Photo courtesy j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California
By Debra Nussbaum Cohen, New York Jewish Week
NEW YORK, Aug. 31 (JTA) — In what will be a watershed moment for the Conservative movement — akin to admitting women into the rabbinate a generation ago — the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis and the sanctioning of same-sex unions are likely to be approved by the denomination’s legal scholars, according to movement leaders.
But in a step unique to the Conservative movement, a contradictory religious opinion that would continue the prohibition against gay ordination and same-sex unions will also come up for a vote. Each view only has to receive a minimum of six votes from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which has 25 voting members, to be accepted. That means both opinions, for and against, could pass.
In 1992, the law committee arrived at a consensus statement on homosexuality that maintained the movement’s ban on gay marriage and ordination. In March, four opinions — two in favor of maintaining that position and two opposed — were submitted to the committee for review. The final vote is slated to take place in December.
If ordaining gays gets the Conservative stamp of approval, it will open the door to the seminaries accepting them as students. And the heads of both North American Conservative rabbinical schools, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, have stated their intention of doing so.
In the meantime, movement leaders are working fast to lay the groundwork for dealing with the law committee’s final decision as well as any confusion likely to result if both positions are approved.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, is convening five gatherings with rabbis and congregants around North America. The tour kicked off last week with invitation-only meetings here and in Toronto. They will continue through November with meetings in Los Angeles, Washington and Atlanta.
“No matter what happens, our congregations will have a challenge that we will want to help them be prepared for,” said Epstein, whose organization includes some 760 Conservative congregations.
If contradictory religious views are approved by the law committee, “the burden may be put on congregations to decide which way they’re going to go. It’s important for them to have clarity and understand that this is not just a matter of personal interest, but that they have to look at this from the point of view of Jewish law.
“Their challenge may be how they keep a congregation together with perhaps diverse points of view,” he told The Jewish Week.
Though few issues in popular and religious culture today arouse as much passion as gay rights, Epstein said that his task “is to prevent this from being a divisive issue. Just because there’s a divergence of opinion doesn’t mean it has to be divisive.”
He compared these meetings to the ones held as the subject of women’s ordination was considered in the early 1980s.
Authors of two of the papers that will be up for consideration in December — Rabbi Joel Roth, a Talmud professor at JTS considered by many to be the denomination’s pre-eminent expert on Jewish law, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, vice chair of the law committee and a professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism — appeared at Congregation Shaare Zedek on Manhattan’s Upper West Side last week to discuss their positions.
Roth favors maintaining the current policy, saying that Jewish law prohibits homosexual acts and, by extension, the ordination of someone presumed to engage in them. Dorff, on the other hand, believes that gays and lesbians should be ordained because the Torah passages in Leviticus that relate to sexual relations between men can be re-interpreted as prohibiting a specific act rather than homosexuality in general.
Roth said that if gay ordination were approved, then “the nature of the Conservative movement” would change. “We will still be a big umbrella, but will not be the same movement that we have today.”
While Dorff said that no congregation would be forced to hire a gay or lesbian rabbi, Roth said that he feared that synagogues would not be allowed to exclude them from their search process, as they cannot now exclude women, though movement policy permits non-egalitarian, as well as egalitarian, practices.
The move would initially likely have little immediate practical impact beyond the seminaries. Rabbi Julia Andelman, spiritual leader of Congregation Shaare Zedek, said that congregations in New York tend to be left leaning, so a new policy may be less controversial here than it would be elsewhere. Andelman, who was ordained last May and was a student leader for the gay ordination cause, added that many of her colleagues already conduct same-sex commitment ceremonies.
When JTS approved women being counted in a minyan, or prayer quorum, ushering in the Conservative movement’s egalitarian era, it was a major change, said Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, spiritual leader of the Upper West Side’s Society for the Advancement of Judaism. “Seeing women on the bima,” or prayer podium, “was disconcerting” for many people at first, added Strassfeld, who attended the Aug. 24 meeting.
Having gays in the rabbinate “will move much more slowly because it doesn’t call for any immediate decisions for congregations. Also, people in the world are much more ambivalent about this,” he said. Rabbi David Lincoln, the spiritual leader of Park Avenue Synagogue, who also attended the meeting, said he opposes gay ordination and commitment ceremonies. “Jewish law is flexible in many instances, but there are certain things that are very straightforward, like this,” he said.
If the law committee votes in favor of permitting gay and lesbian ordination, the University of Judaism’s rabbinical school will begin accepting their applications “the next day,” Dorff told The Jewish Week. Arnold Eisen, the chancellor-elect at JTS, said he intends to organize discussions with faculty and students on the subject as soon as school starts the week after next.
“There’s nothing more major this year than this” topic, he said. “We’ll start this process in the fall and if the decision comes down as scheduled in December we’ll be acting on it immediately.”
While he has said he wants JTS to ordain openly gay clergy, he also said: “I’m not going to act unilaterally on this. I really believe in faculty process and we haven’t had one yet. It’s a serious matter and needs to be weighed.”
Gay and lesbian ordination has been a volatile and much-debated issue within Conservative quarters for nearly two decades. While the movement has prohibited gay ordination, it has also tried to promote a welcoming attitude towards gay congregants.
Some institutions, such as JTS, currently maintain a U.S. military-like policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but it has not always worked. At least one student chose to leave the rabbinical school rather than deny her sexual orientation after she was outed.
The topic has been revisited by Conservative rabbinical students and rabbis outside the law committee in meetings, discussions, articles and petitions. A student organization at JTS, Keshet — Hebrew for “rainbow” — was formed a few years ago to advocate for gay ordination, and an aligned group of clergy, Keshet Rabbis, was also organized.
Debate breaks down mostly along generational lines, with older rabbis hewing to the traditional stance and younger rabbis agitating for change.
The issue also crystallizes the larger — and perhaps even more important — debate about the message and direction of Conservative Judaism, a movement which for decades was the country’s largest but which in recent years has fallen behind the Reform movement in adherents.
The larger denominational conflict is over whether the Conservative movement should hew to Jewish law, albeit with a different perspective than Orthodox Judaism, or break with that principle in favor of the view supported by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements that ethics trump law.
The meta-debate will likely not end with whatever resolution the law committee comes to over gay ordination in December.
“How we discuss this subject is the most important thing we do in the coming months,” Eisen said. “I hope we do this with seriousness and respect for the law and one another, and without vituperation.”
Dan Ain contributed to this report.