Leaders permit gay rabbis, unions

Conservative Jews give congregations basis for decision

December 07, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN REPORTER

Leaders of Judaism's Conservative Movement approved interpretations of Jewish law yesterday that would permit same-sex commitment ceremonies and the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis.

The historic decision offers wide latitude for Conservative rabbis, most of whom are in North America, to make individual choices for their congregations about whether to bless gay relationships.

The two Conservative rabbinical colleges within the United States already have begun discussing the admission of openly gay candidates.

"Gays and lesbians will feel more at home in the Conservative Movement than they have been," said Rabbi Alvin Berkun, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, an international organization of more than 1,600 Conservative rabbis. More than 2 million people worldwide are affiliated with the Conservative Jewish movement.

Although four of the 25 rabbis who serve on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards resigned yesterday over the vote to support gay and lesbian rabbis and the same-sex ceremonies, leaders and observers remain optimistic that the action will not cause a schism.

"My hope is that today's decision will not splinter the movement," Berkun said. He described the movement as "a big tent" with room for people on the left and people on the right.

Reform Judaism, the most widely practiced within the United States, accepts gay clergy. Reconstructionist Judaism, a smaller branch, has gay rabbis and sanctions gay relationships. Orthodox Jews maintain that homosexual behavior is wrong.

Yesterday's decision does not require rabbis to perform commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples. Rather, because rabbis serve as mara d'atra, or spiritual leaders of their individual communities, they are expected to draw conclusions from the committee's opinions to make decisions for their congregations.

In all, the committee considered five position papers on gays and lesbians this week - and approved ones with sharply conflicting conclusions.

Fourteen members accepted a paper upholding a 1992 position opposing ordination of homosexuals and rejecting same-sex commitment ceremonies.

Yet in another vote, 14 members endorsed a paper co-written by Rabbi Avram Reisner, an adjunct professor at Baltimore Hebrew University, which affirms the biblical prohibitions against anal sex while permitting openly gay rabbis and endorsing commitment ceremonies for monogamous couples. The rabbis did not endorse gay marriage.

The opinions essentially give Conservative rabbis formal discretion for whatever approach they want to take in their congregations regarding same-sex commitment ceremonies - though they could risk of running afoul of their members' attitudes on the subject.

"What we've got here is the moderate Conservative movement remaining moderate," said Rela Mintz Geffen, a sociologist and Baltimore Hebrew University president.

"You have a clear commitment to the letter of the biblical law here while making it possible to evolve," said Geffen, co-author of The Conservative Movement in Judaism: Dilemmas and Opportunities. "It seems to me that they were careful, that they were thoughtful. There's kind of an attempt at balance here to be fair but not trendy."

To be sure, yesterday's decision seems sure to offend some congregations - such as those in Toronto that have remained non-egalitarian, maintaining separate seating for women and men and prohibiting women from participating in reading from and carrying the Torah during services.

"I hope we're able to work with those congregations to remind them of our stance on pluralism," said Raymond B. Goldstein of Rochester, Minn., international president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, which represents more than 750 congregations.

"We have to prevent this from becoming a litmus test for gay rabbis, as they start applying for jobs," he said.

The debate about the status of gays and lesbians in Conservative Judaism mirrors heated discussions taking place among other American religious groups, as well as in the secular world. The Maryland Court of Appeals heard arguments earlier this week about the constitutionality of the state limiting marriage to between a man and a woman. A decision has not yet been released.

Rabbis at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville, which held a commitment ceremony in 2003, praised the committee's decision.

"Formally, this concludes a bitter chapter that is now history," said Mark Loeb, Beth El's senior rabbi. He said the decision and the civil process that led to it should serve as an example for Protestant faiths heatedly debating the topic themselves.

"It's validating for our movement that gay and lesbian men and women can serve the Jewish people in every way that everyone else can," Loeb said.

"We can say that we're open, we're pluralistic, we're accepting, and at the same time we're committed to traditional practice and service structure," said Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El.

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