Will Reforms gay-union vote hurt already-shaky Jewish unity

It's bad for Jewish unity.

It's nothing more than hot air.

It's a validation of the Reform movement's lax adherence to the Torah.

Those were some of the reactions of Orthodox and Conservative rabbis in the wake of the Reform movement's decision last week to affirm the right of its rabbis to officiate at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies.

Rabbi Ted Alexander of San Francisco's Conservative Congregation B'nai Emunah didn't condemn the resolution of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis. But he called it a "grandstand play" by rabbis who already had freedom to conduct same-sex ceremonies.

"They are not doing anything that they haven't done for years and to see it in the headlines on the front page of the Chronicle was absurd," Alexander said this week.

Alexander added that he and other Conservative rabbis have gladly officiated at same-sex "consecration ceremonies" but don't feel a need "to take a stand on it because we don't like to separate the Jewish people by sexual habits."

He then chided the Reform rabbis again. "What's next? Will we end up with a resolution for people who believe in oral sex or S&M?"

Rabbi Joel Meyers, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents 1,500 Conservative rabbis, said that while his movement supports civil rights for gays, it does not approve of its rabbis officiating at same-sex ceremonies. However, he acknowledged that some Conservative rabbis do officiate at such ceremonies and can remain in the fold.

Orthodox leaders took a stronger stance against the Reform resolution.

The Rabbinical Council of America, the organization representing 1,100 Orthodox rabbis, issued a statement that didn't mince words.

"Conferring legitimacy upon relationships which our Torah and tradition specifically prohibit is beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish teaching and practice," it stated.

Rabbi Steven Dworken, the RCA's executive vice president, said, "It's another step of fragmentation and disunification of the Jewish community. First they did it with patrilineal descent, and now this."

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, was even more outspoken in his criticism, saying the resolution should "convince all Jews that anything goes in Reform leadership."

He then added, "Even the prohibition against incest could go."

But Shafran did say that unlike the patrilineal descent issue, the new resolution would not "split the Jewish people in two."

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi of San Francisco's Congregation Chevra Thilim, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Northern California, said the vote shows that Reform rabbis do not stand "for the truth of what the Torah represents."

The 26-year-old spiritual leader said the Reform rabbis were "exercising the conscience of their constituency," but a rabbi's No. 1 job is to bring the Torah to the people, not to mold the Torah to fit the "individual inclinations" of the people.

"Once you change it, the Torah is no longer the Torah. It is a man-made Torah, a man-made entity," Zarchi said. "And when you begin to authenticate lifestyle patterns when they no longer reconcile with traditional values, you begin to lose touch with Judaism."

While the Reform resolution means the movement will now develop and circulate liturgy for same-sex ceremonies to its 1,700 rabbis, the resolution does not require rabbis to officiate at such unions.

Many Reform rabbis had officiated at same-sex ceremonies even before the resolution was passed, including Rabbi Harry Manhoff of Conservative Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro.

Manhoff, who was ordained as a Reform rabbi, officiated at a same-sex commitment ceremony about 15 years ago, before he came to the Bay Area. He attended the CCAR convention and voted in favor of the resolution.

"I did some serious background study as part of the preparation for the discussion," he said, pointing specifically to Leviticus 18 and 20. "I felt very much committed and very much in favor of voting for it."

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said he supported the resolution and was particularly pleased with its compromise language.

The resolution recognizes the diversity of views on same-sex unions and does not use the words "marriage" or "wedding."

"I imagine there'll be some attacks from various quarters, mostly Orthodox, and I think it will be used from time to time by those who have an ax to grind against us," Hirsch said.

However, he noted that he "could care less what the ultra-Orthodox say about us," and is far more concerned about Reform's image among its "target audience — all those people between Orthodox and nothing."

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris, the spiritual leader at the Chabad House of Berkeley, equated the resolution to a board of rabbis voting that pork was all of a sudden kosher.

"No rabbi can decide Jewish law when it comes in conflict with an explicit passage in the Torah," Ferris said. "Jewish law is relevant to everybody. Can it be tampered with? No."

The disdain of Orthodox rabbis was to be expected, said Manhoff, who quickly dismissed any talk that the resolution would trigger Jewish disunity.

"That's silly," he said. "How can this undermine Jewish unity any more than the fact that some of my Orthodox colleagues don't even consider me to be a rabbi, or don't consider any of my conversions to be conversions?

"The Orthodox will continue to reject me as they have always done. There will be no change."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.