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How Rabbis Are Trying To Make The Conservative Movement More Gay-Friendly

The Jewish coming-of-age ceremony known as a bar mitzvah is always challenging. It happens at the awkward age of the early teen years, and requires the child to chant, before family, friends and congregation, from the archaic Hebrew of the Torah.

For Amichai Lau-Lavie, the Israeli-born scion of an Eastern European rabbinical dynasty, it was even more difficult. The section he read, called Kedoshim, contained the biblical prohibition against sex between two men:

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie left Orthodoxy for the Conservative movement, in part due to homosexuality. Image by Courtesy of Amichai Lau-Lavie

“A man who lies with a male as one would with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon themselves.”

It was a painful moment for Lau-Lavie, now 48, who had already realized he was gay.

Decades later, in part because traditional Judaism condemns homosexuality, Lau-Lavie left Orthodoxy to become a rabbi in the American Conservative movement of Judaism, which ordains LGBTQ rabbis and blesses same-sex marriages.

But now, more than a decade later, Lau-Lavie and other Conservative rabbis are pushing for more change. Their activism represents one instance of how queer leadership is pushing the movement to modify its approach on a range of issues, including the study of Torah, the place of intermarried families and how synagogues are run.

The problem is that even while Conservative life is inclusive of LGBTQ people, it still places limits on their most intimate lives. It instructs gay men to avoid anal sex precisely because of the verse Lau-Lavie chanted at his Bar Mitzvah, and urged bisexual people to pursue relationships with those of the opposite sex. It also cited heterosexuality as the ideal sexual orientation.

Lau-Lavie and other Conservative rabbis believe those rules should be abandoned. Forty-nine-year-old Rabbi Adina Lewittes, who identifies as a lesbian, is leading the charge.

Rabbi Adina Lewittes wants the Conservative movement to “embrace sexual fluidity.” Image by Courtesy Adina Lewittes

She recognizes that queer people can be full participants in Jewish life, that they can marry and become rabbis. And few members of the movement are likely to know about these rules, much less follow them. But enshrining in Jewish law negative attitudes against homosexuality and bisexuality amounts to a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that leaves some queer Jews feeling excluded, she argues.

“Spiritual and halachic acceptance isn’t something to snatch underhandedly,” Lewittes wrote in a Forward op-ed, using the Hebrew word for “Jewish law.” “It’s something to be articulated with clarity and pride.”

The push to erase these questionable policies and attitudes from the Conservative movement’s books could reopen a bitter debate over homosexuality between the movement’s progressives, like Lewittes, and its traditionalists, like those who opposed the 2006 decision and still regret it.

But even the possibility of such a debate demonstrates the burgeoning influence of openly queer rabbis within the movement. That’s a relatively new development for Conservative Jews, who make up roughly one-fifth of the country’s Jewish population. Their denomination’s attitudes on homosexuality reflect the movement’s centrist status, to Reform’s right and Orthodoxy’s left.

Reform Judaism, which accounts for 35% of American Jews, imposes no limits on consensual sex between adults, and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the movement’s seminary, has admitted openly gay candidates since the early 1990s. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, an umbrella group for Reform clergy, also recently elected its first queer president, Denise Eger.

No mainstream figures within Orthodoxy, which makes up about 10% of American Jews, have endorsed gay ordination or same-sex unions. Debate centers instead on how and whether to welcome openly queer people within synagogues. Many within the movement assert that LGBTQ people who do not try to change their orientation should be limited in their participation in religious life.

Conservative doctrine has been in a state of flux. In the 1990s, the movement welcomed queer Jews into community institutions, but refused to admit gay candidates into rabbinical school or to allow its clergy to officiate at commitment ceremonies.

But then, in 2006, rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner revised that doctrine with a new rabbinical opinion titled “Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakha.” The three argued in the document, known as a responsum, that modern science and morality necessitated approving some forms of sex between gay couples.

“It enabled rabbis to perform same-sex weddings, and helped gay people marry and live within a Jewish context,” Dorff, 73, told the Forward, defending the opinion a decade on. He said it was feasible that gay men could abstain from anal sex. “I was wondering whether that would be a complete legal fiction,” he said. “Ultimately, the research showed that a significant number of gay men refrain from anal sex.”

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, head of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Image by Courtesy American Jewish University

Still, he supports Lewittes’s proposal to erase the anal sex ban and the language on bisexuality, and holds the right position to advance it, as head of the movement’s lawmaking body, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. In order to become official policy, a majority of the committee’s 25 voting members, all of them rabbis, would have to approve it. Lewittes and her colleagues are talking about drafting their own rabbinical opinion in the meantime.

But all this is unlikely to happen, precisely because homosexuality is still very controversial in the Conservative movement. The Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s umbrella group for rabbis, has temporarily stripped Dorff’s committee of the power to issue legislation — a development linked to what he called “the homosexuality wars.”

The problem is that ignoring the plain meaning of Scripture — as in the death sentence for “lying with a man as one would with a woman” — requires the issuing of a special ruling.

Indeed, maintaining the status quo is preferable for Martin S. Cohen, 63, a Long Island rabbi and former editor of the movement’s quarterly journal, Conservative Judaism. He argued that legislation would be inappropriate and would antagonize the movement’s traditionalists.

“It would certainly alienate traditionalists, but, even more to the point, the whole effort to pass and then to promote such a [change] would require dragging into the light practices that constitute the most private parts of life,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Forward.

“Engaging in that kind of public dissection of others’ intimate lives would be as distasteful as it would be vulgar, and as unnecessary as shocking from a halachic point of view,” he continued.

Lewittes countered that Jewish law has always treated sensitive matters. “We are the inheritors of a tradition that shied away from the discussion of nothing when it came to areas of life filled with potential holiness,” she told the Forward. “Sexuality is a topic that appears throughout rabbinic literature.”

Whether they win or lose this battle, queer rabbis have plans to challenge and change the Conservative movement and Judaism in other ways. LGBTQ clergy argue that their sexuality has led them to a fresh perspective on religious law, practice and learning.

“The more our voices matter, the more we can be allies and advocates for more inclusion, whether it’s on behalf of a bisexual agenda, for our trans brothers and sisters, for others who aren’t heard within Judaism,” Lau-Lavie said.

He and others stress that differing from the heterosexual norm impels them to work for the greater recognition of all who are on the sidelines of traditional Judaism — among them racial minorities, the intermarried and disabled people.

Lau-Lavie and Lewittes have emerged as leading advocates of intermarried spouses: Lau-Lavie will not perform any weddings until the movement revisits its blanket prohibition on rabbis officiating marriages for them; Lewittes resigned from the R.A. in order to lead interfaith ceremonies.

Queerness has also influenced teaching. Rabbi Benay Lappe, 57, runs SVARA, a yeshiva in Chicago. She expands the concept of queerness past the bounds of sexual orientation and gender expression, to include all those who have “a deep experience of otherness or marginality, regardless of the source.”

Rabbi Benay Lappe, the founder of SVARA. Image by Courtesy Benay Lappe

Trained as a Conservative rabbi, she told the Forward: “Jewish tradition will be better able to do the work it was designed to do when the experiences and insights of those on the margins are brought to bear. Judaism itself is ‘queer’ in this sense.”

Gil Steinlauf, the senior rabbinic adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Adas Israel Congregation, has also incorporated “queer perspectives” into religious learning. By leading a series of classes named “Making Torah Personal,” he encouraged congregants to sit with parts of the Bible that left them the most uncomfortable.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, outgoing leader of Congregation Adas Israel. Image by Courtesy Adas Israel

“The Torah is a mirror that we hold up to our lives, even in the most disturbing sense,” he told the Forward. Steinlauf, 48, came out as gay three years ago. He will soon leave Adas Israel to take a leadership position in the Conservative movement.

Running a new “innovation lab,” he will work with clergy, congregations and academics on engaging American Jews in the movement’s religious life — and he expects his queer perspective to come in handy.

“There’s a new embrace of diversity and queerness, and the idea of queerness can creatively disrupt patterns that have kept us back,” he said. “What fascinates me is the extraordinary challenge of confronting where people are, what they aren’t looking at, and then getting them to look at it.”

Contact Daniel J. Solomon at [email protected] or on Twitter, @DanielJSolomon

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