The Conservative Movement’s Double Standard

By Ayelet Cohen

Published February 11, 2005, issue of February 11, 2005.
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For more than a decade, the Conservative movement has proclaimed its welcoming attitudes toward gay and lesbian Jews. As evidence, Conservative leaders have often cited the movement’s 1992 “Consensus Statement,” which affirms that “gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps and schools.”

They neglect to mention the other, less-than-inclusive portions of the statement — the portions of the policy that actually characterize the treatment of gays and lesbians within the Conservative movement:

“We will not perform commitment ceremonies for gays or lesbians. We will not knowingly admit avowed homosexuals to our rabbinical or cantorial schools or to the Rabbinical Assembly or the Cantors Assembly.… Whether homosexuals may function as teachers or youth leaders in our congregations and schools will be left to the rabbi authorized to make halachic decisions for a given institution within the Conservative movement.… Similarly, the rabbi of each Conservative institution, in consultation with its lay leaders, will be entrusted to formulate policies regarding the eligibility of homosexuals for honors within worship and for lay leadership positions.”

These injustices and other halachic issues concerning gay and lesbian people, the leadership of Conservative Judaism has promised, will be addressed when the movement’s top lawmaking body, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, convenes in April. But the committee is composed of Conservative rabbis, and gay people are prohibited from becoming Conservative rabbis. They are kept outside of the synagogues and other institutions of the movement, except at the discretion of individual rabbis.

The onus, then, is on heterosexual rabbis and laypeople who have full access to Conservative movement institutions to remind the movement that full equality for gay and lesbian people matters to us, too. The onus is on us to make clear to the movement’s leadership that a double standard toward gay and lesbian people is unworthy of the professed ideals of a religious Jewish movement committed to the study of Torah and the relevance of rabbinic law.

I am proud that despite my recent struggle with the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, I can continue serving Congregation Beth Simchat Torah — the world’s largest synagogue serving gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews — as a member of the Rabbinical Assembly. But let us not forget that the privilege of membership was only available to me at the outset because I am heterosexual.

Children who grow up to be gay and lesbian Jews are born into Conservative communities and named on the pulpits of Conservative synagogues. The movement educates gay and lesbian Jews in its Solomon Schechter schools and Ramah camps, sends them to Israel with United Synagogue Youth, encourages them to spend a year of serious study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

And then, when they are open about being gay or lesbian, the movement tells them they are welcome — sort of. They can be members of Conservative synagogues, but cannot celebrate their marriage to another Jew of the same gender. They can pay membership dues at those synagogues, but not as a family, because their families are not recognized. They can study to be Jewish educators, but the movement allows its schools the freedom not to hire them because of their sexual orientation. They can continue to study Jewish text, but they cannot be ordained as rabbis or cantors. They can be active laypeople in Conservative synagogues, but the rabbis of those synagogues can prohibit them from leading services, being called to the Torah or serving on the board.

All this is prescribed by the Conservative movement’s 1992 policy statement.

I have heard many times the claim that full inclusion of gay people in the Conservative movement and in Judaism in general is of concern only to a small number of “activist rabbis” and outsiders. These critics forget that the movement has made gay and lesbian people outsiders by closing them out of its institutions while offering them an empty welcome.

It is time for the “insiders,” the heterosexual Jews whose participation in Jewish life is not called into question by the movement’s policies, to raise our voices to call the Conservative movement toward justice. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements have moved more swiftly to embrace the diversity of our Jewish families and call for civil and religious equality for gay and lesbian people. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has the opportunity to do so this spring in a way consistent with the process of the Conservative movement. It is time for the Conservative movement to stand behind its promises of welcome within the movement’s institutions and support for civil equality of gay and lesbian people in this country.

This week the parsha teaches that the mishkan was built using the gifts of each member of the community. The holiness of a community is determined by its capacity to recognize and celebrate those gifts. Twenty years ago the Conservative movement chose to strengthen itself by deciding to ordain women as rabbis. This year the movement has the opportunity again, to continue diminishing itself through the exclusion of gay and lesbian Jews, or to increase in holiness and celebrate and include gay and lesbian Jews in our sacred community.

Ayelet Cohen is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York City.

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