Navigating a New Path
By Eric Fingerhut
Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg says he and his fellow rabbis at Adas Israel Congregation will perform gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies. But first they have to do a little bit of research.
"We have to figure out what such a ceremony will entail," the District rabbi said. "We want to understand what’s being done by others. ... None of us have a clear idea ‹ we don’t have a prescribed ceremony prepared."
Wohlberg was one of a number of Washington area rabbis this week who said that in the wake of last week’s Conservative movement decision liberalizing its policies on gays and lesbians, they are willing ‹ if not yet completely prepared ‹ to perform gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies.
Other local rabbis said that they were open to the idea, but wanted to explore the issue with their congregants before reaching a firm decision. Some said they needed time to study the opinions voted on by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards before coming to any conclusions.
(An article on page 22 details the opinions; several commentaries begin on page 16.)
Some rabbis either declined to comment or did not return calls seeking their opinions. It is unclear how many local Conservative rabbis oppose the opinion calling for same-sex commitment ceremonies, other than Ohr Kodesh Congregation’s Lyle Fishman, who declined to be interviewed, but whose column explaining his views appears on page 16.
Tikvat Israel Congregation Rabbi Howard Gorin is among those excited by the CJLS decision. "It’s long overdue," he said, quipping that he has been "out on this issue" for 25 years.
"On the door to my office is a rainbow decal ‹ I don’t think it gets clearer than that" as to where his sympathies lie, said the Rockville rabbi.
Gorin pointed out that some Conservative rabbis already have performed gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies. He, too, would have done so had he been given the opportunity.
In Bethesda, Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County’s Rabbi William Rudolph also favors commitment ceremonies. On Tuesday morning, he was preparing for the second meeting of the synagogue’s clergy to discuss the issue and how to make the process a learning experience for the congregation.
He believes the vast majority of his congregants would favor more liberal policies on gays and lesbians.
"I don’t think gays and lesbians choose to be [gays and lesbians]; that’s the way they are made," said the rabbi. "We need to respect them as ... God’s creatures [as much] as anyone else" and "move toward full inclusion."
Rabbi Mendel Abrams considers the liberal decision a "de facto recognition" of his synagogue’s gay members and their relationships.
"The idea of taking a whole segment [of the community] and reading them out of Judaism is self-destructive," said the spiritual leader of Beth Torah Congregation in Hyattsville.
At Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon, Rabbi Steven Glazer favors commitment ceremonies and gay ordination.
"I certainly embrace the liberal position, and I was personally disappointed that two even more liberal papers" were not approved, Glazer said.
Other spiritual leaders said they were looking forward to examining the rabbinical opinions in depth in the coming weeks.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt said he had not yet come to a personal decision on the matter, and would now be sitting down and reading the hundreds of pages contained in the six opinions considered by the movement.
"I want to have the opportunity to study and research the greater and broader ramifications before deciding on a specific course of action," said Weinblatt, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.
Rabbi Ethan Seidel of Tifereth Israel Congregation in the District, too, had not come to a decision and wanted to read the various teshuvot first before offering an opinion.
"It’s very important" and "should not be rushed," said Seidel, who said he had plans to teach a congregational class on this and other Conservative teshuvot and looked forward to studying the matter with members of the synagogue.
Other rabbis suggested support for performing commitment ceremonies, but thought any change in policy should be taken in conjunction with their congregants.
B’nai Israel Congregation Rabbi Jonathan Schnitzer said that the decision on whether to perform same-sex ceremonies is ultimately up to him, but that he wanted to convene a congregation task force to examine the issue.
Such a decision "has to evolve in the context of the pulse of the congregation," he said.
In his sermon last Shabbat, Schnitzer seemed to indicate an openness to the idea of commitment ceremonies, noting that last week’s vote represented "an important and welcome opportunity for our congregation to carefully study the issue of gay status ‹ and ways in which we could and should project a more welcoming stance to gays who wish to find their spiritual home here in our community."
Beth Shalom Rabbi Susan Grossman, a member of the Committee on Law and Standards, also said she would be studying the matter with her congregants, convening a class beginning next month to teach the teshuvot.
As one of the 25 voting members of the CJLS, she favored liberalized policies toward gays and lesbians, but within her Columbia synagogue she stressed that "we do things by consensus" and that no decisions would be made before the educational process is complete.
"If we study together, listen compassionately, I think that the community has its heart in the right place," she said.
Grossman said she was very pleased with the debate in the CJLS, noting that the tone was "very respectful" and the body’s endorsement of differing opinions showed an admirable "commitment to pluralism."
"We can have faith, but don’t have to have fundamentalism," she said.
There did seem to be some disagreement, though, on one issue arising from the meeting ‹ whether a Conservative rabbi could officiate at a same-sex marriage if such ceremonies are legalized by the state.
Grossman said the topic is something for the CJLS to take up at a future meeting, along with a discussion about possible guidelines or frameworks for commitment ceremonies.
But CJLS chair Rabbi Kassel Abelson, a part-time resident of Bethesda, said that rabbis are permitted to make their own personal judgments on the issue.
"As long as [same-sex marriage] is legal in the state," Abelson said, "a rabbi could do that," he said.
A number of rabbis said that they were not sure what kind of impact last week’s vote would make on the movement and whether more, or fewer, Jews might be drawn to Conservative shuls.
"I don’t think it will have a big impact either negatively or positively," said Abelson, but "I think it is an appropriate step at this stage in world history and Jewish history."
But Eytan Hammerman, a second-year rabbinical student at Jewish Theological Seminary and a member of Keshet, which advocates for full equality for gays and lesbians in the movement, said that "inclusion of gays and lesbians can only serve to strengthen the movement."
"I fear that students that would have been at JTS are at other schools," said Hammerman about previous policies that prevented openly gay and lesbian Jews from Conservative rabbinic ordination. "We’ve been hurt by how many have left" the movement.
Hammerman, who spent two years in the Washington area as director of the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute before entering JTS, believes most JTS faculty favor admitting gays and lesbians. The University of Judaism in Los Angeles is widely expected to accept gays and lesbians even sooner.
That would be good news for Aaron Weininger, a gay senior at Washington University in St. Louis, who has wanted to be a Conservative rabbi since he was 15. He can finally consider applying to rabbinical schools.
"This is the first step in a very long journey," Weininger said, adding that there is "a lot of work ahead of us to advance full inclusion."
Not everyone pushing for liberalization of the movement’s policies on gays and lesbians was pleased by last week’s ruling, though.
Dan Furmansky, executive director of the gay and lesbian rigts advocacy group Equality Maryland, was raised in a Conservative synagogue, but has felt "disenfranchised" from the movement ever since he came out.
He said he appreciates that gay and lesbian Conservative Jews might consider this a step forward, but is unhappy that the teshuva that allowed rabbinical ordination and commitment ceremonies for gays and lesbians also bans anal sex.
"It’s hard for anyone who has felt spiritually disenfranchised by Conservative Judaism to take this as a big welcome," he said.
Grossman noted that the opinion recognizes that heterosexual relationships are preferred under the "weight of Jewish tradition," but this decision allows those who are gay "to bring their talents to the community."
"We’re looking for Jews who want to embrace living a Jewish lifestyle," she said. This decision "open the arms of the movement" to them.
Copyright 2006, Washington Jewish Week