Conservative committee eases gay rabbi ban
Individual seminaries will decide whether to ordain gay rabbis, perform same-sex unions
Published Thursday, 14-Dec-2006 in issue 990
The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), which interprets religious law for the Jewish Conservative movement, adopted three conflicting policies on Dec. 6, one of which gave gays and lesbians the chance to serve as clergy.
A group of 25 conservative Jewish scholars made its decision in a two-day closed meeting at a synagogue in New York City’s Upper East Side. Three teshuvot, or answers, were voted upon.
Within one policy, a majority of votes were cast in favor to maintain a ban on male sodomy but permit gay ordination and allow blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
Four committee members who wanted to uphold the ban on ordaining gays and lesbians resigned in protest following the vote.
The committee also voted to uphold the prohibition against gay and lesbian rabbis in a second policy.
In a third policy written by Rabbi Leonard Levy, the committee voted to uphold the ban on gay sexual relationships in Jewish law. That policy specifically mentions the option for gays and lesbians to undergo therapy aimed at changing their sexual orientation. During the vote, six approved the policy, while 19 voted against it. A policy needs just six votes to be accepted.
“It’s an insult to the memory of people like Matthew Shepard and people like the dozens of thousands of gay people who died in the Nazi concentration camps,” said Seth Krosner, committee chair of J*Pride San Diego and board member and education vice president of Tifereth Israel, a Conservative congregation. “It makes me very angry. It is a minority opinion, so I’m hardened by the fact that the bulk of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is not there.”
J*Pride San Diego coordinator Brian Schaefer said the policy that validates same-sex relationships and recommends ordination for gay and lesbian rabbis is exciting.
“Of course, the two papers that maintain the ban on ordination and recognition of same-sex relationships is disappointing, and the paper that calls for reparative therapy is disturbing, to say the least,” he said. “So it’s a bittersweet victory, but a victory nevertheless.”
Conservative seminaries and more than 750 synagogues along with 1,000 North American rabbis will decide which policy to follow.
“This is a significant stressor on Conservative Judaism, but I think it’s where the American populous is and certainly where the mainstream of the bulk of younger Conservative Jews are,” Krosner said.
In September, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said a committee of scholars who interpret Jewish law for the movement would likely loosen the prohibition.
The CJLS is the central authority on halakha (Jewish law and tradition) within Conservative Judaism. It is one of the most active and widely known committees on the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which was originally set up as the alumni association of New York City’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). The Rabbinical Assembly is the official, international body of Conservative rabbis with over 1,400 members.
Conservative Jews remain divided about homosexuality because Hebrew scripture condemns it. The debate within the movement was initiated by a passage in the Bible: Leviticus 18:22 says, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”
On the other hand, Reform Judaism, the largest branch of the Jewish faith in the U.S., is more accepting of gays and lesbians. The Reform movement has ordained gays and lesbians since 1990 and allowed its rabbis to perform same-sex unions since 2000.
The Orthodox movement strictly adheres to traditional interpretations of Jewish law, banning women and gays from becoming rabbis.
Krosner said the CJLS ruling is very significant for Conservative Jews because it means one of the last formal barriers to formal participation is potentially being lifted.
“I know that in California – Los Angeles, San Diego – and liberal places like Boston and New York, there are going to be many Conservative shuls that take advantage of the liberal ruling to put into effect what’s been a fairly open movement among the more liberal synagogues,” he said. “There are also going to be Conservative rabbis and congregations who are going to be free to continue discriminating. But it’s a first step and I’m very pleased to have even that step taken.”
Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of JTS, said in a statement that the school has not taken an official position on the CJLS decision but that faculty will hold several discussions in coming weeks aiming for a “a clear and reasoned determination.”
“We know that the implications of the decision before us are immense,” Eisen said. “We fully recognize what is at stake. This is why we are determined to conduct a thoroughgoing discussion of which we can all be proud, no matter what outcome is eventually reached.”
The JTS, founded in 1886 as a rabbinical school, is the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism worldwide.
“The ball is thus in our court with regard to the question of ordination of gays and lesbians at JTS – a decision regarding admission and graduation requirements that we will treat as such and not as the matter of law that stood before the Law Committee,” Eisen said.
Schaefer said the CJLS vote may not have much of an impact in the short term since Conservative rabbis and synagogues that are not allies will continue to exclude GLBT Jews, while GLBT-supportive synagogues will continue to open their doors to same-sex couples and families. However, the biggest change may occur in the rabbinical schools like JTS and the University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles, he said.
“To some degree, I think most people expect that the Conservative movement will begin to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis,” Schaefer said. “And the impact of that five years down the road, when those rabbis are placed into synagogues and lead congregations, will be big.”
In 1992, the CJLS voted 19-3 to bar openly gay students from seminaries and prohibited more than 1,000 rabbis in the movement from officiating at same-sex union ceremonies.
Krosner said the Conservative movement is currently at a crossroads and this policy approved by the CJLS may allow more of a middle ground.
“The middle of America is becoming more accepting of gay people and so the Conservative movement is under some obligation to do so as well,” he said. “There are traditional members within the Conservative movement that are likely to protest this decision and become more Orthodox. On the other hand, all the gay people who have been forced or allowed only to feel comfortable within the Reform movement … all those people are going to have a place in more traditional Judaism than they’ve had before.”