Gay marriage debate sends Reform rabbis into a tizzy

NEW YORK — At their annual convention next week, Reform rabbis are planning to make a statement about officiating at gay marriages.

However, the statement that comes out of the Greensboro, N.C., conference might not be as strong as observers were expecting it to be.

Eleventh-hour negotiations heading into the Central Conference of American Rabbis might lead to a compromise version — one that makes clear the lack of consensus among Reform rabbis on one of the most controversial issues to hit the movement in years.

If the statement is approved as originally worded, it will mark the first time that "a major group of American clergy, as an organization, gives its blessing to those of its members who officiate at same-gender ceremonies," according to the CCAR.

Proponents of a strong statement, such as Rabbi Shira Stern of New Jersey, believe it is important to "be at the forefront of important social change, both civilly and religiously."

Opponents, most of whom are uncomfortable with same-sex wedding rituals, claim that the current resolution does not adequately acknowledge the diversity of opinion in the movement.

They also fear it could adversely affect perceptions of Reform Judaism among Israelis and members of other Jewish streams.

Some of the opponents of the resolution are taking a middle-ground stance. They say they would officiate some same-sex commitment ceremonies as long as the rituals and language were distinct from those used at a wedding.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of New York said he would hold a chanukat bayit, or dedication of the home, for a same-sex couple, but would not call it a wedding or conduct a ceremony using a chuppah or ketubah.

The debate is heated.

But it's not about whether Reform rabbis can or must officiate at same-sex ceremonies — because Reform rabbis are autonomous to act according to their conscience on virtually all matters.

Rather, it is on how strong a statement the movement should make on the issue.

The issue is slated to be resolved at a Wednesday, March 29 session during the convention.

The resolution, which was first introduced by the CCAR Women's Rabbinic Network, of which Stern is co-president, states that "the relationship of a Jewish, same-gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual."

It does not compel rabbis to officiate.

Many Reform rabbis, as well as some Reconstructionists (whose movement is already on record in support of the issue), already officiate at such ceremonies.

Rabbis uncomfortable with the resolution as it is currently worded want it to state clearly there is a diversity of views on the topic, and want it to refer to the 1995 majority opinion of the CCAR's Responsa Committee, which voted 7-2 against permitting officiation at commitment ceremonies. The current version only mentions the minority opinion.

Those involved in the discussions to reach a compromise wouldn't discuss details.

But Rabbi Charles Kroloff, CCAR's president and a proponent of the same-sex marriage resolution, said there are "always possibilities of some adjustment in it, but I wouldn't be comfortable commenting on any details right now."

The New Jersey rabbi declined to predict whether the final resolution might be a compromise that the vast majority would support or, instead, one that would have a significant minority voting against it.

Opponents of the resolution, many of whom claim they have been unfairly labeled as homophobes by their colleagues, are hoping the current resolution can still be modified enough to snag their support.

But in case a compromise version cannot be reached, the opponents have submitted an alternate resolution, one that does not explicitly oppose same-sex marriages but notes, rather, that "there is a diversity of views" within the Reform movement on "same-sex unions and the propriety within Judaism of their ritual sanctification."

The alternate statement calls on Reform rabbis to create a welcoming atmosphere for gays and lesbians, "doing so in those ways that they deem ritually most appropriate."

Like the main resolution, it also calls upon rabbis to promote civil rights for gays and lesbians.

Asked about the possibility of a compromise version of the current resolution, Stern said compromises would likely be suggested on the debate floor but that in the past year the resolution has already been modified extensively to take into account concerns of its opponents.

As for the alternate resolution being proposed, Stern said, "Better we should have no resolution at all than an alternate one that adds no new information to the discussion."

Whether their views are heard or not, several in the opposition complain their colleagues have handled the debate in a manner reminiscent of the McCarthy era.

One message posted — and later retracted — on a CCAR electronic bulletin board suggested that younger rabbis avoid working under senior rabbis who do not officiate at same-sex weddings.

Rabbi Clifford Librach of Massachusetts is one of the rabbis who submitted the alternate resolution.

"I don't know what one must do to get out from under the charge of homophobia except outright surrender to the agenda of those who are routinely circulating that charge," Librach said.

Kroloff agreed that the rhetoric has been "excessive" at times and said that has "disappointed" him.

"I wish some of the discussion had been on a higher level, but I want to emphasize that most of the discussion has been informed and well thought out," he said.

However, Stern said the rhetoric was no worse on either side of the issue.

"To accuse the resolution's proponents of carrying out a McCarthylike attitude, it's beyond paranoid," she said.