Among conservative rabbis, a wide disagreement over same-sex marriage

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Conservative rabbis can decide for themselves whether they will perform same-sex weddings. Rabbi Allan Schranz,
of the Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan, does not.
Photo By Robert Caplin

By Joseph Berger
The New York Times

Though he approves of New York State’s new law allowing same-sex marriage, Rabbi Allan Schranz of the Sutton Place Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Manhattan, will not officiate at a wedding ceremony for same-sex couples, pointing out that his reasons, though partly rooted in Jewish traditions, are mostly rooted in his personal traditions.

“I won’t participate because I’ve never done it and don’t want to start at this stage of my career,” said Rabbi Schranz, 64, who has been a rabbi for almost 40 years. “I’m not going to change, but if somebody else wants to do it, I’ll support that.”

But at another Conservative congregation, Temple Israel Center in White Plains, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, 60, the synagogue’s leader, performed a Jewish ceremony a year ago for two young gay men who had been civilly married in Connecticut. On Saturday, the first anniversary of the wedding, the men were called up for an aliyah, a blessing they said over the Torah, and their parents sponsored the celebratory kiddush, the postworship meal for congregants.

“It’s not controversial in the congregation,” said Rabbi Tucker, a former dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement’s fountainhead. “Over a period of years we have reached a consensus and people supported my position.”

The two rabbis’ contrasting viewpoints are reflective of the wide disagreement within Conservative Judaism on an issue that continues to roil many of its synagogues even after passage of laws in New York and five other states that legalize same-sex marriage.

The other denominations of Judaism are less divided. All but several Orthodox rabbis, from Modern to Hasidic, oppose same-sex marriage largely because of the explicit ban against homosexual sex in Leviticus and would never officiate at a Jewish wedding ceremony, while most, but not all, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis will do so.

The Reform movement and the Reconstructionist movement, an outgrowth of Conservative Judaism, have allowed or encouraged rabbis to officiate at same-sex ceremonies since 1993. A Reconstructionist manual offers suggestions on how to perform wedding ceremonies for gay couples, and the Reform rabbinate provides a listing of possible vows.

The Conservative movement’s committee on Jewish law and standards struggled with the issue and in December 2006 came up with two advisory — but not compulsory — rulings that, with classic Talmudic paradox, seemed to contradict each other. One ruling, by Rabbi Joel Roth, said rabbis “will not perform commitment ceremonies for gays and lesbians”; the second, by Rabbis Daniel Nevins, Elliot Dorff and Avram Reisner, said that “stable, committed, Jewish relationships” were necessary for gay and straight people alike and should be celebrated.

The latter opinion, however, fell short of explicitly authorizing an authentic Jewish wedding for same-sex marriages.

But the movement, which believes that Jews must conserve traditions yet also holds that laws must evolve to meet the shifting realities of modern life, has long given individual rabbis in its 700 congregations in North America the authority to make many decisions for their communities under a privilege known as mara d’atra — authority for a place.

Many rabbis have capitalized on this concept to perform Jewish wedding ceremonies for gay couples, complete with a chuppa, or traditional wedding canopy, and a ketubah, or marriage contract. They say they overlook the Torah’s prohibition against homosexual sex as an ancient dictum that has lost its moral force.

The spectrum in the movement is striking, according to experts. Some rabbis staunchly resist requests to officiate at same-sex weddings, even if congregants want them, arguing that the movement should not equate homosexual relationships with heterosexual ones. Other rabbis are eager to officiate, but will not do so because their congregations are opposed. Others step out ahead of their congregations and might perform the ceremony far from the synagogue and not offer blessings for the couple at a Sabbath service. New York’s law prohibits any penalties for clergy members who refuse to perform same-sex weddings.

Those rabbis who do perform same-sex ceremonies improvise the language. When Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, 45, the leader of Temple Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, performed a wedding for two men several years ago, he eliminated some phrases from the traditional Jewish service, using “loving companion” instead of terms like bride and groom. He sees such changes as a “creative betrayal of tradition” by “finding ways to sanctify love and commitment.” But he insisted that some elements from the traditional ceremony remain ironclad, like commitments to sexual exclusivity and mutual care.

“If Jewish communities are to affirm what has, until now, been an outlawed sexuality, it must be because we have come to see that gay relationships can conform to our deepest vision of human relationships, as expressed in norms of love, commitment, mutuality and family,” he wrote on his blog Honest to God.

On the morning after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the same-sex marriage bill, his synagogue celebrated the bat mitzvah of a girl raised by lesbian parents.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, 68, is a professor of philosophy at American Jewish University in California, where another Conservative seminary is based, and is one of the three authors of the 2006 legal opinion endorsing commitment ceremonies. He explained the discrepancies in Conservative views on this issue by pointing out that “one of the strengths of the Conservative movement is that we know how to live and let live and continue to be part of the same movement and love each other.” He is working with two colleagues on codifying a model text for a same-sex ceremony.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, with 1,600 members, said she believed the New York law would force more rabbis to confront the issue directly, since more congregants would be asking them to officiate at weddings.

Rabbi Kalmanofsky, who has declined to perform one same-sex marriage because one of the partners was not Jewish, also believes that his Conservative colleagues will slowly come down on the side of same-sex marriage — though for slightly different reasons. “This is going to line up heavily on age lines,” he said. “People in their 50s are simply going to be less likely to reach this sea change, and people in their 30s are going to be much more inclined.”

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