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Backgrounder What the Conservative Rulings on Homosexuality Really Mean

December 8, 2006
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It adopted three conflicting opinions and lost four members, but the Conservative movement’s highest legal body was claiming victory after its decision this week that paved the way for gay rabbis and same-sex commitment ceremonies. “We as a movement see the advantages of pluralism, and we know that people come to different conclusions drawing from the same basic resources of our tradition, ” Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chairman of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, told reporters Wednesday following the decision.

“These teshuvot are accepted as guides so that the gays and lesbians can be welcomed into our congregations and communities and made to feel accepted and welcomed.”

It was one of the most closely watched decisions in the history of the law committee and capped months of often divisive debate within the movement over the proper approach to gays and lesbians.

But what exactly do the opinions mean and how did the committee arrive at its final decisions?

As it has in the past, the committee endorsed opposing positions, leaving it to individual rabbis to determine such hot-button questions as whether or not to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies or to allow gays and lesbians synagogue honors.

“We recognize from the very beginnings of the movement that no single position could speak to all members of the community and hence there were always varying opinions, with the local rabbinic authority able to select what he felt or she felt was appropriate and teach it to their congregations,” Abelson said.

Of the three opinions endorsed by the committee, the most liberal, authored by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner, calls commitment ceremonies “appropriate” and “welcomes” gay clergy while retaining the biblical prohibition on homosexual intercourse. (To read the opinion, click here.)

This prohibition comes from the book of Leviticus, which says: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”

For lesbians, that decision would affect only their ability to be ordained as Conservative rabbis and have a commitment ceremony.

A conservative opinion upholding the movement’s previous position barring gay clergy and commitment ceremonies was presented by Rabbi Joel Roth.

Both papers were endorsed by a majority of the 25-member committee. A third opinion by Rabbi Leonard Levy calling for reparative therapy for gays received the minimum six votes for adoption.

Dorff, explaining his position, said: “It’s a paper which very much seeks to make room for gays and lesbians in public ways in the Conservative movement, to find some sort of commitment ceremony that would be open to sanctifying and celebrating the unions of gays and lesbians.

“We do have a Jewish and a social and a medical need to try to confirm those unions,” he said.

Two other papers, both of which would have removed all barriers to homosexual activity, won the support of seven committee members but were not adopted due to their designation as takanot, a halachic category requiring an absolute majority for acceptance.

Roth and Levy, along with Rabbis Mayer Rabinowitz and Joseph Prouser, resigned from the law committee in protest of its adoption of the liberal paper.

In explaining his resignation from a committee that had just endorsed his view, Roth said the “ostensible legal reasoning in the permissive paper that was approved was outside the pale of acceptability of halachic reasoning.”

Roth stressed that he was only resigning from the committee and would not abandon the Conservative movement or the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he is a professor of Talmud and Jewish law.

Though the resignations seemed to undermine claims that Conservative Judaism can tolerate a diversity of opinion within its ranks, rabbis were celebrating what they called the movement’s successful balance of its commitment to Jewish law and its embrace of the challenges of modern life.

Participants in the two-day meeting at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue stressed that discussions were conducted without rancor and in a spirit of respect for the dignity and scholarship of all the positions presented.

“The tenor is very uplifting,” said Rabbi Alvin Berkun, the president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis, and an ex-officio member of the committee. “I personally was inspired by the level of scholarship, the level of commitment to the process.

“The Conservative movement has been handed a teaching moment the likes of which we haven’t seen in 20 years.”

Plans were already under way before the final decision was announced for further discussions on the issue across the movement. At JTS, incoming Chancellor Arnold Eisen planned to meet with faculty Thursday to discuss the issue.

The Masorti movement, the Conservative movement’s sister organization in Israel, announced Tuesday it would hold “serious discussions of the halacha with regards to homosexuality” following the decision.

Rabbi Chanan Alexander, chairman of the executive committee of Masorti’s Israeli rabbinical school, the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, told the Jerusalem Post his movement would not be bound by Wednesday’s decision.

“The Israeli public is in a different place from the United States on this issue,” said Alexander. “We have to be responsive to our public.”

Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, which have been open to gay clergy and same-sex commitment ceremonies for years, welcomed the decision.

But Agudath Israel, a fervently Orthodox group, slammed it, calling the move an “abandonment of pretense of fealty to Judaism.”

In New York, the decision was hailed by JTS students, a group of whom held a news conference outside the synagogue to welcome the move.

“Today we breathe a breath of fresh air,” said Jay Michaelson, a gay Jewish writer and teacher, and spokesman for KeshetJTS, a student advocacy group. “Our age-old traditions are wiser than passing prejudices because they take account of new information like what we now know to be scientifically true about sexuality. And because slowly, deliberately, perhaps even haltingly, the Jewish system sometimes works.”

The law committee last took up the issue of homosexuality in 1992, when it released a consensus statement affirming its refusal to perform commitment ceremonies or admit “avowed” homosexuals into rabbinical or cantorial schools.

The issue was scarcely addressed for a decade thereafter.

In 2003, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Judy Yudoff, a past president of United Synagogue, requested that the halachic status of homosexuality again be taken up by the committee.

The issue was discussed at a succession of law committee meetings, frustrating many who hoped the committee would move faster and eliciting admonitions of patience from committee members.

At the committee’s last meeting in March, authors were asked to make further revisions to their papers, and December was set as the date for a final vote on the matter.

The decision reached Wednesday leaves considerable discretion in the hands of local rabbis and will not require any rabbis to change their position.

Still, observers expect the decision to have a significant impact on rabbis in the movement.

“It makes a tremendous difference,” said Elizabeth Richman, a rabbinical student and co-chair of KeshetJTS. “It has the potential to open up our seminaries to gay and lesbian students.

“And it gives rabbis in the field, who I think in many cases have been waiting for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to pave the way for them to do what they would like to do, to include gay and lesbian students in all aspects of their congregations and in all aspects of Jewish life.”

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