In a new and dramatic break with the traditional understanding of biblical morality, rabbis of the nation's largest Jewish movement Wednesday declared that their members are free to officiate at same-sex unions.
A relationship between two Jewish men or two Jewish women is "worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual," the resolution by the Central Conference of American Rabbis--the rabbinical arm of Reform Judaism--declared. The vote marked the first in a series of wrenching debates expected this year among both Christian and Jewish denominations over homosexuality.
Before Wednesday's vote, the Unitarian church and the United Church of Christ--both traditionally liberal Christian denominations--were the only American religious bodies to formally approve having clergy officiate at same-gender unions. Later this year, the Presbyterian, United Methodist and Episcopal churches all face debates on the issue. Opposition to same-sex unions is strong in those denominations.
Those debates come amid widespread arguments over same-sex unions in secular society as well. In recent weeks California voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure opposing same-sex marriages, while legislators in Vermont moved toward establishing "civil unions" that stop just short of gay marriages.
Among Jews, the vote by the Reform rabbis follows years of sometimes contentious debate. Two years ago, the rabbis shelved a similar proposal, fearing a debate would be too divisive. This time, however, the voice vote to approve the resolution was overwhelming, after a closed-door debate that participants described as "very civil" but "passionate."
Reform Judaism claims about 1.5 million adherents in the United States and is the most liberal of the three main movements in American Judaism.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, Judaism has no hierarchy that imposes rules on all clergy, and some Reform rabbis already officiate at same-sex unions. But Wednesday's vote marked the first time that a rabbinical organization had faced the issue head-on.
Rabbis Allowed to Make Choice
"For the first time in history, a major rabbinical body has affirmed the Jewish validity of committed, same-gender relationships," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregational arm of the Reform movement.
Conceding that the issue is controversial, the rabbinical body said it also supported the right of individual rabbis not to officiate at gay and lesbian unions.
"We recognize the diversity of opinion within our ranks on this issue," the resolution said. "We support the decision of those who choose to officiate at rituals of union for same-gender couples, and we support the decision of those who do not."
Supporters hailed the vote, which took place at the organization's annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C., as an overdue affirmation of the dignity of gay men and lesbians as people created in the image of God.
"Everything they've heard since the time they came to terms with the fact or recognized they were gay and lesbian has been negative. They were called substandard, sinful, abnormal, not whole," said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the executive vice president of the Central Conference.
"It's no honor to be heterosexual, no sin to be homosexual," he said. "It's just who we are."
But opponents warned that the move would widen the existing gulf between Reform and more traditional Jews.
"This is another indication that there is nothing sacred to Reform Judaism," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute at Yeshiva of Los Angeles. "Having thrown out Jewish law and observance, they're just as willing to dispatch traditional Jewish values."
"They are marching to their own drummer," said Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, a New York-based organization of Orthodox congregations. The Reform vote is "taking the tradition of 3,000 years and basically throwing it out the window."
Rabbis in the Conservative movement, which takes a midway position between Reform and Orthodoxy, also have discussed same-sex unions, but any action is believed to be years away.
"This would be the most fundamental change, more fundamental even than women becoming rabbis, because to sanction a change in the family structure is in itself revolutionary," said Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, a large Conservative congregation in Los Angeles.
Israeli Opposition Called a Concern
The Hebrew Bible explicitly condemns homosexual relations as a violation of holy law. Reform rabbis, however, have long argued that such laws need to evolve as society's values change. From its founding in the 19th century, the Reform movement has dispensed with many biblical laws, such as those governing diet or activity on the Sabbath.