Jews, like Christians, have a concept of "holy matrimony," and the ceremony and status of marriage are infused with religious meaning. The legal committee of the Reform rabbis' organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, has ruled against allowing rabbinical officiation at same-sex unions. Now the Reform rabbis seem determined to ignore not only Jewish law in general but even their own version of it--overruling the "responsa" that their legal committee issued and tossing it into the dustbin of Reform history.
As it is, American Jewry is facing assimilation, intermarriage, and low birth rates. Fostering gay marriage can only worsen these problems.
And American Jews are deeply divided along denominational lines--especially since the Reform movement unilaterally abrogated 5,000 years of Jewish law and practice by throwing matrilineal descent out the window. Now American Jews can't even agree on who is a Jew: someone born of a Jewish mother, as had always been the case, or someone born of a Jewish father and gentile mother as well? The decision to officiate at gay sacraments will once again separate the denominations on a sensitive issue of Jewish law.
Moreover, it will hurt the Reform movement in Israel. Reform rabbis there, already struggling for recognition against the prejudices of the Orthodox rabbinate, have always opposed a gay-marriage resolution. They know it will invite mockery and abuse from their critics and will set back their fight for equal treatment.
In fact, the Reform movement's own leaders sometimes seem to grasp this. A few years ago, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said that the movement needs more "Torah, Torah, Torah." Gay weddings aren't found in that document. Today, the movement is still pressing for more attendance at synagogue, more prayer, and more Torah study.
In many Reform temples, there's far more Hebrew in services than before, and some congregants can again be found wearing kipot (skullcaps) and tallitot (prayer shawls). The last president of the Reform rabbis' association called for reconsideration of kashrut, the dietary laws, which the Reform movement rejected a century ago. All this return to ritual is fine if it fills a spiritual need among Reform Jews. But it will certainly produce what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. The basic idea of cognitive dissonance is simple enough: holding two beliefs that are psychologically inconsistent produces psychological distress. A return to tradition and ritual and Torah logically leads away from endorsing gay marriage, not toward it.
In December, when the Jewish newspaper the Forward reported on Rabbi Yoffie's speech to the biennial national convention of Reform Jews, the headline read "Reform Jewry to Feature Sh'ma, Hebrew, Rituals, in Revolution of Worship." How does that fit with having rabbis perform gay weddings, which are clearly contrary to Jewish law and practice over the centuries--as the Reform movement's legal experts themselves said?
A search for perfect consistency may be foolish, and, to be sure, the Reform movement is not about to become Conservative or Orthodox and start reciting the requirements of halachah (Jewish law). Yet Reform Jews will have to avoid philosophical incoherence if they're going to win the loyalty of the next generation. Should there be more tradition or less? A return to ritual or the invention of new and absolutely unprecedented rituals like gay weddings?
In this case, it seems that the drive to be on the liberal side of today's culture wars is winning out over the elaboration of a coherent doctrine and over fidelity to Jewish law and practice. That can't be good news for an American Jewish community suffering from more than its share of troubles.