Questions of Gays, Interfaith Couples Roil Conservatives

By Jennifer Siegel

Published July 01, 2005, issue of July 01, 2005.
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As leaders of Conservative Judaism face looming decisions about the future, the movement is facing new internal challenges to its restrictions on gays and lesbians and on interfaith couples.

In recent days, more than 90 Conservative rabbis have signed their names to the Web site of a new group that pledges to fight against “all religious and organizational limitations” that the movement places on gay and lesbians, including the ban on same-sex unions and the ordination of openly gay rabbis or cantors.

Earlier this month, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs released a pamphlet arguing for greater acceptance of intermarried couples and of the “supportive non-Jewish spouses” who are raising Jewish children but have not converted to Judaism. The pamphlet does not object to the movement’s ban on performing intermarriages or to the ban on calling non-Jews to the Torah, but it asks rabbis to reconsider other restrictions, such as the refusal to allow non-Jewish spouses to participate in their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs through informal remarks or recitations in English.

The push for change on both fronts comes as the movement prepares to replace its longtime titular head, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who announced that he will step down as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in June 2006. Speculation about his successor has swirled around several candidates who are seen as more liberal than Schorsch on gay issues. Schorsch is on record opposing any change to the movement’s current policy. The movement’s top lawmaking body, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, is currently reviewing the issue.

The current protocols for dealing with gays and lesbians and with non-Jewish spouses were established during the 1980s and early ’90s, when movement leaders focused on establishing clear boundaries separating the Conservative movement and the more liberal Reform movement.

The strategy was to “hold the line, to set boundaries,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. Simon authored the pamphlet. “That was a mistake. Those efforts failed.”

The Conservative movement has plunged from claiming more than 40% of American Jewish households in 1990 to 33% by 2000, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, conducted by United Jewish Communities. Over the same period, both the Reform and Orthodox movements surged in popularity.

In response, Simon said in an interview with the Forward, Conservatives must “think progressively and proactively.” His pamphlet, titled “The Role of the Supportive Non-Jewish Spouse in the Conservative/Masorti Movement,” urges religious leaders to understand that non-Jewish spouses are not looking to become religious equals; they are simply seeking social acceptance and respect.

“These are people who in many cases are giving us our children,” Simon said. “They want to affiliate with a synagogue” or send their children “to day school or to Camp Ramah, but for whatever reason — their grandparents are alive, the relationship they have with their parents, they’re atheist — they just simply don’t think that they could honestly take a step toward conversion. But they want to support their partner, and Jewish life resonates with them. We have to be able to recognize and meet these people where they are.”

In his pamphlet, Simon urges reconsideration of those law committee decisions dealing with intermarried families, including three opinions written by Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm. In his decisions, Epstein argued against offering congratulations to intermarried families, including on the birth of a child; against allowing the non-Jewish parent to participate in a son or daughter’s bar or bat mitzvah, and against hiring intermarried Jews as teachers or administrators in a synagogue or in Solomon Schechter Day School. In all such cases, Simon argues for a more inclusive approach and reminds rabbis that since those opinions were not issued as binding rulings, they are free to use their discretion.

In an e-mail to the Forward, Epstein declined to comment, saying that he had not yet read Simon’s pamphlet. Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, also declined to comment, saying he had not yet read it, as did Jack Wertheimer, the provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Wertheimer is a leading proponent of maintaining stringent restrictions on intermarriage and on non-Jewish spouses.

Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chairman of the law committee, told the Forward that while he did not necessarily agree with all of Simon’s positions, he felt that the issue of non-Jewish spouses needed to be revisited. He said he did not know when the committee would take up the issue.

As the law committee reviews the ban on gay unions and ordination, Keshet Rabbis, the newly formed, self-described organization for gay-friendly rabbis, is pushing for change. The group’s Web site criticizes the committee’s 1992 consensus statement on homosexuality, which does not allow openly gay men and women to study for the rabbinate or to commit to one another in a religious ceremony. The 1992 statement also leaves to the discretion of individual congregations the decision of whether to employ gays as teachers or youth leaders, or to grant them honors during services.

“The question is, ‘Can we move forward in a way that actually makes people feel valued and cherished for who they are?’” said Menachem Creditor, a rabbi in Sharon, Mass., who is one of the group’s founders.

Creditor said that while the group eventually will conduct more direct advocacy efforts, for now its priority is signing up as many rabbis as possible.

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