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R.A. Votes to Allow Rabbis to Serve at Gay Synagogues

The rabbis of the Conservative movement have voted to allow their colleagues to work at gay and lesbian congregations, effectively reversing Rabbinical Assembly policy.

They also have decided to create a commission that will study human sexuality over the next two years and develop a Conservative perspective on the issue, which will be presented to the rabbinic body and the movement’s Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards.

The rabbis’ decision on serving gay synagogues is binding only because the law committee has not ruled on the issue, according to Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, the R.A.’s new president.

The policy will be revoked if the law committee decides that it abrogates halacha, or Jewish law, he said.

The incoming chairman of the law committee, Rabbi Kassel Abelson of Congregation Beth E1 in Minneapolis, expects that the panel’s 30 rabbis will take up the issue shortly.

Furthermore, any gay and lesbian synagogue that asks the Conservative movement for help finding a rabbi will be required to abide by law committee guidelines, which prohibit ceremonies of commitment between same-gender couples, said Zelizer.

Though the new policy may be short-lived and may not, in fact, lead to any gay congregations hiring a Conservative rabbi, it sends an important message, say its supporters.

“We’re telling the community of gay Jews that there are many rabbis in the R.A. inclined to serve them as fellow Jews,” said Rabbi Mark Loeb, senior rabbi at Beth El Congregation in Baltimore.

“There are so many things that people do in their lives that are imperfect that it makes little sense to harp upon one aspect of non-compliance with the covenant, rather than look toward the fundamental commitment they have to being Jewish,” he said.

TOO LATE TO HELP NEW YORK SHUL

The new policy, adopted by a vote of 64-50 at the R.A.’s annual convention here last week, calls on the R.A. to accept applications for rabbinic placement from any congregation “without consideration of the sexual orientation of its members” and to afford R.A. members “the opportunity to apply for such positions.”

The policy comes too late to help the gay synagogue that sparked the debate two years ago with its request for help in finding a rabbi.

New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah was first told that the Conservative movement’s placement service would help find it a rabbi, as the movement does for other, non-affiliated congregations that abide by Conservative standards. But the congregation was later informed that it would not be helped.

The synagogue, meanwhile, which has 1,100 members, has hired a Reconstructionist rabbi, who will be installed this fall.

The R.A. policy change also will not help gay and lesbian Conservative rabbis, who must remain celibate or in the closet if they want to work in the movement.

The commission to study human sexuality will present its recommendations to the R.A. at its 1994 convention and to the law committee, as well.

The rabbis’ vote on the commission, after impassioned debate, was unanimous, and will implement the recommendation to establish such a panel that was made in March by an evenly divided law committee.

The author of the paper suggesting the study, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, provost of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, wanted it to be movement-wide, involving the movement’s congregational arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which serves as the movement’s unofficial headquarters.

HOW MUCH INDIVIDUAL CHOICE?

But key leaders of those bodies said they would not participate in such a commission. They included the seminary’s chancellor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch; the president of United Synagogue, Alan Tichnor; and its executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein.

“We have nothing against further study,” said Tichnor. “But it should be under the auspices of the law committee. If anything is set up around them, it would be undermining their purposes.”

The two bodies’ refusal to participate is not likely to hinder the commission’s formation, however. Zelizer said he would “move with dispatch to implement the will of the R.A.”

Close beneath the surface of debate over the role of lesbians and gay men in Conservative Jewish life is disagreement among the rabbis over the source of ultimate authority.

It is proving a difficult task for Conservative Judaism, which has always married tradition with modernity in its interpretation of Jewish law, to balance the authority of the law committee and the principle of “moreh d’atra.”

“Moreh d’atra” refers to the right of individual rabbis to interpret Jewish law according to the needs of their local communities and their responsibility not to impose decisions that their communities cannot live by.

“The movements to our left often stress individual choice to such an extent that they can resolve this. Sometimes they have a little bit easier time,” said Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, director of public affairs for the New Israel Fund. “We’re doing a juggling act.”

Weintraub is one of the initiators of a newly organized group of rabbis who support an interpretation of Jewish law that would allow gay and lesbian Jews to be “sincerely welcomed and fully included” in Conservative life.

The group is calling itself B’Tsalmenu, which means “in our image,” after a phrase in Genesis that reads: “And God said, ‘Let us make Adam in our image. . .”

Eighty-three of the R.A.’s 1,400 rabbis have signed onto the nascent group’s statement of purpose, which so far has been circulated quietly and only by word of mouth.

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