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After decades of resistance, LGBTQ marriage is Conservative practice. Is Modern Orthodoxy next?

In February 2021, Toronto’s largest Conservative synagogue, Beth Tzedec, announced that they would perform LGBTQ marriages.

They were one of the last major North American Conservative synagogues to do so: Beth Tzedec’s announcement came nearly a decade after the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, first formally approved clergy performing LGBTQ marriage.

For the Conservative movement, that approval was a rapid turnaround: Only six years earlier, the Assembly’s Committee of Jewish Laws and Standards had accepted a teshuva, or position, stating that the movement did not authorize LGBTQ marriages.

The nine-year gap between that approval and Beth Tzedec’s announcement of its policy change was telling. Despite formal approval from the Rabbinical Assembly, LGBTQ marriage remained a divisive issue in the Conservative movement long after it was formally endorsed. Some rabbis embraced LGBTQ marriage. Some welcomed LGBTQ Jews in their congregations, but chose not to perform weddings. Some allowed commitment ceremonies but not marriages, because they viewed LGBTQ marriage as prohibited by halacha — Jewish law.

Now, as Conservative rabbis have largely embraced the practice of performing LGBTQ marriage, it appears the Modern Orthodox movement may be next.

In 2019 Eshel, a Jewish nonprofit that serves LGBTQ Orthodox Jews, published the initial results of interviews with leaders of more than 200 Orthodox congregations in Canada, the United States and Israel. (Those interviews are ongoing.) The study found that many Centrist and Modern Orthodox rabbis have “become demonstrably sympathetic to the realities faced by LGBT people.”

The process by which the Conservative movement went, in 15 years, from formally prohibiting LGBTQ marriage, to formally permitting it, to having most clergy choose to perform it, may hold lessons as to what that sympathy means for the future of LGBTQ Orthodox Jews.

Take Beth Tzedec. The Rabbinical Assembly’s 2012 decision endorsed the performing of LGBTQ marriage, but didn’t mandate it. Slowly, in subsequent years, acceptance of the practice grew. In 2015, for instance, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) partnered with Keshet, a Jewish nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ Jews, to launch the USCJ/Keshet Leadership Project, a training cohort for Jews across denominations who are interested in making systemic changes to LGBTQ inclusion in their community.

Still, some clergy and lay leadership stayed resistant to LGBTQ marriage, in part because of lingering questions over the halachic case for allowing the practice. At Beth Tzedec, those questions came to the forefront during a 2017 search for a new senior rabbi. Overwhelmingly, congregants said they wanted a more inclusive synagogue, including a rabbi who would perform LGBTQ marriages.

But “Canada, especially Toronto and Beth Tzedec, is a more traditional Conservative community,” said Rabbi Steve Wernick, the synagogue’s senior rabbinic chair, who was hired through the 2017 search and joined the congregation in 2019. “It’s very important to the culture of this community that the religious decisions of this nature be backed up by a thoughtful approach to Jewish Halahic practice,” he said.

Eshel’s study of the Modern Orthodox community is promising, particularly as a few Orthodox rabbis have begun to perform LGBTQ weddings. In October 2020, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency identified 10 Orthodox rabbis who either had performed or were open to performing weddings for same-sex partners, a small yet meaningful shift.

But Eshel also warns that something like the same friction experienced at Beth Tzedec, between sympathy for LGBTQ Jews and difficulty coming to terms with the halachic case for performance of their life rites, remains prominent.

“Paradoxically, the more a gay person lives a life parallel to his/her straight peers, in committed partnership and raising children, the more acceptance appears to wane,” the study reported.

“Our survey demonstrated that in half of the communities we encountered, there is positive movement on a pragmatic level for gay couples and families,” it said. “A full two thirds of the rabbis did not want to exclude the children of gay parents from lifecycle celebrations in the shul.” A more challenging question for those rabbis was whether the parents could be recognized as such and stand together on the bima.

“Even in the most welcoming of communities,” the report said, “we continue to find a concern for the appearance of ‘normalization,’ of what is deemed, at least formally, a transgressive reality.”

Yet just as Conservative synagogues made piecemeal progress, so too, advocates say, will progress come to Modern Orthodox communities. In his experience, said Wernick, “these kinds of changes really needed to wait until that generational change of leadership — both lay and professional.”

Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael, Keshet’s director of education and training, is optimistic for the future.

There are many Modern Orthodox leaders, Buck-Yael said, who want LGBTQ Jews “to live their halachic and Orthodox religious lives in a way that is organized around supporting that.”

“I have been a member of a Modern Orthodox synagogue for 15 years, and I’ve never encountered anything less than deep dignity and affirmation and welcome,” he said. “As a Conservative Rabbi, I am also a member of Conservative congregation. I think that there’s a myth out there that LGBTQ affirmation and dignity breaks down by movements. I have found that it fundamentally doesn’t.”

And, he pointed out, the potential barriers to the performance of LGBTQ weddings becoming accepted Modern Orthodox practice are similar to those previously encountered, and largely overcome, by the Reform and Conservative movements.

“It is one of my fundamental beliefs that somebody who is LGBTQ should be able to affiliate and practice — or not practice — anywhere across the full spectrum of Jewish life,” he said. No matter their denomination, Jewish spaces “should be able to maintain their unique and distinctive way of being Jewish, in ways that are going to be LGBTQ-affirming.”

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