Overseas Seminaries Set To Reject Gay Ordination

Canadian Rabbis Mull Forming Separate Wing of Movement

By Rebecca Spence

Published December 15, 2006, issue of December 15, 2006.
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While gay activists and their supporters are hailing last week’s vote permitting the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and the sanctioning of same-sex unions within Conservative Judaism, many of the movement’s far-flung branches — including most overseas branches — appear likely to reject the options.

In Los Angeles, the rabbinical school of the University of Judaism has said it will abide by its long-standing commitment to admit gay and lesbian students as soon as the movement sanctioned it, and is expected to begin accepting them in the fall. But at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement’s flagship institution, the question of whether to admit gays and lesbians is far more fraught.

With its faculty sharply divided on the issue, the seminary’s chancellor-elect, Arnold Eisen, has announced an elaborate decision-making process aimed at reaching a consensus, in the apparent hope of avoiding a split. Eisen’s multi-pronged approach includes hiring sociologist Steven M. Cohen to survey the views of Conservative rabbis, leaders and laity, as well as holding faculty discussions in the coming weeks.

Eisen has also invited the leaders of three other Conservative seminaries affected by the decision — in Los Angeles, Buenos Aires and Jerusalem — to join him in a discussion of the questions presented by the recent decision.

In interviews with the Forward, leaders of the overseas seminaries indicated that they were unlikely to proceed with ordination of gays. A fourth Conservative-linked seminary in Budapest, Hungary, indicated a similar reluctance.

The movement’s synagogue networks in Canada, Israel and the United Kingdom also appear unlikely to embrace the new policy.

In its December 6 decision, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards — the movement’s 25-member lawmaking body — opted for the talmudic tradition of approving multiple, mutually contradictory opinions. The move leaves individual congregations and seminaries free to decide whether to admit or hire gay rabbis and to officiate at same-sex unions. In total, the law committee approved three opinion papers, or teshuvot, out of five under consideration. Two uphold the ban on gay ordination, while one — co-authored by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner — welcomes gays and lesbians into the rabbinate and allows rabbis to officiate at same-sex unions, but falls short of lifting the biblical ban on anal intercourse between men.

Abroad, the decision has met with widespread skepticism. In contrast to Conservative Jews in the United States, who largely support socially liberal positions, the movement’s branches around the world represent far more traditional Jewish communities. Even the matter of whether women should be rabbis — a foregone conclusion in the United States — remains an open-ended question in other countries. At issue is how those communities will respond to the affirmative ruling on gay ordination when they maintain stricter adherence to traditional Judaism, which deems homosexuality incompatible with Halacha, or rabbinic law.

In Canada, the vote has revived earlier threats to break with the North American movement, as rabbis at more traditional congregations there consider whether to form a wing distinct from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, North America’s Conservative congregational arm.

“There’s a lot of discussion about it that is driven partially by religious ideology and partially by whether people feel adequately served by the United Synagogue,” said Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, senior rabbi at Beth Tzedec Congregation of Toronto and one of two Canadian members of the law committee.

Frydman-Kohl, who voted to approve the two papers upholding the ban on gay ordination, added that he is writing a dissent to the teshuvah that passed in favor of it.

The uproar in Canada comes despite the fact that as a nation, Canada tends to be more socially liberal than the United States. On the same day that the Conservative law committee voted to approve gay ordination, the Canadian parliament voted to uphold a law allowing gay marriage. Still, Canadian Jewry on the whole leans toward the more traditional end of the religious spectrum.

In Latin America, where sexual norms are in many ways more restrictive than in North America, it is not just the Jewish community that is more conservative when it comes to homosexuality.

“Our reality here in Latin America is really quite different from your reality in the United States,” said Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of Latin America’s Conservative seminary, the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “In general in Latin America, there is no question of homosexual and lesbians, because there is a conservative way of thinking,” he said.

Skorka ruled out the possibility of admitting gay and lesbian students to the seminary, but contended that sexuality was a private matter and that he would never ask students to reveal their sexual orientation.

Despite the seminary’s traditional framework, it does admit women. Of 85 rabbis that the school has graduated, eight have been female.

In Hungary, the Conservative seminary — which survived for decades as the only rabbinical seminary in the former Soviet bloc — has yet to ordain female rabbis. Joseph Schweitzer, retired head of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest, called the idea of a female rabbi there “unimaginable.” Schweitzer said he was not familiar with the recent ruling on gay ordination.

In the United Kingdom, where prevailing attitudes toward homosexuality mirror the liberal stances of North America, the Jewish community, as in Canada, nevertheless skews toward a more traditional viewpoint. “I suppose we’re perhaps slightly more conservative with a small ‘c’ than America,” said Michael Gluckman, executive director of the Masorti movement in the United Kingdom. “We haven’t even gotten to the stage of accepting a woman rabbi.”

Gluckman said last week’s American decision would have no immediate impact on the 10 Conservative synagogues in the United Kingdom, although rabbis there were prepared to discuss the matter and formulate their own ruling. “There’s an understanding that it’s an issue that won’t go away and needs to be faced squarely on,” he said. As for same-sex unions, he said, “that won’t happen here at the moment.”

In Israel, where the Masorti movement has historically differed from its American counterpart on social issues and matters of religious observance, the seminary there will not begin enrolling gays and lesbians any time in the near future.

In an e-mail to the Forward, the dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, Rabbi Einat Ramon, noted that she is personally opposed to gay ordination, but added that “key rabbis” at the seminary are “strongly pushing for the implementation of Dorff’s position.” On January 10, Ramon is to convene a symposium to air all sides of the debate.

“We all agree that a serious process of halachic clarification must begin soon,” she wrote, “and that it should not be stretched over a long period of time, so that we all know where the Masorti movement is heading.”

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