Judaism's Changing Face

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | In a historic vote on Wednesday, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement gave a green light to the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and offered individual congregations the right to preside over same-sex commitment ceremonies, though not to sanctify such unions as marriage.

On the critical underlying issue of homosexual conduct, however, the Committee declined to turn its back on what it called “the Torah's explicit prohibition” on anal intercourse between men, but clarified that other sexual behavior involving two gay men or two lesbians is consistent with Jewish tradition.

In a historic vote on Wednesday, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement gave a green light to the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and offered individual congregations the right to preside over same-sex commitment ceremonies, though not to sanctify such unions as marriage.

The move, announced by the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly at a press conference at the Park Avenue Synagogue at 87th and Madison, is a significant break in a debate that has gone on for more than a decade about the role of openly gay and lesbian people in the Movement's religious life. For the first time, Conservative seminaries will have the option to admit out gay and lesbian rabbinical and cantorial students.

Previously, only Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish seminaries were open to gay and lesbian rabbinical candidates.

On the street outside the synagogue immediately after the Committee's announcement, gay and lesbian Conservative Jews joined by a greater number of straight allies, hailed the progress they saw in the decision.

“As a proud and openly gay Conservative Jew who is about to graduate from college, I am directly impacted by today's decision and I am happy that I am finally able to pursue my calling to serve my people as a rabbi,” said 21-year-old Aaron Weininger, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis.

The Westchester native, who was educated at a Jewish high school on the Upper West Side and is majoring in anthropology and Jewish Near Eastern studies, took several days off from classes to join in a learning program Tuesday at the Conservative Movement's Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) on Broadway at 122nd Street. The event, planned for the eve of the vote, was hosted by Keshet (Rainbow), a student and faculty group at the seminary that advocates for full participation by gays and lesbians in Jewish life. Although the seminary's three non-rabbinical and non-cantorial units-the undergraduate, graduate, and Jewish education programs-have long admitted out gay and lesbian students, it was apparent Tuesday that most Keshet members at JTS are straight allies.

In fact, the keynote address Tuesday, during lunch, was given by Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a 31-year-old Conservative leader of a Sharon, Massachusetts congregation who has long been outspoken not only on the issue of gay and lesbian integration into Conservative Jewish life, but also on longer-standing debate about egalitarian practices-that is, the unified and full participation of both men and women in religious services, something universal in Reform congregations, but not among Conservatives. (Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, a JTS-trained rabbi and a straight woman who now serves Manhattan's LGBT Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, is another leading voice for gay inclusion in the Conservative Movement.)

Creditor's talk nicely framed the issues facing the Movement, and also illuminated how a religious body can encourage yet contain a debate that-looking to other faiths for comparison-is essentially absent, or at best neutered, in official Catholic Church discussion and in the past several years has threatened to rip apart the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Creditor recalls that a year ago at a gathering of Conservative leaders in Boston, he stood up and stated that any congregation that does not embrace egalitarianism is endorsing “institutional misogyny.” The remark, of course, sparked bitter disagreement, and in looking back on it, Creditor said, he realizes he erred in “assuming evil in others.” He brought up that example to urge patience, as well as “unconditional love,” on Keshet members who face what he said, “will be a disagreement that lasts.” He likened the Conservative Movement to a family and said that when family members disagree they do not leave each other. Then, warning that the vote the following day might not go their way, he told the Keshet members, “If nothing happens and you leave, then it's not a family.”

In fact, something did happen Wednesday, but the difficult part is that several things happened-and to an outsider, and undoubtedly many within the Conservative Movement itself, those several things may well seem contradictory.

The Law Committee, as it is known casually, has 25 members and in order to make a pronouncement on halakhah, or Jewish law and tradition, it must only garner six votes. What that means is that the Committee can define normative conduct by congregations with the support of just under a quarter of its members. And what is most challenging to fathom-especially for those coming from a more authoritarian religious tradition-is that halakhah pronouncements can be directly contradictory to each other.

That was Wednesday's result. By a vote of 13 of 25 members, the Committee agreed to open up the rabbinate to openly gay and lesbian candidates and to sanction the blessing of gay unions, while retaining adherence to biblical language interpreted to define sodomy as “an abomination.”

At the same time, 13 of the 25 members also voted to retain the current policy. Obviously, one Committee member voted for the two contradictory postures, but more importantly, each side of the argument clearly had strong support, and the Committee was willing to let both pronouncements come out. Rabbis representing both perspectives were at pains on Wednesday afternoon to emphasize the collegiality and lack of rancor that characterized the discussions.

That is not to say that the vote split did not have significant repercussions. Rabbi Joel Roth, who is affiliated with JTS and authored the paper recommending that the current, non-inclusive policy be maintained, was among four who resigned from the Committee over the adoption of what he termed the more “permissive” approach, which welcomes greater gay integration. While emphasizing that he had no intention of leaving the Conservative Movement, and would even given second thought to his resignation at the urging of colleagues, Roth did question whether “there are limits” to what is valid pronouncements under Jewish law and tradition, or whether any measure winning six votes is “ipso facto” an acceptable direction for the Movement.

Another rabbi-not among those who resigned-said the four viewed the vote for inclusiveness as “outside the pale of acceptability” based on Jewish law.

Roth stated that nobody on the opposite side of the debate ascribed his position or that of others favoring the status quo as “homophobic.”

One of the four, however, Rabbi Leonard Levy of Queens, succeeded in winning six votes for a paper advocating acceptance of reparative therapy efforts aimed, essentially, at “curing” homosexuality, a posture roundly rejected by gay and lesbian organizations and nearly all mental health experts.

Interestingly, two additional papers, which each took slightly different aim at the Torah admonition against sodomy, had greater support than Levy's position, but failed to win approval on technical grounds. On matters that challenge what the Law Committee views as firmly established and fundamental principles of Jewish tradition, a vote of 13, or a majority, rather than six members is required. The two papers that sought to end the stigma attached to sodomy garnered seven vote each, one more than the reparative therapy paper achieved.

In discussing the paper he co-wrote with two other rabbis urging greater inclusion of gays and lesbians, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, said that blessing same-sex unions was consistent with Jewish traditions of family life and monogamy, and he encouraged gay and lesbian couples to raise children as a means of carrying on the life of the Conservative Movement. Dorff, who acknowledged that his views on homosexuality broadened dramatically after his daughter came out as a lesbian, predicted that despite disagreements on his campus, it would move promptly to begin ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis.

There is no clear prediction available on what choice New York's JTS will make, though both students and faculty from the seminary in favor of gay ordination appeared at the second press conference outside the synagogue.

At that press conference, asked about the failure to reform the Movement's position on sodomy, Elizabeth Richman, a straight ally at JTS, said, “Keshet is very pleased with the progress that's been made. It's one step forward and there's still work to be done and Keshet pledges itself to working for the complete inclusion of Jews of all sexual orientations in the Conservative Movement.”

The group was also asked about Roth's statement that nobody on the Committee viewed those opposed to fuller gay inclusion as homophobic. In response, Sarah Freidson, a 25-year-old, second-year rabbinical student at JTS and co-chair of Keshet, said, “I think we have a lot to learn from all of our teachers. This movement is going to be strengthened by listening to everybody's voice.” When pressed by a reporter whether that meant that there were no homophobes in the debate, Freidson said, “I don't know how other people think… I know that respectful, open dialogue is the way to have our strength.