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.

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

Nearly 30 years later, the Reform decision to ordain women stands as one ofthe signal events in Jewish renewal. Women constitute half the rabbinicalclass 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 praytogether in organized prayer groups. Recent conferences of the OrthodoxJewish feminists have drawn nearly 1,500 attendees.

The reason for all this activity is simple: The feminist revolution inJudaism was a revolution toward tradition, not away from it. The women whopressed their cause--and are still pressing it--before the religiousestablishment wanted something far more profound than ritual acceptance. Theywanted full participation in Jewish life, and thus the power to alter Jewishlife.

The alternative experience, the cautionary tale, involves the Reformbranch's decision on patrilineality. Facing the reality of rampantintermarriage, and disputing the continued relevance of Judaism's ancientstandard of matrilineality, the Central Conference voted in 1982 to accept asJewish the children of a Jewish father and gentile mother. The actuallanguage of the Reform resolution emphasized that the mixed couple had toagree to raise their child as a Jew, but that fine point was easily lost amidthe larger break with a 2,500-year-old tradition.

From the very moment it was adopted, the Reform policy alienated themovement from the rest of American Jewry. The decision helped destroy aninnovative program in Denver in which rabbis from all three major brancheswere jointly preparing candidates for a conversion that even Orthodoxauthorities would recognize--exactly what the Ne'eman Commission in Israelhas tried to establish recently as a way to solve the "Who is a Jew?" issue.A quarter-century later, the Reform movement counts tens of thousands ofmembers whom neither the Conservative nor Orthodox branches recognizes as Jews.

The rift over status reflects a larger dispute within American Jewry aboutwhether to attract more Jews by "outreach" to unaffiliated and intermarriedJews and potential converts or to deepen the attachment of moderatelyinvolved Jews through "in-reach."