Conservative Judaism’s Flagship Seminary Opens Door to Gays and Lesbians

By Rebecca Spence

Published March 30, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
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Ending nearly two decades of debate, the flagship seminary of Conservative Judaism announced this week that it would now accept gay and lesbian students into its rabbinical and cantorial schools. But a subsequent declaration from the movement’s Israeli seminary upholding the ban on gay rabbinical students made clear that the issue was far from settled in the Conservative movement.

The decision by Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the New York-based Jewish Theological Seminary, follows on the heels of a vote last December by the Conservative movement’s top lawmaking body to permit gay ordination and same-sex unions. The main Conservative seminary on the West Coast, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, recently announced that it had accepted its first two openly gay students.

On the East Coast, however, the decision to admit gays was not a foregone conclusion. Senior members of the JTS faculty opposed the adoption of an inclusive policy and made their dissatisfaction known.

Eisen’s decision to welcome gays and lesbians at JTS comes after a nearly four-month long process designed to take the movement’s pulse on whether to allow gays in the rabbinate. That process included surveying the opinions of more than 5,500 of the movement’s rabbis, lay leaders, students and professors, as well as holding faculty discussions that often went on late into the night. The results of the survey, which was conducted by Jewish demographer Steven M. Cohen, showed that a clear majority of Conservative Jews in the United States support the allowance of gays and lesbians into the clergy.

A vote by the JTS faculty produced similar results, with the majority of professors favoring an inclusive admissions policy at the 121-year-old seminary. In a show of just how deep feelings run on the divisive issue, many of the votes delivered to Eisen came with highly detailed personal notes attached, Eisen told the Forward. The chancellor-elect also said he hoped that the time he took to engage with the community before making a final decision would have a positive impact on the movement as a whole.

“I’m hoping that the whole process that surrounded the decision will revitalize the sense that Conservative Judaism is a living organism,” Eisen said, adding that he has received “a lot of mail to that effect.”

Eisen also said that he is initiating a movement-wide discussion about the obligations of religious observance, as a means of demonstrating the core principles that unite, rather than divide, the movement.

Conservative Judaism, once America’s most popular synagogue stream, has seen its numbers decline in recent years, in the face of the Reform movement’s growth. Advocates for the new ordination policy at JTS say that the open acceptance of gay and lesbian clergy will go a long way in helping to re-energize the movement and will keep it in step with changes in American society and culture. Advocates also say that the move will allow the seminary to be more selective in choosing future rabbis.

“If you have a higher number of candidates, it will up the admissions standards,” said Judith Hauptman, a professor of Talmud and rabbinic culture at JTS, and a vocal proponent of gay ordination.

But those who oppose Conservative Judaism’s slide to the left, including the past chancellor of JTS, Ismar Schorsch, have warned that the acceptance of gays could ultimately divide the movement. Thus far, those predictions have not been borne out in the United States.

In Canada, though, Conservative Jews tend to be more traditional than in America and movement leaders are mulling whether to split off from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the stream’s congregational arm in North America. Rabbis there describe the newly liberal approach to homosexuality as just one issue among a host of other problems — including whether the movement’s Canadian branch is getting its fair share of the financial pie — that are driving the discussions of a break-away.

Referring to the decision by JTS, Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, one of two Canadian members of the law committee, said, “I would imagine that the decision today will go into the hopper, but it will not be the determining decision in terms of whether the Canadian Conservative synagogues will remain formally connected with the United Synagogue.”

Meanwhile, the Israeli seminary became the first Conservative one in the world — including those in South America, the United Kingdom and Hungary — to declare formally that it would not accept gay and lesbian students into its rabbinical training program. The dean of the Jerusalem-based Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, Rabbi Einat Ramon, announced March 27 to the seminary’s board that she had made her decision following a study of the issue.

“This is a final decision,” Ramon said in a phone interview. “In Israel, the [Conservative] movement has to be consistently halachic” — true to rabbinic and biblical law — “otherwise it will unite with the Reform Movement.” Ramon said that the rabbinic opinion paper put forth by Rabbi Joel Roth, which upholds the ban on gay ordination, was in keeping with Jewish law.

Roth, a longtime JTS professor, resigned from the law committee in protest of the vote approving gay rabbis. Three other law committee members also submitted their resignations.

Ramon stressed that her conclusion was based in part on the importance of the heterosexual family unit in traditional Judaism. She said that a discussion of “why people are feeling disenchanted and alienated by the heterosexual family today” should be undertaken in order to ensure the family unit’s survival. Ramon further contended that homosexuality is a choice, a position, she said, that is taken by “gay thinkers,” including Michel Foucault.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, who is the director of the Israeli branch of the Rabbinical Assembly and serves on the board at Schechter, said he believes that eventually the decision may need to change.

“We live in a global society, and it is difficult for me to imagine that what occurs in the United States will not have an impact or influence here in Israel,” he said. “And a decision that is more inclusive seems to me to be inevitable.”

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