Poll: Conservative Leaders Back Gay Rabbis

By Rebecca Spence

Published January 31, 2007, issue of February 02, 2007.
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An overwhelming majority of religious and lay leaders in the Conservative synagogue movement support gay rabbinical ordination and same-sex marriage, according to the results of a newly released survey.

In another development likely to boost the push for gay ordination, the movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, announced that Rabbi Daniel Nevins would be the new dean of its rabbinical school. Nevins, a 40-year-old pulpit rabbi in Michigan, was a co-author of the opinion paper approved by the movement’s top religious body allowing for homosexual rabbis and unions.

The two developments come as JTS is engaged in a lengthy process to determine whether or not to open its doors to gay and lesbian rabbinical students. Early last December, the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards — Conservative Judaism’s 25-member lawmaking body — ended a 15-year simmering debate and voted to approve a rabbinic opinion paper authored by Nevins, Elliot Dorff and Avram Reisner, which allows for gay marriage and rabbis, but upholds the biblical ban on homosexual anal sex. Also approved were two rabbinic opinions, known as teshuvot, upholding the movement’s previous ban on gay ordination. Individual congregations and seminaries are now weighing which ruling to follow.

When the rulings were adopted in December, the chancellor of JTS, Arnold Eisen, announced that the institution was commissioning a survey as one piece of a broader effort to gauge the community’s response to the ruling. The faculty is also engaged in a series of discussions on the issue. The ultimate decision, however, rests in Eisen’s hands, a JTS spokeswoman said.

The survey, conducted by Steven M. Cohen and completed by 5,583 respondents, focused on the views of the movement’s religious and lay leadership. E-mail messages were sent to 18,676 Conservative leaders and activists inviting them to take part in the survey. Participants were asked to click to a Web site, where they could access the set of questions. Cohen said that he was pleasantly surprised by the number of rabbis — 919 in total — who responded. Over the course of four weeks, respondents also included 255 JTS students, 648 educators and 1,732 lay leaders.

According to the poll, 65% of rabbis would favor JTS allowing gay and lesbian rabbinical students, with only 28% opposing such a move. The survey results show that a sizable majority of Conservative lay leaders, including congregational presidents and Jewish educators, favor gay ordination.

Among seminary students, support for the more liberal policy was slightly lower than it was among rabbis, with 58% approving and 28% disapproving.

The results fly in the face of earlier claims by critics of gay ordination that the push to change the long-standing policy came from a small base of student activists out of step with the mainstream. In an interview with the Forward, Cohen attributed the discrepancy to rabbinical students’ lack of experience in the real world. “Seminarians in general are at a point where they are most in touch with the unalloyed teachings of their faith,” he said. Offering an explanation for why rabbis, seasoned in the pulpit, would express wider support for gay ordination than students, he added: “When you go out into the field, then you need to combine a commitment to your faith and learning with the realities of life among the people.”

The survey also found that attitudes toward gay ordination and same-sex marriage skewed, based on age, gender, geography and level of observance. Support for accepting gay rabbis was significantly higher in the United States than in Canada, where the Jewish community tends to be more traditional. In addition, women, younger people and those who are less observant were more likely to approve of gay ordination. Those who fall on the liberal end of the political spectrum were also more apt to support the shift in policy.

Cohen’s survey also took up a range of other controversial questions within Conservative Judaism, which views itself as a “big tent,” able to hold under its banner a diverse spectrum of views. The survey showed that those who favored gay ordination also supported having women as clergy, a decision reached in 1983 when the JTS faculty voted to accept female students.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, said that the survey results presented a challenge to congregations, which would have to find a way to deal with synagogue members who disagreed with the liberal ruling. “We have to figure out what strategy we need to employ to help people cope with the diversity,” he said.

According to the survey, Conservative leaders strongly support the movement’s prohibition against intermarriage and its refusal to recognize patrilineal descent. In addition, a majority affirmed the view that they belong to a movement that adheres to rabbinic and biblical law.

Some movement insiders see the appointment of Nevins as the next dean of the rabbinical school as a sign that JTS is on track to admit gay students. Others, however, warned of overemphasizing the question. “The entire movement isn’t about one issue,” said Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Wolpe is a prominent figure in Conservative circles. “So many things go into trying to choose a dean for a rabbinical school, that it would be unfortunate if people thought that’s what went into this,” Wolpe said.

Nevins echoed Wolpe’s view, saying that the committee was more interested in his years of experience as a pulpit rabbi than in his co-authorship of the teshuva that ushered in the era of gay ordination. He served for 13 years as a rabbi at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, Mich.

The incoming dean said that no matter what decision JTS makes vis-à-vis admitting gay students, he pledges to stand by it. “I’m going to support whichever decision is made,” he said.

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