In the weeks before Reform rabbis met to sanction officiating at gay and lesbian unions, rabbis on both sides of the issue waged a spirited debate on Web chat rooms.
“The amount of vituperation on the Internet became unbearable,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, L.I. “There were personal attacks, professional attacks, outright lies and innuendoes.”
It became so heated that a week before the rabbis gathered in Greensboro, N.C., for the Central Conference of American Rabbis annual convention, both sides realized that a compromise resolution was needed “to avoid a bloody battle,” recalled Rabbi Salkin, who was against rabbinic officiation at such unions.
Rabbi Salkin said he and Rabbi Shira Stern of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, who favored officiation, helped to craft the compromise resolution that was adopted last week.
“It was a week of e-mails, faxes and phone calls,” Rabbi Salkin said, with Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the CCAR, and Charles Kroloff, the group’s president, acting as mediators.
The compromise resolution was distributed to approximately 500 rabbis on the first day of the CCAR convention, and Rabbi Salkin said it “changed the tone of the whole convention. … The beauty of the resolution was that we are unequivocal in our support for gays and lesbians, but very equivocal about how we choose to express it.”
The resolution, approved by voice vote at a closed-door session of the last day of the four-day event, pointedly did not call rabbinic officiation of such unions a “wedding” or “commitment ceremony.” Rather, it said only “that the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”
And it said it supported the decisions of those who choose to officiate at such ceremonies, as well as those who do not.
The resolution also contained a reprise of how the CCAR has dealt with homosexuals in the past: calling for an end to discrimination against them in 1977; permitting them to become rabbis in 1990; and voicing support six years later for civil marriages of homosexual couples.
Rabbi Salkin said he was particularly pleased that it included a CCAR committee opinion in which the majority found that homosexual relationships “cannot be called kiddushin [holy].” It also included another committee report that came to a different conclusion.
Reaction among Reform Jews to last week’s action by the CCAR, which represents 1,700 Reform rabbis, was “impossible to know for certain,” according to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the movement’s congregational arm, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“Some have told me of their strong support, while others have indicated their opposition,” he said. “Still others have said that they are sympathetic to the ideas expressed but felt no resolution was necessary at this time.”
Within hours after the resolution was adopted, the UAHC headquarters in Manhattan received several e-mails from across the country. One man in Cincinnati applauded the move and said he knew the vote took “great courage” and opened the rabbis to “intense criticism.” But, he said, it gave him “added respect for your movement.”
A non-Jewish man in Florida said the vote had “recognized the intrinsic worth of gay men and lesbians and the unions they form. You’ve given a priceless gift to gay men and women of all religions.”
But a man in Chicago wrote to express his “deep concern with the vote today concerning same sex ‘marriages.’ What’s next? Will you bar mitzvah non-Jews? Will you condone naming ceremonies for cats and dogs? Funerals for goldfish? I’ve had enough with the Reform movement.”
There was reportedly only about an hour of discussion before the rabbis voted on the resolution. After it passed with only a handful of no votes, tears and hugs filled the room. And the rabbis spontaneously recited the “Shehechiyanu” prayer, which thanks God for letting them witness this day, according to Rabbi Karen Bender, associate rabbi of Temple Beth El in Great Neck.
“We had the feeling we did the right thing,” said Rabbi Bender, a lesbian who has been married five years to a woman who was “delighted” with the rabbinic vote.
But as the vote was taking place, about a half-dozen people picketed outside the hotel — and at one point inside — with signs reading: “Jews are the same as fags.” Among them was a man who reportedly picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student killed in October 1998 by two men who lured him into a truck, where they beat him to death.
Rabbi Bender said she officiates at homosexual unions, which she calls “weddings and kiddushin.”
“I officiate when two people are committed to raising Jewish children and to having a home that is Jewish and only Jewish — excluding any other religion — and when the couple is prepared to study Judaism in preparation for their wedding,” she said.
The synagogue’s senior rabbi, Jerome Davidson, said he viewed the vote as an acceptance of homosexuals at a time when “so many people regard them as outsiders and deviants.”
“Here is a movement that represents the largest portion of American Jewry and that is saying they should be seen with complete equality and be welcomed into our synagogue community as any other Jews,” he said. “We are saying that their permanent, monogamous relationships are worthy of sanctification.”
Rabbi Menitoff, the CCAR’s executive vice president, said he “wouldn’t be surprised if over time the Conservative movement came closer to our position or adopted it.” But Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of that movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, disagreed. He said that although there are “four or five” Conservative rabbis who perform some kind of commitment ceremony, the movement would never sanctify such unions.
“It is something that is not sanctifiable,” he said flatly, adding that his movement disapproved of the CCAR’s action because it is “one more decision that is divisive in Jewish life.”
Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America, agreed, saying the action was “another step of fragmentation and disunification of the Jewish community.”
And Rabbi Avi Shafran of the Orthodox Agudath Israel of America said the vote should “convince all Jews that anything goes in Reform leadership. Even the prohibition against incest could go.”
Rabbi Salkin said he had “no doubt” the vote would create strains in relations with the other movements. But he stressed that in reality it really “changed nothing. It merely gave official support to those who have been performing such ceremonies all along.”