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Some Conservative Jews Upset After Decision is Delayed on Gays

March 9, 2006
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The Conservative movement’s decision to delay a vote on its approach to homosexuality is angering members who want leaders to liberalize the movement’s stance on gays and lesbians. “It’s yet another disappointment,” said Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, associate rabbi at New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a synagogue for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews. “It feels like yet another missed opportunity for the law committee to take position of moral leadership.”

During a two-day meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which ended Wednesday, authors of four rabbinic opinions on the status of homosexuality in the movement — two on each side of the issue — were asked to make revisions to their opinions ahead of a vote on the issue in December.

The decision reaffirms the status quo, at least for the time being, and means that the movement’s 1992 decision barring openly gay individuals from its rabbinical schools and forbidding its rabbis to perform same-sex marriages will remain in place.

The movement has repeatedly affirmed that it welcomes gay and lesbian individuals in its congregations.

The debate during the past three years on amending the 1992 policy has highlighted some of the difficulties Conservative Jewry faces in its approach to religious law.

Since its inception, the stream — once America’s dominant religious movement, recently surpassed by Reform Judaism — has walked a fine line between adhering to halachah, or Jewish law, and embracing a modern approach to religious observance. Its legal scholars in some instances have hewed strictly to traditional interpretations of the legal code, and in others have adapted it.

It remains to be seen how the homosexuality issue will be resolved.

“The pain that so many real people are experiencing because of their love for tradition and their hope for a supportive community clearly hasn’t moved the Rabbinical Assembly as an institution to move more quickly,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor, one of the founder of Keshet Rabbis, a group supporting gay rights in the movement.

But even for some supporters of a new approach, the outcome wasn’t all negative.

“I understand that it’s frustrating, and there’s a piece of me that feels frustrated as well,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of Los Angeles’ University of Judaism and a co-author of one of the teshuvot, or responsa, recommending a more liberal approach to homosexuality. “But in the end, I would rather have well-honed and clearly articulated positions that people can study and understand than positions that are not well-argued.”

“The law committee set a deadline for this,” he said, referring to the announced December vote. “It’s not as if we’re delaying this forever. This is not ducking responsibility.”

In a meeting last April, the law committee met but took no action on the 1992 decision. Pro-gay advocates had hoped that the body would find fit to make a change this time around.

In the aftermath of the meeting, Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the assembly, urged his colleagues to be patient.

“It was an intense yet respectful meeting in which we looked at many dimensions of the issue,” he said. “I am urging my colleagues who promote change to realize that there are an equal number of colleagues who are in favor of welcoming gays and lesbians in the Conservative community but who do not wish to change halachah.”

In 1992, the Rabbinical Assembly voted against ordaining gay rabbis and officiating at same-sex weddings. Declared gays and lesbians are officially barred from the Conservative movement’s two main rabbinical seminaries, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

The assembly did declare that congregations should welcome gays and lesbians, but has let individual congregations decide whether or not gays may be hired as teachers or youth leaders.

Discussion on the papers reaffirming the 1992 opinion focused around what the status quo means: Would the committee change the tone, if not the substance, of the movement’s approach to homosexuality? If so, how?

The first of the two papers advocating change interprets the biblical verse forbidding homosexuality — “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman: it is an abomination” — as a prohibition on anal sex between men that could be read as allowing for other forms of homosexual congress.

The other pro-change paper suggested removing the prohibition in the biblical verse altogether, on grounds that it’s unjust. It is this opinion that could require a takanah.

Dorff said he thought the committee was split on the need for change.

“I think we’re not unanimous, to put it mildly,” he said. “Roughly half of us are interested in making some change, and half are not interested in making a change. I think that reflects the movement and reflects America generally. This is the moral issue of our time.”

A group of Conservative rabbis, meanwhile, was mobilizing to respond to news of the committee’s decision to delay a vote.

“How long will the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and the leadership of our movement delay in speaking up for the treatment of gay and lesbian people as equal human beings within our communities and institutions?” the group said in a statement e-mailed to JTA.

Meyers said that in a movement as diverse as Conservative Judaism, it’s not surprising to find disagreement on this issue.

“It’s a rough moment for Conservative Judaism,” he said. “It’s the kind of issue that confronts us in which I don’t believe there will be contentment on any side of this debate when the law committee finishes its deliberations.”

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