Reform rabbis back gay unions

Modification or compromise?

Whatever you want to call it, the Reform rabbis' final decision on Jewish same-sex commitment ceremonies is considered ground-breaking and a major step forward for gay and lesbian Jews.

After years of heated debate on gay marriage, Reform rabbis overwhelmingly passed a resolution Wednesday affirming that "the relationship of a Jewish, same-gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual."

The resolution marks the first time a "major religious body has indicated its support for any of its clergy who decide to officiate at same-gender ceremonies," said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive director of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Bay Area rabbis, who were in Greensboro, N.C., for the CCAR's vote, were elated.

"I am very proud to be a Reform Jew and to be a Reform rabbi because of today's vote," said Rabbi Yoel Kahn, an adjunct professor at the Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union.

Kahn, who is openly gay, said he hopes the decision will become a way to reach out to gay and lesbian Jews who feel "invisible or marginalized."

"This is our statement that we finally and completely have a place for you."

Rabbi Allen Bennett of Temple Israel in Alameda said he experienced a "feeling of exhilaration" after the vote.

"Ten, 15 or 20 years ago, this would have been unthinkable," said Bennett, the country's first openly gay rabbi. "It's a pretty monumental step."

However, the resolution — which passed almost unanimously in a voice vote at the rabbis' annual convention — is not the wholesale endorsement of gay marriage some proponents originally had hoped for, or that Reform's critics will likely characterize it as.

The resolution does not use the words "marriage" or "wedding."

And it was modified shortly before the vote to say not only that "we support the decision of those who choose to officiate at rituals of union for same-gender couples" but to say that "we support the decision of those who do not."

Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El shied away from calling the resolution a watered-down version of the original.

"I would call it 'more sensitive,'" he said. "People were concerned about protecting those rabbis who don't want to be pressured into conducting these ceremonies. We couldn't leave it open to people saying to a particular rabbi, 'Hey, your national association officiates at these ceremonies. Why won't you?'"

Bennett saw the modified wording as a "strategic" move to gain as much support as possible.

"In fact, everything we sought in the original resolution, we got," he said.

It is unclear whether the resolution will influence the practices of Reform rabbis or lead to an increase in the number of gay couples gathering under the chuppah.

"Just because a bunch of rabbis passed a resolution doesn't mean it will fly in all congregations," Bennett said. But he sees potential in the last line of the resolution, which specifically calls on the CCAR to "develop educational and liturgical resources."

Rabbi Eric Weiss, executive director of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and a national coordinator for the Gay and Lesbian Rabbinic Network, said he hopes that the resolution will become a model for other faiths "that God's voice does not include the voice of hate."

Weiss, who also is openly gay, and other Bay Area rabbis, including Bennett, Kahn and Rabbi Roberto Graetz of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, helped construct the resolution.

Even before the resolution passed, many Reform rabbis, as well as Reconstructionist spiritual leaders — who went on record in support of same-sex ceremonies in 1993 — were officiating at such ceremonies. That's especially true in the Bay Area.

"We are probably the area that needs it the least in the whole country," said Graetz, who is also a CCAR board member.

The resolution means that the CCAR can now distribute liturgy, wedding contracts and other resources for people officiating at same-sex commitment ceremonies.

According to the handful of rabbis who voted against the resolution and even some who voted in favor, the move may harm Reform Judaism's credibility among more traditional streams of Judaism and, possibly, among Israelis.

Under the influence of opponents, the rabbis omitted from the body of the resolution a quotation stating that kedushah, Hebrew for holiness, "may be present in committed same gender relationships between two Jews."

In addition the rabbis added a background statement outlining the CCAR's positions over the years on the rights of homosexuals, including a 1995 Responsa committee that, by a vote of 7-2, concluded that gay relationships "cannot be called kiddushin," the Hebrew term for marriage.

Those rabbis who had pushed for such wording said they were pleased with the final version, which they described as a "compromise."

But proponents of the original resolution insisted the changes were only "modifications" and that the final resolution still sends a strong message.

"The essential nature of the resolution remained," said Rabbi Shira Stern of West River, N.J., adding that the final resolution "affirms the sacred relationship between two Jews who are gay and lesbian and says that we are going to create materials to reflect that affirmation."

The debate leading up to the convention was long and heated — at times even "McCarthyist," according to those who initially opposed the resolution and felt they were unfairly labeled as homophobes and bigots.

However, reflecting the mutual satisfaction with the last-minute changes, the actual floor discussion lasted only an hour, with few people speaking out against the resolution.

All five of the Bay Area rabbis interviewed said they voted for the resolution.

Pearce said its passage will go down as a milestone in Judaism.

"I think what will happen is that ultimately the Conservative movement, which is light years away from this, will eventually follow our lead, just as they did with the ordination of women rabbis," Pearce said, noting that it took more than 15 years for that to happen.

"Right now, the Reform movement helps them avoid the issue by having rabbis that will do same-sex marriages."