Conservative Panel Votes To Permit Gay Rabbis

Four Committee Members Resign To Protest Decision

By Rebecca Spence

Published December 06, 2006, issue of December 08, 2006.
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In a historic vote, leaders of Conservative Judaism on Wednesday approved a rabbinic opinion allowing ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and sanctioning same-sex unions.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards — the 25-member lawmaking body of the Conservative movement — opted to follow the rabbinic tradition of approving separate, mutually contradictory opinions, each of which is now sanctioned as normative Conservative practice. Of the three papers approved, the most permissive, co-authored by rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner, opens the door for gay rabbis and same-sex unions, but retains certain biblical bans on homosexual activity. Also vetted were two opinions that uphold the ban on ordaining gay rabbis, one submitted by Rabbi Joel Roth, and another, more extreme opinion submitted by Rabbi Leonard Levy.

Four of the most conservative members resigned the committee in protest: Roth, Levy, Mayer Rabinowitz and Joseph Prouser.

While the decision of the law committee marks a major turning point, it is now up to the individual Conservative seminaries and congregations to decide how to implement the ruling.

And at the movement’s two seminaries, situated on opposite coasts, the approaches are markedly different. The University of Judaism in Los Angeles has long maintained that it will immediately begin admitting gay and lesbian students as soon as the law committee passes a policy that sanctions gay ordination. But at the Jewish Theological Seminary — the movement’s flagship seminary in New York — the law committee’s decision will have to be weighed by the faculty, who plan to deliberate whether or not to begin accepting gay and lesbian students who want to become rabbis.

Judith Hauptman, a professor of Talmud and rabbinic culture at JTS and a prominent supporter of gay ordination, cautioned that the faculty there would not necessarily lean in favor of accepting gays and lesbians. “We can go either way on it,” said Hauptman. “We’re not making a decision about Jewish law, we’re making a decision about the school.”

Hauptman also said that many members of the faculty had not publicly disclosed their views on gay ordination, making it anyone’s guess what the final outcome would be. As for her own views, Hauptman expressed unflagging support for accepting gay students. “As soon as it is possible to ordain gay rabbis,” she said, “it becomes morally imperative on us to accept gay candidates for ordination.”

This week’s decision marks the final chapter in a divisive debate that has roiled the Conservative movement since 1992, when the law committee first took up the question of gays and lesbians becoming rabbis. That debate resulted in the adoption of an opinion that effectively banned gay ordination and unions. The committee’s current consideration of the issue began with the submission of nine papers in the spring of 2005, which were ultimately combined into four separate papers.

The wide gulf between the stances of JTS and of U.J. can be explained in part by the positions of the institutions’ faculty and leadership. The dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at U.J., Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, authored the1992 paper advocating gay ordination and unions, which was defeated at the time. That rabbinic opinion, known as a teshuvah, took the most liberal position in that it also lifted the ban on homosexual anal sex.

Roth, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at JTS, wrote the opinion paper opposing gay ordination that gained approval some 15 years ago. In addition, the former chancellor of JTS, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, has long argued that sanctioning gay ordination and unions would fracture the movement, with those who opposed it joining the ranks of the Modern Orthodox and those who supported it ultimately converging with Reform Judaism, America’s largest stream.

The appointment earlier this year of Arnold Eisen, a proponent of gay ordination, as the new chancellor of JTS signaled to many that the movement was now on track to open its doors to gay and lesbian clergy. Eisen, who is not a rabbi, is widely expected to turn to the pews in order to bolster support for the movement’s retooled approach to homosexuality.

At Wednesday’s vote, held at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue, five teshuvot were on the table, covering a diverse spectrum of opinion. The teshuvot in favor of upholding the ban on gay ordination and same-sex unions included an expanded version of Roth’s 1992 paper, as well as one written by Levy, making the case that homosexuality is an illness that can be cured.

Levy’s paper passed with six votes - the minimum number required - while the other two garnered more widespread support, each passing handily with 13 votes.

Dorff, the rector of U.J., co-authored the paper that sanctions same-sex unions and allows for gay ordination, but falls short of deeming intercourse between men to be compatible with halacha, or Jewish law. An opinion submitted by Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., which advocated full equality of gays and lesbians in Conservative Judaism, with no restrictions on sexual behaviors, failed to pass after being turned into a takanah, an amendment to Jewish law rather than an interpretation.

In an interview at his Los Angeles office, Dorff framed the debate in generational terms. He contended that most Conservative Jews on the younger side of the spectrum would support the decision to allow gay and lesbian rabbis, while older people who grew up in a society far less accustomed to people openly expressing their homosexuality might be opposed to the change. Dorff also noted that of the 25 members of the law committee, only two are under the age of 40.

In recent days student groups advocating a change in policy ramped up their activism in advance of the vote. Last week, U.J.’s pro-gay ordination group, Dror Yikra (Hebrew for “call to freedom”), sent each member of the law committee a copy of a letter in support of gay ordination that was signed by three-quarters of the student body.

“As future rabbis, we feel bound by the tenets of halakhah and moved by the ethical challenges posed by our new scientific knowledge and modern understandings of sexual orientation,” the letter stated. “We believe that there is a halakhically acceptable way for our movement to ordain gays and lesbians and for our rabbis to consecrate their love through Jewish commitment ceremonies.”

The group’s co-founder, Rachel Kobrin, a fifth-year rabbinical student, said that her decision to attend U.J. stemmed from its more liberal position on homosexuality. “I came here and not JTS because of this issue,” said Kobrin, 32. “Because I knew that Rabbi Artson was a serious advocate for change.” Indeed, according to Dorff, Artson accepted the job as dean of the rabbinic school on the condition that U.J. would begin accepting gay and lesbian students if and when the law committee ruled in favor of an inclusive policy.

While the majority of the student body at U.J. favors gay ordination, a quiet minority stands in opposition. One student who chose not to sign the letter, Ben Goldstein, a second-year rabbinical student from Rochester, N.Y., said that while he was conflicted in his views on the subject, he did not attach his name to the petition because he did not think that both sides had been given a fair hearing at U.J. Goldstein said that Dorff’s view had been fully parsed, but that Roth’s opinion upholding the ban had gotten short shrift.

“There are other people who feel the same way I do, but they won’t tell you,” he said, citing an atmosphere in which it was frowned upon to oppose gay ordination.

Meanwhile, at JTS, the student organization that advocates full inclusion of gays and lesbians, Keshet, hosted seminars on homosexuality in Judaism while the law committee deliberated. Students wearing rainbow ribbons and buttons proclaiming “ordination regardless of orientation,” participated in educational sessions on such diverse topics as the history of lobbying in the process of deciding Jewish law as well as gay interpretations of the classic Yiddish play, “The Dybbuk.”

The law committee’s decision to allow gays and lesbians to be ordained as rabbis and to sanction same-sex unions comes as other mainstream religions are grappling with similar internecine debates. In recent weeks a southern California diocese of the Episcopal Church (U.S.A.) moved to distance itself from the church over its ordination of gays and women, when it voted to identify as a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, rather than a member of the American arm. That vote could portend a complete break from the church, which recently elected its first female bishop.

With additional reporting by Beth Schwartzapfel

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