Reform Panel Recommends Allowing Gays and Lesbians to Serve As Rabbis

Qualified gay and lesbian rabbis should be allowed to serve as full-fledged members of the Reform rabbinate, without discrimination or restrictions, a panel of Reform rabbis has concluded.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, an association of 1,557 Reform rabbis in the United States, will consider whether to adopt the panel’s recommendations at its convention in Seattle from June 24 to 28.

The committee’s report, some four years in the making, treads a careful line welcoming gay rabbis and reaffirming traditional Jewish family values, in an apparent attempt to limit recriminations from more traditional elements of Judaism.

But the key paragraph in the six-page report declares unequivocally that “the committee urges that all rabbis, regardless of sexual orientation, be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation which they have chosen.”

If the report is adopted by the full conference at the Seattle meeting, as its sponsors anticipate, it would make Reform Judaism one of the first major Jewish or Christian religious bodies in the United States to include acknowledged homosexuals among its clergy.

In 1984, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College adopted a policy of admitting students without regard to sexual preference. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association automatically accepts any graduate of the college.

The Episcopal and Unitarian Universalist churches have also admitted gay clergy.

Rabbi Joseph Glaser, CCAR’s executive vice president and an ex-officio member of the 17-person committee, said that he and his colleagues were aware of the recommendations’ potentially divisive impact, but that the decision was ultimately based on the principles of Reform Judaism.

WARNS ABOUT PUBLICIZING SEXUALITY

But bowing to pragmatic considerations, the report, in effect, urges gay and lesbian rabbis not to flaunt their sexual preference.

Put more diplomatically, the report warns that “publicly acknowledging one’s homosexuality is a personal decision which can have grave professional consequences.”

Pointing to the difficulty of assuring tenure to gay or lesbian rabbis who come out of the closet, the report notes that “the committee does not want to encourage colleagues to put their careers at risk.”

This reference to a congregation’s possible opposition to a gay or lesbian rabbi is re-emphasized by pointing out that “rabbis are both role models and exemplars. Therefore, the committee calls upon all rabbis — without regard of their sexual orientation — to conduct their private lives with discretion and with full regard to the mores and sensibilities of their communities.”

Rabbi Yoel Kahn, a member of the Reform panel and religious leader of a San Francisco congregation with special outreach to the lesbian and gay community, said he believes it is “increasingly possible for rabbis who are gay or lesbian to be employed by synagogues.”

He expressed confidence that just as women rabbis were once shunned and later welcomed into the Reform movement, lesbian and gay rabbis will eventually be accepted.

Committee members admitted that their task was made more complex by the unanimous condemnation of homosexual behavior by Jewish tradition, and by scientific disagreement on whether homosexuality is a matter of conscious choice or whether it is innate and unchangeable.

A majority of the committee strongly affirmed the “centrality of monogamous, heterosexual, procreative marriage in Jewish tradition,” and declined to endorse wedding-like ceremonies between partners of the same sex.

ORTHODOX CONDEMN MOVE

After urging all rabbis and congregations to treat with respect and fully integrate all Jews into the life of the community, the committee “strongly endorsed the view that all Jews are religiously equal, regardless of their sexual orientation.”

After vigorous debate, the report was backed by a majority of 13 committee members, with two opposed and two abstentions, Glaser said.

In New York, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America condemned the Reform panel’s recommendation, saying “the entire idea is an abomination.”

“The Torah in the most unambiguous terms says that the gay lifestyle is a sin and is against the natural order. People who teach the Torah are expected to uphold its standards,” Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, said Tuesday.

Rabbi Chaim Shnur, California director of Agudath Israel, said the report “simply confirms that the Reform movement is basically rudderless when it comes to halachic tradition.”

By contrast, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Los Angeles, a leading Conservative rabbi, said he was giving the Reform movement “a great deal of credit for tackling an issue that has long been muted and suppressed.”

He urged the Conservative movement to re-examine its own position on the issue.

Two weeks ago, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly voted overwhelmingly to welcome lesbians and gay men in Conservative synagogues. But it did not take a stand on admitting gay rabbis to the Conservative rabbinate.

(JTA staff writer Elena Neuman in New York contributed to this report.)

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