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Conservative rabbinic group issues guidelines for same-sex wedding rituals

by Ben Sales, JTA

June 4, 2012 | 10:56 am

A landmark vote last week by the Conservative movement’s rabbinic committee has established rituals for same-sex wedding ceremonies, affirming that same-sex marriages have “the same sense of holiness and joy as that expressed in heterosexual marriages.”

The decision by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly was several years in coming, following a 2006 vote by the committee “favor[ing] the establishment of committed and loving relationships for gay and lesbian Jews.”

But the 2006 responsum declined to specify rituals for establishing gay and lesbian relationships, calling them “complicated and controversial questions that deserve a separate study.”

Last week’s position paper, which was adopted by a vote of 13-0, with one abstention, fills that void by outlining two possible marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. The paper’s authors, Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner, were also the authors of a 2006 responsum titled “Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah,” which declared gays eligible for rabbinic ordination.

“This is the next step in the process of bringing about the full inclusion of LGBT Jews,” said Rabbi Aaron Weininger, the first openly gay student admitted to the rabbinical school at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “Visibility of LGBT people as individuals and couples makes us stronger as a Jewish community.”

Weininger, who received his rabbinic ordination this month, was consulted during the composition of last week’s paper.

The paper acknowledges that “same-sex intimate relationships are comprehensively banned by classical rabbinic law,” or halachah.

The biblical prohibition against homosexual intimacy appears in twice in Leviticus. “A man who lies with a male as with a woman, the two have committed an abomination,” says Leviticus 20:13. “They shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

The Conservative movement’s decision said that, “for observant gay and lesbian Jews who would otherwise be condemned to a life of celibacy or secrecy, their human dignity requires suspension of the rabbinic level prohibitions.”

Dorff, Nevins and Reisner proposed two possible ceremonies that incorporate what they deem to be the four key elements of a Jewish wedding—welcoming the couple, symbols of celebration, a document of covenant and blessings thanking God.

One ceremony hews closely to the traditional Jewish wedding, making changes in the language and the blessings based on the couple’s gender and sexuality. The other departs from that ceremony, with three blessings, for example, instead of the traditional seven.

The Conservative decision did not call same-sex marriages kiddushin, the traditional Jewish legal term for marriage, because that act of consecration is non-egalitarian and gender-specific. In the traditional kiddushin ceremony, a pair of blessings is recited and the bridegroom gives his bride a ring, proclaiming that he is marrying his bride “according to the laws of Moses and Israel.”

Such a ceremony would be inappropriate for same-sex ceremonies, the Conservative rabbis suggested in their position paper. They also noted that the use of kiddushin opens the door to divorce disputes in which husbands may deny their wife religious writs of divorce, or gets—something that “has been the source of great suffering in many Jewish communities.”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor, who has been performing same-sex marriages since 2002—four years before the movement permitted them—said that Jewish law is flexible, and should respond to changes within the Jewish community.

“Modern halachah has always seen the Torah as its center, but not any one meaning as the final interpretation,” said Creditor, the rabbi of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom. “There is a growing understanding from within Conservative Jews that our responsibility is to steward our community with clarity. Conservative Judaism believes halachah changes when it must.”

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who heads the LGBT Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, said that these new guidelines represent a major step forward in Conservative Judaism’s sensitivity toward the LGBT community.

“We can’t be held hostage to the radical right wing of the Jewish world,” said Kleinbaum, who was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. “The Conservative movement is rejecting religion based on bigotry.”

While the 2006 decision to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis and accept gay couples was controversial, even Rabbi Joel Roth, who resigned from the law committee in the wake of that decision, called this latest responsum “a very fine thing.”

“The fact that they created the ceremony is five or six years overdue,” he told JTA. “In the Conservative movement as it exists, the classical position [of forbidding gay relations] is considered non-normative.”

The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis endorsed Jewish gay marriage in the late 1990s while acknowledging the right of rabbis to choose whether or not to officiate at same-sex ceremonies. The Orthodox movement does not allow gay marriage.

Kleinbaum said she hopes that the Conservative movement’s next step in addressing LGBT issues will be in accommodating bisexual and transgender people.

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, the president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said that the movement’s constituency will determine its priorities.

“Ultimately,” he said, “the Jewish people have a tendency of deciding what the next item on the agenda will be.”

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