Nov 28, 2011

Forward.com: "Conservatives Grapple With Gay Wedding Rite"

Forward.com: "Conservatives Grapple With Gay Wedding Rite"

Rabbis Create Traditional Service, But Some Couples Balk

Tying the Knot: Conservative rabbis are seeking to devise a new marriage rite for gay couples. Should it be similar to the one for straight couples, or something different?
Tying the Knot: Conservative rabbis are seeking to devise a new marriage rite for gay couples. Should it be similar to the one for straight couples, or something different?

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published November 28, 2011, issue of December 02, 2011.

Having recognized gay rights with their 2006 acceptance of gay unions, Conservative rabbis are now wrestling with the issue of gay rites.

The recent efforts of three leading rabbis to construct a kosher wedding ceremony for same-sex couples hews closely to the traditional Jewish heterosexual ceremony, in an effort, they say, to ensure that same-sex couples suffer no inequality in the sacred standards governing their vows. But these efforts, ironically, are now drawing criticism from some activists for replicating aspects of the Jewish wedding rite that they consider sexist.

"In a way it's a shame, there is an opportunity for a less problematic, more contemporary liturgy," said Jay Michaelson, founding director of Nehirim, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jewish group. (Michaelson is also a Forward contributing editor.)

Rabbi Jill Hammer, right, with her partner at their wedding.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, right, with her partner at their wedding.

What's more important than parity between same-sex and heterosexual ceremonies, critics say, is equality between partners. While traditional Jewish marital rites — or kiddushin — describe the man as the owner of his wife, some gay and lesbian Jews say they want to avoid this hierarchical language in favor of an egalitarian template.

The trio of rabbis leading the effort to devise a sacred structure for same-sex wedding vows that will pass muster as kiddushin are Elliot Dorff, a professor of Jewish theology at American Jewish University; Daniel Nevins, Dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary; and Avram Reisner, head of the Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore. The same three rabbis also authored an influential ruling in 2006 that welcomed gays into the Movement. At a meeting on November 16, the rabbis presented their proposal for same-sex marriage and divorce rites to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, Conservative Judaism's official rabbinical association.

Because the document is still in draft form — it will likely be voted on in June 2012 — the rabbis declined to share it with the Forward. But the rabbis, describing the marriage template in broad terms, said that it was modeled on the traditional ceremony, taking place under a canopy, with an exchange of rings and a recitation of the traditional seven blessings, among other rites. The main discrepancy is that the gendered language has been changed.

According to Reisner, the rabbis felt that if they strayed too far from traditional marriage in their proposal to the committee, they would be seen as offering gay and lesbian Jews a ceremony that was both separate and unequal. "The community would not feel warmly if they felt they were being offered some radically different thing," he said.

But according to Michaelson, while traditional marriage looks appealing to some gay and lesbian Jews, others bristle at the idea of imbuing same-sex unions with language that would imply that one party owns the other. These dynamics came into play for Michaelson when he was planning his own wedding, which took place in September.

"I didn't want a photocopy [of traditional marriage] for a number of reasons," he said. "For feminist reasons I don't like kiddushin anyway, and for LGBT reasons it didn't feel authentic to me to copy a model meant for a man and a woman to my situation."

Instead of falling back on traditional marriage rites, Michaelson wrote his own legally binding ceremony based on the concept of nedarim, or vows.

"I didn't feel like purchasing my husband, and hopefully no men feel like they are purchasing their wives," he said. "Zooming back, one of the challenges for Conservative Judaism is how to accommodate both people who want something pretty straightforward and people like me, who want to create their own rituals and services and liturgy."

Rabbi Jill Hammer said that she had similar concerns in planning her 2004 wedding with her female partner. "We were not comfortable using [kiddushin] as our template for marriage," she said. "Not every couple understands it this way, but talmudically there is a lot of difference between the way a woman and a man are treated. We were looking for something else."

Like many lesbian Jewish couples, Hammer and her partner structured their ceremony around a chapter from the Talmud's Book of Ruth in which Ruth decides to live with Naomi, her mother-in-law. "It is about two women committing their lives to each other, sharing children and a livelihood. That was a good way to find something traditionally Jewish and use it for a foundation for our wedding," she said.

But gay and lesbian Jewish activists weren't the only ones who bristled at the idea of using heterosexual rites for homosexual unions. According to Reisner, the 32-member Committee on Jewish Law and Standards gave the proposed template a mixed review.

"Some in the committee felt very warmly for a ceremony that was very close to a traditional wedding," he said. "For other people it was desirable to step away from that model altogether. There was a determination that the tenets of traditional marriage didn't apply [to same-sex unions]."

Rather than vote on the marriage and divorce template at the November meeting, the committee sent rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner back to the drawing board to come up with a second template to supplement the first. When the Forward interviewed the rabbis, they had little sense of what this second set of guidelines would look like, except that it would not hew to traditional marriage rites.

"There might be couples that would prefer something different, and there might be rabbis who could support a commitment ceremony but are not yet at the place where they could support a ceremony that looked like a marriage," said Rabbi Susan Grossman, who chairs the Personal Status subcommittee of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. "If we want to make this as broadly embracing as possible, it doesn't hurt to provide alternatives. We want to provide many opportunities for couples and rabbis to find the resources within Judaism to honor their commitment to each other in a meaningful Jewish way."

Providing two templates — one traditional, one not — made sense to some gay and lesbian Jewish activists.

"People invest time and energy into making a mark through their wedding ceremony that reflects their own take on their Jewish journey," said Gregg Drinkwater, deputy director of Keshet, another Jewish gay and lesbian advocacy group. "If you are using a one-size-fits-all ceremony, that is harder to do."

Gerald Skolnik, a Conservative rabbi at the Forest Hills Jewish Center, in Queens, was asked last summer by a congregant and his partner to perform what would be Skolnik's first same-sex marriage. Under Skolnik's guidance, the couple ended up with a hybrid ceremony — a blessing over the wine and an altered document that resembled a ketubah, the official Jewish marriage document, but no chuppah, a choice they made on their own. Skolnik said that in the future he would welcome the guidance of the committee.

"Let's say you are still coming to terms with doing gay and lesbian weddings, and you are interested in exploring it," he said. "I don't think there is anything wrong with having multiple templates for that kind of ceremony."

Read more: http://www.forward.com/articles/146826/?p=all#ixzz1f0ONWnue

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti ||  ShefaNetwork 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  ||  menachemcreditor.org 
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Nov 27, 2011

Sitting on the Steps
(C) Rabbi Menachem Creditor

How strange,
to sit in a place
that has seen
so much of me.

These stones have
caught my tears,
echoed my song,
felt me gallop.

These stones have
heard me gasp and laugh,
and have witnessed
the bloom
and loss
and growth
of my heart.

These stones were built
to be strong enough
to weather the many lives
lived upon them,
generation by generation.

Nov 22, 2011

Aching Souls
(C) Rabbi Menachem Creditor

We back away but look back,
when we wish to stay.
We back away and cover our eyes,
when staying is unbearable.

We are not meant to endure in those intensities,
sublime or horrific.
We don't live there.
Insight has its limits.

We back away.

The truths we can barely endure,
mortality, injustice, and pain,
threaten to deaden caring souls,
to blind our eyes from seeing what hurts.

But even (especially) when we back away,
we see and feel.
We care.

An aching soul is a gift, a portal,
straight from the universe
through one person into another.

When such souls connect and collide and entangle,
desperate to support and be supported,
the ache's answer is suggested,
and the Universe experiences intense Light.

We see.
We ache.
We care.

Nov 21, 2011

Rabbi Aaron Alexander: "Reflections from My First CJLS Meeting: Access & Equality"

Rabbi Aaron Alexander: "Reflections from My First CJLS Meeting: Access & Equality"
Posted on Nov 21, 2011

By Aaron Alexander, Associate Dean, Ziegler School

Last week we intensely and passionately discussed and debated no less than eighthalakhic topics. However, this particular meeting illuminated one coherent theme:Access. Or, access, status, and equality in the light of Torah.

Access to Revelation.
Access to Authority.
Access to Relationships.
Access to God on behalf of the Community.

We talked deeply about real issues and real people. While it is impossible to cover everything at once, significant change demands careful attention, more questions than answers, and a healthy realization that different people understand and intuit God's will and word in diverse and distinct, yet equally valid ways. 

(What follows is my take on four of the issues discussed, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the entire CJLS, or individual members.)

Access to Revelation: Rabbi Pamela Barmash put forth an appendix to her already unanimously passed teshuvah, "Status of the Heresh and of Sign Language." One issue remained unresolved: whether or not a deaf community could hold a fully ritualized Torah reading in sign language, complete with blessings. Rabbi Barmash brought with her well respected members of the deaf community who addressed the CJLS with passion and eloquence.

While the CJLS remains somewhat divided on whether or not sign language is 'reading' or 'translation', which impacts the Torah reading more than other rituals, Rabbi Barmash's teshuvah passed virtually unanimously. In this case, members of the Law Committee powerfully elevated inclusion and near-equal access to Torah for its deaf members of the Jewish community.

Access to Relationships: Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Avram Reisner and Danny Nevins put forth a worthy draft for a gay-marriage ceremony as a follow-up to their landmark teshuvah that passed in 2006. As the committee begins to fully unpack and internalize their effort, it is clear that the needs and rights of the gay community are being well considered within a framework of Halakhah and the Torah's most precious values.

Access to Authority: Rabbi Joseph Prouser presented a paper to rebut an unfortunate ruling by a prominent orthodox rabbi, that basically bans a convert from sitting on a Bet Din, even with all other qualifications being equal (see more here).

Rabbi Prouser has written an extraordinary response in the form of a teshuvah for the Conservative Movement's Joint Bet Din, bringing the best of halakhic discourse, academic rigor, and aggadic prose to strongly deflate any possible stringent opinion. In doing so, he beautifully reaffirms exactly how the Jewish community ought to treat and view those amongst us who make the holy choice to join Judaism - as nothing less than full Jews in every respect.

Access to God on behalf of the Community: Rabbi Gail Labovitz has addressed a question that has vexed living communities for quite some time. Knowing how essential and embedded the Yom Kippur fast is, may one who is unable to cease from eating based on medical advice (pregnancy, breastfeeding, etc..) still serve the community and God as Shaliah Tzibbur, prayer leader? Rabbi Labovitz's answer, Yes. While some restrictions will help guide the community in deciding how to implement this ruling, it is evident that Rabbi Labovitz has deftly utilized traditional sources and a realistic awareness of individual and communal needs to navigate this question. 

After spending a few days reflecting on my first CJLS meeting I feel nothing less than honored and humbled to be nestled amongst this brilliant and thoughtful group, doing this work, all in service of God, Torah and Israel.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti ||  ShefaNetwork 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  ||  menachemcreditor.org 
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Nov 18, 2011

A New Viral YouTube: "Try To Imagine A Jew"

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Share This:
the masorti (conservative) movement in israel - promoting religious pluralism and building community through inclusive, traditional, egalitarian Judaism
Getting the message out takes multiple shapes and forms.
The Hebrew only version of the YouTube video at the link below was posted just a couple of days ago by Masorti in Israel and already has about 5,000 hits.
Take a look at this version with English subtitles. It may not be the most profound text ever written, but it does get a message across.
If you share belief in the critical importance of pluralism in Israel, please help support the Masorti Foundation.
David H. Lissy
Executive Director and
Chief Executive Officer
To learn more, please contact:
Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel
475 Riverside Drive, Suite 832
New York, NY 10115-0068
(212) 870-2216; 1-877-287-7414
http://www.masorti.org/; info@masorti.org

Nov 15, 2011

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen: "On the Culture of Greed"

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen: "On the Culture of Greed"

A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting discussing an upcoming ballot initiative which would eliminate the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Everybody in the room was opposed to the death penalty. The discussion was about the strategy that should be employed to convince voters to make the proposition law. The campaign's tactic was to argue that the death penalty was more expensive than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP). This is, of course, true. As theLA Times reported:

[An] examination of state, federal and local expenditures for capital cases, conducted over three years by a senior federal judge and a law professor, estimated that the additional costs of capital trials, enhanced security on death row and legal representation for the condemned adds $184 million to the budget each year.

However, sitting in that room, engaging in that conversation, I suddenly got very depressed. I realized how we had all been impacted by the culture of greed that has overwhelmed our country.

I want to make clear that I think that we urgently need to stop our country's machinery of death and to begin the hard work of justice—reforming our prisons, making victims and/or their families whole, allowing for transgressors to repent and atone (as I argue here). I think that replacing the death penalty with LWOP is a good and important step on the way to accomplishing this. I was reacting to the fact that the parameters of the debate (cheaper is better) are not ones that I agree with and are destructive to the moral fabric of our country and society. Let me explain.

One does not expect to learn Biblical lessons from a politician. However, just a few weeks ago, in an interview with the Wall St. Journal, Herman Cain illustrated an important lesson that the Torah teaches. Cain didn't teach Torah. Rather he personified the type of person that the Torah warned against. (This is all before he demonstrated his latest moral and political obtuseness.) We find the following in Deuteronomy chapter 8:

Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. … and you say to yourselves, "My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me."

Cain, referring to the folks at Occupy Wall St., said: "Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks, if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself. It is not someone's fault if they succeeded, it is someone's fault if they failed." What better paraphrase is there of "My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me."

This narcissistic solipsism of the "winners" (or as Matt Taibi has pointed out, the cheaters) is not limited to one of the Republican candidates—it has taken over our culture in many ways. The most prominent arena in which this happens is the political. All arguments come down to their monetary value.

One of my constant companions nowadays is a rabbi who died over a hundred years ago. Simchah Zissel Ziv was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1824 and eventually became the rabbi of the Lithuanian town of Kelme, as a result of which he is known as the the alter or "elder" of Kelm. He was the student of the founder of the mussar movement in Judaism. This movement stressed the importance of strict ethical behavior in the spirit of Jewish law. Reb Simchah Zissel put his own spin on this school. In the collection of his essays he stresses that the most important prerequisite to living a righteous life is "helping one's fellow with their burden." Reb Simchah doesn't mean this in a metaphorical way. A person has to train themselves towards a radical empathy in order to be able to feel and then to actually respond to the sufferings of another person.

The greatest obstacle to this radical empathy of "helping one's fellow with their burden" according to Ziv, is greed. Greed, he says, turns all actions and intentions on their head. One wants to give charity, but then, realizing that there is a monetary loss involved, one will invent all manner of justifications for not giving charity, up to and including making not giving charity an ideal ("moral hazard," "teaching people how to fish," "pulling up by bootstraps"). Not giving charity becomes in one's mind the more righteous path. Radical empathy is dependent on being able to respond to another person's suffering rather than calculating your actions vis a vis another in dollars and cents.

Wealth and greed are not the same. Greed is bad while wealth is neutral. The accumulation of wealth for the purpose of comfort and even luxury, if it is also accompanied by an investment in the well being of society—the assurance that all people reach a threshold of the goods needed to live in dignity— is good. The accumulation of wealth for its own sake—beyond any possible needs of survival then comfort then luxury—at some point turns into an obsession. The wealth becomes an end, a value independent of and overriding other values. In the Jewish tradition this is called idolatry.

The vocabulary of greed has taken over the political culture and has trampled empathy and the claims of justice. Cutting social service programs—which, a study released this week shows, have kept millions of people above the poverty line—in the name of "efficiencies" and "anti-tax pledges" is immoral. Raising the cry of narcissistic solipsism to the level of a moral virtue ("I earned this money all by myself and therefore nobody has any right to it!") makes the immoral claim of being an island unto oneself, as if one graded the land and poured the concrete and smoothed the blacktop with one's own hands to get one's widgets to the markets—as if one has not benefitted from luck and circumstance and the hard work of many who came before, and who toiled independent of one, as if the accident of birth, the economic and geographic circumstances of one who is impoverished are their own doing and their own fault.

The worse thing about this, the thing that had me depressed in that very nice living room with those fine people was that even those of us who are trying to create a more just world, have been impacted by the universe of monetized morals. Should we not be able to argue that the death penalty should be abolished because it is immoral on its own, and not because it is more expensive than the alternative!? Should we not be able to be heard on the issue merely because it is just and right?

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti ||  ShefaNetwork 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  ||  menachemcreditor.org 
To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Nov 14, 2011

"Faces of Israel"- a must see/experience!

Dear Chevreh,

It was my great privilege last night to host and be a part of "Faces of Israel" (www.facesthemovie.com), an exciting new documentary film by director Amy Beth Oppenheimer.  

The film is a discussion of Religion, Marriage, and the State, featuring an incredible array of voices and faces, including Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum (associate dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Assembly), Rabbi Hanan Alexander (Head of the International School at the University of Haifa), Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, regular Israelis, and many more.  There are chapters that examine the incredible work of the Masorti Movement, and of ITIM and Tzohar, all advocacy networks for a more responsive Judaism in Israel than the Chief Rabbinate has created in the first 63 years of Israel's existence.  The educational materials on the Faces of Israel website (www.facesthemovie.com) are well-developed, and participants have already asked for follow-up programming after last night. A good sign that this program successfully sparked emotional and spiritual and political chords.

Amy not only presented her work with clarity and passion, but also managed to nurture a non-judgmental conversation surrounding incredibly charged and important facets within Israel's and many Israelis' struggles for democracy, Judaism, meaning, and pluralism.  I cannot recommend Amy or the film (and both!) highly enough. Netivot Shalom's screening of the film was followed by a cross-denomination panel which Amy skillfully moderated, suggesting a model for focused, safe, and mutually respectful Israel-dialog.  Amy's direct email is director@facesthemovie.com - I encourage you to consider bringing Faces of Israel to community - you'll be very glad you did. 

Kol Tuv,

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti ||  ShefaNetwork 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  ||  menachemcreditor.org 
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This Week at CNS! OneVoice, Women of the Wall, God vs. Gay, Religious Zionism, & Love and Taxes!

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This Week at CNS! 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall, God vs. Gay, 
Religious Zionism, Love and Taxes, and more!
Tuesday, November 15, 7:30pm 
Yes We Do! Why Rabbis Across the Spectrum Support Women's Rights at the Kotel in Jerusalem

Rabbinic Panel Discussion featuring:  Rabbi David Kalb (Orthodox), Director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life,  92nd Street Y, New York; Rabbi Menachem Creditor (Conservative), Congregation Netivot Shalom, Berkeley; Rabbi Stephen Pearce (Reform), Congregation Emanu-El; Rabbi Jane Litman, Regional Director, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation; and Rabbi Pamela Frydman (Renewal), Academy for Jewish Religion, California and Moderated by Rachel Biale,  Author of Women and Jewish Law and New Israel Fund Lay Leader. - FREE EVENT

November 17, 7:30pm
Jay Michaelson, Author of "God vs. Gay" 

Jay Michaelson is a writer, scholar, and activist whose work addresses the intersections of religion, sexuality, spirituality, and law.  His newest book is God vs. Gay?  The Religious Case for Equality, will be published in October, 2011, by Beacon Press.  Jay is is the author of three other books and over 200 articles, essays, and works of fiction.  He is the Associate Editor of Religion Dispatches, a Contributing Editor to the Forward newspaper, and Founding Editor of Zeek magazine.  Jay's presentation will be followed by a public conversation with Rabbi Michael Lerner. - FREE EVENT, Books available for signing and purchase

November 17, 7:30pm
Ongoing Class on Religious Zionism 
with Bay Area Masorti Visiting Scholar Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch

Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch was born and raised in an Ashkenazi Orthodox family in Jerusalem and has become a leading  Israeli-born  Masorti rabbi in Israel.  He has a BA in Jewish History and Philosophy from the Open University, an M.A. in Talmud and Halacha, and smicha from the Schechter Institute, Jerusalem.  He was a pulpit rabbi for the Masorti  movement  in Jerusalem and worked in a wide variety of non-profit and educational institutions in Israel. He is currently a visiting Masorti scholar from Israel to the Bay Area (and a proud CNS Membber!) for the second year. 

November 20, 10:30am
"Jewish Mysticism & the Spiritual Life" with Rabbi Or Rose 

Over the last two decades or so, increasing numbers of Jewish and non-Jewish seekers in the United Sates and elsewhere have turned to the teachings of Kabbalah and Hasidism in their spiritual journeys.  What are some of the core teachings of these mystical traditions?  What has attracted people to them? And what might we glean from our Kabbalistic and Hasidic forebears?  Our discussion will include the study of several primary textual sources (provided in the original and in translation), and an open discussion of the possibilities and challenges of engaging these sources in our contemporary cultural contexts. The author or editor of several books and articles on Jewish spirituality, social and environmental justice, and interfaith cooperation, he recently co-edited Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life: Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections.  Rabbi Rose is a member of the Shalom Hartman Institute's North American Scholars Circle, and serves on the editorial committee of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility. - FREE EVENT, Books available for signing and purchase


Saturday Night, Nov. 19, 8pm
"Love & Taxes" on Stage & Screen with Josh Kornbluth - @CNS!

The inimitable Josh Kornbluth will entertain, inspire, and thoroughly delight you. Josh has just completed a new film, Love and Taxes, based on Josh's highly successful solo performance piece. The film will be released--when else?--on Tax Day, April 15, 2012. On this sneak-peak evening Josh will perform excerpts from the monologue, show sneak previews of excerpts from the film, and engage in conversation with Rabbi Menachem Creditor. 

and don't miss...

December 10, 8pm: Release concert of Rabbi Creditor's new CD "Within" 

This new album is a collaborative shul project featuring original compositions and the debut recording of "V'asu", a song composed by Debbie Friedman z"l upon the dedication of the physical home for Netivot Shalom on University Avenue 6 years ago.


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