Gay Issues Roil Rabbis In Advance Of Parley

By Jennifer Siegel

Published March 17, 2006, issue of March 17, 2006.
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On the eve of their annual convention, Conservative rabbis are locked in a fierce debate over whether movement leaders have employed improper tactics to preserve the ban on gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

The fight is expected to play out in Mexico City next week, at the annual parley of the Rabbinical Assembly, the 1,600-member union of Conservative clergy. At issue is a procedural rule, quietly adopted last June by the assembly’s executive council, that allows the movement’s top lawmaking body to raise the threshold of votes needed to approve certain major positions.

Under previous rules, the movement’s 30-member Committee on Jewish Law and Standards had required only six votes to give legitimacy to a minority opinion. The new rule raises the bar to 20 votes when dealing with selected “momentous” decisions.

Many movement rabbis say that they were unaware of the rule change until last week, when the law committee decided to apply the 20-vote threshold to a sweeping opinion that seeks to overturn the movement’s ban on homosexual sex. Other rabbis have further objected to the law committee’s decision to delay voting on the gay issue until December, after the terms of five out of the law committee’s 25 voting members — including four expected to vote for reform — are set to expire.

At the upcoming convention in Mexico City, more than two-dozen rabbis are expected to introduce a resolution to overturn the 20-vote rule.

The intensifying fight over gays and lesbians comes as the Conservative movement is facing challenges on several fronts, including the search for a new chancellor at its flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The debate is not only forcing Conservative rabbis to confront contentious theological issues about homosexuality, but also wider questions about the movement’s commitment to viewing rabbinic law, or Halacha, as an evolving process and remaining a big tent that welcomes multiple opinions.

“The real question comes down to, ‘How does the Conservative movement operate?’” said Rabbi Leonard Gordon, a Philadelphia pulpit rabbi and chair of the Rabbinical Assembly’s social action committee, who opposes the new 20-vote threshold. “Does it operate with the idea of diversity — that there are multiple perspectives on law? [This new rule] means that the Conservative movement’s whole theory of legal change is now being transformed.”

Last week, in an effort to address the mounting concerns and objections, the president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Perry “Rafi” Rank, sent an e-mail out to his fellow clergymen in which he argued that a “supermajority would further protect the integrity of the [law committee] in reassuring all that extraordinary decisions… are promulgated only on the basis of overwhelming consensus.”

The movement’s law committee functions in many ways as an advisory council, with pulpit rabbis being viewed as the religious authorities of their respective congregations. Conservative rabbis are forbidden to perform interfaith marriages, recognize the children of non-Jewish mothers as Jews, or perform a second marriage without a religious divorce — but are otherwise not required to comply with decisions passed by the law committee.

Furthermore, the modest six-vote threshold for passing a teshuvah, or legal opinion, enables multiple — even conflicting — interpretations of the tradition to pass as official positions of the movement. A small minority of congregations, for example, continue to restrict women’s participation in services, despite decisions, passed in the 1980s, permitting the ordination of female rabbis and the counting of women in a minyan, or prayer quorum.

Last June, the Rabbinical Assembly’s 35-member executive council approved a new set of internal guidelines for the law committee, including the provision for classifying a legal decision as a takanah, or an amendment to Jewish law rather than an interpretation. The executive council specified that takanot must be passed with a minimum of 20 votes, or 80% of committee members, rather than the six needed for a teshuvah, and ruled that a decision may be designated as a takanah by a majority vote of law committee members, even over the objection of its authors.

The law committee had recommended that only 13 votes — a simple majority — be required for approval of a takanah, and argued that the right to designate an opinion as such should reside with its authors. At the June executive council meeting, the law committee’s chair, Rabbi Kassel Abelson, and its vice chair, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, testified against the more stringent standards.

Rank, the president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said that the assembly’s executive council wanted to ensure that the law committee achieves some measure of consensus on momentous changes. Also, he said, the executive committee was spurred by the existing rule requiring 20 votes to overturn a decision of the law committee. Acccording to Rank, the logic was: “Well, if it takes 20 votes to overturn a decision of the law committee, it should take at least 20 votes to overturn a rule of the Torah.”

Dorff, however, told the Forward that the rule for repealing a previous law committee decision was a function of basic math — if only six votes are needed to approve an opinion, then the only way to protect the minority view is to set a 20-vote threshold. He also noted that many of the movement’s most controversial and innovative legal opinions have been passed as teshuvot, and argued that the author’s intent should determine how an opinion is characterized.

“Otherwise, a majority of the committee at any moment can say that what someone has introduced as a teshuvah is actually a takanah that requires a supermajority,” Dorff said, in an interview with the Forward.

When the law committee convened in Maryland last week, it considered four separate legal opinions on homosexual sex, and the possibility of sanctioning gay clergy and same-sex relationships. The most liberal opinion — a wholesale rejection of the ban on homosexuality co-authored by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, a rumored candidate for the JTS post — was classified as a takanah, through the vote of a modest majority, and over the objections of its authors.

“The law committee said that in its current form, it’s not a simple teshuvah, it’s a takanah, and they suggested that the authors may want to recast their approach,” said the Rabbinical Assembly’s executive vice president, Rabbi Joel Meyers, who attended the meeting but is not a member of the law committee. “The authors didn’t agree.”

According to Dorff, there also “was a move behind the scenes” to designate a reformist opinion he co-authored as a takanah, but that attempt “failed before it ever came to the table.” Dorff’s opinion upholds the biblical prohibition of homosexuality as a narrow proscription against homosexual anal sex, but allows homosexual affection and relationships in general. It would permit gay ordination and same-sex marriage.

In the days after the law committee meeting, rabbis across the movement reacted with a mixture of befuddlement, anger and frustration. Some rabbis have said that their ignorance about the new takanah provision is emblematic of what they described as the overall secrecy surrounding the law committee’s deliberations on homosexuality. Law committee meetings generally are open to the movement’s rabbis, but not the sessions on homosexuality.

Other rabbis have questioned whether the rule change — which was adopted after the law committee had already reopened active consideration of homosexuality — was designed to stack the deck against reform, even at the expense of undermining the movement’s historical tolerance for a diversity of opinions.

Critics of the executive council have pointed out that the Rabbinical Assembly’s constitution stipulates that any law committee decision “that obtains six votes in committee shall be considered an official opinion of the committee,” and that any changes to the constitution must be approved by a vote of the entire Rabbinical Assembly membership. Meyers, however, told the Forward that the assembly’s executive council routinely approves operating procedures for various committees, and pointed out that the original draft of the new law committee rules — including the establishment of official procedures regarding takanot — came from law committee itself.

Dorff said he is concerned not only about the high threshold for approving a takanah, but also by the committee’s vote to table a ruling on the homosexual opinions until December, a move he said demonstrates “more than a little political maneuvering.”

Last week’s meeting was the last one of the law committee in its current configuration because each spring five out of the 25 voting law committee members finish their terms. This year, the committee will be losing four members known for their liberal views on homosexuality, including Rabbis Ben Zion Bergman and Robert Fine, co-authors of the Tucker opinion.

New appointments to the law committee are made by the heads of leading organizations in the Conservative movement and then approved by the Rabbinical Assembly’s executive council. The assembly will make three appointments, and the Jewish Theological Seminary and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism one each. Some critics have asserted that several recent appointees to the committee have been particularly conservative, including Rabbi Leonard Levy, who authored one of the four decisions last week. Levy argued that homosexuality is a sickness that can be cured through therapy, according to movement insiders.

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