Sarah and Michelle aren’t getting married this summer; they’re having a commitment ceremony. They are specifically not calling it a wedding and there will be no ketubah, marriage contract.
Instead, they will participate in a Talmudic ritual that establishes business partnerships and outline their mutual responsibilities and commitment in a shtar, a Jewish legal document.
But when Hope and Melanie Levav married a few years ago, they had a ceremony that looked pretty much like any other traditional Jewish wedding: except that it was between two women. So the blessings’ language was amended to include two brides and omit any mention of a groom.
As the ceremonies of the two couples illustrate, there is no single Jewish same-sex wedding. Each couple essentially creates what they want for themselves, which has led to a diverse array of ceremonies.
They are part of a growing genre of lifecycle rituals and Jewish liturgies tailored to the needs of gay and lesbian Jews. And while many of them have been around for several years, with the first Jewish commitment ceremonies dating back about 15 years, experts say, they are becoming increasingly mainstream.
Gay and lesbian Jewish rituals have begun to proliferate because "there’s been a huge leap over the last decade," said Rabbi Nancy Wiener, clinical director of pastoral counseling at the Reform seminary Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and a lesbian who had a commitment ceremony with her partner in 1991. "There’s just much more awareness on people’s parts that these things are an option.
"There’s a big difference between people who grew up believing if they came out they’d never think they could celebrate long-term relationships and a generation which has been coming out at an earlier age and has not felt they had to sever ties with the Jewish community," she said.
The trend isn’t unique to Jews, of course. Same-sex marriage is currently roiling Christian groups, like the Episcopal Church. In Judaism, the Reform movement in 2001 approved the right of its rabbis to officiate at same-sex unions, and the Reconstructionist movement has long permitted it. Conservative and Orthodox Judaism do not permit it, though based on anecdotal evidence, an increasing number of Conservative rabbis seem willing to officiate at such ceremonies.
Gay weddings are making waves in secular American culture as well. The new issue of Bride’s magazine features a first-ever article on gay and lesbian weddings.
Popular opinion on the subject is shifting: A Pew Forum poll released last week found that the percentage of Americans who strongly oppose same-sex marriage has declined from 41 percent in 1996 to 30 percent today. A survey of New Jersey voters being released this week by the polling firm Zogby will show that a majority favor same-sex marriage, according to Evan Wolfson, executive director of the Right to Marry, an advocacy organization.
Legal currents are also shifting: Two Canadian provinces recently extended to same-sex couples the right to wed, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is expected to rule shortly on whether homosexuals can wed in that state. The New York State Legislature has bills pending that would also permit it, Wolfson said. While he doesn’t expect votes imminently, he does anticipate that an increasing number of individuals and groups will speak out in favor of a change to permit civil marriage as being between two adults rather than between a man and a woman.
Conservative members of the U.S. Congress are waiting in the wings with federal legislation to ban same-sex weddings, which would override states’ laws.
New Ketubahs ‘Blossoming’
Many parts of the Jewish community seem to be growing comfortable with the notion of gay and lesbian religious weddings.
Most of the wedding contracts available at J. Levine Judaica, in Midtown Manhattan, can be purchased with text appropriate for same-sex couples (and eight other versions), says the store’s owner, Danny Levine. While some of the 75 ketubah artists whose work he sells will only pen traditional text, 80 percent will do them for gay and lesbian couples.
"We had the first request for it at least 15 years ago and maybe one or two ketubah artists did it, but in the last few years it’s just blossomed," said Levine.
He carries other products for this niche market, too: a gay couple once ordered rainbow suede yarmulkes for their wedding.
Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements are working on new rabbis’ manuals that will include ceremonies addressing the needs of gay and lesbian Jews, said denominational officials.
Rabbi Peter Knobel of Evanston, Ill., is also heading a Central Conference of American Rabbis committee creating a guide to same-sex wedding ceremonies. The committee was formed more than two years ago when the Reform organization approved the right of its members to officiate at such rituals, but is only now becoming active, said Rabbi Knobel in an interview from his congregation, Beth Emet-The Free Synagogue.
Several years ago the Reconstructionist movement did, however, create an egalitarian divorce document and ritual that works equally well for gay and lesbian Jews as it does heterosexuals. It can be initiated by either half of the couple.
In just about all same-sex weddings and commitment ceremonies, the language of the traditional seven blessings, which speaks of the groom and bride, is changed.
Many same-sex couples (and progressive heterosexual ones) look to the "Brit Ahuvim," or Lovers’ Covenant, developed by feminist theologian Rachel Adler and published in her 1998 book "Engendering Judaism."
Adler breaks from the traditional Jewish wedding contract, in which the language is about the man legally "acquiring" the woman and his fiduciary obligations to her. Adler’s ritual, instead, contains, in both Hebrew and English, the language of mutuality, describing it as "a covenant of distinction," one of "devotion" and "mutual lovingkindness," and quotes the first Book of Samuel in which Jonathan makes a covenant with David.
Not everyone is keen on the overall trend.
"We in our community find the whole approach of legitimizing such unions and adapting liturgy to such ceremonies to be unacceptable and deeply disturbing," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox organization Agudath Israel.
"Jewish tradition is very clear on the meaning of marriage and equally clear on homosexual acts. It’s entirely at odds with Jewish religious tradition to give an imprimatur to any such ceremony," he said.
Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s gay and lesbian congregation, and other experts credit feminism with having opened up the idea in recent years that the language of liturgy can and should reflect the needs and hopes of the people reciting the prayers.
But, they say, the notion is rooted even further back.
"Serious students of liturgy can tell you that Jewish liturgy’s evolution has always allowed for a fair amount of innovation and diversity, and so it’s really building on that tradition," said Rabbi Cohen.
The Internet has contributed greatly to the popularizing of these new rituals because for the first time, they are accessible to anyone with a modem.
One example is Ritualwell.org, a Web site compilation of lifecycle rituals and blessings for just about any occasion. The wedding section includes several same-sex accounts and ceremonies, and there are coming-out ceremonies as well.
Wanted: A Female Mohel
Sarah and Michelle, who asked that their real names not be used, are both from Orthodox families which, they say, have come to accept their relationship.
But it is out of respect for the integrity of traditional Judaism that they are not using conventional Jewish legal wedding terms like "kiddushin."
"We’re actually having a Jewishly legally binding commitment to each other," said Michelle, who works in the arts in Manhattan. "There’s a place in everything for halacha. What we’re trying to do with our ceremony is find that place. As women and as lesbians, we’ve been challenged to find our way in Orthodoxy, but we’re not giving up yet."
When Hope and Melanie Levav married in a Reform sanctuary under a chupah, and with even some Orthodox relatives in attendance, they were comfortable with using terms like "kiddushin."
They both shed their surnames and jointly picked one they now share. The night before the wedding was a Saturday, and they invited a bunch of friends to their Brooklyn apartment for a "melave kallah," or celebration of the brides.
"There was singing, some blessings, we did Havdalah at the end and we sat in a circle and passed around a Miriam’s cup with wine," said Hope, a teacher at the Hannah Senesh Community Day School. "When the cup got to them each person told stories about us. Each person also got a pretty piece of paper and wrote a blessing for us, and a friend made us a collage with them."
Using the same quasi-religious folk custom as an Orthodox couple would, they broke a plate to symbolize their commitment to each other.
"It was really intense," Hope said. "We got comments from the women who were there, most of whom are straight, about how meaningful the experience was, which it was for both of us, too. We had been to many rehearsal dinners for other weddings and things that were fun but didn’t seem particularly Jewish. With this we were relaxed, but it also had a spiritual dimension and got us in the mind-set for the next day."
Next on the couple’s agenda: preparing for the November arrival of their son, who Hope is carrying through the contribution of an anonymous sperm donor. They are feeling stressed about finding a mohel who will incorporate both their names as the parents, but also be traditional enough to satisfy their families, said Melanie.
She recently attended the brit milah for the son of a female couple where the mohel identified the baby as being the son of the birth mother and Avraham, the patriarch who is a paternal stand-in for converts, though there was no conversion necessary in this case.
"I’m intent on using a female mohelet, or at least a liberal mohel, and that our kid should be named as the son of both of us," Melanie said.
But "my family feels really strongly about using a glatt kosher mohel," said Hope. "They don’t want any challenges to his status, ever."