Testing The Waters On Gay Ordination


As the Conservative movement began grappling this week with the implications of the landmark Law Committee ruling paving the way for gay ordination, thousands of Conservative Jewish leaders are to shortly be polled for their opinion on the issue.

Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist commissioned by the Jewish Theological Seminary to conduct the survey, said several thousand Conservative Jews — synagogue presidents, their rabbis and other Conservative Jewish leaders — would be invited to complete a 60- to 70-question online survey “revolving around this one matter.” But he said there would also be questions about the person’s views of Conservative Judaism “to understand their answers to the central questions.”

“Their age, gender, region [of the country in which they live] and theological stance will also be important variables that will help us understand the results,” Cohen said.

He said he hoped to have the survey results by the end of January.

Arnold Eisen, the seminary’s chancellor-elect who will ultimately make the decision about whether to admit gays and lesbians to the rabbinical school, was unavailable for comment. But he said in a message posted on the seminary’s Web site that the results of the Cohen survey would be “in hand” before the decision is made. He said he also planned to meet with the heads of the Conservative movement’s four other rabbinical schools — in California, Argentina, Jerusalem and Budapest — “for a frank airing of the matter.”

In addition, Eisen said the deans of student life and the seminary’s five schools “will continue to consult and plan for both possible outcomes of this process.” And he noted that the seminary’s students and faculty would also have a chance to weigh in “over the next month or so.”

Benjamin Gampel, chair of the faculty’s executive committee, said the 55 full-time faculty members have met on this issue since November and expect to meet again in mid-January.

“We’re here to tease out the educational implications of the legal decision,” he said, adding that the January meeting would be a chance for the faculty to voice “reflected thought and opinion.”

Gampel said that after all views are aired, the matter might come to a vote or there might be an attempt to achieve a consensus. “We’re going to see,” he said. “We’re bringing the ball up slowly. We want to bring everybody on board. American society is split [on this issue]; we might be able to achieve a consensus.”

Asked how important the faculty’s opinion would be, Gampel said that although “ultimately it is the chancellor’s decision, if the faculty’s consensus was strong in one direction … it would be advisory with heft.”

Burton Visotsky, a professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the seminary, said he believed a “good majority of the faculty … would think for educational and administrative purposes that we should be admitting gays and lesbians.”

Among those anxiously awaiting Eisen’s decision is Aaron Weininger, 21, of Scarsdale, who said he is an openly gay student who will be graduating in June from Washington University in St. Louis and would like the option of applying to the rabbinical school at either the seminary or the University of Judaism in California, the other Conservative rabbinical school in the United States.

“I grew up in the Conservative movement and went through the Solomon Schechter school … and to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin last summer,” he said. “I was president of my USY chapter at Beth El Synagogue in New Rochelle and I’m the High Holy Day cantor for the Conservative minyan on campus. So I’m pretty involved; the Conservative movement is my home.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, met in Berlin this week with Conservative rabbis who serve congregations or other institutions in England and Europe. He said those from England said their congregants were like those in America — very interested in the issue and holding mixed views. Rabbi Meyers said the rabbis working in Europe told him that their communities are conservative and would not support a change.

“It sounds to me like their view parallels [those] in the Toronto area of Canada,” he said.

Paul Kochberg, chairman of the regional presidents of United Synagogue and president of its Canadian region, said he was “aware there is discontent among synagogue leaders in the Toronto area over the general direction of the movement, and this decision would exacerbate that concern. … I’ve heard talk in the abstract about a split [from the Conservative movement]. There is talk about it.”

But he pointed out that there are liberal, egalitarian Conservative congregations in some other areas of Canada, including eastern Canada. There will be a meeting in Toronto on Jan. 8 of local Jewish leaders to “talk about the direction of the movement and where we are going,” Kochberg said.

In its decision, the 25-member Law Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted last week to approve two legal opinions — one that upholds the current ban on gay ordination and same-sex unions and the other permitting both. Members voted on each opinion separately, and each opinion received 13 votes.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Congregation Eitz Chaim in Monroe, N.Y., said he voted for both opinions because “it was important for me that change happen as a result of a majority of the committee.”

“I had not decided anything with certainty until a half-hour before we voted, and I had been thinking about this issue nonstop for years,” he said. “I could not have been more pleased with the result — with the deliciously paradoxical vote and that each passed by a majority. I’m glad it turned out that way.”

Rabbi Ira Stone, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia, said he would have preferred adoption of the most liberal opinion, which would have approved of homosexual behavior without any caveats. The opinion approved sanctions gay ordination and same-sex unions but still retains the biblical prohibition against anal sex. Rabbi Stone questioned why it was necessary to retain that biblical prohibition since, he said, he believed that all members of the Law Committee believed the Torah was revealed by God to Moses and not dictated to him.

“My complaint is that there is no theological clarity,” he explained. “If we have a theology that does not support the idea that we are in possession of God’s exact words, then by implication we are in possession of human responses to God’s presence, which by virtue of being human is flawed.” But he said he believed the decision permitting Conservative rabbis to perform commitment ceremonies clears the way for him to perform actual weddings of gay and lesbian couples.

“The language of the [opinion] indicated some kind of celebration, and I am interested in doing some kind of sanctification,” he said. “I’m not adverse to calling that marriage.”

Asked the difference between a commitment ceremony and marriage, Rabbi Stone said they are different in terms of ritual.

“I would want to use a chupah and an act of what we call kidushin [holiness] on some level,” he said. “I don’t want to end up being marrying Sam, but I’d be open to any couple [wishing to marry] whether or not they are members of this congregation.”

Rabbi Meyers said he did not know of any Conservative rabbi who has married a gay couple.

“Whenever I tracked down rumors, it turned out not to be the case,” he said. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that in light of last week’s ruling, he would be discussing with his lay leadership the possibility of changing the organization’s policy regarding the hiring of staff.

“We require people who are role models to be shomer mitzvoth [in compliance with Jewish laws], and until now we said that a person who is gay or lesbian would not qualify to fill those positions because they did not behave in a way that conformed to halacha [Jewish law],” he said. “We are talking about regional youth directors and regional directors and staff for summer educational programs and directors of our youth and social action department.”