March 23, 2006
Conservative Minyan OKs Gay Blessing
Members of Temple Beth Am's Library Minyan voted on March 15 to allow a gay couple to receive a special blessing on Shabbat in anticipation of the couple's commitment ceremony, marking the first time the Westside Conservative congregation has officially addressed how to handle a gay lifecycle event.
While the blessing -- a Mi Sheberach akin to a prewedding aufruf for straight couples -- does not itself raise serious questions of Jewish law, the vote was widely viewed as a referendum on how the Library Minyan weighs in on gay issues. The 73 to 11 vote in favor of the rite was an overwhelming affirmation by the minyan, a lay-led prayer and learning community founded in 1971 that is affiliated with Beth Am and is home to influential academics and rabbis in the Conservative movement.
The vote came as national leaders are debating the rights of gays within Conservative Judaism. On March 8, the movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards delayed until December 2006 a much-anticipated decision on whether the movement should ordain gay rabbis and/or allow its clergy to officiate at gay commitment ceremonies.
The Conservative movement walks a precarious middle ground on this issue, officially affirming the civil rights of gays and welcoming them into congregations, but not ordaining gay rabbis or blessing same-sex unions, according to a 1992 policy.
That internal conflict played out last week at the Library Minyan, which is among the first Los Angeles Conservative congregations to host gay aufruf.
The debate was heavily one-sided, according to those present, and Rabbi Joel Rembaum, senior rabbi at Beth Am and a founder of the Library Minyan, supported the measure. Rabbi Rembaum authored the Mi Sheberach -- a short blessing recited during an aliyah to the Torah -- after he was approached in December by a member of the congregation who is having a commitment ceremony with his partner in May at the Reform Temple Kol Ami in West Hollywood.
"I didn't ask Rabbi Rembaum to perform the ceremony, because I didn't think he was ready," said R., who has been a member of the minyan for seven years and who asked not to have his name made public. "But I told Rabbi Rembaum that I would like to involve the community in some way, and I didn't think there would be terrible issues."
Rabbi Rembaum's thinking on the matter has evolved. He said he believes that homosexuality is not a choice, but the way God made a person. He interprets the biblical prohibition against a man lying with a man as part of the Bible's war against paganism, since homosexual sex was seen as an expression of Caananite ritual. While he still holds traditional marriage as the ideal, he believes that when two men, or two women, want to sanctify their love and frame their lives in Jewish values, Judaism should support that.
Rabbi Rembaum said that, if the law committee approves it, he would consider officiating at gay commitment ceremonies.
"I think I have come around to the point where I am ready," he said. The question of the Mi Sheberach is much simpler. The Conservative movement calls for synagogues to embrace gays and leaves the doling out of synagogue honors to the rabbi.
Beth Am's ritual committee unanimously approved the Mi Sheberach, and the Library Minyan's ritual committee decided to bring it before a full plenary of the Minyan.
The March 15 meeting attracted about 100 members. Rabbi Rembaum presented his views, and so did Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a minyan member who is a rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism and a member of the national Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
Rabbi Dorff, long a proponent of gay rights, also summarized the opposing position, since efforts to fly in a speaker who supports the status quo were unsuccessful. Some were concerned that the opposing side did not get a fair shot. The overwhelmingly pro-aufruf sentiment, some present say, intimidated the opposition.
"I was disappointed in the way it was handled," said Larry Weinman, a minyan member for 10 years. "I thought people who were on the opposing side were treated impolitely."
Some in the opposition simply did not buy the reinterpretation of a seemingly clear-cut biblical prohibition against male-male sex. Others were undecided but had a problem with the curtailed debate and quick vote, which they say did not comport with the Library Minyan's acclaimed democratic process.
But even the opposition acknowledges that if the process were different, the result would still have been the same.
On the national level, the outcome is still up in the air.
In the last three years, the committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which interprets Jewish law and sets legal policy for the movement, reopened the 1992 policy against commitment ceremonies and ordaining gays.
Last week, the 25-member committee was presented with four responsa -- two for retaining the status quo and two for changing the policy. It takes six votes to approve a responsum, and the committee can issue multiple responsa. After a two-day closed meeting, the committee decided to delay the vote, because it wanted to leave time for revisions.
But Dorff, who will take the leadership of the law committee after this issue is decided, believes the decision was delayed because four of the five members who rotate off the committee this week favored liberal interpretations.
"My guess is that people knew that if they could delay a decision, by next December it would be much harder to get liberal teshuvot [responsa] passed," Dorff said.
But he sees change on the ground. He estimates that 50 Conservative rabbis currently perform gay marriages.
For R. and his partner, such a sign of change is welcome news.
The debate and vote were "a trying and terrible experience that took away from what should have been a joyful part of my life," said R. "But I believe that it made a point and that the synagogue will grow stronger for it."