Foe of Gay Ban Won’t Head Conservative Panel

By Alana Newhouse

Published March 07, 2003, issue of March 07, 2003.
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On the eve of what was expected to be his first session as chairman of Conservative Judaism’s supreme lawmaking body, it was announced that Rabbi Elliott Dorff, an outspoken supporter of overturning the movement’s ban on ordaining homosexuals, will not assume the position.

The move came on the heels of a request by the head of the movement’s rabbinical union that the law committee review the current policy and appeared to be part of a larger plan to pave the way for a revisiting of the movement’s ban.

“It was decided that it would be much better for us to address this issue with the chair that has been in place for 10 years, rather than have it be the first issue that I address,” said Dorff, in a late-night interview with the Forward, hours before the March 5 morning meeting.

Dorff said that his public stance in support of ordaining gays probably played a role in the decision. “I’m still supposed to assume the chairmanship” at a later date, Dorff said. “We decided to postpone my appointment and the truth is, I’m in no rush.”

Instead, the post will be retained by Rabbi Kassel Abelson, who for the last decade has been chairman of the body, known as the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. The decision to postpone Dorff’s ascendance followed a surprising announcement by Rabbi Reuven Hammer, president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, that he had called on the law committee to revisit its controversial position.

According to an R.A. source, Wednesday’s meeting of the law committee was to include a “strategy session” on dealing with the ban, although the issue was not formally on the agenda.

In December, the Forward reported on the emerging push to revisit the 1992 ban on ordaining homosexuals, inspired in part by the expectation that Dorff was to head the influential policy-making body. Dorff, who is the rector of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, has publicly spoken out in favor of ordaining homosexuals, and attributed the evolution of his thinking on the matter to a meeting he had with a gay rabbinical student during the 1970s, and to one of his own daughters, who came out as a lesbian shortly after the 1992 decision.

Those trying to overturn the ban say that they are opposed by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary is generally recognized as the titular head of Conservative Judaism. A spokesman said that Schorsch was unavailable for comment. But in a February 2002 article in the Washington Post, Schorsch warned that a reversal of the ban could split the movement.

According to a source within the movement, Schorsch was unhappy with Hammer’s decision to publicly call on the committee to review its policy. “Chancellor Schorsch is not happy about this at all,” the source said. “He’d prefer that this issue not be revisited.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the R.A., could not be reached for comment. But movement sources say that he has previously opposed revisiting the issue.

An R.A. spokesperson said that any claims of friction between Meyers and Hammer were “baseless.”

Other movement leaders welcomed Hammer’s announcement. “I’m very pleased that now the [law committee] is going to have this request coming from a source other than just me,” said Judy Yudof, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a union comprising the movement’s 800 congregations. In December, Yudof called on the law committee to revisit the policy.

Hammer’s decision to postpone Dorff’s appointment came nearly a year after Dorff’s name was first floated for the position. As president of the R.A., Hammer is in charge of appointing the law committee chair. He said that although he thought it likely that Dorff would eventually become chair, he could not say for sure, as Abelson’s tenure will now extend beyond his own as president.

“The decision had to be made as to if the chair would be changed at this time, and my decision was that this was not the time to make the change,” Hammer told the Forward. “[Dorff] agreed that Rabbi Abelson was a very good chairman and should stay on.”

Hammer denied speculation from well-placed movement sources that his postponement of Dorff’s chairmanship was connected to his decision to ask the law committee to revisit its policy.

Both Dorff and Hammer stressed that the chairmanship move was in no way an attempt to manipulate how the controversial policy is dealt with.

“These issues are not dependent upon the individual, they’re dependent on the entire law committee. The fact that it’s Rabbi Abelson rather than Rabbi Dorff will not make any difference,” said Hammer. “The issue will get a complete and thorough review, no matter who the chairman is.”

When asked what he would say to those disappointed by the move, Dorff characterized Abelson as a man of “great integrity.” “I appreciate the support of people who share my viewpoint, but I would say to them that there’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “It will be dealt with the same way under Rabbi Abelson as it would have under me.”

Jeremy Gordon, one of the leaders of Keshet, a student organization dedicated to overturning the ban, said that he was surprised at the move, but was intent on remaining optimistic.

“We think the law committee is an important address for what we’re trying to do, but I think there are also other important addresses,” he said. “I’m not sure whether having your biggest ally sit on the committee or chair the committee makes much of a difference. Maybe Rabbi Dorff will be able to speak with a freer voice.”

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