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JTS Illustrates a Modern Approach to Halacha with Decision on Gays

Around the time of my ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1985, many people skeptical of the ordination of women asked, “What’s next? The ordination of gays and lesbians”?

The question angered me. After all, the issue of embracing the full equality of women directly affected 50 percent of the population or, I could well have said, 100 percent of the population, while the population of gays and lesbians is closer to 10 percent. Further, the halachic issues on homosexuality — including prohibition of homosexual behavior in the Torah itself — were so much more serious, even prohibitive.

How could anyone compare the halachic emancipation of women to the status of gays and lesbians in Judaism, thinking that the former would necessarily lead to reconsideration of the latter?

I was wrong. Like many people, I did not yet know many gays and lesbians, due at least in part to the difficulty of coming out at the time. I had not studied the scientific literature on sexual orientation. And I did not yet understand the nature of the suffering that closeted gays and lesbians experienced in a society in which it was unsafe to live their lives openly.

[photo RabbiAmyEilberg1 align=left ]At that time, the Conservative community could not yet recognize the moral challenge that discrimination against gays and lesbians posed to all those devoted to Torah and to halacha, or Jewish law.

Since that time, American society has come to know more about the range of normal human sexuality, about the toxic — even lethal — effects of living a closeted life, and about the yearnings of vast numbers of gay men and lesbians to create stable relationships and families, some of them rooted in their Conservative synagogues.

During the past 20 years the Conservative movement has conducted a serious investigation of the biological, psychological, communal and halachic issues related to the status of gays and lesbians.! We hav e studied the sources, debated rabbinic teshuvot, or legal rulings, and thoroughly considered the potential impact of granting gays and lesbians fully equal halachic status in our communities.

Now the Jewish Theological Seminary has invited gay men and lesbians to consider bringing their gifts to serve the Jewish people as rabbis and cantors, opening a powerfully symbolic door to this long-marginalized population. This decision is an impressive demonstration of the vibrancy of Conservative Judaism and its approach to halacha as lived in contemporary society.

We have modeled again how to balance devotion to Jewish law and tradition with our deepest moral sensibilities as 21st century American Jews. Looking deeply into the sources of Jewish law, we have found that there is basis in the sources for what our hearts tell us: that the halachic value of human dignity, “kvod habriot,” can and must challenge the Torah’s legislation on homosexuality.

Thus we have been able to reject an unnecessary dichotomy between our loyalty to Torah and our authentic moral sensibilities as contemporary Jews. It is possible — and imperative — to harmonize these two sets of commitments, as traditional Jews living in the modern world must do.

At the same time, we as a movement have affirmed the legitimacy of ongoing debate on these profound issues within our own movement. We recognize that many Conservative Jews still disagree on these matters, that some feel strongly that the recent decision was ill advised, and that some believe the movement has yet to go far enough in normalizing the position of gays and lesbians in our communities. But we have labored to maintain respectful dialogue with one another, honoring the right of good-hearted people to disagree strongly on these issues, and asserting that we who disagree with one another can still live together in a single community.

In this, I daresay that we model what the world needs most urgently at this time in his! tory: th e possibility of coexisting, of building bridges of relationship and community even in the presence of conflict and disagreement.

It is not easy to live together with those whose views are at times anathema to our own — to daven together, to respect one another’s knowledge and character, to continue to affirm our allegiance to the same movement. But in doing so, we practice the fundamentals of coexistence and perhaps even contribute in a small way to the cause of peace in the world.

(Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, now creates Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue programs in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn.)

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