Conservatives Give Gay Wedding Guidance

Rabbis Adopt Two New Frameworks for Same-Sex Marriages

By the Power Vested in Me: Rabbi Menachem Creditor marries Margee Churchon and Kate Smallenburg in Berkeley, Calif. Conservative rabbis are grappling with how to adapt a traditional Jewish wedding for same-sex couples.
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By the Power Vested in Me: Rabbi Menachem Creditor marries Margee Churchon and Kate Smallenburg in Berkeley, Calif. Conservative rabbis are grappling with how to adapt a traditional Jewish wedding for same-sex couples.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published May 31, 2012, issue of June 08, 2012.
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Though Skolnik was reluctant to map traditional wedding rites onto a gay union, he had no qualms about marrying the couple in the eyes of the state. Since gay marriage is legal in New York State, Skolnik signed the couple’s marriage license.

Rabbi Ayelet Cohen

Rabbi Ayelet Cohen
Rabbi Ayelet Cohen

“My starting point,” said Ayelet Cohen, former rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, Manhattan’s LGBTQ synagogue, “is that a contemporary Jewish wedding should be a wedding between two individuals.” In other words, the basis for her ceremony is equality between the betrothed, gay or straight.

Cohen, who first drafted a ceremony for her lesbian sister, maintains the broad structure of Conservative rites, but alters the liturgical language to square with contemporary mores. The wedding takes place under a chuppah and includes the first blessing over the wine. For the second blessing, she thanks God for sanctifying human sexuality. “Blessed are You, our God, Source of Life, who frees us from fear and shame and opens us to the holiness of our bodies and their pleasures,” she says.

In traditional weddings, a man gives a woman a ring. Like many Conservative rabbis, Cohen makes this portion of the service a reciprocal ring exchange. But she does not change the liturgy. “For people who are familiar with the traditional Jewish wedding, this is one of the pieces that feels most authentic.”

Cohen reads the ketubah and then recites the seven blessings, changing the wording about a bride and a groom to refer to same-sex individuals. The fifth blessing, which describes a barren city now filled with children, troubles Cohen in its implication that a couple would be happy only if they procreate. Instead, Cohen changes the language to rejoice in the “uprooting of senseless hatred” from the earth.

“I think it is about the couple repairing the world through a commitment to perpetuating the next generation,” she said. “I don’t think it has to be about them actually raising their own children.”

Rabbi Stuart Kelman

Rabbi Stuart Kelman

Rabbi Stuart Kelman, now retired from Congregation Netivot Shalom, formulated a ceremony that parallels, but does not replicate, a Jewish heterosexual wedding. “I wanted to develop something that is equal in function to the traditional ceremony,” he said. “You can easily change the words so long as the words do the same thing as the original.”

At the time he drafted his ceremony, Kelman said, gay marriage was such a new phenomenon that “I felt that it needed a name to distinguish it from a heterosexual union.” But he points out that today the practice is commonplace.

Kelman’s model is not a wedding but a Brit Reyut, or “covenant of love.” His ceremony utilizes a new terminology. Instead of a chuppah, the couple marries beneath a sukkah. The ring ceremony is a chalifin, the Hebrew term for exchange. Kelman utilizes a shtar, or a deed, in place of a ketubah.

The service begins with the blessing over the wine. But in place of the prohibition on sexual activity, Kelman substitutes the shehecheyanu, a prayer for special occasions.

And both partners break glasses.

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com or on Twitter @NaomiZeveloff


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