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NEW YORK - The Conservative movement yesterday decided to postpone until December 2006 making a final decision on recognizing gay marriage and allowing homosexuals to be ordained as rabbis, a move that is threatening to split the movement.

The movement's halakhic (Jewish law) committee discussed the initiative yesterday but it was decided to delay making a final decision.

One of the Conservative movement's leading rabbis in New York, who requested to remain anonymous, told Haaretz on Monday that the initiative's approval would cause broad resistance among the movement's rabbis and congregation members, and that many would leave the movement.

Rabbi Joel Myers, chairman of the movement's "Rabbinical Parliament" told Haaretz that reports of a possible split were exaggerated.

"Recognition of gay marriages and of homosexual rabbis creates tensions due to the conflict between the principles of Jewish law and the values of our time. However, this issue is not central or critical to our movement," Myers said.

The movement's halakhic committee was expected to overturn the decision made by the same committee in 1992, which banned gay marriage and prevented homosexuals from entering the movement's rabbinate.

Myers, who took part in the committee's debate on the issue but did not vote, said the committee did not reach a decision on the issues and that the dispute would continue.

The location of the committee's meeting was kept secret to ensure that the rabbis felt free from external pressures.

Far-reaching changes

Allowing for gay marriage and for homosexual rabbis represents far-reaching changes in the movement's principles.

The initiative's approval would bring the Conservative movement ideologically closer to the Reform movement and would likely cause a rupture between the Conservative and Orthodox movements.

The Conservative movement is the only movement among the four Jewish movements active in the United States that has lost a significant amount of members in the last number of years.

Over the last decade, the percentage of Jews who identify with the Conservative movement has dropped from 43 percent to 33 percent, while the Reform movement has grown from 35 percent to 39 percent and the Orthodox movement has grown from 16 percent to 21 percent.