Coming Out For Gays At JTS?


With the Jewish Theological Seminary on the verge of an historic break with tradition (the potential ordaining of openly gay and lesbian rabbis and sanctioning of same-sex unions) the school’s faculty, administrators and students were bracing this week for the possible fallout.

The rabbinic committee that interprets Jewish law for the Conservative movement (North America’s second-largest Jewish denomination) will meet Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss five different religious opinions, some or none of which may be adopted.

They range from overturning all prohibitions against gay behavior to affirming the previous iteration of the gay ordination decision, which banned religious and educational leadership by openly homosexual Jews. They range from normalizing the status of gay and lesbian Jews in law and practice to advocating reparative therapy, which some say teaches homosexuals to lead heterosexual lives.

Chancellor-elect Arnold Eisen convened several faculty forums over the past few weeks. Another is slated for immediately after the Committee on Law and Standards meeting next week.

In a letter distributed to the JTS community before Thanksgiving, he pledged to continue his consultation with faculty, students and laypeople. If the law committee approves gay ordination, a vote of the faculty may ensue.

A JTS-wide student organization advocating for gay ordination, Keshet, this week met to prepare members for dealing with media, and plans a teach-infor the first day of law committee deliberations.

"There’s a lot of hope and anticipation," said Rachel Kahn-Troster, a fourth-year rabbinical school student. "Jewish law doesn’t stand still, and we’re really at a moment of moving forward."

Another group, JTS Students for Change, held a silent lunchtime vigil last Tuesday outside the campus gates. Roughly 40 students, their mouths sealed by orange tape "to symbolically represent the silencing of gays and lesbians in the Conservative movement," distributed flyers, said group organizer Ira Stup.

This week, on Tuesday, they held a forum exploring what it means to be part of a gay or lesbian family.

"We want JTS to offer domestic-partner benefits, to change school forms from requiring the names of ‘mother’ and ‘father’ to ‘parents,’ and hopefully to include gender identity as part of JTS’ anti-discrimination policy," said Stup, who attends JTS’ undergraduate college.

The current ban on gay leadership, and by extension ordination, passed in 1992, the last time that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly ruled on this issue.

Advocates for the full inclusion of openly gay and lesbian Jews soon put the issue back on the movement’s agenda. People on all sides of the issue hope to see the process conclude next week, even if it’s not yet clear what form that will take.

"Everybody is looking forward to an end of this," said Rabbi Joel Meyers, the RA’s executive vice president. "It’s improbable, given the pressure on the committee, that nothing will happen. But it’s possible."

A position requires backing from six of the law committee’s 25 voting members for adoption. As a result, divergent opinions can allow a range of practices to be equally legitimate according to the movement’s interpretation of Jewish law. Sources say that one of the papers, however, has been labeled a "takanah," meaning a radical break from tradition, which would require a majority vote. JTS faculty, administrators and students are preparing for whichever position the law committee adopts. While some say that the results of the Law Committee deliberations are all but a foregone conclusion (two papers will likely be adopted, one allowing gay ordination and one maintaining its prohibition) others say anything can happen."I really have no idea what’s going to happen," said Rabbi Gordon Tucker, author of one of the five papers. He argues for the normalization, in law and in practice, of gay and lesbian relations within the same regulations and restrictions that apply to all human relations in Judaism, such as loyalty, fidelity and modesty. While the law committee has kept all of the papers under wraps and asked members not to talk to the press until after next week’s meeting (several rabbis declined interviews this week as a result) another insider shared the papers’ perspectives.

One by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner reportedly favors the inclusion of gays and lesbians but maintains a ban on anal sex. Another, by Rabbis Myron Geller, Robert Fine and David Fine, has been termed a "takanah," as it advocates overturning all limitations.

One by Rabbi Leonard Levy urges "reparative therapy" for gays with the goal of helping them to lead heterosexual lives.

Rabbi Joel Roth’s paper restates his 1992 position banning gay leadership, which was adopted by the law committee then, a source said. Impact In The Pews?

Denominational leaders say the decision’s implications reach beyond the Conservative movement to the wider religious world, where many Protestant denominations have recently grappled with the issue.

Yet any decision that comes next week is not likely to make much immediate impact on individual Conservative synagogues.

"I can safely predict that no matter what the possible outcomes are, it won’t have any particular effect on my congregation," said Rabbi Tucker, spiritual leader of Temple Israel in White Plains. "It’s not going to be a non-event, but something that will be part of a continuum of development within Conservative Judaism. We, like every other congregation, will find our own path."A survey of rabbis from a range of congregations (from the traditional end of the Conservative movement to the more progressive) revealed that this issue has not been a focus for most.

Rabbi Joanna Samuels of Congregation Habonim, in the Lincoln Center area of Manhattan, said that this issue has "not been much abuzz" in her synagogue.

"It’s certainly my hope that the outcome will be the ordination of gays, but an even better outcome would be a comprehensive conversation about what inclusion looks like in our communities for anyone who doesn’t fit the assumed norm of being a two-parent, two-child, no special-needs household." Rabbi David Lincoln, spiritual leader of Park Avenue Synagogue, where the law committee deliberations will take place, said the issue "hasn’t been anything that’s riled anybody up" in his congregation. Rabbi Lincoln, who opposes ordaining gays said, "I wish they’d drop the whole thing."

Rabbi Harlan Wechsler of the Upper East Side’s Congregation Or Zarua is also opposed to gay ordination. Even if the movement decides to permit it, "it wouldn’t change my congregation at all," he said. "Any congregation has people with a wide variety of feelings and practices. We try to be respectful of people while each rabbi who defines law for his congregation will continue to do that."

But there is one area synagogue where the issue has gotten attention.

At the Park Slope Jewish Center, in a gay-friendly Brooklyn neighborhood, the board of directors in September passed a resolution urging the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, to "take a clear stand for, and make a public statement advocating the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, and the promotion of LGBT commitment ceremonies and weddings."

"This issue is a fundamental matter of human dignity and equality, and its proper resolution is among the most important challenges facing the Conservative Movement in America today. We will watch your upcoming deliberations closely, and hope that the CJLS votes so that those communities such as PSJC, for whom this issue is so important, are not compelled to re-examine their relationships with United Synagogue," the resolution passed by PSJC’s board said. "People here are anxiously awaiting the response of the law committee," said the congregation’s Rabbi Carie Carter. (Disclosure: this reporter is a member of that synagogue). "No more than 10 percent of the congregation is gay or lesbian, but at least half the people who have joined PSJC have stated that openness was an important part of their decision," said Rabbi Carter.

Rabbi Roth has predicted that overturning the ban would create a schism in the movement, though he was referring to those opposed to gay ordination abandoning the movement.

Earlier this year a few Canadian synagogues suggested that they would quit the denomination if gay ordination is permitted. Synagogues leaving the movement if gay ordination were permitted would likely seek to join the Union for Traditional Judaism, a Teaneck, N.J.-based group that began in 1984 when some left the denomination over the previous year’s decision to ordain women. But UTJ has gotten only a few preliminary phone calls and no applications, said Rabbi Ronald Price, its executive director.

Rabbi Dov Linzer, head of the modern Orthodox Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, on the Upper West Side, said, "I’ve speculated that it’s possible that we would get some" rabbinical students applying if they left JTS over this issue, but added that to be accepted they would have to be fully Orthodox Jews.

The real story for synagogues will probably emerge in five years or so, when the first openly gay rabbinical students who may soon be admitted to Conservative rabbinical schools are ordained and looking for jobs, said Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a founder of Keshet Rabbis, an advocacy group of some 250 Conservative rabbis. Until then, the question remains: Will Conservative synagogues be comfortable hiring them?