June 17, 2008
Same-sex marriage and the fabric of society: What does it all mean?
Web extra video: Rabbi Denise Eger officiates at a gay wedding ceremony
(Page 3 - Previous Page)Getting Off the Fence
While the Orthodox remain largely unmoved in their legal perspective regarding gays, the Conservative movement — which values Jewish legal tradition, but also respects societal change — has altered its course considerably over the last few years. After years of debating the issue, in 2006 the movement's legal body ruled that gays and lesbians should be admitted into the rabbinic seminaries, and that Conservative rabbis should be allowed to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies. But, those ceremonies will not be called kiddushin, the talmudic legal term for a marriage ceremony.
"The classical Jewish marriage talks about a bride and a groom, and that is not what is happening when we are joining gay men or lesbians," said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector at American Jewish University, who authored one of three legal opinions in 2006 supporting a gay commitment ceremony. "Hopefully what it will share with marriage is the deep commitment the couple is making to each other."
Previous rulings had affirmed that gays should be welcomed into congregations with equal dignity, and that gays should be afforded equal civil rights.
A committee is nearly ready to post a choice of liturgies that will be available to rabbis for use in commitment ceremonies, according to Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella organization for Conservative rabbis.
But it seems that only a handful of Conservative rabbis have performed commitment ceremonies since 2006, though more, such as Joel Rembaum, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am, say they would be willing to officiate if they were asked.
Rembaum said his thinking on homosexuality has evolved since he went from being an academic to a pulpit rabbi in 1985, when the issue became more immediate for him. In the 1990s he served on the movement's Law Committee as it debated how to reconcile traditional injunctions against homosexuality with the modern imperative to fully include gays.
In those debates, Rembaum concluded that the biblical prohibition was not against homosexuality, but against gay sex in a pagan context. The current understanding that sexuality is biologically determined, along with the reality of gays in committed, loving relationships, put modern homosexuality into an entirely different category than what the Bible referred to, Rembaum concluded, agreeing with the position put forth by Dorff.
Yet the fact that the 2006 ruling refrained from fully embracing marriage with the word "kiddushin" irks some rabbis.
"I don't like mumbling. I think either this is going to be a bona fide marriage in my eyes and the eyes of the community, or we will continue to double speak, which I think is bad for the integrity of the community and of Conservative Judaism," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
Schulweis was one of the first pulpit rabbis to advocate for gay inclusion in synagogue life. While he has never been asked to officiate at a gay wedding, he envisions doing so with all the accouterments of a wedding — ketubah, the full blessing marking kiddushin, the seven blessings, the presence of a minyan.
Other rabbis are still parsing what this all means. Rabbi Stewart Vogel at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills long ago offered married membership to gay couples, and he would officiate at a commitment ceremony if he were asked. But he still hasn't quite unpacked the implications of officiating at a commitment ceremony that is not kiddushin, but is a legal marriage.
"I think part of the struggle for me is trying to figure out what the issues are," Vogel said. "I can only tell you that my religious background and training, my assumptions of life and family have always been predicated on things being one way, so I need to challenge myself and reflect on that very question: Why not kiddushin?"