Josh and Mark on the day of their commitment ceremony / Danielle Perelman
On a recent Sunday night, I did something that in the past I never thought I would do.
Nine years ago, I voted “no” on the most well-known Conservative Movement responsum on homosexuality, the Dorff-Nevins-Reisner teshuvah on “Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah.” At the time, I would not have envisioned myself — this past week, or ever — officiating at a same-sex commitment ceremony. How I ended up doing just that is, I believe, reflective of the great strengths of the Rabbinical Assembly and of our Conservative movement.
About a year ago, two young lawyers, Josh and Mark, requested that I officiate at their commitment ceremony. It was not something that I had ever been asked to do previously, so I had not given the possibility much thought, even though my 2006 vote would have suggested my declining the request.
But that was before I met with the two young men, both of whom impressed me deeply with their senses of humor and personal warmth, their depth of Jewish learning and commitment. Both coming from Conservative backgrounds, they wanted a kosher simcha, a ceremony held in a synagogue (contrary to today’s overwhelming trend of hotel and wedding-hall venues), and a commitment ceremony such as those they had already found on the Rabbinical Assembly website.
After meeting with these two men, I knew I wanted to say yes. With the support of my leadership, I agreed to the ceremony, recognizing that my theoretical opposition to such an event a decade earlier had melted once confronted by two real live human beings who loved each other, and similarly cherished every aspect of their Jewish identities.
I told them that it would not be a marriage service, would not include the classic sheva berakhot, and would not use a standard ketubah, all of which accorded with their wishes as well. They wanted to work as closely as possible within the confines of a halakhic environment, in other words, to be groundbreaking while holding sacred the Jewish legal framework of the Conservative movement in which they had been raised.
Then came the ceremony with 300 people, representing a cross-section of the community, the vast majority heterosexual, the vast majority Jewish, including a significant number of young Modern Orthodox Jews who danced with the joy and enthusiasm seen most often at frum weddings. I would not have imagined, nine years ago, when I voted against the Dorff-Nevins-Reisner teshuvah, that I would come to view this ceremony as one of the true spiritual highlights of my rabbinic career.
These two young men walking down the sanctuary aisle, in their talitot when approaching the bimah, then taking off their talitot and attaching them together to poles to form their huppah, may have been one of the most powerful scenes I have ever witnessed.
Several of my minyan regulars, who had just concluded prayers before the ceremony began, joined us to witness the event and they, too, were overcome with emotion (including a few who are far to the “right” on most Jewish legal issues). They sensed, as did I, that they were witnessing a holy moment.
This experience helped me frame a response to the pessimism we confront regarding Conservative Judaism and its institutions. I am not blind to the issues and challenges we face, but Josh and Mark reminded me of what we as a movement have been able to achieve, and what we continue to achieve. We, better than anyone else, can respond to our current obstacles with skill, with respect for and knowledge of the teaching of past generations, and yes, with standards that communities will respect, in appreciating that when we say “no,” it will not be because we haven’t exhausted every possible route to saying “yes.”
I am grateful to my teachers, who three to four decades ago gave me the tools to tackle today’s difficult issues. I am grateful to my colleagues in the Rabbinical Assembly, such as Elliot Dorff, Danny Nevins and Avram Reisner, whose brilliant creativity have given me the strength and wherewithal to gradually transform my thinking, when such transformation is in the interests of our people. The resources within our Assembly, and by extension in our Conservative movement, are unparalleled anywhere in the Jewish world, in terms of being able to shape an approach to our tradition that can be simultaneously authentic and audacious.
As Mark Twain might say, reports of our death are exaggerated to say the least. We are challenged, we are pressured and we are struggling in many areas. But I can bring at least 300 witnesses to attest that at the same time, we are very much alive.
Rabbi Philip Scheim is Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly.