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Conflicting Conservative Opinions Expected to Open the Way for Gays

December 7, 2006
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Even before the ink was dry on the Conservative movement’s decision to accept gay rabbis and allow same-sex commitment ceremonies, its impact was already being felt. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, immediately announced that he was recommending a change in the organization’s hiring practices, which had required employees to be observant of Jewish law — effectively barring gay men and lesbians.

“I see no reason why we should not revise our hiring policies so we may consider applicants for United Synagogue jobs no matter what their sexual orientation may be,” Epstein said in a statement. “United Synagogue’s leadership will discuss the issue at our next scheduled meeting.”

With advocates on both sides of the issue warning that Wednesday’s decisions by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards could irreparably fracture the movement, the two-day meeting was closely monitored around the Jewish world.

In the end, the committee endorsed three separate teshuvot, or responsa, on the issue. One, by Rabbi Joel Roth, affirmed the movement’s traditional ban on gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies. Another, by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner, reversed those positions while upholding the biblical prohibition on male intercourse. Both papers earned 13 votes, a majority of the 25-member committee.

A third opinion, by Rabbi Leonard Levy, also affirmed the movement’s traditional position on homosexuality while rejecting the now-common view that homosexuality is an orientation one cannot control. Levy’s position earned the minimum six votes required for acceptance.

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

At the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, leaders long have made clear their intention to ordain gay rabbis if the law committee allowed it. At Wednesday’s meeting, Dorff, rector of U.J.’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, said he expects the seminary to announce a final decision within weeks.

In New York, the Jewish Theological Seminary has been less forthcoming. Though he has said publicly that he supports gay ordination, incoming Chancellor Arnold Eisen promised to consult with faculty, students and the community before making a decision he emphasizes is not halachic in nature.

A survey of opinion within the movement is to be conducted before reaching a final decision.

“We are going to consider what we think best serves the Conservative movement and larger American Jewish community,” Eisen wrote in an e-mail following the decision. “We know that the implications of the decision before us are immense. We fully recognize what is at stake.”

Momentum has been building for years for a more permissive Conservative attitude toward homosexuality. Despite the committee’s 1992 decision upholding the ban on gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies, a number of Conservative rabbis do perform such ceremonies.

That number is expected to grow now that rabbis have received halachic sanction from the movement’s highest legal body.

“I think there will be a significant change,” said Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, a JTS graduate and leader of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a Manhattan synagogue for lesbians and gay men.

An outspoken proponent of changing the traditional prohibition on homosexuality, Cohen performed commitment ceremonies for gay couples even before the committee’s decision. She said opponents of change no longer will be able to use the law committee’s 1992 statement on homosexuality as an excuse to continue excluding gay men and lesbians from the movement.

“According to the current position of the movement, gay men and women are lesser human beings than heterosexuals,” Cohen said. “Gay people can be kept out of every level of lay leadership in our movement. Until now, rabbis have been able to say, ‘There’s nothing I can do. My hands are tied.’ “

But by deciding that continuing the ban on gay ordination and commitment ceremonies also is a legitimate position, the committee has ensured that local rabbis who oppose a change in policy will have a halachic authority to cite in making their case.

There is considerably less ambiguity at the movement’s seminaries, where much of the agitation to change policy has originated.

KeshetJTS, a student advocacy group, says a survey showed that eight out of 10 members of the JTS community would support ordaining gay rabbis.

“I think that congregants are ahead of their rabbis on many issues, and this is one of them,” said Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi and senior teaching fellow at CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “I can tell you that there are people who have wanted to go to the seminary to become a rabbi and have chosen to go elsewhere, and will be thrilled that that option will now be open to them.”

One such person is Aaron Weininger, an openly gay senior at Washington University in St. Louis and a lifelong member of the Conservative movement. His decision on where to apply to rabbinical school hinged on the law committee’s decision.

“I would like to be able to apply to a Conservative seminary, and for both ethical and personal reasons right now that’s not an option,” Weininger told JTA before the vote.

Weininger said he would apply to the University of Judaism, but would also consider JTS if that became an option.

Like other advocates of liberalization, Weininger said what’s at stake is not just the status of lesbian and gay men in Conservative Judaism but the movement’s entire approach to interpreting halacha.

He hopes the decision will lead to greater clarity in the way movement authorities negotiate the line between fidelity to tradition and the demands of contemporary life.

“Morality is at the very core of law, and that law really drives us toward our aspiration of holiness and justice,” Weininger said. “And so if we in turn interpret law to exclude people, we really violate the intent of the law.”

Rabbi Alan LaPayover, one of very few openly gay rabbis who has served as the spiritual leader of a Conservative synagogue — he was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College — called the decision “a very big step.”

Given the nature of the Conservative movement’s process, “they did the best they were able to do,” said LaPayover, the former rabbi at Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, Pa.

Given the multiple opinions allowed by the law committee, neither advocates nor opponents of change will feel compelled to adjust their positions.

Still, many observers are hopeful that the decision will open a vital discussion within a movement that once was America’s largest Jewish denomination.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a leading advocate for change within the movement, said Eisen’s use of the committee debate as an opportunity for discussion at JTS is a step in the right direction.

“That’s a revolution,” Creditor said. “It might be quiet, but I think it’s going to change things on the ground because rabbis can’t ignore the inclusion of whichever teshuvot will be accepted. We can’t ignore it. There’s no hiding it. It’s transparent.”

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