Conservative Jews Allow Gay Rabbis and Unions
By Laurie Goodstein
December 7, 2006
New York Times
The highest legal body in Conservative Judaism, the centrist movement in worldwide Jewry, voted yesterday to allow the ordination of gay rabbis and the celebration of same-sex commitment ceremonies.
The decision, which followed years of debate, was denounced by traditionalists in the movement as an indication that Conservative Judaism had abandoned its commitment to adhere to Jewish law, but celebrated by others as a long-awaited move toward full equality for gay people.
“We see this as a giant step forward,” said Sarah Freidson, a rabbinical student and co-chairwoman of Keshet, a student group at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York that has been pushing for change.
But in a reflection of the divisions in the movement, the 25 rabbis on the law committee passed three conflicting legal opinions — one in favor of gay rabbis and unions, and two against.
In doing so, the committee left it up to individual synagogues to decide whether to accept or reject gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies, saying that either course is justified according to Jewish law.
“We believe in pluralism,” said Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chairman of the panel, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, at a news conference after the meeting at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. “We recognized from the very beginnings of the movement that no single position could speak for all members” on the law committee or in the Conservative movement.
In protest, four conservative rabbis resigned from the law committee, saying that the decision to allow gay ordination violated Jewish law, or halacha. Among them were the authors of the two legal opinions the committee adopted that opposed gay rabbis and same-sex unions.
One rabbi, Joel Roth, said he resigned because the measure allowing gay rabbis and unions was “outside the pale of halachic reasoning.”
With many Protestant denominations divided over homosexuality in recent years, the decision by Conservative Judaism’s leading committee of legal scholars will be read closely by many outside the movement because Conservative Jews say they uphold Jewish law and tradition, which includes biblical injunctions against homosexuality.
The decision is also significant because Conservative Judaism is considered the centrist movement in Judaism, wedged between the liberal Reform and Reconstructionist movements, which have accepted an openly gay clergy for more than 10 years, and the more traditional Orthodox, which rejects it.
The move could create confusion in congregations that are divided over the issue, said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the movement’s more than 750 synagogues with 1.5 million members in North
“Most of our congregations will not be of one mind, the same way that we were not of one mind,” said Rabbi Epstein, also a law committee member. “Our mandate is to help congregations deal with this pluralism.”
Some synagogues and rabbis could leave the Conservative movement, but many rabbis and experts cautioned that the law committee’s decision was unlikely to cause a widespread schism.
Before the vote, some rabbis in Canada, where many Conservative synagogues lean closer to Orthodoxy than in the United States, threatened to break with the movement.
But Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said: “I find it hard to buy the idea that this change, which has been widely expected, will lead anybody to leave, because synagogues that don’t want to make changes will simply point to the rulings that will allow them not to make any changes. This is not like a papal edict.”
The question of whether to admit and ordain openly gay rabbinic students will now be taken up by the movement’s seminaries. The University of Judaism, in Los Angeles, has already signaled its support, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, its rector and the vice chairman of the law committee. He co-wrote the legal opinion allowing gay ordination and unions that passed on Wednesday.
The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the flagship school in Conservative Judaism, will take up the issue in meetings of the faculty, the students and the trustees in the next few months, Chancellor-elect Arnold Eisen said in an interview. Mr. Eisen said he personally favored ordaining gay rabbis as long as it was permissible according to Jewish law and the faculty approved.
“I’ve been asking the faculty, and time and again I got the same answer,” Mr. Eisen said. “People don’t know what they themselves think, and they don’t know what their colleagues are thinking. There’s never been a discussion like this before about this issue.”
The law committee has passed contradictory rulings before, on issues like whether it is permissible to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath. But the opinions it approved on Wednesday reflect the law committee’s split on homosexuality.
The one written by Rabbi Roth upholds the prohibition on gay rabbis that the committee passed overwhelmingly in 1992. Another rebuts the idea that homosexuality is biologically ingrained in every case, and suggests that some gay people could undergo “reparative therapy” to change their sexuality.
The ruling accepting gay rabbis is itself a compromise. It favors ordaining gay rabbis and blessing same-sex unions, as long as the men do not practice sodomy.
Committee members said that, in practice, it is a prohibition that will never be policed. The ruling was intended to open the door to gay people while conforming to rabbinic interpretations of the biblical passage in Leviticus which says, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”
The committee also rejected two measures that argued for a complete lifting of the prohibition on homosexuality, after deciding that both amounted to a “fix” of existing Jewish law, a higher level of change that requires 13 votes to pass, which they did not receive.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker, the author of one of the rejected opinions, said he was satisfied with the compromise measure. “In effect, there isn’t any real practical difference,” he said.
The Conservative movement was once the dominant stream in American Judaism but is now second in numbers to the Reform movement. Conservative Judaism has lost members in the last two decades to branches on the left and the right. Pamela S. Nadell, a professor of history and director of the Jewish Studies program at American University, said, “The conservative movement is wrestling with the whole question of how it defines itself, whether it still defines itself as a halachic movement, and that’s why there was so much debate and angst over this.”
So the change is that same-sex "unions" (note the shying-away from calling it "marriage"... grrrr...) and gay rabbis are okay, as long as if it's two guys, they don't actually have anal sex. Pretty much anything else is fair game. This is the way some Orthodox Jewish homosexual men have been interpreting halacha for years, from what I understand. And there are no restrictions for lesbians. Yeah, 'cause that's fair to the guys... ::rolls eyes:: Still gonna stay on the left side of this fence myself, thank you...
Now, in the effort of full disclosure, the Reform movement doesn't officially call same-sex marriages "marriages" either. They call them "commitment ceremonies" (which was the most popular euphemism 6 years ago when they were approved, if one remembers, now pretty much overshadowed in the media by the phrase "same-sex unions") or "holy unions." However, the ceremonies are identical to traditional marriage ceremonies. Reform rabbis can also choose whether or not to perform the ceremonies, according to personal discretion, just as they do with interfaith couples, as far as I know. I do wish that the Central Conference of American Rabbis would discuss it again and change the word to "marriage." I hate euphemisms... They create a sense of otherness, a delineation which can suggest "less than." That leads, inevitably with some people, to condoning discrimination and intolerance, and I don't like it. They won't take it up again anytime soon, I know, in an effort to be "sensitive" to those who might be "sensitive." ::snorts:: I don't even want to think about what America would have been like today if that was the official attitude of the government and liberal religious organizations, such as the Reform Jewish movement, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s... Oy! ... ::sighs:: Whatever...
But I suppose, on some level, this is a step in the right direction.