Gay Marriage in New York Puts Conservative Rabbis on the Spot

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published June 29, 2011, issue of July 08, 2011.
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Orthodox rabbis fought it. Reform rabbis championed it. And when New York’s historic same-sex marriage bill was finally signed into law June 24, Conservative rabbis scratched their heads.

Marriage equality is a done deal in New York — the law is set to take effect 30 days from the date it was signed — but in the Conservative movement, the passage of the bill highlights the uncertainty that many Conservative rabbis feel when it comes to officiating marriage between gay men or between lesbians. Now, with their gay congregants’ relationships sanctioned by the State of New York, Conservative leaders are feeling increased pressure to clarify their position on same-sex unions and to finally answer the question: How (Conservative) Jewish is same-sex marriage?

“It has really changed the game for those of us in the field,” said Gerald Skolnik, vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and a rabbi at the Forest Hills Jewish Center, in Central Queens. “I think the decision of New York State will compel those in the non-Orthodox world who have in general a more tolerant, if still evolving, view about gay and lesbian relationships to get off the fence and say, ‘Would I do this or not?’”

When it comes to the question of whether Jewish law permits same-sex marriage, the Reform, Orthodox and Conservative movements offer wildly varying answers that can be summed up respectively: yes, no and sort of.

Each stream of Judaism has its own legal and ethical interpretation of how homosexuality squares with Judaism. But all three denominations have paid special attention to kiddushin, the formal liturgy and ritual that are required for a wedding in order to render a couple married under traditional Jewish law, or Halacha. Without kiddushin, and several other required rites, a couple cannot be considered halachically wed no matter what else the ceremony may contain.

Reform rabbis who conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies often have a broad understanding of Jewish wedding rites, allowing gay couples to engage in ritual acts that were written with a man and a woman in mind, such as the signing of the ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract, which is one of the required rites. Orthodox rabbis hew to a predictably narrower, traditional take on these religious requirements, applying them to heterosexual couples alone. Orthodox leaders, in partnership with Christian groups, secured an exemption from New York’s same-sex marriage bill that protects religious organizations from being sued for refusing to conduct same-sex weddings.

In the Conservative movement — which sees itself as Judaism’s big tent — some rabbis borrow heavily from kiddushin and other required rites to conduct gay commitment ceremonies, while others avoid them altogether and craft their own celebrations. Still others opt not to officiate at same-sex weddings in the first place.

Conservative Judaism’s waffling approach to same-sex marriage was actually born of an attempt to clarify the movement’s stance on gay men and lesbians in general. In 2006, the R.A.’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued two different responsa — akin to Supreme Court opinions — on gay men and lesbians in the Conservative movement. One responsum, written by Rabbi Joel Roth, prohibited all homosexual activity and kept gay students out of rabbinic schools. The other responsum, written by rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner, was much more nuanced: restrictive in some parts, but a model of acceptance in others. For instance, citing the specific wording of the Torah’s ban on homosexuality, the document accepted some forms of homosexual activity but reaffirmed the Conservative ban on male-on-male anal sex. But the responsum also invited gay Jews to apply to rabbinic schools, a landmark statement that led New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary to open its doors to gay students in 2007.

When it came to the issue of same-sex marriage, the document was ambiguous. “We are not prepared at this juncture to rule upon the Halachic status of gay and lesbian relationships,” the document read. “To do so would require establishing an entirely new institution in Jewish law that treats not only the ceremonies and legal instruments appropriate for creating homosexual unions but also the norms for the dissolution of such unions.” The document did not endorse the use of traditional kiddushin for a same-sex union, nor did it provide an alternative model for gay men and lesbians. It did, however, encourage the “celebration” of monogamous, committed homosexual unions.

Kiddushin is between a man and a woman, and this is something different from that,” Dorff said in an interview with the Forward. “The liturgy of the sheva brachot [the seven blessings] would [also] need to be changed. It does not fit into the Halachic categories or the legal categories of kiddushin.”

Conservative rabbis who chose to adopt the responsum written by Dorff, Nevins and Reisner found themselves without a template for conducting same-sex unions, so they began to create their own. Some used the ketubah. Others didn’t. Some used traditional blessings. Others didn’t. To be a Conservative rabbi who conducts same-sex unions is to contribute to a vast and growing global patchwork of gay Jewish marital rituals. Now, Dorff, Nevins and Reisner are taking steps to rein in the rabbis.

The three rabbis are currently collecting liturgy and ritual documents from Conservative rabbis who conduct same-sex unions in an effort to synthesize and, eventually, codify the way that same-sex marriages are performed in the Conservative movement. According to Nevins, the rabbis will issue the new guidelines sometime this summer. New York’s marriage law has lit a small fire under the feet of the rabbis, prompting them to move quickly to formalize the gay marriage template.

“Now that gay couples are allowed to be married in New York State, more New York-based clergy will have the opportunity to perform such weddings,” Nevins said in an e-mail to the Forward. “This may accelerate the process of clarification about the format of such ceremonies but shouldn’t have much impact on their ritual nature. We have separation of church and state in America, so government policy shouldn’t directly affect ritual practice.”

Whether or not the new template will mimic the required traditional rites remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, some Conservative rabbis have successfully used kiddushin and the other required rites with same-sex couples. “So far I have only done one. It was pretty similar [to a heterosexual Jewish wedding],” said Rabbi Gordon Tucker, a member of the R.A. who formerly served on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and is an advocate for acceptance of gay men and lesbians in the Conservative movement. “There were brachot over two cups of wine that were appropriately worded [for two men]. There was a ketubah that was appropriately worded. I guess to someone sitting in the back row, it would look like a wedding.”

Other rabbis remain uncomfortable with the idea of using required traditional rites for heterosexuals in a gay wedding. Skolnik was recently asked to officiate at a same-sex wedding ceremony — his first invitation to do so.

“I said, ‘I work out of a traditional background,’” he said. “They regard it as a wedding. I am still in formation. I am trying to find a way to do this that I can live with, a way that I can be faithful to my tradition and still honor my appreciation of the fact that gays and lesbians deserve to be recognized in the eyes of God.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at feedback@forward.com


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