Focus on Issues Issue of Gay Ordination Still Open

Leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary insist the ordination of gay rabbis is not a foregone conclusion despite the appointment of a rabbinical school dean committed to the move and a recent survey showing that a majority in the Conservative movement would support the step.

The seminary’s incoming chancellor, Arnold Eisen, said a survey of movement leaders released Wednesday is just “one factor among many” in his decision whether to admit openly gay students to the JTS rabbinical and cantorial schools.

The survey found that roughly two-thirds of Conservative rabbis and cantors believe JTS should admit gay and lesbian students for rabbinical study. Percentages in favor were slightly higher among the movement’s professional and lay leadership, and slightly lower among student rabbis and cantors.

Similar margins of support were found when respondents were asked whether Conservative rabbis should officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies.

Eisen commissioned the survey following a December decision, or teshuvah, from the movement’s highest rabbinical authority, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, permitting the ordination of gay clergy.

The committee also endorsed two contrary opinions on the status of homosexuals within the movement, leaving it to individual Conservative institutions to decide their policy on the question.

On Monday, the seminary named Rabbi Daniel Nevins, one of three authors of the permissive teshuvah, as dean of the JTS rabbinical school.

Nevins, a Harvard-educated rabbi from Farmington Hills, Mich., dismissed the suggestion that his selection made gay ordination inevitable.

“Don’t overplay it,” Nevins told JTA. “You might find yourself surprised.”

Within the movement, though, preparations are under way for the consequences of a change in policy.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s synagogue association, told JTA he has enlisted a consultant to help his staff cope with synagogues that may choose to hire a gay rabbi.

“We don’t see our role as promoting change,” Epstein said. “We see our role as promoting pluralism.”

In Canada, where the survey showed that 82 percent of clergy oppose a policy change, some synagogues are reconsidering their affiliation with the Conservative movement.

“My feeling is that there is some skepticism, and people do ask the question about why we continue to affiliate with a movement that is going in the direction that it seems to be going,” said Paul Kochberg, president of the United Synagogue’s Canadian region.

Kochberg said no synagogues in Canada were likely to change their practices as a result of the law committee decision, which he called a “non-event.”

JTS was eager to emphasize survey findings that demonstrated the movement’s theological coherence even as its leadership insists no decision will be made until spring.

A seminary press release highlighted the fact that consensus exists on several key questions believed to distinguish Conservative Judaism from other streams.

By substantial majorities, respondents said they believe the movement is “halachic,” that rabbis should not officiate at mixed marriages, that patrilineal descent should be rejected and that women should serve as rabbis and cantors.

“The consensus around these issues speaks to the underlying unity and distinctiveness of the Conservative movement,” said Steven Cohen, the Hebrew Union College sociologist who conducted the survey pro bono.

Conservative Judaism’s struggle with the homosexuality issue has consumed the movement for months and led to dire predictions from supporters and opponents of a more permissive attitude.

Supporters have cautioned that failure to liberalize would further accelerate the movement’s decline. Once American Judaism’s dominant religious stream, Conservative Judaism has lost ground to both the Reform and Orthodox movements in recent years.

Opponents counter that liberalization could splinter the movement, warning that the commitment to Jewish law, or halachah — the principal distinction between Conservative and Reform Judaism — would be severely undermined if millennia of Jewish legal precedent were reversed.

The survey provided some ammunition for that claim, confirming the view that American clergy are far more supportive of gay ordination than their counterparts in Canada and Israel.

Support for a more permissive approach is also far more prevalent among those who are less religiously observant, describe themselves as “liberal” and who have friends or family that are gay.

Among those who call themselves theologically liberal, 91 percent support gay ordination; among the theologically conservative, 57 oppose it.

In one particularly striking finding, 35 percent of the rabbis, cantors and JTS students surveyed agreed that the liberal teshuvah was “outside the pale of acceptability of halachic reasoning,” while only half rejected the proposition.

That survey question was a nod to Rabbi Joel Roth, who used similar language in explaining his resignation from the law committee to protest the liberal responsa.

Sixty-seven percent of Conservative clergy reported that they were “somewhat embarrassed” by the committee’s decision.

The survey was conducted entirely online, with 18,676 invitations e-mailed to Conservative rabbis, cantors, seminary students, and lay and professional leadership; 4,861 responded. An additional 722 responded through a Web site.

Cohen said the survey’s margin of error was “negligible” due to the high percentage of respondents, though he acknowledged that the survey represents the views only of the movement’s leadership, not its rank-and-file.

“The technology allowed us to reach leaders, people who are already on mailing lists,” Cohen said. “We were as inclusive as we could be.”

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