Conservative Movement Grappling with Policy on Rabbis Who Are Gay
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Conservative Movement Grappling with Policy on Rabbis Who Are Gay

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Having decided last year not to allow the rabbinic ordination of homosexuals, the Conservative movement is now grappling with a related issue: what to do about practicing rabbis who announce they are gay.

The issue has been raised by Howard Handler, an openly gay Conservative rabbi who began searching for a pulpit after his contract at a Manhattan congregation was not renewed.

Handler’s professional fate is currently in the hands of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, whose executive council will discuss the matter at a meeting later this month.

It is the latest of a series of issues relating to the status of homosexuals in Conservative Judaism that has gripped and divided the movement’s rabbinate.

Responding, in part, to the divisiveness that the debate over these issues has caused, the R.A. is now taking steps to enable rabbis with vociferously opposing viewpoints about essential elements of the movement’s ideology to reconcile with one another, or at least communicate with less venom than they have been in recent months.

Handler went public about his sexual orientation during the April 25 national gay and lesbian rights march in Washington, when he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he intends to “be a test case” for the movement.

Conservative Judaism’s present policy is not to accept into rabbinical school or to ordain sexually active homosexuals, a policy that was implemented after extensive debate last year within the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

The primary halachic opinion accepted by the law committee is that homosexual sex is forbidden by Jewish law, but that if a gay man or lesbian abstains from sex, he or she is not violating the stricture.

The question of how to deal with an already-ordained rabbi who engages in homosexual activity was not explicitly addressed during last year’s debate.

It has come up now because Handler was recently fired by his congregation, the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue. He says his contract was not renewed because he is openly gay. The congregation’s officers say it is because he is not competent.


After being let go, Handler submitted his resume to the Rabbinical Assembly’s placement committee and asked that it be circulated to congregations looking for rabbis, so that he could find another pulpit.

The placement committee, unsure of the movement’s policy in this case, is refusing to circulate his resume pending a decision.

That decision may be made at the next meeting of the R.A. executive council meeting, slated for June 15. The 25-member council will hear a report on the law committee’s May 19 deliberations on the issue of placing already ordained gay and lesbian rabbis.

At that law committee meeting, two contradictory rabbinic responsa were accepted: one authored by the law committee’s chairman, Rabbi Kassel Abelson, which stated that the placement committee should not assist a gay or lesbian rabbi, and one authored by Rabbi Arnold Goodman, which said that since the issue was not covered in earlier deliberations about homosexuality, the placement committee should help Handler find work.

Goodman is also chairing the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Human Sexuality, which grew out of last year’s debate on the place of homosexuals in the movement.

Thirteen law committee members voted to accept Abelson’s position, and seven voted for Goodman’s, giving them both more than the six votes needed to make rabbinic responsa accepted policies of the law committee.

While the R.A. executive council may make a decision on Handler’s case at the June 15 session, it may refer the case back to committee or choose some other route altogether, leaving Handler’s case up in the air.

Handler, of course, is hoping that they decide to help him find a new pulpit as a Conservative rabbi.

“If they don’t let me apply, I’ll lose everything I wanted in terms of a career. I like teaching and preaching and counseling. If I can’t, there’s no place for me in the Conservative movement,” he told JTA.

When asked if he would consider being the rabbi of a gay and lesbian synagogue, he said, “I want to work in an average Conservative synagogue — with families, straight people and gay people.”


He was approached by Rabbi Joel Meyers, the Rabbinical Assembly’s executive vice president, about looking for a chaplaincy or teaching position.

But Handler said he is not interested in chaplaincy work, adding: “I don’t think any Jewish school will hire me. No one wants a gay teacher in a Jewish school.”

In case he loses his bid to be supported by the Rabbinical Assembly, Handler is preparing a safety net: He recently received his real estate license and may go to work for a real estate agency in New York’s Greenwich Village.

Debate over the homosexuality issue has been heated and at times vituperative. The clash has shed light on other friction within the Conservative movement, particularly on the difference of opinion over where the final source of religious authority lies, with individual rabbis or with the law committee.

In order to heal some of the wounds suffered in the course of the fighting, R.A. President Gerald Zelizer is initiating a two-pronged approach.

This Thursday, he will host a meeting of three or four R.A. member rabbis and two experts in conflict resolution: a specialist in legal resolution and a specialist in group dynamics.

He and Meyers have also asked the presidents of all 20 regions of the R.A. to each hold a “yom iyun,” or study day, in which papers from both sides of the authority issue and representing all points of view on the homosexuality issue will be discussed by local rabbis.

“I’m trying to get colleagues to speak to each other and to lower the temperature” of the debate, Zelizer told JTA. “Both sides are eager and anxious to participate in this. There is a consensus that this would be beneficial. I’m not sure how successful it will be, but I want to give it our best shot.”

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