Call it the showdown in Greensboro. When hundreds of Reform rabbis gather at the 111th annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis next week in North Carolina, they will continue an intense debate over whether to officially support performing gay marriages or similar commitment ceremonies.
The debate over two proposed resolutions that has raged for weeks on rabbinic cyberspace chat lines, in phone calls and in written documents has consumed the meeting of the rabbinic arm of the nation’s largest Jewish denomination. At stake, say supporters of the original resolution to affirm gay ritual ceremonies, is the fundamental rights of Jewish gays and lesbians.
“This is groundbreaking,” says CCAR executive vice president Rabbi Paul Menitoff, a strong supporter. “What we’re saying as a major rabbinic body is that these people we are affirming are worthy of affirmation through Jewish ritual. We are saying we were all created b’tselem Elohim, ‘in the image of God.’ ”
But opponents say the resolution will put more pressure on rabbis who believe in the biblical prohibition against gay unions. These critics say adoption will threaten their jobs and their religious autonomy — a cardinal principle of Reform Judaism, which ordains openly gay male and female rabbis.
Should the resolution pass, as CCAR executives expect, Reform rabbis would join the Reconstructionist movement as the only ones officially supporting its rabbis officiating at same-sex ceremonies.
Rabbis opposing the Reform measure privately blame a contingent of lesbian rabbis for pushing the resolution. And opponents also say that endorsing religious affirmation of gay unions will threaten the Reform movement’s tenuous standing in Israel, giving Orthodox critics further ammunition to deride Reform rabbis in their struggle for equality in the Jewish state.
“It is clear its intent is to urge people to officiate,” says Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of the Community Synagogue of Port Washington, L.I., who opposes the affirmation resolution.
He is among the authors of a “counter resolution” to be debated March 29 that stresses rabbinical autonomy.
“There are many rabbis within the CCAR who would like to see a resolution adopted that affirms the fact that reasonable people are going to disagree on the issue of same-sex officiation,” says Rabbi Salkin. “Among the rabbis who have offered the alternate resolution are rabbis who themselves perform same-sex unions but are reluctant for the movement to take a specific stand on it.
“Many rabbis believe that while such unions are holy to the people who hold them, they can’t be described as kadosh [sacred] according to Jewish tradition,” he adds.
To be sure, about a third of the nation’s 1,700 Reform rabbis already are on record supporting gay “commitment ceremonies.”
“There is nothing within Reform Judaism now that forbids rabbis to follow their hearts and minds on this issue,” agrees Rabbi Salkin.
But Rabbi Menitoff believes a clearer endorsement statement is essential to support the rabbis who perform the ceremonies and the gay members who seek them. He rejects the argument that such an endorsement will put pressure on rabbis who do not want to officiate at such events.
“There are anywhere between 3 and 10 percent of the general population who are gay. There’s no reason to think it’s any less in the Jewish community,” Rabbi Menitoff argues. “Even if you take 3 percent, that’s a lot of people, and we’re saying their relationships are worthy of some form of religious expression.”
The debate over gay marriage has embroiled the CCAR for a decade but has sharpened in the last three years. In 1985, CCAR’s Responsa Committee ruled against permitting commitment ceremonies, a decision supported in 1997.
In 1998 the CCAR tabled voting on the issue following a report by its Ad Hoc Committee on Jewish Sexual Values.
The affirmation resolution was submitted by the Women’s Rabbinic Network, an independent association of Reform women rabbis.
“It affirms the union between two Jews of the same gender to have their union recognized in some sacred way,” says WRN co-president Rabbi Shira Stern.
The resolution “resolves that the relationship of a Jewish, same-gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.” It adds that “each rabbi should decide about officiation according to his/her own informed rabbinic conscience.”
Rabbi Stern says that after years of debate, the time is ripe for passing the resolution. She terms it a “human rights” issue. “The language is broad enough that each rabbi, according to his or her conscience, can not do it at all or do it in a way that’s appropriate to them.”
Also supporting the affirmation resolution is CCAR president Rabbi Charles Kroloff of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, N.J.
“My appreciation for the goodness and value of same-gender relationships between two Jews grows from month to month as I meet more and more such couples,” he says. “I believe they are entitled to the support of Jewish rituals.”
But what about the issue of Israel?
Rabbi Salkin contends that gay affirmation will have “negative playback in Israel. Not among Orthodox Jews, whom we are no longer interested in impressing, but among larger number of secular Jews who might be drawn to Reform Judaism.”
He said while in Jerusalem last week, one secular Israeli told him: “This [resolution] might not be the best introductory message for secular Israelis to hear about Reform Judaism.”
Rabbi Menitoff acknowledges the likely negative press in Israel about Reform rabbis in the short term, but weighing that against the long-term rights of gays and lesbians, he believes it’s worth it.
“I don’t think this puts any pressure on anybody who does not want to officiate,” he says. “The only people who will have some difficulty, where it will be a little uncomfortable, is our Israeli colleagues.”
Asked about the biblical prohibition against gay unions, Rabbi Menitoff explains that they were developed in an era “where we didn’t have the information that we have today.”
“The fact is the overwhelming preponderance of scientific literature is very clear that being gay and lesbian or heterosexual is not a matter of choice, it’s who you are,” he says.
With that, he said, “then I have to reject that prohibition and look at it in terms of everyone being created in the image of God.”
Rabbi Kroloff anticipates a “vigorous” and “healthy” debate next week.
Rabbi Salkin says he will be seeking “a statement that says we call upon rabbis to continue studying the Jewish and human issues involved in this weighty issue, and to make their decisions based on their understanding of Jewish tradition.”