Difficult choices for rabbis: Some find ways to sanctify gay and lesbian relationships

Like many young girls, Deborah Newbrun fantasized about her perfect Jewish wedding. As she got older, however, she grew less certain it would ever materialize.

It's not that Newbrun had unrealistic expectations: She just wanted to marry another woman.

Last year in Woodside, her dream came true. Newbrun and Sidney Mintz exchanged rings and vows before their family, friends, Congregation Emanu-El Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan and God.

Days before the wedding, Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley's Conservative congregation Netivot Shalom honored the couple with an aliyah, a Torah reading.

"It is quite appropriate for any rabbi to ask for the blessings of God on two individuals who are joining together in a loyal, permanent, monogamous, loving, committed Jewish relationship," wrote Kelman, a national Jewish leader and founder of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, in a recent essay about sanctifying gay and lesbian relationships.

In an interview, the East Bay rabbi, who also has been director of the Agency for Jewish Education, acknowledged a need toexplore new interpretations of the Torah text that calls homosexual sex an "abomination."

He said he believes it crucial to "perform some ceremony that says there is sanctity in a long-term permanent relationship."

For years, only a handful of rabbis such as Yoel Kahn of San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, a synagogue priding itself on gay and lesbian outreach, performed Jewish commitment ceremonies.

More recently, though, a number of Bay Area rabbis have officiated at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies — without the official backing of their respective movements. Among them are Patricia Karlin-Neumann of Reform Temple Israel in Alameda, Rona Shapiro of U.C. Berkeley Hillel and Wolf-Prusan, education director at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors added its support for such ceremonies Monday. It passed an ordinance,sponsored by Carole Migden, allowing the county clerk and other deputized representatives to perform civil ceremonies with "marriage-like vows" for "domestic partnership agreements."

That legislation comes on the heels of the state Assembly Judiciary Committee approving a bill taking a different position: If approved by the state Assembly and Senate, it would ban California from recognizing marriages performed in other states. Hawaii is expected to legalize same-sex marriages in 1997.

Meanwhile, each rabbi officiating Jewish commitment ceremonies listed stipulations for their sanction. They make the same requests of heterosexual couples they marry.

Karlin-Neumann, for instance, insists both partners be Jewish and affiliated with her congregation. Shapiro, Conservatively ordained, will not perform an interfaith ceremony. Wolf-Prusan asks that couples live in the area and practice only one faith.

Wolf-Prusan is careful to refer to the ceremony at which he officiated by its halachic term, kiddushin — literally, sanctification, although the term is understood to mean marriage.

While rabbis who officiate at weddings act as agencies of the state, Wolf-Prusan saw his role at Newbrun and Mintz's ceremony as "a representative of the community of these two women.

"What they were asking was to proclaim in their Jewish community that their relationship was unique from any other relationship they have. They were declaring their relationship sacred by the community."

Wolf-Prusan removed all gender references from the traditional wedding ceremony. Mintz and Newbrun wrote their own vows.

Both Shapiro and Karlin-Neumann similarly removed sexist language from the commitment ceremonies at which they officiated, and replaced the seven traditional blessings for the bride and groom with seven new ones.

"I was concerned with the words," Karlin-Neumann said. The ceremony she ultimately wrote was "collected and borrowed from others who had already done it. A snippet here and there.

"I really struggled with wanting to do something with the power of a wedding ceremony yet that was unique and not a wedding."

While many feel that support from mainstream rabbis gives credibility to gay relationships, Kelman was careful to qualify his position. "I'm doing this as Stuart Kelman, Conservative rabbi," he said. "There's no weight of the movement behind me."

Unlike interfaith marriages (on which the major movements have taken definitive stands), gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies remain a gray area for many rabbis.

For example, the committee of Jewish law and standards of the Conservative movement bars its rabbis from officiating at a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew. It urges its members not to officiate at a gay or lesbian commitment ceremony. So those who choose to do so are acting on their own responsibility and without the Rabbinical Assembly's support.

The Reform movement, known for autonomy among its member congregations, has not issued a statement on either interfaith or gay and lesbian marriages.

Not all rabbis believe the issue is open for discussion, however.

"It's really a non-issue for Orthodox rabbis," said Rabbi Jacob Traub of Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco. "There are specific elements necessary for a marriage — specifically a male and a female. It's in the Torah, in the Talmud. This is halachah [Jewish law]."

Even those open to change are extremely cautious. When Newbrun and Mintz requested a joint aliyah, Kelman felt a need to determine synagogue policy about sanctifying gay and lesbian relationships. He turned to his congregation for help.

Together, the congregants and rabbi embarked on a year-long study of Jewish texts and interpretations. Kelman wrote three papers about the study process. In his writing he proposed "the creation of a new category of relationship…brit rayut [covenant of love]."

Same-sex unions "are not something new," Kelman wrote. "What is new is that the union to be sanctified stands in a new class of covenantal relationships, a class that is not forbidden by the Torah and that is different from the relationship called marriage."

Kelman said new ceremonies need to be created for a variety of relationships — not just gay and lesbian ones but for elderly widows and widowers who, for financial reasons, choose to live together rather than remarry.

He added that many heterosexual couples are now opting for alternative ceremonies too.

A number of couples find the wording of the traditional wedding ceremony, which joins people under property rules, dated and offensive, Kelman said. "This entire way of thinking about marriage needs to be re-examined."

The brit rayut ceremony will be based on mutuality. But until he completes his writing of it, Kelman won't be officiating at any alternative unions.

Meanwhile, to help rabbis such as Karlin-Neumann create significant alternative wedding ceremonies, Sha'ar Zahav's Kahn self-published a work-in-progress called "Kiddushin: Union Ceremonies for Lesbian and Gay Jews."

Kahn offers sample vows, ketubot and seven-blessing texts that are free of gender references. He includes articles about gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies, recommended readings and resources.

Like Wolf-Prusan, Kahn prefers the term kiddushin to wedding. "I don't want to mislead congregants into believing their marriage is considered legal by the state," he said. "And I want to distinguish these ceremonies [from] traditional heterosexual weddings."

He added that gays and lesbians are trapped in a "double bind" in trying to sanctify their relationships. While critics accuse gays and lesbians of not maintaining enduring relationships, "our efforts to mark the sanctity of our relationships are criticized as poor imitations of the `real thing,'" Kahn wrote in Kiddushin.

"It is miraculous, in fact, how enduring gay and lesbian relationships are in the face of both the world's oppression and homophobia and our own internal absence of language and institutions for supporting our relationships.

"I therefore consider it a great privilege to officiate at commitment ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples."

Shapiro voiced similar sentiments. She spoke of her personal feelings, and the role of halachah, that led to her decision to officiate at a commitment ceremony last May.

"I was always open to and ready to do a commitment ceremony. I believe in it," Shapiro said. "Acceptance and tolerance [of gay and lesbian relationships] is not enough. We need to celebrate these relationships in the same way we celebrate straight ones.

"We need to begin to make these ceremonies normative."

Kahn agreed. When he and his partner exchanged vows five years ago, "I called it a kiddushin, but once [the ceremony] happened, I knew I was married," he said.