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Conservative Decision on Gays Will Be a Watershed, Either Way

November 29, 2006
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Whatever decision the Conservative movement reaches next week on its approach to homosexuality, it will be a watershed. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the movement’s highest legal authority, is expected to vote on five separate teshuvot, or responsa, that range from a complete overturn of the traditional prohibition on homosexual intercourse to a restatement of the committee’s 1992 decision upholding the ban.

Implicit in those opinions are views on whether gays and lesbians should be ordained as rabbis and whether Conservative clergy can officiate at commitment ceremonies.

Committee members were loath to speculate this week on the final outcome, but insiders expect the committee to endorse both the traditional ban and a more liberal opinion — leaving it to local rabbis to make determinations for each community.

But that’s hardly a foregone conclusion, and the liberal opinion could still fail, particularly if the committee determines that lifting the ban on homosexual intercourse is so substantial a break from halachic precedent that it entails a takanah, an act of legislation overturning an established tradition.

A takanah requires an absolute majority of the committee’s 25 members, or 13 votes, to pass. A normal interpretive teshuva requires only six votes.

If the committee endorses one of the more liberal opinions, it would overturn not only the policy of the Conservative movement but 3,000 years of Jewish practice and legal tradition that have upheld heterosexual marriage as the unquestioned ideal.

The debate has consumed the movement for months, and dire predictions abound on both sides. Traditionalists warn that any change in the prohibition would severely weaken the movement’s moral authority and could cause the movement to fracture.

For liberals, a failure to become more accepting of gays and lesbians could further marginalize the movement, which has been losing ground to Orthodoxy and Reform in the American Jewish community.

Rabbi Joseph Prouser, a committee member opposed to liberalization, argued in a recent essay that endorsing conflicting opinions on the question “evinces doctrinal anarchy” that undermines the movement’s ability to act as a moral authority.

“At best, the proposed halachic changes will achieve a Pyrrhic victory for their advocates,” Prouser wrote. “A fractured Conservative movement undermines the cause of pluralism and reverence for halachic dissent, which we champion. The Conservative movement is rendered less viable at the very peril of klal Yisrael.”

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, the movement’s West Coast seminary, and author of a middle opinion that retains the biblical prohibition on male sodomy while opening the door to gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies, believes a failure to liberalize would be disastrous.

“I think the vast majority of Jews under 40 are asking why we are still talking about this,” Dorff told JTA. “I think there’s a real generational difference herein, in part because of the openness of gays and lesbians. If none of the liberalizing positions pass, I think it will be a disaster for our movement.”

The significance of the decision, and the extensive coverage it has received in the media, have posed a daunting challenge for Arnold Eisen, the incoming chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement’s principal rabbinic seminary.

Eisen, who is not a rabbi and who presumably would lack the authority to render halachic decisions for JTS, has said publicly that he supports ordination of gay rabbis but remains committed to a halachic process.

In an e-mail to the JTS community last week, Eisen said faculty had begun discussing the matter, but that a process for deciding whether JTS would admit openly gay rabbinical students — assuming such a step is sanctioned by the law committee — has yet to be determined.

In particular, it remained unclear whether the decision would be subject to a vote of the faculty and what the timetable for a decision would be.

The Ziegler School has said it would begin admitting gays and lesbians immediately if the law committee ruling allows it.

Beyond the United States, affiliated institutions of the Conservative movement are not expected to follow their American counterparts in the wake of a liberal decision, at least not initially.

Israeli, Canadian and Latin American Conservative rabbis are considered more traditional than their colleagues in the United States, and authorities from those communities have communicated their fears that any change could irreparably split the movement.

The pending vote on homosexuality has drawn comparisons to other landmark law committee decisions, like allowing worshipers to drive to synagogue on Shabbat and allowing the ordination of women rabbis.

As with homosexuality, observers say, those decisions were prefaced by warnings that they would split the movement and bring about its demise.

“It’s not a surprise that this kind of talk surfaces again,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, a committee member and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis. “All I do is urge people to go back and think about history. We can learn a lot from significant events and how they unfolded. We’re going through now in our movement another significant discussion that has real emotion attached to it, and I think we’ll come out just fine at the other end of this discussion.”

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