Conservative Rabbis To Decide on Gay Unions, Ordination

By Rebecca Spence

Published December 01, 2006, issue of December 01, 2006.
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As leaders of Conservative Judaism prepare to gather for the long-awaited vote on ordaining gay rabbis and sanctioning same-sex unions, a prominent liberal rabbi has thrown a wild card into the mix with the last-minute submission of a radically different proposal.

The widespread assumption in recent months has been that the movement’s 25-member lawmaking body — the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards — is set to approve two conflicting opinions, a talmudic practice that leaves individual congregations free to choose between them.

In all, five papers, known as teshuvot, are on the table. Of the two that are expected to pass, one would maintain the longstanding ban on gay ordination. The other would reverse that prohibition, but would not challenge the specific biblical ban on sexual intercourse between men.

The balance of opinion on the committee could shift, however, following the reintroduction earlier this week of a far more permissive paper authored by Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., a vociferous proponent of change within the movement.

Next week’s vote will finally stake out the position of Conservative Judaism — once America’s largest Jewish denomination, but now outflanked by the more liberal Reform movement — on the divisive, long-simmering issue. The law committee was to have voted on the issue last March, but postponed action following a procedural dispute.

The question of gay ordination was first brought to the law committee in 1992, resulting in a consensus statement that effectively banned gays and lesbians from joining the Conservative clergy. What the law committee ultimately decides when it convenes Dec. 5 and 6 at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue could make waves outside of the Conservative movement, as organized religions across society struggle to reconcile biblical restrictions on homosexuality with changing modern realities.

“The decisions they make in December will reverberate beyond the Conservative community and even beyond the Jewish world,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, a Reform rabbi at Los Angeles’s gay and lesbian synagogue, Congregation Kol Ami. A member of the religion and faith council of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, Eger is seeking to drum up support for the proposed shift in the Conservative movement’s stance.

Eger said her congregation includes Jews who might feel more at home in a Conservative synagogue, but have joined the Reform movement by default because of Conservative Judaism’s current policy forbidding gay ordination and gay unions.

One paper expected to gain approval, reaffirming opposition to gay ordination, was written by Rabbi Joel Roth. A professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement’s flagship institution, he has long argued against easing bans on gay ordination and unions, while advocating compassion for gay individuals.

The other paper, submitted by Rabbi Elliott Dorff, the rector of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, calls for the acceptance of gay unions and the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, but refrains from fully reversing the traditional interpretation that deems homosexual anal sex incompatible with Halacha, or rabbinic law.

In a phone interview, Dorff expressed concern that his opinion paper could be deemed by the committee to be a takkanah, an amendment to rabbinic law rather than an interpretation of it. An amendment requires a larger number of votes to gain legitimacy as Conservative policy. A teshuvah, or legal interpretation, requires six votes to win legitimacy, while a takkanah requires 13.

Dorff said that in the event that his paper does not pass because opponents on the law committee succeed in labeling it a takkanah, he plans to raise the issue of what constitutes a takkanah at the Rabbinical Assembly convention, where such matters can be decided.

“If our paper goes down on procedural grounds alone, there will be a counter-procedural maneuver,” he said. “If the paper simply doesn’t garner six votes, I think we’ll call it a day.”

Tucker, a former dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, offers by far the most liberal opinion as well as the widest in scope. He argues for gay ordination without restrictions on male sexual behavior, refuting the premise that male-on-male intercourse is intractably forbidden by Jewish law. Taking a tack that could have larger implications for future issues, Tucker said in an interview with the Forward that he wants to raise “the higher-level question of what is, and what ought to be, the proper relationship between religious law and religion — in which I understand religion in the broadest sense as service to God.”

Tucker previously combined his opinion with those of several co-authors at the request of the law committee. In March, he removed his name from the paper when the committee deemed it a takkanah rather than a teshuvah, effectively raising the threshold of votes that it needed to pass.

Tucker said he decided in recent weeks to resubmit his original paper because it was the only way to put forward the philosophical questions that it raises. “I wanted the arguments I am making to have a hearing,” he explained.

As was the case with the co-authored paper, Tucker’s opinion could be turned into a takkanah despite his opposition to such a move, narrowing the odds that it will garner the necessary votes to pass.

Activists pushing for gay ordination said that whether or not Tucker’s paper gains approval, they would feel vindicated if only the more moderate Dorff paper garners enough votes to be adopted.

“Jewish law has never stood still, so any way that there’s progress on this issue, we’ll be pleased,” said Elizabeth Richman, a third-year JTS rabbinical student and a co-chair of Keshet, a seminary student group advocating full equality for gays and lesbians in Conservative Judaism. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Richman said, Keshet will continue to “work for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews.”

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