Of the three major Jewish movements, the Reform Movement is the most fully inclusive of LGBT people in Jewish life with most Reform communities and synagogues embracing LGBT people. The Reform Movement’s welcoming stance has been informed by:
- A focus on the Jewish philosophy of tikkun olam (repairing the world/social justice) as a primary method of serving God;
- A commitment to Judaism as an evolving tradition;
- An understanding of halacha (Jewish law) as a series of guidelines, not binding rules;
- The principle of b’tselem elohim (all human beings are created in God’s image).
The Reform Movement has a long tradition of supporting LGBT people. In 1977, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (or CCAR, the movement’s rabbinical organization) passed a resolution calling for the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults and an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians. Since then, the movement has continually supported the rights of LGBT people, both in civil and Jewish society. The earliest resolution on homosexuality issued by the Reform Movement was resolved at the 25th Biennial Assembly in 1965 by the Women of Reform Judaism National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. The statement read, in part:
“We…deplore the tendency on the part of community authorities to harass homosexuals. We associate ourselves with those religious leaders and legal experts who urge revision in the criminal code as it relates to homosexuality, especially when it exists between consenting adults.” At the 1987 Biennial, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (or UAHC, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism, it is the movement’s national body) firmly stated its commitment to welcoming LGBT Jews into Jewish communal life in the movement. In 1993, UAHC passed a resolution recognizing gay and lesbian partnerships.
In 1990, the CCAR endorsed a report by its Ad Hoc Committee on Homosexuality and the Rabbinate, which formally endorsed the equality of all Jews and the acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews into Hebrew Union College (the movement’s seminary, with campuses in New York City, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Jerusalem) and the rabbinate, although a number of gay and lesbian rabbis received ordination prior to this 1990 decision, or came out as gay after ordination. Rabbi Eric Weiss was the first openly gay man to be accepted to the Reform Movement’s rabbinical school. He was accepted to Hebrew Union College in 1983.
Congregations and Leadership
In 1987, UAHC passed a resolution stating that gay and lesbian Jews should be granted full inclusion in synagogue life. It urged congregations to ” encourage lesbian and gay Jews to share and participate in the worship, leadership, and general congregational life of all synagogues.” In the same resolution, UAHC also encouraged Reform congregation to, “continue to develop educational programs in the synagogue and community which promote understanding and respect for lesbians and gays, [and to] employ people without regard to sexual orientation.” The Reform Movement is also home to a number of LGBT-outreach synagogues whose specific mission it is to be welcoming to the LGBT Jewish community. The world’s first LGBT-outreach synagogue, Beth
Chayim Chadashim, located in Los Angeles and founded in 1972, is affiliated with the Reform Movement.
Since 1996, the Reform Movement has become progressively more accepting of same-sex marriage. In that year, the CCAR passed a resolution supporting the rights of gay and lesbian couples “to share fully and equally in the rights of civil marriage”. In 1998, the CCAR’s Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality reported that, “kedushah [holiness/sanctity] may be present in committed same gender relationships between two Jews and that these relationships can serve as the foundation of stable Jewish families, thus adding strength to the Jewish Community.” Finally, in March 2000, CCAR passed a resolution allowing Reform rabbis to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies. However, the resolution leaves the decision of whether or not to officiate up to each individual rabbi, out of recognition of the diverse opinions on the issue. The resolution also leaves it up to each rabbi to consider a same-sex union kiddushin or not, thus allowing for some diversity within the movement on treating same-sex unions as equal to male-female marriage, or as a separate category of union.
Today, most, but not all, Reform clergy officiate at same-sex unions. The Reform Movement, however, universally supports civil unions for same-sex couples. In 1997, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations passed a resolution in support of “secular efforts to promote legislation which would provide through civil marriage equal opportunity for gay men and lesbians,” while, at the same time, resolved to “encourage its constituent congregations to honor monogamous domestic relationships formed by gay men or lesbians.” The Reform Movement has also strongly opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment, as well as state amendments that aim to ban same-sex marriage. In 2006, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Eric Yoffie, stated, “Gay Americans pose no threat to their friends, neighbors, or co-workers, and when two people make a lifelong commitment to each other, we believe it is wrong to deny them the legal guarantees that protect them and their children and benefit the broader society.”
In a 1978 CCAR Responsa, approval was given for a rabbi to officiate at the marriage of two Jews, one of whom has undergone sex reassignment surgery. In 2003, Hebrew Union College accepted its first openly transgender rabbinical student, Reuben Zellman.
The Reform movement has been strongly supportive of people with HIV/AIDS since the early days of the epidemic. In the early 1980s, Reform leaders denounced the ostracization of people living with AIDS, along with their families and friends. Notably, during the 1980s and early 1990s, when the gay community in the United States was devastated by the epidemic, Reform-affiliated LGBT-outreach synagogues, such as San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, took very proactive roles in supporting people with AIDS at a time when so many people turned their backs. In 1989, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations created a commemorative poster, the image on it was of a tallit symbolizing the Jewish commitment to fighting AIDS. The poster was distributed to Reform congregations nationwide.