NEW YORK, March 31 (AP)--Reform Judaism's endorsement of homosexual couples is ``beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish teaching and practice,'' according to the head of the major body of North American Orthodox rabbis.

A convention of Reform's Central Conference of American Rabbis declared Wednesday that gay and lesbian couples are ``worthy of affirmation'' through Jewish religious ritual, and gave rabbis the option of presiding at gay commitment ceremonies.

Rabbi Kenneth Hain, president of the 1,100-member Rabbinical Council of America, said in a statement that his Orthodox organization believes Reform Judaism has made ``another tragic assault on...the sanctity of our people'' and undermined the unity of Jews.

The two Jewish branches are already at odds on many other issues, including the definition of who is a Jew.

The 1,800 members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis serve at least 1.5 million Reform Jews, the largest and most liberal of Judaism's three major branches in North America.

Reform rabbis had previously authorized the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis.

``As a timeless faith rooted in divine revelation, Judaism's laws cannot be abrogated by fiat or majority vote or redesigned to fit a current behavior pattern,'' Hain said.

Hain said Judaism cannot confer ``legitimacy upon relationships which our Torah (Bible) and tradition specifically prohibit.''

Conservative Judaism, which is roughly equal in size to the Reform branch, agrees with Orthodoxy in opposing homosexual relations.

The Reform rabbis' move is the first of its kind by a major U.S. religious denomination, although Judaism's small Reconstructionist branch and the Unitarian Universalist Association had previously endorsed same-sex relationships. So have individual clergy or regions in the Episcopal Church.

Presbyterian, United Methodist and Episcopal leaders are expected to take up the issue this year.

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