Reform rabbis affirm same-sex ceremonies

Clergy can choose whether to officiate

March 31, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

It was two years ago that Peter Kessler, an associate rabbi at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, did what "people who are in love do."

Kessler, who is gay, was joined to his partner in a religious ceremony in what was the synagogue's first same-gender union.

This week, Kessler joined his Reform rabbinical colleagues in giving overwhelming approval to a resolution that sanctioned such unions by declaring that gay relationships are "worthy of affirmation" in a Jewish religious ceremony.

"For those of us in the gay and lesbian community, we're thrilled," Kessler said yesterday, shortly after returning home from the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Greensboro, N.C. "It tells the world that the reform rabbinical community understands that these relationships are to be recognized as legitimate."

With the resolution adopted Wednesday, the conference became the largest group of American clergy to back members who conduct ceremonies involving gay couples. The resolution of the conference, which represents 1,800 rabbis with 1.5 million congregants, also supports Reform rabbis who choose not to preside over such ceremonies.

Previously, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which have much smaller followings, were the only religious groups to give their backing to clergy members who preside over gay unions.

Not all area rabbis embraced the resolution.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Shomrei Emunah Congregation in Northwest Baltimore, branded the decision a "disappointment.

"I think the position of any Orthodox rabbi is that same-sex marriage is wrong," said Weinreb.

Noting that gay behavior was prohibited in the Torah and in Jewish tradition, Weinreb said, "To sanctify homosexual behavior is so alien to Jewish thought over the ages."

He said the resolution would drive a wedge between Reform and Orthodox Judaism, which he said had been drawing closer in recent years.

"It's made it that much more difficult for there to be dialogue," Weinreb said.

Some Reform rabbis were tepid in their endorsement of the resolution.

Rabbi Paul D. Caplan, a Reform rabbi whose congregation, Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore, is not affiliated with Judaism's three major branches, called the resolution "fair." He said its most significant aspect was its expression of support for both those who choose to preside over single-gender ceremonies and those who choose not to.

Caplan said he would not preside over such a ceremony, saying, "It's not something I personally would feel comfortable with.

"It's something to struggle with; it's not simple," added Caplan, who said he supports equal rights for gays in the workplace, and does not preside over interfaith marriages. "The judgment of whether this is right or wrong isn't going to come from me. It's going to come from history."

Rabbi Gustav Buchdal of Temple Emanuel Synagogue, a Reform congregation in Reisterstown, said he favors religious affirmation of single-gender unions. But he said the issue was best addressed through discussion among rabbis and congregants, not the passage of a resolution.

"The Talmud doesn't have resolutions in it," said Buchdal, who said he would preside over a gay union if asked to do so.

"Somewhere between those who embrace change haphazardly and those who embrace the past indiscriminately must lie a way to affirm and acknowledge the sanctity of the relationship between two self-affirming Jews, regardless of their sexual orientation," he said.

Other rabbis are more enthusiastic.

"I think it's an indication of our movement's openness to people, no matter what their sexual orientation," said Rabbi Floyd L. Herman of Har Sinai Congregation, a Reform congregation in Baltimore, who voted for the resolution.

Another conference attendee, Assistant Rabbi Eric Stark of Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, said he supports the resolution because "relationships between people of the same gender can be lovely and spiritual and deserving of blessings."

He said he was "somewhat surprised" to return to his synagogue and find that he had no phone calls and only one e-mail about the resolution.

Kessler did not want for reaction after his single-gender ceremony at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation two years ago.

"Some people were uncomfortable," he said. "Some people are still uncomfortable. I realize it takes time for some people to become more comfortable with these kinds of relationships."

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