Conservative rabbis approve same-sex marriage ceremonies

The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards—which sets halachic policy for the Conservative movement—has voted unanimously to provide the approximately 1,600 Conservative rabbis with guidelines on performing same-sex marriages.

The move is an official sanction of the ceremonies by the movement.

The CLJS approved the documents Thursday by a 13-0 vote with one abstaining ballot. For years, the Conservative movement has debated how to approach same-sex unions. Traditionalists often opposed such relationships while urging respect as progressives—particularly some rabbinical students—pushed for full equality.

In 2006, the CLJS officially sanctioned gay relationships. At the time, it stressed that rabbis were not obligated to perform such ceremonies, but could do so and not be violating RA standards.

Rabbis Daniel Nevins, Avram Reisner and Elliot Dorff created the new ritual guidelines. They offer two types of gay weddings, as well as gay divorce.

“Both versions are egalitarian,” Nevins told the Forward. “They differ mostly in style—one hews closely to the traditional wedding ceremony while the other departs from it.”

The templates do not include kiddushin, the ceremony in which the groom presents his bride with a ring. However, they do detail a ring exchange that is based on Jewish partnership law, an established halachic concept, Nevins told the Forward.

But Mom, I don’t want a bar mitzvah!

I saw the blinking light on my answering machine and listened to the frantic voice of my girlfriend, Debbie, as I put the groceries away.

“Heeeeeelp! Jason says he doesn’t want to do his bar mitzvah anymore. We’ve got the date and the place, I’ve hired the DJ and he’s already begun to prepare. He’s making me crazy. What should I do? Call me.”

Wow, what a bummer, I thought to myself.

I really wasn’t sure what to say in response to Debbie’s S.O.S.

What would I have done if my son had said, “No, thanks, Mom. I just don’t want one.”

Would I have forced him to do it anyway, because I knew that he would be sorry later?

Probably, until an experience I had recently completely changed my mind about when is the right time to have a bar or bat mitzvah.

In Hebrew the words bar/ bat mitzvah literally mean “son/daughter of the Commandments.” It is an ancient Jewish ritual dating back to the first century C.E., marking the religious and legal coming of age of a Jewish male at 13 and of a Jewish girl at 12. In the Jewish tradition, the bar mitzvah marks the transition from boyhood to manhood in terms of Jewish communal prayer life, enabling the child to be counted as part of the minyan (the quorum of 10 adults Jewish males necessary for certain prayers) and permitting him to read from the Torah. On an individual level, it establishes the age of legal responsibility and obligation to follow all the commandments.

But what happens later in life to the many Jews who grow up without having a bar or bat mitzvah?

I found out when I was asked to work with a group of Jewish college students who expressed an interest in having one. As I listened to the students share their stories about why they hadn’t done it earlier in their lives, I realized how lucky I was to be able to be a part of their journey. Some, like Debbie’s son Jason, just didn’t want one when they were younger. Others came from interfaith families where it wasn’t an option or from Jewish communities to which they didn’t feel connected. But each one now had a personal desire to learn more about Judaism in order to understand his or her relationship to faith, Jewish traditions, God and Israel.

We studied Jewish history, holidays, ethics, rituals, liturgy and prayers while building a trusting and genuine spiritual community. We shared holidays, birthdays, news about boyfriends, exam anxiety and weight gain. I watched them struggle with questions of faith and heard them talk about doubt, guilt and fear as they actively sought out meaning in and from Judaism.

Our year culminated in a Shabbat morning service where each student read from the Torah and offered a d’var Torah, a personal teaching, about something important that he or she had learned or grappled with during the year.

Anyone who had ever struggled with issues of faith, God or family was able to glean both wisdom and inspiration from my students that day. Individually and as a community of learners, they had engaged in the type of serious Jewish study that would now enable them to become responsible Jewish adults. And that, in a nutshell, is the crux of what it means to become a bar or bat mitzvah.

At the end of the service, I offered my students the following words, which I shared with my friend Debbie in the hope that they might offer her a different perspective on Jason’s reluctance to have a bar mitzvah.

“Being Jewish is not like being in a race. You don’t have to worry about getting to the finish line or keeping pace with other runners. There is no record or timekeeper, other than your innermost self, to mark your spiritual growth and progress.

“Being Jewish is about making the journey, about finding your own stride, about determining your own path. It is about taking that leap of faith and crossing through waters of doubt, discomfort and fear in order to better understanding yourself, your family, your traditions, your culture, your ethics, your history, and your people. And it is in this way, when you are ready, that you will come to appreciate your uniqueness as an individual and your special destiny as a member of the Jewish people.”

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at

Saying Goodbye 101

On Sept. 1, my husband, Larry, and I will move our son, Gabriel, into his dormitory room at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where he will begin his freshman year.

How do we formally honor this important rite of passage that, more than a bar mitzvah and more than his high school graduation, marks Gabe’s entrance into adulthood, with all the concomitant responsibilities?

Let me say that another way.

How do we kiss Gabe goodbye without dissolving into pitiful, sobbing fools who will undoubtedly embarrass our son and ourselves?

Judaism gives us plenty of advice on child-rearing. Proverbs 22:6, for example, says, “Train a child in the way he should go, so when he is old he will not depart from it.”

But what Judaism doesn’t give us, when a child is old enough to depart from us, is a ritual to mark the sanctity of the occasion and, no matter how much we anticipate the eventual prospect of an empty nest, to contain our overwhelming emotions.

“By its very nature, this is something that can’t be contained,” Gabe insists. “I just have to go out and live it.”

But how do we live it?

We, who know from experience — our oldest, Zack, is beginning his senior year of college — how gut-wrenching the actual leave-taking is.

We, who know from experience how permanently our family configuration will — once again — seismically shift.

What can we do beyond opening a new checking account and beyond ordering, among other things, two sets of extra-long sheets and a hamper?

And beyond playing Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” over and over in the car and hysterically crying, a form of implosion therapy recommended by my psychologist friend Jody, whose oldest child leaves for college this month.

Surprisingly, Judaism offers a number of leaving home ceremonies. The oldest I discovered, dating back to the 1970s and found in “The Second Jewish Catalogue” (The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976), is called “On Leaving Home: A New Rite of Passage.” It recommends several home rituals, since Judaism places so much emphasis on the family, that range from hosting Havdalah, the quintessential Jewish separation ceremony, to invoking the traditional Jewish blessing over the children.

Others can be found on, a Web site that collects and makes available a variety of innovative Jewish ceremonies and traditions. One includes a father’s prayer to be read at the Shabbat table while another provides a ceremony for affixing, if permissible, a mezuzah on the child’s dorm doorpost.

And the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) publishes “T’filot HaDerech,” “Rituals for the Road to College” (available at Part of the Packing for College Initiative, proposed by Rabbi Eric Yoffie at the union’s 67th biennial almost two years ago, the booklet includes rituals and readings for congregations, families and individuals to celebrate this modern life passage.

Additionally, a few congregations have moved confirmation to the end of 12th grade, enabling the students, according to Rabbi Fred Guttman’s article in the spring 2005 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, “… to intertwine what it means to come of age both as Jews and as young adults — the emotional touchstones of graduation and leaving home for college.”

But why haven’t these leaving home ceremonies taken off? Why aren’t we gathering together as families, as day school classes and as congregations before sending our 18-year-olds off to college? After all, we Jews are adept at marking life transitions that challenge and overwhelm us — birth, adolescence, marriage and death — with ceremonies that comfort, contain and sustain us.

“Perhaps it’s because we tend to focus on b’nai mitzvah, confirmation and graduation,” Rabbi Michael Mellen, director of youth programs at URJ, says. “As a whole, we see [leaving home] as a natural progression that just sort of happens and doesn’t need something to bring it home spiritually.”

But he recognizes the need, along with the beauty and power, of a ceremony to bring parents and young adults together at this moment.

And so, on Aug. 26, the Shabbat prior to Gabe’s departure, Larry and I will integrate a small ceremony into our Shabbat dinner, something to give voice to our excitement and our pain, our pride and our fears.

“What do you plan to do?” Gabe asks suspiciously.

“We will each say something nice about you and talk about what we will miss most,” I answer.

“This is serious, isn’t it?” he says.

And Larry and I will bestow the traditional blessing: “May God bless you and protect you. May God’s face give light to you and show you favor. May God bestow favor upon you and give you peace.”

Carleton College has given us parents a graph to show just how bumpy a student’s adjustment to college can be — from honeymoon to culture shock to initial adjustment to mental isolation to acceptance and integration.

We parents have an equally bumpy road ahead.

And so, on Sept. 2, when Larry and I say our final goodbye to Gabe, no matter how meaningful our last Shabbat dinner and no matter how many times we have cried to “Forever Young,” we will undoubtedly fall apart.

Then, as Gabe says, we will just have to go out and live it.


A Hoppin’ Seder


Q. Why do we have a haggadah on Passover? A. So we can seder [say the] right words.

It’s a terrible joke, but it suggests why seders have gone from righteous to rote, from dynamic to deadly boring. Everything is too much by the book, the haggadah, to be exact, in the worst possible way, says David Arnow, in “Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities.” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004,

Arnow says that seders are supposed to be living, vibrant, creative — with room for spontaneous discussion and new ideas that reinvent what freedom means to the current generation, which gathers to commemorate a liberation that occurred thousands of years ago.

“I love the haggadah,” Arnow told The Journal. “But I probably wouldn’t if I opened it just for seders.”

The 23 chapters of Arnow’s book cover everything from the Four Questions and the 10 Plagues to women in the Exodus and the role of Elijah. Each chapter poses discussion topics, activities and study ideas for adults and children alike to tap into creativity and to fulfill truly the Passover mitzvah: to feel as if you personally went out of Egypt.

“For most of us, simply reading the haggadah no longer helps us feel as if we had been redeemed from Egypt,” Arnow said. “Instead, the experience of reading more than a few pages … often makes us feel as if we are oppressed, saddled with an ancient, confusing text that never quite tells the story we expect to hear.”

Passover was never meant to be that way. The origin of the holiday’s ritual observance can be found in the Mishnah compiled by Yehuda Hanasi (Judah the Prince), around 200 C.E. It reveals how Passover was celebrated following the destruction of the Second Temple.

“The Mishnah created a balance in the seder,” Arnow said. There were parts of the ceremony that became fixed, like the four cups of wine, Hallel, dipping, reclining, explaining the meaning of matzah, and the pascal sacrifice. “But,” he added, “it also made it clear that the child was encouraged to ask his father spontaneous questions about the seder.”

The current rote rendition of the four questions is the “worst-case scenario,” said Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah, in Valley Village. “In addition to the mah nishtanah, we need to create a seder around teaching children how to ask their own questions, which goes back to the original structure of the Mishnah.”

“If you arrive at the seder with no preparation or commitment,” Finley said, “of course it’s going to be boring, meaningless and irrelevant.” Understanding the original structure of the seder, and then allowing latitude to break away from that structure is key, he said.

“We usually include a Slinky on the seder table,” Finley added. “It’s circular, representing the cycle of the year. It has a spring — because Passover is a spring holiday. We always pick some bizarre object and have people talk about it and its significance to the seder.”

Arnow’s book offers a variety of other ways to make things interesting. He suggests working on only one chapter each year and beginning seder preparation several weeks in advance.

One idea is to focus on what happened the night of the last plague — the slaying of the Egyptians’ first-born sons. Commentators say that many Egyptian mothers went to Jewish families and asked them to take in their sons to spare them. Arnow suggests dividing guests into three groups: the Egyptian mothers pleading for their children’s lives, a group that argues for taking them in and another group that argues against. Ultimately, the guests must decide what to do. Once the decision has been made, Arnow writes, all should then read the midrash itself from Exodus Rabbah 18:2, which reveals the outcome. There was no Disney ending: God smote all Egyptian first-born sons irrespective of whether they’d been taken in by the Israelites.

Another activity could compare two contrasting biblical verses. In Numbers 11:4-5, the Israelites wept and said: “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.” Whereas, in Numbers 13:23, the text reads: “When the spies returned from the Promised Land they brought grapes, pomegranates, and figs.” Guests should come up with reasons to explain why leeks and onions are connected with Egypt, while grapes and pomegranates are associated with Israel. (Assistance can be found in Deuteronomy 11:10-14.)

One way or another, families have to find a way to make the seder connect.

“People get bored because they don’t understand the significance of why they’re there in the first place,” said Jonathan Rose, a 44-year-old musician, who grew up in Israel but today rarely participates in a seder.

Lena Katz, a 30-year-old writer from Manhattan Beach, celebrates a lively Passover with her family and her Israeli boyfriend every year. “My family has fun because we’re always bursting into song or drinking a full glass of wine instead of a sip, and just basically injecting some life into a rather dry — if worthy — old text,” Katz said.

Steve Lipman, a 43-year-old technology-program manager from Orange County, took on the actual text. “For years I heard complaints about the haggadah that we used not speaking to the seder participants,” Lipman said. “So using a variety of free sources I wrote my own haggadah. We’ve been using it at our seder ever since.”

A successful seder will speak to all ages, and will “stimulate children’s spontaneous questions,” Arnow said. “It’s our job to create a lively seder where that spontaneity can flourish.”

He recommends asking children directly why they think the seder night is different from other nights. He also suggests that adults and children re-enact the exodus, alongside a story in his book titled, “The Last Night in Egypt,” which is designed with children in mind. The story concludes with everyone leaving Egypt carrying a small knapsack of matzah and bitter herbs and, later, arriving in the Promised Land (in this case the dinner table), ready to begin the seder.

Many new haggadot embrace ideas similar to Arnow’s; the goal is to restore the balance between the fixed rituals and the more creative elements advocated in the Mishnah.

“The haggadah evolved over a tremendous amount of time and in response to all types of changing circumstances,” said Arnow. “We’re all just trying to get back in touch with that wisdom and to make the seder as meaningful to our generation as it was back then.”


Feast and Help Yourself

“Finding Each Other in Judaism: Meditations on the Rites of Passage From Birth to Immortality” by Harold M. Schulweis. (UAHC Press, $12.95)

“Finding Each Other in Judaism” distills decades of those quiet, private moments when a curious, wounded or concerned congregant asks the rabbi: “What do I do now?”

How does a rabbi, a master and teacher, a living repository of ancient tradition and modern empathy, translate rituals both compelling and arcane into vibrant, meaningful, relevant life-markers?

Rabbi Harold Schulweis invites us into his study and speaks plainly about the ceremonies that mark Jewish life passages. How can divorced parents overcome their differences and distance when celebrating a child’s bar or bat mitzvah?

“Bar/bat mitzvah events have too often become occasions for acting out post-divorce enmity, wherein children are caught between the tugs of loyalty to both parents,” Schulweis writes. “Yet, some divorced parents have managed to put on a face of cordiality in the presence of the child, the family, friends, and the congregation. In one unforgettable instance, divorced parents who joined to receive the honor of an aliyah at their child’s bat mitzvah recited the blessings, then turned toward each other and embraced. The wonderment of the face of the child and her first smile on the pulpit that day spoke volumes.”

How can a seriously ill person pray?

“Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, ‘Whoever believes in miracles is a fool, and whoever does not believe in miracles is an atheist.’ We are neither fools nor atheists.”

How can we mourn? “Not the wisest/ Not the smartest/ Not the kindest/ Not the most useful/ Not the richest/ Not the most successful/ Not the tallest/ Not the bravest/ But my own.”

At the heart of every ceremony, central to each of the meditation-poem-prayers that Rabbi Schulweis presents, lies the Image of God in which each person is created. In his meditation, “Facing Sickness,” he writes, “My God manifest/ Through unknown researchers,/ Physicians and nurses attending severed wounds,/ Helping recovery./ My God revealed/ Through family and friends,/ Prayers added to my own,/ Transfusing will./ My God/ Within my tradition/ My God whom I do not fear/ In whose goodness I trust.”

God comes into the world through the actions and kindness of one human toward another. In those acts, we bear witness to God’s Image in our moral deeds, the rabbi maintains.

Six short chapters, each similarly structured, discuss the traditional life-cycle events (birth and brit, bar and bat mitzvah, weddings, death and bereavement), events not usually considered life-cycle passages (illness and recovery, divorce) and situations often overlooked as part of public ritual (conversions and family reconciliations). Each chapter opens with a concise and succinct presentation of important rabbinic ideas about the particular event and is followed by a collection of poem-prayers. The meditations are lovely pieces, although occasionally a bit clunky. Not only do they have value on their own, but a piece could help a celebrant personalize seemingly distant and inapplicable rituals.

In the introductory chapter, Rabbi Schulweis develops a demanding yet fulfilling theology: Through rituals we overcome our existential isolation. Reaching out to family, friends, and community, present and past, we develop relationships in which we can imitate God. While we strive to see the Image of God in all, “it is not the face but the back of God that is imitated. God is Imageless, but God’s ways are discernible and emulatable.”

Rabbi Schulweis mourns the great rifts that tear at the American Jewish cultural fabric. There are those who celebrate rites without any real passage (Rabbi Schulweis recounts Kafka’s estrangement from a father who possessed only, in Kafka’s words, an “insignificant scrap of Judaism” and Gershom Scholem’s father’s use of Shabbat candles to light his cigar with an ersatz blessing.)

Then there are those who pass from one stage of life to another with no marker except the calendar, the owners of riteless passages.

Estranged too are the private and public realms. Traditional Jewish liturgy is communal, its language collective and plural. Increasingly, synagogues are asked by congregants to address personal as opposed to public needs.

Rabbi Schulweis suggests that we can integrate the self and community with a sensitive and close reading of Hillel’s legendary aphorism “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I?”

Rabbi Schulweis’ slim volume can help these valiant and necessary efforts. As a supplement to any prayerbook, as a supplement for anyone who prays on these occasions, Rabbi Schulweis has added a valuable and moving text to our shelves.