Baltimore Shul Tests Conservatives’ Policy on Gay Vows

By Nacha Cattan

Published September 26, 2003, issue of September 26, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The board of directors of Baltimore’s largest Conservative synagogue has voted to allow its rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies in the sanctuary.

Last month two women became the first couple to take advantage of the new policy at Beth El Congregation on Park Heights Avenue, a 1,750-family synagogue located in an area of the city known more for its ultra-Orthodox seminaries and kosher restaurants than its gay population. The ceremony was officiated by the congregation’s religious leader, Rabbi Mark Loeb, and its assistant rabbi, Steven Schwartz.

The synagogue’s decision comes as the Conservative movement’s top lawmaking body, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, is set to review its 1992 “consensus statement” banning such unions and the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis on the grounds that homosexual behavior violates Halacha, or rabbinic law. Beth El would appear to be in defiance of the existing policy, though Loeb and other clergymen performing such rituals point to a law committee rule that affirms the right of pulpit rabbis to choose their own “halachic path” in most cases.

Several movement leaders urged rabbis to wait for the results of the law committee’s review before officiating at such unions. But while the movement’s debate on homosexuality continues to drag on — the review is expected to take as long as two years — a growing number of Conservative synagogues across the country are taking matters into their own hands. Observers say the practice is no longer confined to maverick rabbis in the San Francisco area and estimate that as many as 80 Conservative rabbis are officiating at same-sex ceremonies. The recent decision at Beth El appears to undercut even further attempts by some critics to dismiss the growing support for gay and lesbian rights as simply a West Coast trend.

“There have been [commitment ceremonies] in the Midwest and the South; it’s not just confined to the West Coast,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, vice president of the law committee and a leading supporter for lifting the ban on same-sex couples and ordaining homosexual rabbis. “Baltimore is a Jewish community that has a very strong traditional element including a right-wing Orthodox yeshiva, Ner Israel. So to that extent, it is significant that this is happening in that community as well.”

At the recent ceremony in Baltimore, Loeb and Schwartz recited liturgy, lectured on the importance of commitment and joined in a “Mazel Tov!” after the two women exchanged rings and shattered a glass cup. But Loeb insisted that although the event was a religiously sanctioned union of sorts, it did not qualify as a Jewish wedding. A standard wedding contract, or ketubah, was not used, and traditional marriage blessings were not recited.

The couple did not respond to requests seeking comment.

“This was the most we could do to give these people the feeling they committed a pact of holiness to bring their lives together,” Loeb said. “It’s long overdue for our movement to revisit the whole issue of our attitude towards homosexuals and homosexuality.”

Loeb said he would only perform a same-sex ceremony involving two Jews.

No such distinctions were made in the law committee’s 1992 decision, which simply stated that the Conservative movement “would not perform commitment ceremonies for gays and lesbians.”

Opponents of same-sex ceremonies decried Laub’s actions. “I always regret when rabbis act in flagrant violation of clear and overwhelming sentiments of the law committee and wish they would not do so,” said Rabbi Joel Roth, a leading member of the law committee who authored the 1992 decision. But Roth conceded that performing such ceremonies does not violate the Standard of Rabbinic Practices, a short list of religious rulings that clergymen must obey or face severe disciplinary action. Rabbis can be thrown out of the movement for performing intermarriages, officiating at a second marriage where one of the parties has not secured a religious divorce or using the standard of patrilineal descent to establish a person’s Jewish status.

Still, top movement leaders called on their rabbinical colleagues to wait for the law committee to complete its review.

“Patience is probably what I recommend until the law committee does its work,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the top professional of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm. “I really think I wouldn’t perform such a ceremony unless the law committee said it was appropriate. At the moment, rabbis have to follow their conscience on these issues in the way they interpret Jewish law.”

Epstein’s boss, United Synagogue’s lay president Judy Yudof, urged the law committee nine months ago to revisit the 1992 decision. While she has refused to stake out a position on the issue, she has also rejected the notion that a change in policy would split the movement.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.