Jewish clouds, like others, sometimes have silver linings. And so, some of us hope that a glimmer may surround the Conservative movement’s recent endorsement of a position permitting “commitment ceremonies” between people of the same gender and the ordination as Conservative rabbis of people living openly homosexual lives. To be sure, the decision is tragic and telling. Tragic because it turns halachah, or Jewish religious law, on its head — and does so, moreover, in the name of a “halachic” process.
While some Conservative rabbis have labored mightily to present the issue in a positive light, the attempts are risible. Conservative Rabbi Judith Hauptman, in The New York Jewish Week, asserts “precedent” for sanctioning same-sex unions in the Talmudic sage Hillel’s construction of an entirely legal means to maintain loans through a Sabbatical year. But equating employment of an entirely legal economic means with the abolishment of a moral law is like claiming that legitimate allowances in American tax law are grounds for permitting espionage.
And while the Conservative decision may technically claim to preserve the biblical prohibition on sodomy, it flouts clear halachic prohibitions on other forms of homosexual activity and de facto condones a homosexual lifestyle — imagine limiting a heterosexual couple to only certain expressions of affection.
In the words of Conservative Rabbi Joel Roth — who, to his credit, resigned in protest from the rabbinic committee that reached the decision — it was “outside the pale of halachic reasoning.”
None of which, of course, is to belittle the plight of those predisposed, or even bound, to same-sex attractions. Every Jew, whatever his or her life challenges, is precious in the eyes of God. But no matter how difficult the struggle to live by the Torah’s prescriptions, that struggle is part of the very essence of what it means to be Jewishly observant. And so the Conservative abandonment of the unified response “We will do” that has echoed since Sinai is indeed a tragedy.
What’s telling is that it conclusively gives the lie to the movement’s claim of fealty to the halachic process.
More than five years ago, I made the case in Moment magazine that the Conservative movement’s claim of halachic integrity was belied by earlier decisions it had embraced.
Unlike true halachic process, which entails the objective examination of verses mediated through the Talmud — leavened with societal concerns at times, to be sure, but always within the letter of the law — the Conservative process often has involved first deciding on a desired result, then manipulating the sources to yield that outcome.
In light of society’s shifting mores, I predicted that it was just a matter of time before Conservative decisors would come to embrace same-sex relationships, too, despite thousands of years of halachic literature and explicit verses in the Torah.
My article was greeted with loud, angry protest. An army of Conservative leaders blasted what one called my “nasty diatribe,” accusing me of hating Conservative Jews, although my article had dealt only with a theological process, not people.
But — and herein lies the silver lining of hope — there was much positive response, too, both from erstwhile Conservative Jews who had left the movement for Orthodoxy, and from members of Conservative synagogues who had come to suspect that things were as I described them and were grateful for the confirmation.
One Conservative correspondent wrote that while he couldn’t imagine that his movement would abandon Judaism’s forbiddance of homosexual conduct, he would consider it impossible to maintain his affiliation if it indeed happened.
I don’t know how many Conservative Jews truly respect the concept of halachah but simply have always accepted as fact the idea that their movement was committed to the traditional halachic process. However many there may be, they now have the benefit of a clear picture. It might not be a pleasant scene for them to behold, but painful realizations often lead to spiritual growth.
Although Moment ran my article with its own incendiary headline, the article I submitted to the magazine carried the headline “Time To Come Home.” It was, in the end, a plea to Conservative Jews committed to halachah to realize that their rightful place is really in the broad, variegated but halachah-respecting Orthodox world.
Many once-Conservative Jews already have blazed a trail of return to a halachic lifestyle. In the wake of this latest Conservative decision, I hope others will follow.
And what I hope no less fervently is that my own Orthodox world will demonstrate its own self-improvement and commitment — to other Jews, warmly welcoming all who wish to join us, into our shuls and into our lives.
(Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.