JTS Scholar To Argue for New Views on Gay Rabbi Ban

By Alana Newhouse

Published February 28, 2003, issue of February 28, 2003.
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A leading Conservative scholar, scheduled to speak at an event sponsored by a gay rights group at the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, is expected to argue that community norms can determine Jewish law.

In an interview with the Forward, Judith Hauptman, a professor of Talmud at JTS, said that her theory — coming amidst intensifying calls for the movement to revisit its ban on ordaining gay rabbis — is not based on a reinterpretation of the biblical passages prohibiting male homosexuality, although she feels they should be reinterpreted. Nor, she said, is it grounded in the argument that it is immoral to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, although she happens to agree with that position as well.

Rather, she wants to invoke society’s status as an arbiter of Jewish law.

“I want to bring out to the public the new idea that the popular practice of committed Jews has been a determining factor in Jewish law, and apply it to the issue of homosexuality,” Hauptman said.

Hauptman will present her argument on March 5 at “Come Out and Learn,” a day of learning about sexual orientation and Jewish law. The event’s sponsor is Keshet, a student organization that advocates for social and religious equality for homosexual and bisexual Jews in the Conservative movement.

The program was organized to coincide with a meeting at JTS of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the movement’s supreme lawmaking body. Late last year, several prominent Conservative figures began pushing the committee to revisit its controversial 1992 decision that ruled that the Conservative movement should “not knowingly admit avowed homosexuals to its rabbinical or cantorial schools” and professional associations.

JTS Chancellor Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who is known to support the movement’s stated position, declined to comment for this article.

Hauptman’s presentation, “And Such is the Custom in These Parts,” is based on an observation about the Shulkhan Arukh, the well-known code of Jewish law. The code was written by the Sephardic legalist and mystic Rabbi Joseph Karo in 1565 and, four years later, annotated with comments by the Ashkenazic leader Rabbi Moses ben Israel Isserles. According to Hauptman, Isserles frequently allowed practices “diametrically opposed to the stated law of Karo,” based on the argument that they were widespread practices in Jewish communities.

“In response to, for example, the question of commitment ceremonies [for gay unions], I would ‘pull an Isserles’ and say that it has become widespread practice in our community today,” she said.

Hauptman holds the E. Billi Ivry Chair of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at JTS, and she is best known for her feminist readings of classical sources. Her books include “Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice” (Westview, 1998). She has been pursuing her rabbinic ordination at the non-denominational Academy of Jewish Religion, after Schorsch denied her request to be ordained at JTS.

“She’s someone whom everyone in the movement holds in high regard,” said Keshet’s chairman, Jeremy Gordon. “We’re delighted that she’s adding her voice to the voices of people calling for this issue to be reexamined in an open and traditional way.”

The program also is slated to include a text study of the legal notion of akirut, or uprooting something from Torah; a speech on the relationship between morality and Torah by Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York, and a presentation by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, incoming chairman of the law committee and an avowed supporter of changing the policy on homosexuality. His session is titled “Where Should the Movement Be Going?”

“We want to allow people who are committed to this issue as well as to Halacha [rabbinical law] to learn, to examine the issues involved and to discuss what exactly halachic change would mean,” Gordon said.

Gordon stressed that the program is not intended as protest. “We know this is really difficult, and that there are people for whom change would be very difficult,” he said. “We’re not trying to stoke the fire.”

On February 24 Keshet released what it has called a “consensus statement of policy goals.” The statement condemns discrimination based on sexual orientation, affirms the validity of gay, lesbian and bisexual lifestyles, and asserts that the presence of homosexual and bisexual Jews in clergy, professional and lay leadership positions is vital to the Conservative movement. It also affirms support for performing commitment ceremonies and admitting homosexuals and bisexuals into rabbinical and cantorial schools, as well as to the Rabbinical Assembly and Cantors Assembly.

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