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

BY: Samuel G. Freedman


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

The vote by the Central Conference of American Rabbis that same-gender relationships are "worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual" comes within weeks of the decision by Vermont's House of Representatives to permit homosexuals to essentially wed in "civil unions." The 1,800-member rabbinical group is now among the first religious 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 actually call such partnerships marriages, leaving each individual rabbi to devise the semantics and the religious rites. And, in a bit of diplomacy reflecting divisions within the Reform clergy, the measure supports the right of rabbis who choose not to perform same-sex ceremonies. But the CCAR has unmistakably added its institutional voice to the growing acceptance of homosexuality as a way of life rather than merely a biological 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's vote, Reform rabbis had the autonomy to officiate at commitment ceremonies for gays and lesbians, and several hundred of the Central Conference's 1,800 members do so. As the most liberal group of whites in America, Jews already support laws protecting homosexuals from discrimination in housing, employment, and other aspects of public life. So, to put it another way: We already know what gays and lesbians gained from Jews this week; what we don't know is what, if anything, Jews have to gain from gays and lesbians.

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

It is appropriate that the resolution adopted this week emerged from the Women's Rabbinic Network, the association of female rabbis in the Reform movement. Their experience offers a best-case scenario for a major shift in dogma. When the Reform denomination began ordaining women in 1973, it was nearly alone in the position. Only the minuscule Reconstructionist movement acted similarly. A full decade would pass before the Conservatives voted to admit women as rabbinical candidates to the Jewish Theological Seminary, and that decision bitterly split the institution's faculty.

Nearly 30 years later, the Reform decision to ordain women stands as one of the signal events in Jewish renewal. Women constitute half the rabbinical class at Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement's seminary, and nearly 40% at JTS. Feminist theology and liturgy abound in progressive Jewish circles. In the Modern Orthodox world, young women routinely study Talmud and pray together in organized prayer groups. Recent conferences of the Orthodox Jewish feminists have drawn nearly 1,500 attendees.

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