Rabbis Debate but Do Not Resolve Conservative Stand on Homosexuality

Advocates on both sides of the debate over the legitimacy of homosexuality in the Conservative movement say important steps were taken to further their respective positions in a key meeting last week of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Law and Standards.

While the committee failed to resolve the issue, observers say that the major arguments were aired and that the debate demonstrated “the Conservative movement at its very best,” in the words of one Jewish Theological Seminary official.

At the heart of the debate is the question of how to relate to two biblical verses in Leviticus that clearly forbid homosexual acts.

“The Torah defines homosexuality as ‘toevah,’ ” or abomination, Rabbi Joel Roth wrote in a 140-page t’shuvah, or rabbinic responsum, to the committee.

Roth, a professor of Talmud and former dean of the seminary’s rabbinical school, argued for maintaining the ban on ordaining homosexual rabbis and cantors and called for the removal of lesbians and gay men from the various institutions of Conservative Jewry.

In interviews with members of the law committee in the days following the debate, all concurred that Roth’s position would likely receive, at the next meeting, the six votes it needs to be accepted as a recommendation of the 25-member committee.

But the unique workings of the law committee allow for more than one t’shuvah to be accepted on an issue. Therefore, the law committee could theoretically accept arguments simultaneously banning and sanctifying homosexuality.

SANCTIFYING GAY RELATIONSHIPS

Advocates of change see this dynamic working in their favor. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, a former student of Roth’s, argued in his t’shuvah 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” between same-sex heterosexuals.

He called for ending the ambiguity of the status of homosexual couples through the development of ceremonies for sanctifying gay and lesbian relationships. He also objected to Roth’s call for removal of homosexuals from leadership positions in the Conservative movement.

This view, too, needs six votes to gain legitimacy, and many observers predict a close vote.

A third, “compromise t’shuvah” was submitted by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, provost at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. But he withdrew it and instead asked the committee to consider a three-point proposal that includes affirming a Rabbinical Assembly resolution last year supporting gay civil rights but affirming “our tradition’s prescription for heterosexuality.”

He also called for the establishment of a commission on sexuality while maintaining the movement’s current position against homosexuality.

“I just cannot, frankly, tolerate the results of Roth’s t’shuvah,” said Dorff. “On the other hand, I don’t think the movement is ready for Rabbi Artson’s either.”

Dorff believes that the Conservative movement needs to devise “sexual norms that are both Jewish and contemporary.”

Otherwise, he argued, it is hypocritical “for 25 heterosexuals on the law committee to tell homosexuals that we don’t like what they do.”

Dorff plans to resubmit his three-point proposal at the next meeting.

‘STIGMATIZED BY THE TRADITION’

Rabbi Howard Handler, a member of the committee, said he supports Dorff’s proposal but added that if a newly established commission on sexuality finds that lesbians and gay men are “stigmatized by the tradition, then we need to work with the tradition (for change) because it is not ethical to continue to allow them to be stigmatized.”

Rabbi Avram Reisner, a Talmud professor at the seminary and a member of the law committee who describes himself as a religious observant “frummie,” said he would support the idea of the commission but only after the committee votes in favor of Roth’s t’shuvah and defeats Artson’s.

“The Conservative movement is in this battle for its Torah soul,” he said. “I want us on record that homosexual behavior is ‘asur,’ prohibited.”

While those opposed to homosexuality hope for a vote at the next law committee meeting, those who want to see change are working for a delay.

“What I fear is that people will be rushing to make a decision,” said Dorff. He feels that would be unfortunate because “one of three things will happen:

“Either one of the two t’shuvot will be adopted, and that will be Rabbi Roth’s,” he said. “The second possibility is that both of them will be adopted, which essentially says that we don’t have a coherent stance.

“And another possibility,” he said, “is that neither of them will be adopted, but that means we have homework to do.

“So with any one of the three scenarios, it seems to me what we’ve got to undergo this kind of a self-searching and educational process” that a commission on sexuality would allow.

Dorff’s idea is gaining ground. Rabbi Jan Caryl Kaufman, a member of the committee and a self-described “centrist,” said, “I think that what is going to happen in February is that we are not going to vote for anything.

“My guess is that we are going to set up a commission, and it is going to take the same form that the women’s took, which is probably what I’m most comfortable with,” he said.

The vote to ordain women in the Conservative movement followed a commission to study the issue.

MEETING CLOSED TO PRESS

Last week’s three-and-a-half-hour meeting, which was originally going to be open, as is traditionally the case, was suddenly closed to the news media by the Rabbinical Assembly.

A reporter from The New York Jewish Week was forced to leave, and a controversy is still surrounding the attendance of a JTS student who is also a freelance reporter.

The off-the-record meeting was open to JTS students and faculty. (All quotes in this article came from telephone interviews or appeared in the written t’shuvot.)

A decision is still pending on media coverage for the next meeting, which is scheduled for Feb. 5.

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