draft of a yet-unpublished report by a committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis says there can be kedushah (sanctification) in gay marriages, but a growing number of Reform rabbis seem to oppose adopting a resolution to that effect at their June convention. The issue is critical because it will help determine whether American Jewry’s largest movement is perceived as avant-garde or mainstream, and whether the Reform rabbinate is willing to risk further alienating itself from the Conservative movement and from the Israeli establishment, both of which oppose same-sex marriage as outside of Jewish tradition. Some advocates of officiation see this as the civil rights issue of the ‘90s, asserting that despite criticism from other Jewish groups, it should be approved on its own merits. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s congregational arm, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, favors passage of a same-sex resolution. There should be concern for klal Yisroel or world Jewry, he said, but the CCAR “has to look at this in terms of whether or not it is the right thing to do — is it consistent with Torah and tradition. The factors of Jewish unity are only one element.” He said the Reform movement should not be operating under the premise that “someone else possesses Torah and if we depart from their [opinion] we are disrupting Jewish unity.” But in interviews with Reform rabbis across the country, few seemed anxious to press the same-sex issue at the CCAR convention, to be held June 21-24 in Anaheim, Calif. Some said they hope it never comes to a vote, and others said they would resign from the group and create their own organization if officiation of same-sex marriages is endorsed. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, L.I., said it would become “increasingly difficult for rabbis to refuse to do interfaith marriages” if officiation is approved. “Angry congregants will not understand why their rabbi will marry two people of the same gender who want to have a Jewish home and will not marry a Jew and a non-Jew who also want to have a Jewish home,” he said. “I am deeply afraid that lay leaders ... will use it as a tool to further push rabbis into performing interfaith marriages. And I do not believe that rabbis can make any coherent statement as to why one kind of Jewish home is sanctifiable and the other is not.” Reform rabbis are not alone in wrestling with this issue. A group of prominent Methodist ministers declared they would perform same-sex ceremonies, while leading Episcopalians want to write a service for such unions. No state recognizes such ceremonies civilly; 28 have actually banned them. Gay couples in three states have gone to court seeking marriage licenses. Rabbi Neal Borovitz of River Edge, N.J., said that since the Reform rabbinate is split on this issue, “I don’t see a reason to take a position at this time.” Rabbi Borovitz, who chairs the CCAR resolutions committee, noted that the organization already is on record as encouraging states to permit same-sex civil marriages. It also supports the right of gay and lesbian couples to have the same protections as heterosexual couples, including inheritance, property and medical insurance rights. A former CCAR president, Rabbi Simeon Maslin, said that it would be a “great mistake” for the conference to take a pro or anti position now. “I’m trying to be a moderating voice in the middle,” he said.Rabbi Maslin submitted a resolution calling for the issue to be left to each rabbi. Rabbi Peter Kasdan of Livingston, N.J., a member of the CCAR resolutions committee, said he “found comfort” in Rabbi Maslin’s approach, adding: “There is something very sacred about the commitment of traditional marriage, and also about commitment of two people of the same sex, but I don’t think there should be the same ceremony for both.” Adoption of the same-sex marriage resolution would be “disastrous” for the Reform movement in Israel and for its “legitimacy and authenticity” in the Jewish world, according to the executive director of the Jerusalem-based World Union for Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Richard Hirsch. “It is one thing to be in favor of full, legal, civil rights for homosexuals, which I am in favor of,” he said in an interview during a visit here. “But there is a question of whether or not Jewish tradition — and a rabbi is who a symbol of it — should sanction a relationship that is contrary to Jewish tradition. I don’t consider it marriage.” In a memo to colleagues, Rabbi Hirsch noted that the Reform movement’s quest for legitimacy in Israel has picked up support in the last year over the issue of conversions in Israel. But if the resolution was adopted, “There is no doubt that the predominant majority of the Israeli public would be aghast. “The leaders of Conservative Judaism, whom we have painstakingly nurtured as our allies, have already informed us that they would be forced to censure us publicly,” he said. That could lead, Rabbi Hirsch warned, to the Reform movement being isolated in Israel and perceived as a “separatist movement engaged in ‘aberrations’ and ‘perversions’ of Judaism.” The movement adopted patrilineal descent — counting as Jews the offspring of Jewish fathers — in 1983, a move that distanced Reform from traditional Judaism. A rabbi who performs commitment ceremonies, Gary Bretton-Granatoor of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, said he understands the concerns of colleagues in Israel. “It’s quite clear to me that this is an issue that is highly electric,” he said. “Any resolution that passes by a slim majority either way is not representative of the totality of the movement. I’d like the matter tabled. There’s a lot more work on this issue to be done.” One of the few pulpit rabbis interviewed who favored a resolution supporting rabbinic officiation of same-sex unions, Margaret Moers Wenig of Beth Am, The People’s Temple in Washington Heights, said she sees no difference between this resolution and other “courageous decisions” the CCAR has made in the past. “We took those positions anyway because we believed we were right, and I think we should do the same in this case,” she said. “In Jewish terms, there is no difference [between homosexual weddings] and heterosexual weddings. Jewishly the two are equal.” Rabbi Robert Levine of Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side said he is torn by his support for officiation and desire for Jewish unity. “I don’t like to see another polarizing issue,” he said. “The pressure to do [the officiation] is unprecedented, but Israel is begging us not to do it. I’m torn. It is really gut wrenching. I’m hoping to vote for something that would nuance these two positions. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was sent back to committee.” Rabbi Peter Rubinstein of the Central Synagogue in Midtown said he does not believe there is enough of a consensus to “make it worth the disruption that would exist if a resolution was passed putting us in favor [of officiation]. And my read of members of my congregation is that there is not a demand of great strength to do this.” The assistant rabbi of Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side, Melinda Panken, said she planned to “go and listen to the different sides before making up my mind.” “There is a place in the Jewish community to sanctify a loving and committed relationship. It’s different than kiddushin [marriage],” she said. “But I’m not happy that this is yet one more issue that could potentially split our community.”

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