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Conservative Movement Asked to Reconsider Its Stance on Gays

March 5, 2003
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The Conservative movement’s rabbinical union has formally asked the movement’s legal body to study whether homosexuality is allowed under Jewish law.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, told JTA that this week he requested the movement’s Committee on Law and Standards to “revisit” its 1992 ruling barring homosexuality.

The Jerusalem-based Hammer, an ex-officio member of the law committee, said he did not specify whether the committee should examine ordination for gays and lesbians, same-sex commitment ceremonies or its policy on gay and lesbian rabbinical students, but asked the panel to “reread” its ruling “and decide what, if anything, they want to do with it.”

Hammer’s move comes as momentum is building across the Conservative movement for the legal body that issues rulings on matters of halachah, or Jewish law, to review its earlier decision.

That decade-old decision included two teshuvot, or rulings, upholding the biblical injunction against homosexuality while calling on the movement’s synagogues to welcome gays into their midst.

Since that time, many in the movement say they have grown increasingly supportive of formalizing the move toward equal treatment of gays and lesbians under halachah, or Jewish law.

Rabbi J.B. Sacks-Rosen, who is among the few openly gay Conservative pulpit rabbis, welcomed the step towards reconsideration this week amid what he called increasing “frustration” over the issue.

The movement attempted to “draw a thin line between getting no publicity and putting out the message they’re welcoming gay Jews and their families, without doing anything really to welcome them and without dealing with many of the larger issues involved,” said Sacks-Rosen, now rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Corona, Calif.

Those issues include whether the movement should admit openly gay students to its rabbinical and cantorial seminaries, whether to ordain openly gay rabbis and whether rabbis can officiate at same-sex unions.

Judy Yudof, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, was preparing her own request to the law committee asking it to review the general question of homosexuality and halachah. She welcomed the new effort, but is likely to continue formulating her own effort.

“I am pleased that a request for reconsideration is coming from another source in addition to mine,” she said.

The current chairman of the law committee, Rabbi Kassel Abelson, has opposed legalizing homosexuality. He is likely to oversee the matter when it comes before the panel, said Hammer.

Abelson could not be reached for comment, but the panel’s vice chairman, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, said Abelson would handle the issue fairly.

Dorff, an outspoken advocate for overturning the gay ban, denied earlier press reports that he would soon replace Abelson and would seek to reverse the earlier ruling.

Dorff said he and Hammer discussed ” who should preside over” the homosexual debate, and “we both agreed it would be a better thing” if Abelson remained in his position for at least one more year due to Dorff’s public stance on the dispute.

Dorff said he supports revising halachah because the relevant verse in Leviticus assumed being gay and lesbian is voluntary, while in modern times “we know people are born with a sex orientation that, if not there at birth, is there by age 6.”

Since the law panel meets only four times a year, it is not likely to actually take up the question until June 2004, Dorff added.

However, Hammer’s request is more than likely to set the debate in motion, with the panel handing his request to its subcommittee on sex and family life.

That subcommittee then solicits rabbinic opinions on the matter, Dorff said, and several opinions will likely be written this year so the panel can discuss them and return them to the full body.

The law committee was set to meet Wednesday at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York for a previously scheduled session that does not include taking up the issue of homosexuality, several movement members said.

However, Keshet, a student gay rights group at JTS, organized a day-long teach-in, “Tse U’lemad: Come Out and Learn,” timed to coincide with the law committee session.

The teach-in includes talks by leading movement officials like Dorff and gay rights leaders such as David Bianco, and a showing of the film “Trembling Before G-d” about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews.

At the same time, Dror Yikra, a similar group at the movement’s West Coast seminary, also was set to hold sessions about the controversy.

Keshet’s chairperson, Jeremy Gordon, a fourth-year rabbinical student, said he also would circulate an online petition addressed to the movement generally and the law committee specifically in support of gay rights.

That petition, which he said has gathered more than 300 signatures by midweek, supports same-sex “commitment ceremonies”; urges the admission of gay, lesbian and bisexual members into the movement’s rabbinical and cantorial unions; and calls for opening “all lay and professional leadership positions” in the movement to gays and lesbians, among other declarations.

The seminary’s chancellor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who has opposed changing the gay ban, has declined to discuss the issue so far.

JTS spokeswoman Jane Rosen said neither Schorsch nor any seminary official would comment on the law committee matter.

However, Rosen said the mere fact of Keshet’s teach-in showed the seminary was opposed to any kind of “censorship.”

“The fact that the day of learning is taking place here, and when it is, expresses the importance we place on allowing students to express themselves freely,” she said.

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