Let Each Congregation Choose for Itself

By Jerome Epstein

Published December 15, 2006, issue of December 15, 2006.
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In our increasingly black or white, left or right, right or wrong world, where fundamentalisms of all kinds increasingly flourish, it is neither convenient nor glamorous to claim the center. But that center, where we are challenged to balance newly received wisdom with tradition, new information with moral concerns, facts with beliefs, is where we in the Conservative movement position ourselves.

We do not believe in pluralism because it is easy — we know that it is not easy at all. We believe in pluralism because we affirm that each of us, guided by the knowledge of our rabbis, theologians and philosophers and by the understanding of life that we gain by living it, must figure out what God’s will is as we see it and then try to live that will. We believe in pluralism because it mirrors our understanding of God’s world.

We strive to understand what Halacha says about the issues we confront in our lives, and we are committed to try to live Halacha in view of the world as we know it. We comprehend that Halacha changes as the world about us changes, and that God’s will is expressed through those changes. It is our job to learn what it is that God wants of us; we know that God does not want us to pretend not to notice the new light that science sheds on our world or our new insights into ancient texts. Last week’s vote by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards — which permits the Conservative movement’s seminaries to ordain gay men and lesbians as rabbis and cantors and authorizes our rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies while making clear that some same-sex acts still remain forbidden — obviously was influenced by the world around us. Our increasingly sophisticated understanding of homosexuality as innate and largely unchangeable, along with the increasing acceptance of gay men and lesbians in civil life, has a direct bearing on Jewish religious life.

We assert and affirm that there is no room for homophobia in Jewish life, any more than there is room for homophobia in civil society. We must be vigilant in protecting the rights of all Jews to be treated fairly and sensitively.

There is room in Conservative life, however, for many approaches to this issue. We now permit our seminaries to choose to ordain gay men and lesbians as cantors and rabbis, but we do not mandate it. The same is true for same-sex commitment ceremonies.

We acknowledge that some communities will not accept such changes, which do not abrogate Torah law but only limit it through reinterpretation. Their understanding of the truth of God’s will must be given the same weight as those who hear God’s call for change. When it comes to hearing God’s message, there is no exclusivity.

Our challenge is to respond to God’s call for change, and at the same time to help both the congregations that choose to make the change and those that perceive the mandate to maintain tradition. As a movement, we cannot be intolerant of those who are unhappy with the decision to allow change, even though they are holding on to a position that in some circles is unpopular and seen as old-fashioned, stodgy, inflexible and insensitive.

We will not countenance incivility, but we understand that we cannot legislate how a person feels or what that person believes. We cannot tolerate homophobia, but we must understand that to be against this change is not necessarily to be prejudiced — it may only reflect a different understanding of God’s will.

It is wrong to condemn those who hear God calling for change in our long-held views of religious attitudes toward gay men and lesbians as desecrating Jewish tradition. It is equally egregious, however, to condemn those who hear God’s message to preserve the traditional understanding.

Anticipating the possibility of a vote for change, United Synagogue began a series of educational panels this summer aimed at exposing Conservative Jews to the halachic debate on this issue. We plan to continue that process now that the committee has met. Our goal is to help congregants to understand the issue both intellectually and emotionally by listening to each other.

We hope that they not only passively listen to, but actively hear, what other people say. We hope to encourage our congregants to acknowledge the discomfort on the other side. And we want them not to dismiss others’ fears but to try to understand them.

There is much that links those of us in the Conservative world to each other, no matter what it is that we believe on this particular halachic issue. We share the struggle to live according to Halacha, with the understanding that Halacha is a living organism that continues to grow now, as it always has grown. We share the constant wrestling with the conflicting claims of tradition and change, of the world of our ancestors and the world of our children.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein is executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

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