After the precedent-setting vote, which was one of the first to put a major mainstream American religious group on record in favor of gay marriage, the room broke out in extended applause, cries of joy, and the chanted melody of the traditional Jewish prayer recited at sacred occasions. Shouts of "Mazal tov!" rang out throughout the room, recalling the usual finale of a wedding itself. The only thing missing was breaking the glass.
Until this happy conclusion, the annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in Greensboro, N.C., had been rather tense. Picketers, including anti-gay activist the Reverend Fred Phelps, staged a rally outside the hotel where the convention was taking place. Rabbis had to walk past demonstrators yelling, "Jew fags go home" in order to reach meetings. Inside the hotel, security was tight, and rabbis were required to show picture ID in order to be registered. This created a strange and unsettling atmosphere; mild-mannered liberal rabbis don't expect to be carded in order to enter Talmud study sessions or discussions on how to promote high school trips to Israel.
The heightened security was not all that was unusual; we were also more uneasy with each other than in normal circumstances. Debates in regard to same-sex marriage at previous conventions and on our Internet list had been extraordinarily acrimonious, feelings had been hurt, egos wounded. Many of us worried whether we could regain the sense of collegiality and joint sacred purpose that is the hallmark of our clergy association.
When the conference opened last Sunday, there were two competing resolutions on the issue of same-gender unions. One, presented by the Women's Rabbinic Network, strongly supported rabbinic officiation at such ceremonies. The other was a resolution brought by rabbis who choose not to officiate and who wanted some recognition of the legitimacy of their position. As the week progressed, it became clear that neither resolution would pass by a substantial enough majority to make a decisive statement for our movement. Both sides scrambled to get enough votes, and then came to the realization that a compromise was necessary.
But negotiation of passionately held positions is rarely easy. Two years ago at our convention in Anaheim, Calif., across from Disneyland, a resolution on officiation at same-gender unions never reached the floor of the plenary. Amid bitter debate, and to the dismay of many rabbis, the leadership of the organization tabled the resolution. In response, more than 500 rabbis signed a petition stating that they themselves officiated or would be willing to officiate at same-gender ceremonies. Ultimately, the rabbinic leadership at that time committed the CCAR to a process of education and exploration that would (in theory at least) build a consensus toward a floor vote in Greensboro this year. Numerous workshops, speak-outs, and discussion sessions were held at regional rabbinic gatherings. The tragic death of Matthew Shepard also convinced many rabbis that it was time to move this resolution forward.
Why then was the issue of rabbinic officiation at Jewish religious weddings (or unions) so controversial? The issue of marriage is a sensitive one in our movement. Some of our colleagues officiate at mixed-faith weddings, and many do not. Sometimes, long-term members of our congregations come to us greatly upset and ask, "I hear you'll marry gay couples but you refused to marry my daughter and her fiancé! How could you?" Often nontraditional stands are confused. It was important that the current resolution differentiate same-gender weddings from mixed-faith weddings. The Greensboro resolution applies only to same gender-ceremonies involving two Jews.