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.

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

The alternative experience, the cautionary tale, involves the Reform branch's decision on patrilineality. Facing the reality of rampant intermarriage, and disputing the continued relevance of Judaism's ancient standard of matrilineality, the Central Conference voted in 1982 to accept as Jewish the children of a Jewish father and gentile mother. The actual language of the Reform resolution emphasized that the mixed couple had to agree to raise their child as a Jew, but that fine point was easily lost amid the larger break with a 2,500-year-old tradition.

From the very moment it was adopted, the Reform policy alienated the movement from the rest of American Jewry. The decision helped destroy an innovative program in Denver in which rabbis from all three major branches were jointly preparing candidates for a conversion that even Orthodox authorities would recognize--exactly what the Ne'eman Commission in Israel has 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 of members whom neither the Conservative nor Orthodox branches recognizes as Jews. The rift over status reflects a larger dispute within American Jewry about whether to attract more Jews by "outreach" to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews and potential converts or to deepen the attachment of moderately involved Jews through "in-reach."

When the Central Conference held its convention last May, it approved a Statement of Principles that reversed the branch's historical contempt for ritual and religious law by commending "the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot." Seven months later, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, devoted most of his address to the Reform group's general assembly to declaring a "worship revolution" of more prayer, more Torah study, more Hebrew literacy. Whatever else these two initiatives may have been, they were tacit admissions that outreach has failed. And indeed, for all the Reform movement's attempt to entice gentile spouses to become Jews, the proportion of mixed marriages that lead to conversion has been declining over the last 20 years.

There is a bitter joke that comes to mind as Reform Jewry prepares formally to embrace homosexual couples. A rabbi has mice in his synagogue and goes to ask a fellow rabbi for advice on how to get rid of them. That's easy, the friend explains. Whenever I see a mouse, I make it a little tallit (prayer shawl) and little yarmulke and give it a mouse bar mitzvah. After the ceremony, it never comes back to synagogue again.

If gay and lesbian Jews are to exert the same vibrant effect on Judaism as have feminists, then it will require the involvement of more than a few prominent homosexual rabbis; it will require the development of the kind of vigorous and informed laity that typifies Jewish feminism. And it will require more than a commitment ceremony; it will require religious commitment after the ceremony. Otherwise, all the idealism and daring of next week's vote on homosexual marriage may ultimately do little more for Judaism than give it a slightly different variety of two-day-a-year Jews.

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