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Same-Sex Ceremonies See the Light of Day

by Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner

Five and a half years ago the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved, by a tie vote, that homosexual families should have a dignified public place in the Jewish community while yet respecting the biblical prohibition against male sexual congress (Leviticus 18:22). The authors (myself, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, and Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York) did not, however, append a specific liturgy or ceremonies for such weddings. Rather, we indicated in a short paragraph the elements that might be included in such a ceremony, and, more to the point, that these ceremonies should be joyous and significant, but should not make the claim that they were legally the same as the traditional Jewish marriage bond, the bond of kiddushin.

At that time we wrote:

Surely it is better for gay and lesbian Jews to establish monogamous relationships with other Jews and thereby to establish stable Jewish households…. Surely the establishment of family units is central to the preservation of human dignity…. [W]e favor the establishment of committed and loving relationships for gay and lesbian Jews. The celebration of such a union is appropriate with blessings over wine and Sheheheyanu, with psalms and other readings to be developed by local authorities. Yet can these relationships be recognized under the rubric of Jewish kiddushin (marriage)? Does their dissolution require a ritual of gerushin (divorce)? What format and force would such rituals require? These are complicated and controversial questions that deserve a separate study. We have no objection to informal rituals of celebration for gay couples, including the elements mentioned above, but we are not able in this responsum to address the many halakhic questions surrounding gay marriage. Our paper does not provide for rituals of kiddushin for gay and lesbian couples...

We are not prepared at this juncture to rule upon the halakhic status of gay and lesbian relationships. To do so would require establishing an entirely new institution in Jewish law that treats not only the ceremonies and legal instruments appropriate for creating homosexual unions but also the norms for the dissolution of such unions. This responsum does not provide kiddushin for same-sex couples. Nonetheless, we consider stable, committed, Jewish relationships to be as necessary and beneficial for homosexuals and their families as they are for heterosexuals...

The celebration of such a union is appropriate.

For several years, the task of creating such ceremonies fell to individual rabbis within the movement. In time the Rabbinical Assembly came back to the three of us who wrote the original paper with the request that we try our hands at the project that we had hinted at earlier. Initially, it should be said, we were not anxious to do this. None of us considers himself a master of liturgy, and the legal context of such a ceremony remained to be explored. But as the months passed, and as New York State approved same-sex marriage, more pressure came to bear from colleagues in the field who did not want to create their own liturgy, but wanted some structure that would be recognized and that they could then adapt. And so we went to work reviewing what had been done by individual rabbis in the intervening years, not in order to create a definitive ceremony (we presented two to the Committee on Law and Standards in the paper that was approved in May), but rather to provide a model, or template, that could be used by our colleagues within the full legal context we were projecting. In order that this new legal institution bear some more legitimacy than my colleagues and I could give it ourselves, we sought the committee's approval for the package, even as we understood the ceremonies themselves as models, to be embellished upon as rabbis will.

There were two big problems from the outset: Identifying what precisely constituted the kiddushin, which we were seeking to avoid, and how similar, in other regards, to the well-known Jewish wedding ceremony did we want this to be? Kiddushin, we readily agreed, was a form of special acquisition of the bride by the groom, represented by the husband's declaration when giving the ring:“You are consecrated to me according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” While most in the movement have moved to double ring ceremonies, the bride invariably responds to the groom's legal declaration with some more poetic formula. Ours would be a more egalitarian covenant. There would be a mutual statement, not a onesided declaration. Something, perhaps, that they might say together.

But when it came to a vision of the ceremony, we found that some colleagues preferred to make a same-sex ceremony resemble the heterosexual one, and some quite the opposite. Some wished to see a ceremony as much like the traditional huppah ceremony as possible, changing language and the crucial declaration, but otherwise looking like a traditional wedding ceremony. And others argued that the ceremony should be altogether different, so that it not feel like kiddushin-lite, but like its own entity. And so we presented two models for rabbis to choose from – one with huppah and seven blessings (sheva b'rakhot) and the other without huppah, using a tallit as its embracing symbol, and with three b'rakhot to celebrate the union. At the heart of each we retained an exchange of rings – we felt those were a symbol without which the union would feel incomplete and one that would be more immediate and more portable than the ketubah, or its equivalent in a same sex ceremony. We proposed that those be delivered not with a one-directional declaration, but with a mutual request, “Be my partner….” (the text differs a bit in the two ceremonies) and a joint prayer.

In the process we came to understand that there are three functioning Jewish legal models of binding agreement: kiddushin (marriage), to be terminated by get (divorce); neder (oath) wherein each party takes a solemn vow, to be terminated by convening a bet din (rabbinic court) to annul the vows; and shutafut (partnership) formed by mutual agreement and terminated by either party by a personal statement to that effect. The strongest of those, kiddushin, is one sided and creates the problem of agunah (the chained woman who cannot remarry because her husband refuses to grant a get). A same-sex relationship needed to be mutual, for neither is a dominant party. And we rejected the neder form which required the intervention of a bet din. Our models were both based on partnership, with a single Covenant of Loving Partners document, parallel to the ketubah, to be used with both, and a document of dissolution, should that become necessary, to be filed in a national Rabbinical Assembly database by either or both parties.

There were, of course, language changes that needed to be made in these new wedding ceremonies, even the one that parallels most closely the traditional one. In this area, in particular, we consulted closely with members of the gay community. There were obvious changes. Reference to huppah v'kiddushin were replaced. Hattan v'kallah, bride and groom, became re'im ha-ahuvim / re'ot ha-ahuvot, loving companions. In one of the sheva b'rakhot (the seven blessings recited during a wedding ceremony), hattan v'kallah appears generically as an example of joy. Since it is a passage that is often sung, meter is relevant, so we substituted osher uv'rakhah, happiness and blessing. (Here, some suggested the simple substitution of hattan v'hattan or kallah v'kallah whereas others felt uncomfortable using the terms bride or groom at all in this context, so this suggestion found its place as an alternative.)

We replaced the words “k'dat Moshe v'Yisrael” (according to the Law of Moses and Israel) to “b'einei Elohim v'adam,” (in the eyes of God and humankind) a phrase taken from the Book of Proverbs, recognizing that this is a new ceremony, not yet established in the law of Israel, though in time we expect it to be.

Some changes were not obvious at all. The sheva b'rakhot refer prominently to the creation of humankind, which we felt was appropriate. But the second half of the fourth blessing refers to the creation of Adam in God's image, “creating from him a perpetuation of life.” Subtle though this reference is to woman and heterosexual procreation, we felt it right to refocus on another verse in Genesis, “It is not good for Adam to be alone.” Thus, in subtle ways, was the traditional language adapted to this new event.

We hope that our colleagues will feel comfortable using these models as is or as a basis from which to embellish.

Some have worried that we may have done our job too well, creating an egalitarian ceremony without the problem of the agunah, because the union may be dissolved by either party. Asked what if a heterosexual couple desires to use this structure instead of traditional kiddushin, our response, written into this teshuvah, is:

While some heterosexual couples may see in these new models of brit (covenant) and shutafut (partnership) for same-sex couples a basis for abandoning the traditional model of kiddushin (sanctification), Conservative Judaism has taught us to respect ancient liturgy and to minimize modifications of text, focusing instead on interpretive evolution…. Because for gay couples there is no established wedding liturgy, we have used this opportunity to create a new ritual that uses the egalitarian language of partnership from the outset.

The fact is that as part of the traditional wedding ceremony we do more egalitarian double ring ceremonies as a matter of course, and have resolved the problem of the agunah through the offices of the Joint Bet Din and annulling marriages upon divorce when a get cannot be obtained. Innovation, we believe, has its rightful place beside tradition, not in its stead. We are acutely aware that the civil question of marriage equality is very much roiled at this moment. We sought, insofar as anything we say has weight, to insulate these ceremonies from any implication with regard to state law:

Some American states and foreign countries have recognized same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships but reserved the language of marriage for heterosexual couples. Others have moved to full equalization of legal status and terminology for gay couples, but many states have refused all such recognition…. The status of this relationship in civil law will depend upon the jurisdiction within which the ceremony occurs and the reciprocal recognition rules in the state where the couple resides. Performance of the Jewish wedding ceremony is not to be considered a civil marriage in those jurisdictions which prohibit same-sex marriage.

It will be up to individual colleagues to determine whether they can and wish to participate in such a ceremony.

You can find the responsa at www.rabbinicalassembly.org.

Avram Israel Reisner, rabbi of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore, Maryland, serves on the board of Magen Tzedek and on the editorial committee of Siddur Sim Shalom.

 
 
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