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Applying Contradictory Opinions Will Test Conservative Movement

December 8, 2006
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An old Yiddish joke tells of a married couple who came to their rabbi complaining that they couldn’t get along. The rabbi listened to the husband and said, “My son, you’re right.” The rabbi then listened to the wife and said, “My daughter, you’re right.”

The rebbetzin turned to her husband and asked, “How can they possibly both be right?”

The rabbi replied, “My dear, you’re also right!”

In a decision sure to befuddle much of American Jewry, the Conservative movement’s authoritative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted this week to approve seemingly contradictory positions on homosexuality. Of the three papers approved, two affirmed the movement’s prohibitive stance on homosexuality, while the third legitimized same-sex relationships within Jewish law — but retained a ban on male intercourse.

Ideologically, the deliberations served to affirm the enduring values and tensions embedded in a denomination that represents one-third of American Jewry. From its inception in 19th-century Germany, Conservative Judaism has insisted on addressing the prickly opposition between faith and the conditions of the time.

“Maintaining the integrity of Judaism simultaneously with progress, this is the essential problem of the present,” Zechariah Frankel, the movement’s first ideologue, wrote in a journal he founded. “Can we deny the difficulty of a satisfactory solution? Where is the point where the two apparent contradictories can meet?”

The significance of the Conservative movement is not so much that it has answers to the vexing religious questions of every age, but rather that it asks the right questions of every age.

Searching for alternatives to secularism and fundamentalism, our world is in desperate need of religious models that are passionate, compelling and at the same time tolerant of positions that differ from our own.

The positions submitted to the Law Committee represent Conservative Judaism’s commitment both to contemporary Jews and traditional Judaism. The very fact that Conservative Judaism has the theological modesty to sanction significant differences of opinion highlights the movement’s distinctive role in the North American religious landscape.

Ideology aside, I find myself concerned with the pragmatic implications of this week’s decision. It will be Conservative Judaism’s ability to negotiate the complex and interrelated practical issues raised by the vote, not the vote itself, that will indicate the movement’s long-term strength.

As a congregational rabbi in Chicago, my first thoughts likely will be to tend to those members of my community confounded by the decision. At times like these, pulpit rabbis must draw from the depth of their pastoral skills to validate the Jews in their midst, seeking to build strong communities in the presence of such divisive questions.

How do Conservative clergy welcome both heterosexual and homosexual couples in a clear and consistent manner? Will congregations hire or fire rabbis based on the stances they take? In large congregations with multiple clergy, are communities prepared to employ religious leadership with opposing views on this issue?

How will rabbis who follow the movement’s halachically sanctioned prohibitive stance be affirmed if they’re accused of homophobia? After all, why in the world would a Conservative rabbi refuse to sanctify same-sex relationships when the option for doing so is now available?

Effective models of congregational education must be implemented that prepare Conservative Jews for the manifold repercussions of the decision.

If same-sex commitment ceremonies or weddings lie on the near horizon, what do such ceremonies look like? Given that thousands of years of rabbinic interpretation do not provide provisions toward legitimizing homosexual relationships, what does it mean to construct a same-sex commitment ceremony “k’dat moshe v’yisrael” (in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel)?

Who is going to instruct Conservative rabbis on how to conduct a premarital meeting with a homosexual couple — especially a couple the rabbi must counsel to shun the physical activity that forms the core of a functioning relationship?

To say that this week’s vote leaves many issues unresolved is an understatement. It is incumbent upon the movement’s institutional arms to support its constituent communities and clergy by responding to the decision in a timely, consistent and intentional manner.

Finally, and perhaps most important, rabbinic education will be deeply shaped by this decision. The movement’s West Coast seminary, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, reportedly is looking forward to ordaining gay rabbis. The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York has signaled a more measured path, initiating a “thoroughgoing discussion” on the implications of any decision prior to a faculty vote.

Regardless of the outcome, both faculty and students must construct a culture that validates what this week became two equally legitimate positions toward homosexuality.

It was the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg who wrote, “One cannot affirm one’s own certainties without understanding the counter-certainties of others.” This is a unique opportunity for Conservative Judaism’s future leaders to demonstrate what it means to engage in such a respectful and passionate religious conversation.

As observers of the Conservative movement assess the implications of this week’s decision, we would do well to hold off on excessive rituals of mourning or celebration. It’s far too soon to tell what the effects of the decision really are.

The sustained vitality of Conservative Judaism will be found in the compassion, communication and curriculum that all the movement’s institutional arms present in response to this week’s news. The Law Committee has spoken; it’s up to us if to be attentive to the demands of the hour.

(Elliot Cosgrove, a Conservative rabbi at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, is pursuing a doctorate in modern Jewish thought at the University of Chicago.)

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