Behind the Headlines: Conservative Movement Struggles with Its Policy on Homosexuality

Beth Cohen served for six years as executive director of Congregation Sharit Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Washington.

Her duties included leading services, tutoring for Bar and Bat Mitzvah lessons, and substitute teaching in the Hebrew school.

When her name appeared as “B. Cohen” in an article in a local Jewish newspaper about an international convention of gay and lesbian Jews, the rabbi of her congregation asked her to step down.

“The rabbi felt that I became a public sinner and I would no longer be able to lead the congregation in prayer or participate in any of those rituals that I had been participating in previously,” she said.

When the synagogue board refused the rabbi’s request to have Cohen fired, a year-long battle ensued. During that time, Cohen left on her own because she did not want to be the cause of a split in the congregation.

She was ultimately hired “as an open lesbian,” she said, to be executive director of a Reform congregation.

But the debate continued within Sharit Israel, and the congregation urged the rabbi to seek a teshuvah, or rabbinic responsa, from the law committee of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

Five years later, that law committee is about to hear formal arguments, pro and con, on maintaining a ban on the ordination of homosexuals and on removing gay and lesbian Jews from positions of religious leadership in the Conservative movement.

SANCTIONS FROM THE R.A.

This would include teachers, youth workers and “board members of synagogues or other national, regional or local institutions of the Conservative movement, adult or youth.”

Rabbi Joel Roth, who heads the law committee, will argue further Wednesday that “a heterosexual leader who advocates the halachic coequality of homosexuality” and permits homosexual behavior should be disqualified.

If Roth’s teshuvah comes before the entire Rabbinical Assembly and is accepted, a rabbi permitting homosexual behavior would be dismissed from the Conservative rabbinical body.

The implications of such action are far-reaching, given the national network of Ramah summer camps, United Synagogue Youth chapters, Solomon Schechter Day Schools and hundreds of synagogues that serve the estimated 40 percent of American Jewry that affiliates with the movement.

It is indicative of the Conservative movement, which seeks to blend tradition and modernity, that it is struggling with a sensitive issue and hearing two viewpoints from within.

What is unusual, though, is how extreme those two views are. For while Roth would seek to ban lesbians and gay men from leadership positions, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson will urge the committee to sanctify homosexual unions.

Artson argues that the Torah’s prohibition of homosexual acts does not apply to a “mutually exclusive, long-term adult homosexual relationship” but only to “oppressive, coercive or idolatrous” acts.

He will call for developing ceremonies for sanctifying gay and lesbian relationships and urge that sexual orientation no longer provide halachic grounds for “the denial of synagogue office or honors, for exclusion or expulsion from the rabbinate, the cantorate, or from a career in Jewish education.”

Few observers expect a definitive answer from Wednesday’s debate. More likely than one or the other of the two extreme views being accepted is that the committee will not vote, but continue to review the controversial subject.

Another possibility is that a third, compromise teshuvah will be adopted. One reportedly is being developed by Rabbi Elliot Dorf, provost of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

A GAY PRESENCE AT JTS

Many students at the Jewish Theological Seminary believe that just as accepting women into rabbinical school was voted down in 1979 and then passed years later, eventually gay and lesbian students will be accepted.

A few years ago the subject was taboo on campus. But a small item in the Oct. 14 edition of “Divrei Hayamim,” the weekly seminary in-house bulletin, announced the formation of the Incognito Club of the Graduate Student Organization. It described itself as “dedicated to exploring the needs and concerns of the gay and lesbian population here at JTS.”

The very presence of a gay population at the seminary came as a surprise to some students. But 30 students and one faculty member attended the club’s first public activity (it also meets privately, off campus) and discussed how congregations can best serve gay and lesbian worshippers.

Some rabbis and congregational leaders in the Conservative movement think the seminary is slow to recognize and respond to the sexual climate of American Jewry.

Rabbi J.D. Sacks of Jersey City, N.J., says synagogues must decide: They can choose to define themselves so narrowly “that people will know they cannot or should not come,” or they can be “the kind of place that is going to be very open to people.”

MOVES TOWARD TOLERANCE

Several Conservative congregations in the New York area have taken increasingly tolerant stands on homosexuality.

The board of the Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn recently voted to allow gay and lesbian couples to join at a family rate, instead of as two singles.

Said Rabbi Sammy Barth: “We speak about partners rather than husbands, wives or spouses,” even though most members are heterosexual.

At Bnai Jeshurun in Manhattan, a lesbian couple will soon publicly celebrate their relationship. Rabbi Rolando Matalon said he is “a little worried” about the potential shock to members, but he thinks the synagogue can take it.

The next synagogue newsletter will include an ad asking members to start a gay and lesbian group for Shabbat dinners.

Wednesday’s law committee meeting may result in a startling decision, either way, but more likely it will mark the beginning of what may be a long debate regarding the status of gays and lesbians in the Conservative movement.

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