Vote for gay weddings symbolic but critical, Reform rabbis assert

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A vote by Reform rabbis last week to endorse gay and lesbian civil marriages may offer more symbolism than substance.

But in the face of state legislatures' efforts to prevent such marriages, the rabbis may have achieved their goals by drawing attention to the issue.

Nevertheless, rabbis who returned home from the Central Conference of American Rabbis meeting in Philadelphia last week expressed surprise at the media uproar surrounding the same-sex marriage vote.

What didn't surprise the Reform rabbis was the anger emanating from Orthodox circles. Even though the Reform rabbis declined to take a stand on officiating at gay and lesbian weddings, the fact that they sanctioned the unions at all was enough to spark an uproar.

"It's important that the Reform Jewish community is standing up on this issue," said Rabbi Yoel Kahn of San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, which reaches out to the gay and lesbian community. "The importance of this cannot be underestimated. We can say it's not just Southern Baptists or Pat Buchanan and his cohorts speaking on this issue."

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents about 1,750 Reform rabbis, held its annual convention March 24 to 28 in Philadelphia.

Its support for gay and lesbian civil marriages comes amid a national debate over the issue, with Hawaii considering whether to legalize same-sex marriage, and conservative and Christian groups in 15 states trying to bar such unions.

Because of the timeliness of the issue, newspapers across the country splashed the Reform rabbis' resolution — including a personal and impassioned plea by Kahn, who held up a photograph of his partner Daniel Bellm and their 4-year-old son Adam — on their front pages. Network news broadcasts played it as a top story.

But in many Reform congregations, the position was anything but controversial.

"It's important to note that this wasn't a divisive issue. The line [of rabbis waiting to speak] at the `pro' microphone was so long we didn't hear from everyone," said Rabbi Judy Shanks of Lafayette's Temple Isaiah. "The `con' line was virtually non-existent."

Shanks added that the vote "doesn't obligate anyone. The hallmark of our movement is autonomy."

And despite the heavy media coverage of the issue, the endorsement of gay civil marriage is nothing new for the Reform movement.

In 1977, the CCAR adopted a resolution encouraging legislation to decriminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults.

In 1990, the movement adopted a position paper permitting gay and lesbian Jews to be ordained as Reform rabbis.

In 1993, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — the movement's institutional arm, which represents some 1.3 million synagogue members — came out in favor of gay and lesbian couples receiving the same benefits as married couples.

And earlier this month, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which is devoted to social activism and is jointly supported by the lay and rabbinic arms of the movement, endorsed gay civil marriage.

"I'm not surprised that civil marriage was supported by the convention. This is an issue of justice and fundamental fairness," said Rabbi Richard Block of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

Also not surprising was the strong Orthodox opposition to the position of the Reform rabbis.

A spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, a group representing the fervently religious community, called the position "intolerable."

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America said it views "with great dismay the current effort to portray homosexual unions as the moral equivalent of heterosexual monogamous relationships, and the suggestion that same-sex marriages constitute a valid `alternative lifestyle.'"

The Orthodox Union, which represents the centrist Orthodox community, termed gay and lesbian relationships "immoral behavior," and said in its statement that "widespread media coverage of these misguided efforts simply results in the glorification of homosexuality as an acceptable moral behavior."

Although supporting gay civil marriage was not a difficult stance for the Reform rabbis, giving religious sanction to gay and lesbian partnership, through what are usually termed "commitment ceremonies," is a more tendentious issue.

The group's Task Force on Human Sexuality, now entering the third of its three years of study, drafted a preliminary report that outlined the basic elements of a relationship worthy of religious sanction, including truth, family, joy and love.

The task force has not yet formulated a stance on gay and lesbian religious marriage, but it is slated to come to the June 1997 convention of the Reform rabbis with a position to present.

"We've gone to lengths to emphasize that the question of rabbinic officiation for religious ceremonies has not been addressed. It will be," Kahn said.

The task force is studying a liberal Jewish teaching of sexuality, and "we don't want to separate gay and lesbian marriage from that," he added.