Jewish Journal

Continental Divide

After a gay-rights vote, Reform and Orthodoxy glare at each other across an abyss of mutual incomprehension

Posted on Apr. 6, 2000 at 8:00 pm

Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark experienced something of an epiphany last month in North Carolina, a continent away from his Southern California home. It was a spiritual journey he shared with a large group of his fellow Reform rabbis.

The rest of the Jewish community will feel the journey's effects soon, and for a long time to come. Whether it's spiritual uplift or jet lag you'll be feeling, though, depends on where you're coming from.

Goldmark, acting director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, had left Los Angeles March 26 for a convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinic group. The hot topic was a proposal to endorse gay marriages. Goldmark planned to vote "no." "Like many rabbis, I'm not comfortable with it," he said. "I reserve marriage and kiddushin for a man and a woman."

But by the time it came to a vote March 29, Goldmark was ready to vote "yes." What changed his mind? For one thing, the emergence of a compromise text, saluting rabbis who won't consecrate gay unions along with those who will. It also dropped the term "marriage," preferring "same-gender unions."

The other transforming event was a gay-led worship service that included a "Kaddish" -- memorial prayer -- for long years of anti-gay persecution. "I was so moved," Goldmark said. "And I found myself feeling a need to do what I thought was the right thing." The right thing, he decided, was to vote for the resolution, "to show support for my gay and lesbian colleagues."

Even so, it wasn't an easy decision. Israeli Reform rabbis had long warned that endorsing gay marriage in the U.S. would hurt their battle for acceptance over there. There were also warnings of new tensions among U.S. Jews, particularly between Reform and Orthodoxy.

Such worries had stalled a similar measure in 1998. Caught between gay-rights activists on their left and Israeli traditionalists on their right, the rabbis had put the resolution on hold.

Opponents of gay unions tried the same argument when the issue resurfaced this year: We nearly brought down an Israeli government to defend our interests; now we happily ignore those same interests.

This time, gay activists weren't sitting still. "My goal is not to please the black hats of our religion," said Rabbi Denise Eger of West Hollywood, head of the Gay and Lesbian Rabbinic Network. "The reality is that the haredi community will never accept Reform Judaism. I don't believe that's the playing field we should be playing on anyway."

Timing played a role, too. Reform leaders decided this was a safe year to vote on the issue, because Israelis were too preoccupied to notice. The strategy appears to have worked, at least so far. "We do not seem to have appeared on their radar screen," said Rabbi Charles Kroloff of New Jersey, rabbinic conference president. "I believe the fear was really overemphasized."

That view may be far too optimistic.

Not far from the conference's New York headquarters -- yet separated by oceans of incomprehension -- Orthodox rabbis were studying the Reform decision with mounting outrage.

"Judaism's laws cannot be abrogated by fiat or majority vote or redesigned to fit a current behavior pattern," declared the Rabbinical Council of America, the nation's main Orthodox rabbinic group, in a statement after the Reform vote. The council called the gay-commitment decision "beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish teaching and practice."

Such fighting words are sadly commonplace in Orthodox-Reform relations, and Reform leaders tend to dismiss them. "Our detractors will remain our detractors and our friends will remain our friends," said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, staff director of the Reform rabbinical conference. "The vote on this issue won't change the facts on the ground."

But this time, something may be shifting. Leading Orthodox moderates warn that the gay-union ruling could generate more anti-Reform hostility than anything seen in years. The heightened hostility, in turn, would greatly complicate the politics of religious pluralism, here and in Israel.

"I fear the worst," said Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi who advocates interdenominational cooperation. "The intensity of feeling on this issue is very high in the Orthodox community. It's not the kind of thing where you disagree. It's the kind of thing where you disrespect."

Some Orthodox leaders said the gay-union vote could prove even more divisive than Reform's 1983 "patrilineal descent" decision, which recognized children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews. That flouted ancient rabbinic practice, they said. But with the new ruling, Reform leaders for the first time were actually endorsing -- as opposed to merely tolerating or permitting -- a behavior prohibited by the Torah.

"Patrilineal descent is an issue of defining who is a Jew," said Rabbi Rafael Grossman of Memphis, a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America. Gay commitment, on the other hand, "goes to the very root of Jewish morality, in the sense of defining what is moral behavior. To give sanction to something like this breaks the moral fiber of Judaism. Why would they do this?"

Many Reform rabbis found the Orthodox outrage just as bewildering. "We have done a great deal of reinterpreting of Torah, within all the denominations," said Rabbi Shira Stern of New Jersey, head of the Women's Rabbinic Network, which sponsored the gay-union resolution. "Now the rules of sexuality need to be reinterpreted."

Moreover, they noted, individual Reform rabbis have been consecrating gay relationships for years. "All we've done is go public," said Goldmark, the Californian. "What's the big deal?"

Going public is precisely the big deal, Orthodox rabbis reply, because it implies endorsement. Besides, said Grossman, "What kind of image does it give the Jewish community when a major branch breaks with universal morality in this way?"

Amid the outrage and recriminations, a curious phenomenon was barely discernible. Numerous Reform rabbis seconded the Orthodox view that same-sex relations were outside the norms of Judaism. But few would say so openly -- fearing, they said, to be attacked as bigots. Instead they spoke of Reform's Israeli strategy.

At the same time, some Orthodox rabbis agreed that homosexuality was an involuntary trait that ought to be accepted, if only in private. But none would say so openly, fearing to be attacked as permissive.

There's a broad middle ground where Jews agree more than they disagree. It's an area shaded in gray, tolerant but not permissive, rooted in tradition but not shackled to it.

It's a place where Jews could sit together in peace, if only they weren't afraid to leave their separate solitudes.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal

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