How Conservative Rabbis Approved Rituals For Same-Sex Weddings

June 10th, 2012

This article in Jewish Weekly is simply fascinating–not because of the result the Rabbis reached (which is significant in and of itself), but how they got there.

A landmark vote by the Conservative movement’s rabbinic committee has established rituals for same-sex wedding ceremonies, affirming that same-sex marriages have “the same sense of holiness and joy as that expressed in heterosexual marriages.”

The May 31 decision by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly was several years in coming, following a 2006 vote by the committee “favor[ing] the establishment of committed and loving relationships for gay and lesbian Jews.”

But the 2006 responsum declined to specify rituals for establishing gay and lesbian relationships, calling them “complicated and controversial questions that deserve a separate study.” . . .

Last week’s position paper, adopted by a vote of 13-0, with one abstention, fills that void by outlining two possible marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. The paper’s authors, Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner, also were the authors of the 2006 responsum “Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah,” which declared gays eligible for rabbinic ordination.

The wrangling and arm-twisting over the last few years to get to a unanimous vote (and only one abstention) speaks to how important unanimity was to the group. A fractured vote would no doubt seed dissension and disagreement.

“Modern halachah has always seen the Torah as its center, but not any one meaning as the final interpretation,” said Creditor. “There is a growing understanding [among] Conservative Jews that our responsibility is to steward our community with clarity. Conservative Judaism believes halachah changes when it must.”

Substitute halachah (ritual laws created by rabbis–think of common law) for constitutional law and Torah for the Constitution, and he just restated the debate over originalism v. living constitutionalism. The evolution of Jewish rituals has always fascinated me. Our religion, contrary to what some may think, has not stayed the same over the years. Even in the last century, things such as polygamy have fallen out of favor. The very creation of Reform and Conservative sects of judaism reflect a desire of varying degrees of Jews to bring their doctrines more in line with present-day society. Changes in the faith are usually marked by gradual, slow, and deliberate change. I am not sure whether this move to permit SSM fits into that criteria. And if changes are made to rapidly, there is always the risk of weakening the core of the faith.

The biblical prohibition against homosexual intimacy appears twice in Leviticus. “A man who lies with a male as with a woman, the two have committed an abomination,” says Leviticus 20:13. “They shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

“For observant gay and lesbian Jews who would otherwise be condemned to a life of celibacy or secrecy,” the Conservative movement’s decision said, “their human dignity requires suspension of the rabbinic level prohibitions.”

In other words, in order to avoid unjust and harsh results, rituals must be relaxed. But are these rituals? It seems the Torah verses quoted above are quite explicit about what happens to gays (If I recall correctly, Orthodox Jews do not condemn Lesbians to a fate of death, as they are not mentioned in the verse–textualism). It seems that modifying the rituals to permit same-sex weddings is just the tip of the ice berg. How do you get around the death penalty? I mean, they could just ignore it, like other antiquated positions–if you disrespect your parents you can be stoned.

“The fact that they created the ceremony is five or six years overdue,” he said. “In the Conservative movement as it exists, the classical position [of forbidding gay relations] is considered non-normative.”

Non-normative? That sounds like something a law professor would make up.

But, much like the broader contemporary sentiments, it is not actually “marriage.” Maybe an unkosher union?

The Conservative decision did not call same-sex marriages kiddushin, the traditional Jewish legal term for marriage, because that act of consecration is nonegalitarian and gender-specific. In the traditional kiddushin ceremony, a pair of blessings is recited and the bridegroom gives his bride a ring, proclaiming that he is marrying his bride “according to the laws of Moses and Israel.”

Such a ceremony would be inappropriate for same-sex ceremonies, the Conservative rabbis suggested in their position paper. They also noted that the use of kiddushin opens the door to divorce disputes in which husbands may deny their wife religious writs of divorce, or gets — something that “has been the source of great suffering in many Jewish communities.”

A leading LGBT Rabbi was more frank:

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who heads the LGBT Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, said these new guidelines represent a major step forward in Conservative Judaism’s sensitivity toward the LGBT community.

“We can’t be held hostage to the radical right wing of the Jewish world,” said Kleinbaum, who was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. “The Conservative movement is rejecting religion based on bigotry.”

Rejecting religion? I’d think modifying doctrine would be a more palatable way of explaining it.

Fascinating all around. The conservative movement is a microcosm of change going on in society. However, instead of being bound by a 200 year old Constitution, it is bound by a three-thousand-year old Torah.

Update: Somewhat related, from the Times about the explosion of the Orthodox population in New York:

Members of these Orthodox groups also have been known to be far more likely to adopt more conservative positions on matters like abortion, same-sex marriage and the Israeli approach to the Palestinians.

At the same time, among non-Orthodox Jews, there has been a weakening in observance of quintessential Jewish practices. Participation in Passover Seders has declined: 14 percent of households never attend one, almost twice as many as a decade ago. Reform and Conservative movements each lost about 40,000 members between 2002 and 2011; nearly a third of the respondents who identified themselves as Jews said they did not ally themselves with a denomination or claimed no religion.

“There are more deeply engaged Jews and there are more unengaged Jews,” said Jacob B. Ukeles, a social policy analyst and one of the principal authors of the study, which was sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York. “These two wings are growing at the expense of the middle. That’s the reality of our community.”

That shift appears quite likely to grow even more pronounced. Now, 40 percent of Jews in the city identify themselves as Orthodox, an increase from 33 percent in 2002; 74 percent of all Jewish children in the city are Orthodox.