Consequences Unclear

A vote for gay marriage can spur Jewish renewal, as feminism once did, or it can divide Judaism, like another past Reform vote

When America's Reform Jewish rabbis bestowed their formal, theologicalblessing on same-sex marriage today, they handed a major victory to gaysand lesbians of all religions or no religion at all. What remains unclearis what difference the declaration will make for Judaism.

The vote by the Central Conference of American Rabbis that same-genderrelationships are "worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewishritual" comes within weeks of the decision by Vermont's House ofRepresentatives to permit homosexuals to essentially wed in "civilunions." The 1,800-member rabbinical group is now among the firstreligious bodies in the United States to sanction same-sex partnerships.

The resolution,adopted overwhelmingly by voice-vote at the CCAR's 111th-annual meeting, does not actuallycall such partnerships marriages, leaving each individual rabbi to devisethe semantics and the religious rites. And, in a bit of diplomacyreflecting divisions within the Reform clergy, the measure supports theright of rabbis who choose not to perform same-sex ceremonies. But theCCAR has unmistakably added its institutional voice to the growingacceptance of homosexuality as a way of life rather than merely abiological fact.


All that matters in public life and civil life. The question in need of an answer is whether it matters in Jewish life. Even before today'svote, Reform rabbis had the autonomy to officiate at commitment ceremonies for gays andlesbians, and several hundred of the Central Conference's 1,800 members doso. As the most liberal group of whites in America, Jews already support lawsprotecting homosexuals from discrimination in housing, employment, and otheraspects of public life. So, to put it another way: We already know what gaysand lesbians gained from Jews this week; what we don't know iswhat, if anything, Jews have to gain from gays and lesbians.

Recent history offers two wildly divergent prospects. One, the feministrevolution in Judaism, shows how a more inclusive policy contributed to aboom in study, involvement, and observance that has affected every branch oforganized Jewry. The other, the Reform movement's adoption ofpatrilineality--the idea that Jewishness is passed through the father as well asthe mother--shows how a major change in doctrine succeeded only in isolating onedenomination from the rest. A few decades from now, we will know which waythe Central Conference's approval of homosexual marriage played out.

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Samuel G. Freedman
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