Support For Gay Clergy, But Concern Over Liberal Drift


As widely expected, a large majority of Conservative rabbis, cantors, professionals and lay leaders support gays and lesbians becoming rabbis and cantors, although about half have their doubts as to whether it is compatible with Jewish law. And a majority of professional and lay leaders admitted to being “confused” and “somewhat embarrassed” by a rabbinic law committee’s decision in December to both accept and reject gay ordination.

The findings, the most complete portrait of the thinking and practice of Conservative Jewish clergy and leaders, came from a national survey commissioned by the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

The survey of more than 5,000 Conservative Jewish leaders, released this week, concluded that they are committed to halacha or Jewish law, as well as to supporting women in the clergy and in favor of same-sex commitment ceremonies. But, the study said, “It cannot be denied that about half the rabbis, cantors and JTS students have some doubts as to whether the liberalizing stance [permitting homosexual ordination] is compatible with Jewish law.”

In addition, while 69 percent of American Jewish Conservative clergy supported gay and lesbian ordination, 82 percent of their counterparts in Canada were opposed. There was an even split among Conservative clergy in Israel and other countries.

Also, the survey said that “a substantial minority — about one-third with a clear opinion on the matter — oppose the move to greater liberalization” in the movement. As many as 42 percent of Conservative clergy believe the decisions of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards “blur the boundary between Conservative and Reform Judaism.” In addition, 83 percent of the clergy and rabbinical students believe the committee’s decisions “widen the gap between Conservatism and Orthodoxy.”

“Thus, the decisions clearly raise the possibility among many that the Conservative movement has taken a move to the theological left, further parting company with the Orthodox, and further approaching the Reform movement,” the study said. The survey’s release came just two days after Daniel Nevins, the senior rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, Mich., was chosen to replace Rabbi William Lebeau as dean of the JTS rabbinical school, effective July 1. The seminary’s incoming chancellor, Arnold Eisen, made the selection. Rabbi Nevins was co-author of the most liberal paper approved in December by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that favored homosexual ordination and same-sex commitment ceremonies.

The survey found widespread opposition to rabbis officiating at mixed marriages and to recognizing as a Jew the child of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father. The Reform movement follows patrilineal descent; Conservative and Orthodox Judaism do not.

“The consensus around these issues speaks to the underlying unity and distinctiveness of the Conservative movement,” said Steven M. Cohen, the sociologist who conducted the e-mail survey of 18,676 persons and received responses from 4,861, plus another 722 who answered the questionnaire on a public Web site.

Most accepting of homosexuals as clergy were the professional leaders of the movement, with 76 percent in favor. Fifty-eight percent of rabbinical students favored the move, as did 65 percent of rabbis and 67 percent of cantors.

Cohen said he found that Conservative Jewish support for women clergy “implied” their support for gay and lesbian clergy. “Those who had hesitations about women as leaders were associated with those who opposed [ordination of] gays and lesbians,” he said. “If you had a problem with women, you had a problem with gays. And since women themselves are more likely to accept women as cantors and rabbis, they are more likely than men” to support homosexual ordination.

The survey found that 86 percent of women favored gay and lesbian ordination, compared with 60 percent of men who held that view.

Cohen explained that “women are more pro-women” than men and that “women tend to be younger than men and younger people tend to be more pro-ordination.”

The survey found also what Cohen said was a “strong relationship between self-defined traditional” Jews and their ideology, with more traditional Conservative Jews opposing homosexual ordination and liberal Conservative Jews favoring it. In addition, Cohen said he found “the more sacred the position [in the Conservative movement], the greater the hesitation about accepting gays.” Thus, there was a greater hesitation in accepting gays as clergy than as educators or synagogue presidents.

“Our intent was and is to know what Conservative Jews — rabbis and cantors, educators and executives, board members and students — think about this important matter: admitting and ordaining/investing openly gay and lesbian students in our rabbinical and cantorial schools,” Arnold Eisen, the seminary’s chancellor-elect, said.

The results will be used to assist seminary faculty, synagogue leaders and rabbis in determining policy as a result of a recent decision by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians. The heads of the movement’s other seminaries have already discussed the issue with Eisen. He is also receiving feedback during his nationwide “listening tour,” his meetings with students, and through the seminary’s Web site. Faculty discussions are also ongoing.

“Of particular note,” Eisen said in a prepared statement, “is the remarkable unity of Conservative Jews nationwide in their support of the centrality of halacha as a key principle of Conservative Judaism. The survey gives us data on this score as one factor among many to bear in mind as we consider a complex and controversial decision that will undoubtedly have a major impact on the future direction of JTS and the Conservative Movement. A final decision on this matter is expected this spring.”

The survey found that slightly more than half of the professional and lay leaders admitted to being “confused” by the law committee’s split decision, and 67 percent of clergy and 58 percent of professional and lay leaders admitted to being “somewhat embarrassed” by it.The survey found that rabbis favored admitting gays and lesbians to the seminary’s rabbinical and cantorial schools 65-28 percent. Cantors approved the move by a similar margin (67-27 percent), while lay leaders were split 68-22 percent.

Rabbinical students voted 58-32 in favor of admitting gays and lesbians to the rabbinical school. Cantorial students approved it 58-21 percent and other JTS students favored it 40-21 percent.

Among Conservative educators, executive directors, and other professionals, the vote in favor was 76-16 percent. Lay leaders favored it by 68-22 percent, and students and others —primarily public access respondents — favored the move by 70-20 percent.