The Rabbinical Assembly’s committee on Jewish law and standards – the Conservative movement’s highest legal body – unanimously voted last week on guidelines that outline how to perform same-sex marriages.
These guidelines, which are officially sanctioned by the Conservative movement, were passed May 31 by a 13-0 vote, with one rabbi on the committee abstaining.
The new ritual guidelines were presented by rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner six years after their paper, which allowed commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples, as well as the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, was endorsed by a majority of 13 votes.
Although the ritual committee officially sanctioned gay relationships in 2006, it stressed that rabbis were permitted, but not obligated, to perform such ceremonies.
Rabbi Howard Morrison, spiritual leader of Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, explained that when the ritual committee “issues more than one position, or at times even a single position, there is no enforcement on the rabbinate to follow the position or positions rendered. The role of the [committee] is to render opinions. As such, a colleague is free to accept or reject the opinion or opinions of the [committee].”
The new ritual guidelines offer two types of gay weddings and outline policies on gay divorce.
Rabbi Nevins told the Jewish Daily Forward that both versions of the same-sex wedding ceremonies are egalitarian.
“They differ mostly in style – one hews closely to the traditional wedding ceremony, while the other departs from it,” he said.
Rabbi Jarrod Grover of Beth Tikvah Synagogue said it’s important to note that the guidelines refrain from calling the ceremony kiddushin.
He said the ritual committee made a clear distinction between a same-sex union and a traditional, heterosexual one.
In traditional weddings, kiddushin, when the groom presents the bride with a ring, is regarded as the moment an act of marriage has occurred.
“Kiddushin is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman… They called [the same-sex ceremonies] marriage, because it is a secular word, but the Jewish word has very important implications,” Rabbi Grover said.
Rabbi Nevins said the templates detail a ring exchange that is based on Jewish partnership law, an established halachic concept.
Although Rabbi Grover doesn’t perform same-sex unions, he said these guidelines were necessary to address concerns and answer questions about how to move forward.
“They had to do this. Even me, who is opposed, I have to admit that this is a hole that existed in the paper, and if you’re going to allow it, you better explain [how to do it],” Rabbi Grover said.
“I remember when this was discussed – I was still in seminary in 2006 – and I remember the students saying, ‘Well, what do you mean we permit same-sex marriage ceremonies? What does that look like?’” Rabbi Grover said.
He said that since Conservative rabbis started performing same-sex marriages, they have had to come up with their own ideas of what a ceremony should entail.
“I’m glad there are at least these guidelines for my colleagues who do choose to perform these ceremonies.”
Despite this new development, Rabbi Grover doesn’t anticipate a big change in the way Conservative rabbis in the Toronto area handle the issue.
“Before this paper, if you were opposed to the Jewish religious sanctification of same-sex marriages, this paper is not going to change anything for you, as it doesn’t for me,” he said.
“But for those of my colleagues who preform these ceremonies, now they have somewhere to turn, since these ceremonies are not found in any other sources, and not in our rabbi’s manuals.”
Rabbi Grover reiterated that he may not agree with the opinions expressed in the Dorff, Nevins and Reisner papers, but he recognizes the effort they made.
“The people who wrote these papers, they may have opinions I disagree with, but they’re not stupid, and they put a lot of thought and attention in how to do this.”
Rabbi Martin Berman, spiritual leader of Shaar Shalom Synagogue, said that although the 2006 paper was endorsed, it’s not necessarily halachic.
“From my perspective, just because some people say something is halachically permitted, without any basis on Jewish tradition to make that stand, I find that questionable,” Rabbi Berman said.
“We all believe in the dignity of human beings and we believe that everyone has, in a democratic society, a right to choose what they want to do in their lives. Those of us who come from a more traditional spectrum of Jewish tradition certainly feel the pain of those who are in this situation, but unfortunately, not every situation can be resolved in a way that makes everyone happy.”