Rabbis to revisit gay unions, ordination

Vote could signal shift for Conservative Jews

December 04, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

Leaders of Conservative Judaism will consider interpretations of Jewish law tomorrow that could render homosexual acts acceptable. If approved, the decision would open the door for the ordination of gay men and lesbians and recognition of same-sex relationships within America's second-largest branch of Judaism.

Jewish leaders say such a decision would not be binding for rabbis or seminaries, but it would nevertheless mark a major shift in religious direction on homosexuality for the more than 2 million Conservative Jews worldwide.

By revisiting the issue, Conservative Judaism joins Christian and other faith groups in the United States that are struggling to define roles for openly gay members in such areas as their eligibility to enter the clergy and recognition of same-sex relationships. The question is also playing out in the judicial system, as Maryland's highest court is set to hear arguments today on the issue of same-sex marriage.

FOR THE RECORD - A caption that ran with a photo on Page 1A Monday transposed the names of the two subjects. Above, Jerren Massey is on the left, and Nathan Somers is on the right.

The Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents about 1,600 rabbis of the Conservative movement, will review several papers - both for and against changing the status of homosexual behavior under Halakha, or Jewish law established through Scripture and teachings.

One of the papers is co-authored by Rabbi Avram Reisner, an adjunct professor at Baltimore Hebrew University. Reisner's paper recommends allowing gay rabbis and permitting commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples who remain monogamous and refrain from anal sex.

In addition to Reisner, two other Maryland rabbis are among the 25 voting members of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

Only six votes from rabbis on the committee, which will be meeting in New York, are required to accept a paper, so potentially any or all of the papers could be approved, which could send conflicting messages. If changes are accepted by the committee, these legal opinions would prompt rabbinical schools to begin the process of determining whether to enroll openly gay students. Rabbis in conservative synagogues would be able to preside over same-sex "commitment" ceremonies if they desire - but would not be required to do so.

Orthodox Judaism maintains that homosexual behavior is wrong, based on a verse in Leviticus that calls it an abomination to "lie with a man as one lies with a woman." Within the United States, more Jews identify as followers of Reform Judaism, which has allowed gay rabbis for more than a decade. Reconstructionist Jews, a smaller branch, have gay clergy and sanction gay relationships.

Debate in early '90s

Conservative rabbis debated the topic in the early 1990s and released a paper in 1992 stating that gay men and lesbians were welcome in synagogues but that rabbis were prohibited from performing commitment ceremonies for them. Nor could gay men and lesbians enter rabbinical schools.

But then as now, individual rabbis, as spiritual leaders of their own communities, could arrive at a different conclusion than what the law and standards committee calls for, and they could act on it without being reprimanded by the Rabbinical Assembly, said Rabbi Alvin Berkun, the assembly's president and rabbi emeritus of Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Congregation.

For those who oppose the changes, "their basic read of biblical and Talmudic texts is that it's never been permitted," Berkun said. Some within the movement feel "this is a violent change with the past and a way of catapulting us into the arms of the Reform movement and further estranging us from the Orthodox."

Currently, if a rabbi realizes that he or she is gay after being placed at a synagogue, that rabbi may remain in their position, but must alert any new congregations about their lifestyle when changing positions, Berkun said.

He said gay rights "is not a burning issue" for Conservative Jews in other parts of the world, such as South America.

At least one Baltimore synagogue, Beth El in Pikesville, has held a same-sex commitment ceremony, three years ago after an extensive discussion about the topic within the congregation.

The event was held in the synagogue under a chuppah, or wedding canopy, and the female couple broke a glass together, said Senior Rabbi Mark Loeb. But it was not a marriage ceremony, and they did not sign the traditional marriage contract, called a ketubah.

He and Associate Rabbi Steven Schwartz said the Torah - not followed literally by Conservative Jews - is full of laws and instruction that made sense for a society developed 3,000 years ago. The movement has found ways to adjust their practice for modern times, such as delimiting rules on capital punishment.

If the options for gays are approved, "it will show that Judaism is a religion which does indeed find ways to sustain itself by reinterpreting things as needed in different generations by scientific change, by sociology, by history," Loeb said.

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