2016-06-30
Now I know a little of what Thomas Jefferson must have felt as he signed the Declaration of Independence, or Thurgood Marshall after the Brown decision. There is a unique quality of both awe and relief at the culmination of a campaign both historic and hard fought. For me, that experience came on Wednesday, March 29, when America's Reform rabbis voted overwhelmingly that the relationship of a same-gender couple is "worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual."

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.

Over the years, the Reform Movement has been at the forefront of gay rights. In 1972, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (laity) accepted for membership the first gay outreach synagogue. In 1977, the CCAR adopted a resolution calling for an end to anti-gay discrimination and the decriminalization of consenting acts between adults. In 1990, the Hebrew Union College (seminary) decided to admit rabbinical students without regard to their sexual orientation, and a 1996 CCAR vote resolved that member rabbis "support the right of gay and lesbian couples to share fully and equally in the rights of civil marriage." Very recently, the Religious Action Committee--the movement's social-action coalition--took a strong stand in opposition to California's "Limit on Marriage" Proposition 22, which defined marriage as pertaining only to a man and a woman.

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.

In addition, the CCAR has a strong tradition of respecting individual rabbinic conscience. Reform rabbis have always been free to marry same-gender couples. Opponents argued that this resolution stigmatizes those rabbis who are not comfortable performing same-gender weddings. The current resolution specifically states that the CCAR supports both those who choose to officiate and those who choose not to.

There is also some disagreement about whether same-gender ceremonies constitute kiddushin (the technical term for Jewish religious marriage) in the common historical sense of that designation. Some colleagues believed that innovative rituals sanctifying "unions" were in keeping with Jewish values, but that the specific rites of traditional kiddushin were only appropriate in the context of the marriage of a woman and a man. The current resolution finesses this issue by using the term "appropriate Jewish ritual." A point of clarification during debate centered on this very topic. The questioner was told that it was the right of the officiating rabbi to determine whether the ritual was kiddushin or something other than that.

Finally, it is important to remember that the Reform Movement of North America is affiliated with a worldwide movement of progressive Jews. Our colleagues in Israel, the former Soviet Union, Europe, and throughout the world remind us that the rest of the world is not as progressive as the United States and Canada on the issue of gay rights. They say that the new CCAR stand on same-gender marriage is likely to hurt the credibility of our fledgling congregations in areas (sadly, such as Israel) that are already hostile to liberal Judaism. In consequence, our Israeli Reform colleagues decided to take no stand on the issue and absent themselves from this vote in order to provide some distance from our position and their political needs.

Eleventh-hour negotiations from Sunday until Wednesday produced a resolution that met all these considerations. It is imperfect, but it is a near consensus. Unlike the nasty personal attacks of the past two years, Wednesday's debate was civil, generous, and thoughtful. All opponents were given an opportunity to speak, and the long line of would-be speakers at the proponents' microphone graciously sat down when it became clear that the plenary wanted to call the question.

Sometimes in our lives, we are privileged to participate in a momentous event. Often we are unaware of the significance of the occasion until long after it has passed. But in very rare circumstances, we know that what we do, even as we are engaged in the process, will impact society long after we ourselves are gone from this earth. And that is a blessing. Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Shehechiyanu v'Kiyamanu v'Higiyanu lazman hazeh. Blessed is the Eternal, our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who has given us life, and sustained us in life, and brought us to this moment. Amen.

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