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Out of the Closet: Conservatives to Debate Gay Marriage, Ordination

October 22, 2003
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Homosexuality is officially out of the Conservative movement’s closet.

The United Synagogue, the movement’s congregational arm, is due to hold the movement’s first officially sponsored forum on gays on Oct. 28, at its 2003 biennial in Dallas.

In recent years, the issue of where Judaism’s centrist denomination stands on gay ordination and marriage has sparked intense debate in synagogues, movement gatherings and the halls of its academies, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

As the informal debate continues, the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which decides issues of halachah, or Jewish law, has been gearing up to decide where the movement stands on homosexuality.

Earlier this year, the New York seminary hosted a day-long teach-in on the matter, fueled in part by calls for discussion from Keshet, a student group for gay rights.

In March, the Rabbinical Assembly held a well-attended workshop on gays and halachah at its annual convention in Los Angeles.

Now, at the movement’s upcoming biennial, a panel on “Halachic Views on Homosexuality” will consider arguments for and against changing the movement’s longtime adherence to Jewish law forbidding homosexuality.

Arguing to change the ban will be Rabbi Elliot Dorff, vice president of the law committee and a leading supporter of ordaining gay rabbis and allowing same-sex commitment ceremonies.

“There is a new probing of what the law says, based on how the community has changed over time,” Dorff says.

Insisting on upholding the Jewish ban on homosexuality will be Rabbi Joel Roth, a leading law committee member who argued in 1992 that halachah should be maintained.

Roth says his stance “is not radically different than it was when I wrote my paper the last time the law committee discussed this issue. Neither the science nor the halachah has changed.”

Back then, the law committee upheld the traditional Jewish ban on homosexuality — enumerated in Leviticus 18:22 — but also echoed calls by the United Synagogue and Rabbinical Assembly to welcome gays and lesbians into synagogues, day schools and camps.

Dorff is due to replace the committee’s current chairman, Rabbi Kassel Abelson, who favors upholding halachah, in 2004 or later — though Dorff and others say he will wait to assume the post until after the debate on homosexuality.

The law committee is scheduled to hold a retreat next March to discuss its next steps on the contentious issue. The panel typically studies interpretations of Jewish law, called teshuvot, by various rabbis on either side of an issue before voting. Dorff says the process should take another two years.

Thinking in the Conservative movement has evolved since the last law committee ruling, says Dorff, a philosophy professor at the University of Judaism.

“Many Conservatives know gays or have gay relatives,” he says, which sensitizes them to gay concerns.

And “the laws have changed” in the secular world as well, he adds: The Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws, some states have allowed same-sex marriages and Canada has legalized homosexual unions.

Those against revising the Conservative movement’s stance on the issue, like Roth, say it should take more than cultural and legal developments to change the movement’s position, which is based on the Bible.

“The Torah is pretty clear,” Roth says. “The correct question is not what’s the motivation for upholding the law, but what’s the motivation for overturning the law, since the uncontested halachic tradition since time immemorial is that homosexuality is forbidden behavior.”

Yet signs of change are popping up outside the movement’s official purview. In August, Baltimore’s largest Conservative synagogue, Beth El Congregation, broke from the movement’s official position, hosting its first same- sex commitment ceremony, for two women.

Meanwhile, a few Conservative rabbis and seminary students have said they are gay.

Among them is Jeremy Gordon, the leader of Keshet and a senior at JTS. Gordon welcomed the United Synagogue forum as a chance to broach “a very difficult issue.”

“Any time we have the opportunity to discuss something that is so complicated has got to be a good thing,” Gordon says.

Earlier this year, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, president of the worldwide Conservative movement, Masorti, asked the law committee to revisit its 1992 ruling.

The United Synagogue’s president, Judy Yudof, also urged the panel to clarify the movement’s stance on homosexuality.

It’s unclear whether new attitudes will convince the movement’s leadership to change the law. A teshuva paper must win the approval of six of the panel’s 25 voting rabbinical members to be considered a legitimate movement opinion; last time, four conflicting teshuvot were approved, while a consensus document got 19 votes for final approval.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, United Synagogue’s executive vice president, says the biennial panel is intended “to help the Conservative laity become better informed” of the issue’s nuances.

“We are purposely not framing this in the way of a debate,” he says. “We wanted to make certain both major views will be presented.”

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