When Gerald Skolnik, the president of a group of 1,600 Conservative rabbis, was asked to officiate at a gay wedding last year, he didn’t know where to start. “I was flying by the seat of my pants,” he said. Should the wedding look like a heterosexual ceremony, or something else entirely?
Now he has guidelines to turn to. After years of deliberation, the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly has provided guidance to rabbis for performing same-sex marriages.
On May 31, the assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved templates, culminating a six-year-long process that began in 2006 when Conservative leaders first officially sanctioned gay relationships. Created by Rabbis Daniel Nevins, Avram Reisner and Elliot Dorff, the ritual guidelines detail two types of gay weddings, as well as gay divorce. “Both versions are egalitarian,” said Nevins. “They differ mostly in style—one hews closely to the traditional wedding ceremony while the other departs from it.”
The guidelines passed on a vote of 13 to 0 in the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, with one rabbi abstaining.
Neither template includes kiddushin, a step in the ceremony in which the groom presents his bride with a ring. It is regarded by most traditionally observant Jews as the essence of the ceremony that constitutes it as an act of marriage.
Instead, the templates detail a ring exchange that is based on Jewish partnership law, an established halachic concept, said Nevins.
“We acknowledge that these partnerships are distinct from those discussed in the Talmud as ‘according to the laws of Moses and Israel,’” said Nevins, referring to the words used in kiddushin, “but we celebrate them with the same sense of holiness and joy as that expressed in heterosexual marriages.”
The committee’s templates are meant not as exclusive formulations that the rabbis would be required to use but as guidelines that Conservative rabbis can rely on. The three authors of the templates, who consulted with gay and lesbian rabbis, among others, in preparing their proposals, have stressed that that they understand individual rabbis retain significant autonomy in interpreting law. Rabbis, they said, will continue to explore and improvise in this still new area of Conservative Halacha.
In the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony that has been performed through the ages, the rabbi recites the first blessing over the wine and a second over certain prohibited sexual relationships. Next is the ring ceremony, followed by the reading of the ketubah, or the legal agreement. Finally, the rabbi recites another seven blessings, known in Hebrew as the sheva brachot. Then comes the breaking of a glass underfoot, followed by a hearty “mazel tov!” Conservative rabbis have used this model as a jumping-off point for gay unions.