Homosexual Jews may now be ordained as Conservative rabbis and rabbis now may perform same-sex unions, according to a landmark ruling Wednesday by the movement’s rabbinical committee that interprets Jewish law.
At the same time, the committee also upheld the current ban on gay rabbis or teachers, or other leadership positions.
The split decision, rendered after two days of deliberations here by the 25-member Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, was made possible because five position papers were considered and each needed only six votes to be considered valid.
In the wake of the vote, four socially conservative members of the Conservative movement — Rabbi Joel Roth, Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz, Rabbi Leonard Levy and Rabbi Joseph Prouser — resigned from the law committee. A third paper that was approved, by Rabbi Levy, calls for a therapeutic approach in dealing with the causes of homosexuality.
Wednesday’s vote paves the way for the admission of openly gay and lesbian rabbinic and cantorial students at the movement’s flagship seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary.
It also means, in practical terms, Conservative congregations will decide for themselves whether or not to hire openly gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors. Rachel Kahn-Troster, fourth-year rabbinical student and a member of the seminary’s pro-gay rights group, Keshet, said Wednesday afternoon, “I think the passage of the [paper by Rabbi Elliot Dorf] is a positive step because it will mean that the rabbinical school will be open to all qualified gay and lesbian applicants. It still puts limitations on gays. But we hope that eventually the movement will pass and all-encompassing teshuvah.”
The limitation she referred to, contained in the Dorf paper, is a prohibition on anal sex, based on the passage in Leviticus that says a man may not lie with a man in the same way he does with a woman. According to Rabbi Dorf, that means that anal penetration should be prohibited.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s rabbinic arm, said “our community understands and appreciates the potential for having two opinions. It’s part of our culture.”
The vote allowing for gay ordination is expected to trouble many traditional Conservative Jews and lead some to question whether the movement can continue to insist that it is grounded in halacha, or Jewish law, since the Torah prohibits homosexual acts.
But others – perhaps the majority – believe that a hallmark of the movement is its ability to change over time and adapt to modernity while remaining true to Torah principles.
“This item will test the halachic legitimacy of the Conservative movement,” according to Rabbi Joel Roth, the Finkelstein professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. “Nothing less than that is at stake.”
Earlier this week, he and Rabbi Dorf, both members of the law committee, expressed their sharp differences not only on applying Jewish law to the issue of homosexuality, but on the impact the decision will have on Conservative Judaism.
The two men discussed the issue before some 200 people Monday night at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights.
Rabbi Roth, the author of one of the religious opinions considered by the Law Committee, said his paper was an expansion of the one he wrote in 1992 in which the Law Committee then agreed with his argument against permitting gay rabbinic leadership or gay unions. He said Monday night, the “movement will survive” should that definitive position be abandoned. But he quickly added: “In my opinion, it will have lost a tremendous amount of halachic legitimacy.”
But Rabbi Dorff, rector of the movement’s University of Judaism in Bel-Air, Calif., and a distinguished professor of philosophy who wrote one of the five papers that he said took a “middle ground,” said he did not foresee a cataclysmic change.
“The effect of having multiple positions passed will be a sign of the strength of the movement,” he argued. “We have learned to live and let live.”
Rabbi Dorff said this would mean that some Conservative rabbis will now perform commitment ceremonies that permit the union of same-sex couples and others will not. And he said that some of the movement’s five rabbinical schools — the Ziegler School in California, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the Seminario Rabbinico in Buenos Aires, Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, and the Budapest Seminary — may now have different admissions standards.
“Some may decide to ordain gays and lesbians and others may not,” he explained, adding that they would continue to “live with each other.” Rabbi Roth strongly disagreed, however.
“It’s simply not true that it will be live and let live,” he argued. “That implies that both positions are equal.”
He suggested that “most young people” are intolerant of the current ban on gay and lesbian leadership and believe their inclusion to be a “moral imperative.”
He noted that after the Conservative movement’s Law Committee voted to ordain women in 1983, its rabbinical school in Manhattan set up an egalitarian minyan in addition to the one it had maintained since the seminary was established in 1886. The non-egalitarian minyan “survived 10 years until the upstairs egalitarian minyan claimed that any Conservative Jew who was not egalitarian was immoral and [therefore] delegitimate. The student body to this day virtually reviles students who go to the non-egalitarian minyan, and if it was up to most of them, it would not exist because it is [considered] immoral.”
“It will only take two years on this issue,” Rabbi Roth predicted, before critics of the permissive position on gays lose out.
Among the other position papers reviewed by the committee was one by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, which is believed to argue for the normalization of homosexual relations, maintaining that gays should have the same restrictions as all human relations in Judaism, including loyalty, fidelity and modesty.Another paper — reportedly the most radical — proposed lifting all restrictions on homosexuals. It was termed a “takanah,” one that amounts to an act of legislation rather than interpretation of the Torah, which prohibits gay sex. That needed a majority vote of the Law Committee to be adopted.
In introducing Monday night’s discussion, Rabbi Alan Lucas, a member of the Law Committee and Temple Beth Sholom’s spiritual leader, confessed that this was an issue that had been “keeping me up at night.” He explained that the issues at hand were about “human responsibility, not human rights.”
During the last two years in which this issue has been revisited, Rabbi Lucas said the committee’s debates “have been passionate and heated and filled with scholarship and learning that makes me proud. You are part of a movement that is not afraid to wrestle with God and man,” he told the congregants.
Rabbi Roth stressed that the Conservative movement is a “halachic movement.” He said Jewish law is “binding and authoritative upon us. If we are not that, we should close up shop.”
Although Conservative Judaism has a different understanding of halacha than Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Roth said, “that does not mean halachic change can be made simply because of the fact that we are Conservative. Just because something is politically correct does not make it halachically correct. It has to be defended within the parameters of the halachic system itself.”
In answer to those who maintained that there needed to be a radical break with tradition, Rabbi Roth said simply: “The Torah must remain divine.” He said the Torah explicitly forbids “intercourse between males, and the rabbis interpreted that to forbid lesbian” intercourse. He said he searched for halachic ways to reconsider this ban in light of new information about homosexuality, but he said he found them all “insufficient” to overturn the ban.
“I saw and I continue to see no way to say yes,” he said. “To do so would undermine the integrity of the system. … God does command us about private matters. The halachic system demands [homosexuals] remain celibate.” But Rabbi Dorff flatly rejected that view, saying: “Celibacy is a cruel option.”
“It means gay men can’t have any legitimate form of sexual expression during their lives,” he said. “Marriage is good for men and women, for gay men and lesbian women. … It is not good for a person to live alone.”