Baltimore Shul Tests Conservatives’ Policy on Gay Vows

By Nacha Cattan

Published September 26, 2003, issue of September 26, 2003.
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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.

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