Liberals Cheering at JTS, Crying Foul Elsewhere Over Gay Debate

By Jennifer Siegel

Published September 15, 2006, issue of September 15, 2006.
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Even as the incoming liberal chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary appears to be solidifying his control over Conservative Judaism’s flagship institution, the movement’s congregational union is being accused of sidelining vocal supporters of gay rights.

For Arnold Eisen, chancellor elect of JTS, the school year began last week with two standing ovations and the announcement that Jack Wertheimer, one of the movement’s leading traditionalists — particularly on the issue of opposing intermarriage — would be stepping down as provost in July 2007. Coupled with the earlier announcement that Rabbi William Lebeau would step down next summer as vice chancellor of JTS and dean of its rabbinical school, Wertheimer’s decision leaves Eisen with the opportunity to help choose at least two other top administrators who will shape the school’s response to changes in the broader movement.

After Eisen’s selection as chancellor this past April, the Stanford University professor quickly announced that he supported the ordination of gay rabbis, in sharp contrast to the longstanding opposition of his predecessor at JTS, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch. In December, the movement’s top religious lawmaking body, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, is slated to vote on several opinions dealing with homosexuality. Movement insiders are predicting that the law committee will pass two contradictory opinions, allowing Conservative rabbis and institutions to make their own decisions on the issue. The liberal opinion that is expected to gain approval still would prohibit anal sex.

Supporters of another, more far-reaching liberal opinion — one that would completely overturn all restrictions on homosexual behavior and relationships — were already asserting that a procedural maneuver was being used to keep their opinion from passing. Now they say that their views are being given short shrift in forums on the issue organized by the movement’s congregational arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

One of the opinion’s co-authors, Rabbi Myron Geller, recently circulated a letter to the editor of the United Synagogue Review, criticizing the magazine for not including his opinion in a recent forum on homosexuality.

“It is inappropriate that the United Synagogue Review… provided information to its readers only about two of the three positions on the [religious] status of gays presently before the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards,” Geller wrote in his letter.

“It is entirely possible that that third view expresses the opinion of a substantial part of the Rabbinical Assembly membership and perhaps of a majority of the constituency of the USCJ,” Geller wrote. “That view holds that there is no basis in halakhah nor has there ever been any, to bar homosexuals from the rabbinate because homosexuality was never forbidden. It also asserts that the contemporary understanding of homosexuality, that it is not a choice or lifestyle anymore than heterosexuality, permits change in the halakhah about prohibited sexual behavior, and therefore, monogamous homosexual relationships should no longer be judged illicit.”

The more sweeping of the two liberal opinions was also not represented at recent forums in New York and Toronto that were organized by the USCJ.

In an interview with the Forward, the executive vice president of the USCJ, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, rejected the assertion that his organization is trying to downplay any of the proposed decisions. The Review, he said, “did not intend… to cover an in-depth knowledge of every particular argument and every particular teshuvah,” but instead asked two members of the law committee who did not author opinions to present the major arguments on both sides of the issue. How to do so, Epstein said, was left up to them.

One movement insider told the Forward that Geller and his co-authors are concerned not only about whether a pro-gay change is implemented but also about how it is implemented.

Geller’s “opinion does call for certain truths to be shouted,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a spiritual leader at Temple Israel in Sharon, Mass., who has argued publicly that the Conservative movement should embrace certain central values, such as equality in prayer worship for women, rather than a “big tent” that allows individual congregations to choose. “The real question,” Creditor added, “is can we maintain a gradual process, while alongside that begin to articulate central truths?”

The discussion closely parallels the debates that occurred in the 1980s after the movement began ordaining female rabbis, a change that many feminists felt was not adequately celebrated and embraced across the board.

At the recent panel about the homosexuality issue in New York, Epstein prefaced the August 24 discussion by holding out the movement’s acceptance of egalitarian and non-egalitarian approach to women’s prayer as a model.

“It’s pluralism that’s important to our movement,” Epstein said. “I would hate to see a movement that would take a position and say, ‘We are only going to be egalitarian’ or ‘We are only going to be nonegalitarian.’”

In contrast, Eisen, during his speech before a roomful of faculty and students who gave him two standing ovations, heralded the admittance of women to the seminary’s rabbinical school.

Some observers read Eisen’s remarks as an implicit argument about how to respond to the expected changes on the gay issue.

“I was very gratified to hear him to take pride in this change to egalitarianism,” said Rabbi Judith Hauptman, a Talmud professor who supports the ordination of gay rabbis and has argued that the movement made a major mistake by not presenting itself as unabashedly egalitarian.

“And on his first public speech, to a packed house… he starts out talking about the contributions of women,” Hauptman said, adding that it makes one wonder whether Eisen is “getting us ready for gay rabbis.”

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