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Conservatives May Rethink Stance on Gays, but Change Won’t Be Quick

January 28, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

On Sunday, the rabbi brought his boyfriend to the prom.

It’s no mystery novel, but the real story of a young Conservative rabbi who took his Jewish partner to the big dance a few years ago at the Washington, -area Jewish day school where he worked.

The rabbi had come out as gay since taking the job, so his date ruffled few feathers.

"For me to show up at the prom as a rabbi and as a teacher with my boyfriend was very gratifying for me," he says.

The rabbi and his date were openly accepted by his school, but he still shies from going public within the larger community.

His hesitancy reflects the Conservative movement’s decade-old "don’t ask, don’t tell" ruling. That ruling embraced gays and lesbians as synagogue members but applied the biblical ban on homosexuality at seminaries, blocking openly gay and lesbian students from applying or from coming out at school, at the risk of expulsion.

Now, a clamor is growing among Conservative laity and the rabbinate to overturn that ruling — not only to fully accept gays and lesbians in synagogue life but to allow them to attend the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the movement’s three other seminaries worldwide.

Some rabbis say they also want to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies, as their counterparts in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements do.

But those involved in the issue say change, which is opposed by powerful figures in the movement, is unlikely to come any time soon.

Still, momentum to fully accept gays and lesbians has been building since the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued a consensus statement on the matter in 1992, some say.

"There is a clear ferment in the movement that this is an untenable policy, and that we need to move forward from here," says Rabbi Mark Diamond, a former pulpit rabbi in Oakland, Calif.

The Rabbinical Assembly is the Conservative movement’s rabbinical arm.

However, not all rabbis see such a rush to modernize the movement’s standards on gays and lesbians.

Rabbi Paul Plotkin, at Temple Beth Am of Margate-Coral Springs, Fla., says he hasn’t seen calls for change from congregants or others.

"There is no groundswell on either side" of the controversy, Plotkin says.

Yet debate has flared since reports revealed that Judy Yudof, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents 800 Conservative congregations, intends to ask the Rabbinical Assembly’s law committee to revisit the issue of homosexuality.

Contrary to reports that she is seeking a ruling on ordaining gays and lesbians, Yudof told JTA that she will ask the committee only to study whether homosexuality can be accepted under halachah, or Jewish religious law.

"Someone can learn to keep kosher, someone can learn to observe Shabbat, but I don’t believe someone can learn to change their sexual orientation," Yudof says.

Yudof says she will submit her request by month’s end. She began drafting it after hearing from many congregation leaders concerned about the marginalization of gays and lesbians, who she says "feel like second-class citizens" in the movement.

Several rabbis say any change should move beyond equal treatment of gays and lesbians in synagogue life to include a law committee position paper, or teshuvah, allowing gay ordinations and same-sex commitment ceremonies.

"Much more important than ‘Who is a rabbi’ is ‘Who is a Jew?’ " says Rabbi Mark Loeb, of Beth El Congregation in Baltimore. "Right now, I don’t want to hold all the gay people in America who are Jews hostage to the question of who is a rabbi."

Loeb is among those Conservative leaders who have publicly called for the movement to rethink its stance on homosexuality, and who backs such steps as commitment ceremonies.

Loeb also belonged to the Rabbinical Assembly’s special Commission on Human Sexuality, which in 1996 drafted a letter to laity and to the law committee urging the committee to rethink its stance on homosexuality.

In a paper called "This Is my Beloved, This Is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate Relations," the commission urged that homosexuality "no longer be considered an abomination," as the Book of Leviticus calls it, Loeb says.

But the law committee requires a petition, in the form of a question, in order to consider a matter for religious debate. Yudof’s request would set that process in motion.

Once the 25-member committee receives such a question, it would go before its Subcommittee on Sexuality and Family Life, which would ask its own members or other rabbinic authorities to write a position paper, members say.

The current chairman of the law committee, Rabbi Kassel Abelson, has opposed any change in the movement’s stance on gays and lesbians over the past decade. But the prospective incoming chairman, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, remains an outspoken advocate of change.

Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism, could step in after the assembly’s annual convention in March. He says he would prefer to see the committee follow the same procedural course as it did a decade ago by producing several alternative positions, or "validated options," for congregations to follow.

Dorff says such options remain preferable to the kind of mandatory standards that the committee produced in 1972, when it forbid rabbis to officiate at interfaith marriages.

A single mandate "would be a serious misreading of where the movement is right now," Dorff says. "The movement is very divided over this."

Plotkin of Florida agrees. He echoes the view of JTS’ chancellor, Ismar Schorsch, who warns that a major debate about gays and lesbians would fracture the movement.

"Because we are a centrist movement, we have to preserve the middle by muting the poles," Plotkin says.

Meanwhile, it seems likely that change won’t come quickly.

The law committee next meets in June. At that point, it could consider at least three position papers backing halachic reform on gays and lesbians that Dorff says he’s "aware" of, though he adds there will likely be as many rejecting change.

In 1992, for instance, the committee received five different papers on homosexuality, rejected one and hammered out its final consensus statement.

That statement "tried to walk the line" by maintaining halacha while urging synagogues to be "more open" to individual gays and lesbians, says Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Yet even some opponents concede that further debate within the halachic process would prove helpful. For one thing, Meyers admits, gays and lesbians could interpret the 1992 position as a "double message."

The vice chancellor of JTS, William Lebeau, says he welcomes a new debate. Jewish law always has been "driven by new scholarship and societal change," he told JTA.

"Judaism cares very much about how people are treated," Lebeau adds, so the 1992 position "is something I hope will be reconsidered by the law committee."

Some rabbis hope a debate will help them deal with religious dilemmas that often arise around gay issues.

Conservative Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, who is not gay, is an assistant rabbi at New York’s gay Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, which is not affiliated with any movement. Cohen says colleagues have asked about issues such as dealing with gay or lesbian couples who have babies, or how to act when a teen-age girl came out at a Florida Conservative day school.

Cohen believes the movement can find halachic solutions for "people to live their lives in ways that are reasonable and holy and Jewish."

The Washington-area gay rabbi agrees. He came out only after enrolling at JTS, where he graduated in 1996. And the movement still isn’t doing enough to engage gays and lesbians, he says.

In the short term, such steps should include allowing openly gay and lesbian congregants to receive Torah readings on holy days; electing gays and lesbians to synagogue boards and leadership roles; letting gays and lesbians participate as counselors in youth groups; and recruiting qualified Jewish professionals from the gay and lesbian communities.

"We need to do a better job making gays and lesbians feel more welcome in our institutions," he says.

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