Conservative Rabbis To Vote On Gay Issues

By Jennifer Siegel

Published March 03, 2006, issue of March 03, 2006.
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The top lawmaking body of Conservative Judaism is poised to vote next week on whether to overturn the movement’s ban on same-sex marriages and the ordination of openly gay clergy.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, a 25-member panel of rabbis and lay leaders, will convene next week in Maryland to revisit its 1992 consensus statement on homosexuality. In recent years, pressure to reopen the issue has come from lay people through the movement’s congregational arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, as well as from rabbinical students and rabbis. Any change approved by the law committee is likely to force the issue of gay ordination onto center stage at the movement’s seminaries.

According to one member of the law committee, the group will consider four separate opinions relating to the historical ban on homosexuality stemming from Leviticus 18:22, which states, “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman: it is an abomination.” Two of the decisions uphold prohibitions against homosexual sex, relationships and ordination; one overturns all gay-related prohibitions, and another interprets the biblical verse as a narrow prohibition against homosexual anal sex, while permitting homosexual affection and relationships in general, as well as gay unions and ordination.

Since the law committee last addressed the matter almost 15 years ago, the Conservative movement has been overtaken by Reform Judaism as the most populous synagogal stream. During that time, Conservative leaders have plunged into an existential debate over the degree to which the movement, which has long stood for the balancing of Torah values with modernity, should continue to see itself as bound by rabbinic law. In this context, movement insiders said, the issue is not only what the law committee decides but also how it decides.

Process is “very much in the background of peoples minds,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the rector of Los Angeles’s University of Judaism. Dorff is a co-author of the decision that maintains the ban on anal sex but permits gay relationships. “I think that everybody, including those who are arguing for basically changing the law altogether on this issue, is very much interested in being within the boundaries of Halacha,” Dorff said.

In order to be adopted, a teshuvah, or legal opinion, must receive at least six votes. The committee may adopt conflicting opinions, opening the door to a range of policies.

The committee’s current consideration of the homosexual issue began with last spring’s submission of nine separate opinions, which over the past year were culled down and combined into four opinions. Ultimately, rabbis Gordon Tucker, Ben Zion Bergman, Robert Fine and Myron Geller collaborated on the decision overturning the ban on gay sex, while Dorff was joined by rabbis Avram Reisner and Daniel Nevins on his decision. Rabbi Joel Roth, who authored the 1992 decision that prohibited gay relations completely, has authored an opinion expanding on that argument. His 1992 opinion passed by a margin of 14 to 7 with three abstentions. Rabbi Leonard Levy has also authored an opinion banning gay relationships.

In an interview with the Forward, Dorff acknowledged that the logic of his opinion might seem strange to average congregants.

But Dorff, whose own daughter came out as a lesbian shortly after the law committee upheld its ban on homosexuality in 1992, said he was compelled to balance his respect and love for gay and lesbian Jews with a devotion to the Jewish legal tradition.

“The thing that still is gnawing at me is the notion of the degree to which you hold the tradition sacred,” Dorff said. “I want to find some legal way for them to have sexual expression and sexual love, but try as much as I can to maintain the tradition.”

Judith Hauptman, one of the movement’s most respected Talmud scholars and a proponent of reversing the policy on gays, criticized Dorff’s approach. “It’s like saying to a heterosexual married couple, ‘No missionary position, only sodomize each other,’” said Hauptman, a professor at the movement’s main rabbinical school, the New York-based Jewish Theological Seminary.

Hauptman cautioned that unless the committee issues a morally unambiguous call for change, a golden opportunity for galvanizing the movement would be lost — much as it was, she said, with the movement’s conflicted approach to the ordination of women rabbis.

Elizabeth Richman, a co-chair of the JTS student organization Keshet — which is pressing for gay marriage and ordination — said that the group would hail any pro-gay change but ultimately wants the movement to speak with a clear voice.

Dorff, however, said that honest disagreement is an essential component of Conservative Judaism, even if that means multiple opinions being passed. “I prefer that we describe ourselves as we indeed are,” he said, “and if that means that we don’t agree on something, so we don’t agree on something.”

Some movement insiders have raised the possibility that in the event the law committee adopts conflicting opinions, its various seminaries could adopt different policies. Under such a scenario, the Rabbinical Seminary of the University of Judaism would immediately admit gay and lesbian students. But an intense debate would ensue at JTS as its chancellor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, retires in June and his yet-to-be-named successor takes the helm.

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