We talked to Reform Jewish Rabbi David Wirtschafter of Temple Beth-El in Huntington, NY, about his commitment to commitment ceremonies for Jewish gay and lesbian couples.
The Knot: How should a gay or lesbian couple search for an officiant?
Rabbi Wirtschafter: Personal referrals are often best. Within the Reform Jewish world, couples should call their regional office to find local rabbis who are willing to perform commitment ceremonies. It's really important to find a rabbi or minister who's comfortable working with you and to tell this person everything he or she needs to know right off the bat. If there are family issues rooted in religious or psychological stuff, your clergyperson's job isn't just to perform the ceremony -- the rabbi or minister protects the couple from the stress and crises and craziness of the wedding day. The ability to protect will be greatly hampered if you don't provide a psychological overview of the major players. Don't try to protect your officiant by not revealing that your dad's angry about your homosexuality, or that your partner's parents will boycott the ceremony if there's not a priest as well as a rabbi present, for example. Be thoroughly honest -- let your officiant know about the emotional dynamics in play.
The Knot: What do gay and lesbian couples list as important reasons for wanting commitment ceremonies?
Rabbi Wirtschafter: They feel that their union deserves as much of a blessing and a public affirmation of support as do the marriages of their heterosexual counterparts. They're looking for a venue in which to actualize the support of their families and friends. They very much want our seal of approval within a religious context, too -- the blessing of the rabbis or synagogue they grew up with. It can also help their heterosexual parents that the community and synagogue affirm and support the union.
The Knot: Do couples choose to talk about their sexual preference in their ceremony?
Rabbi Wirtschafter: It varies from couple to couple. The last couple I worked with did not want to politicize their union or highlight the difference in any way. They didn't want a ceremony with a degree of protest or anger; they wanted to celebrate and sanctify their marriage. We live in a culture where keeping the marriage commitment "until death do us part" is a very difficult thing. In my eyes, any time two people take that plunge and aspire to be lifelong partners, something beautiful has happened, and we need to be there for that if we can.
The Knot: How does a commitment ceremony differ from a traditional Jewish wedding? Does the couple sign a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract), even though it's not a legal document?
Rabbi Wirtschafter: A lesbian couple I worked with researched an alternative ketubah, but as a Reform rabbi I don't use a traditional ketubah anyway -- the focus lies in the exchange of emotions and spirituality instead of an exchange of property. The ceremony is very similar: There's the ring exchange, and vows are taken. We might alter the traditional seven blessings to say "this bride and this bride" or "these lovers" or "this beloved couple." Some rabbis who believe in commitment ceremonies don't view them as weddings in the sense of Jewish law, so they don't use the traditional ring ceremony. They'll substitute other beautiful verses from Scripture.
The Knot: In your view, are more Reform rabbis open to the idea now, and are they willing to perform ceremonies?
Rabbi Wirtschafter: Yes, I think people are becoming more open-minded. Two years ago the issue was supposed to be debated at a Reform movement convention, but they tabled it because they felt it was still too controversial. In 1996, the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution about gay and lesbian unions. I think many Reform rabbis would be thrilled to perform a commitment ceremony, but because they haven't stated a position on the subject, people don't know to approach them. I hope more clergy consider it. I would never ask anyone to do a ceremony that makes them uncomfortable; it would be a disservice to the couple and to themselves. But you should challenge yourself about this issue and think seriously and creatively about it, on a religious level and on a personal, psychological level.
The Knot: When and how did your interest in and support of commitment ceremonies begin?
Rabbi Wirtschafter: Like many of us in the Reform movement who are heterosexual but have a special interest in commitment ceremonies, I have an older brother who's gay. I worked on a paper about gay and lesbian unions with another student, who had a gay sister, during my seminary years. We also worked with another rabbinical student we met at a workshop in Cincinnati, who also had a gay sibling. She came up to me later in New York with a packet of resources about the subject; I was standing there with a Queens rabbi who was mentoring me at the time. He was an older man who had been a rabbi for 30 years. This woman walked up to me and said, "David, here are the resources." The rabbi asked what was in the folder, and I said, "Well, these are some documents on commitment ceremonies." He asked what a commitment ceremony was, and I explained. "Oh," he cried at the top of his lungs, in this roomful of people, "Are *you* gay?" I said no, but that I did have a brother who was, and I was interested in the idea. It's harder to envision such a scenario now, just five years later. At the time it was very political.
The Knot: Was Temple Beth-El in Huntington aware of your feelings about commitment ceremonies when you were hired?
Rabbi Wirtschafter: It came up when I joined the staff. My senior rabbi told me that he didn't do them, but that he didn't mind if I did. A separate but similar issue is creating a spirit of gay and lesbian inclusion in synagogue life, which he is working hard to do. We've invited speakers, and more and more people are coming out in the congregation. Gay and lesbian people who have heard of our reputation are joining, too. And we're forming a task force.
-- Tracy Guth
If you're interested in a Jewish commitment ceremony and you live in the Long Island, NY, area, contact Rabbi David Wirtschafter of Temple Beth-El of Huntington at (516) 421-5835, or Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Temple Beth-El of Great Neck at (516) 487-0900.
See More: Same-Sex Weddings